The Houston Museum offers a hallucinatory indoor art experience – Houston Chronicle | Candle Made Easy

I sink into the cushy mound of a beanbag chair and close my eyes as hypnotic, layered music takes me – where? An echo chamber deep in an Egyptian pyramid? A chaotic bazaar in Cairo? It’s cool and dark in the underground gallery of the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, yet the time between antiquity and the present seems to ripple like a haze of heat waves.

That’s the magic of Mariah Garnett: Dreamed This Gateway, one of this blazing summer’s more hallucinatory indoor experiences. The exhibition, which runs until August 28, features two operatic video installations and an audio recording. This makes it a sonic as well as a visual adventure.

When Garnett first visited CAMH in early 2020 to plan a show for this fall, she also embarked on a new project inspired by the archives of her remarkable, enigmatic great-grandaunt, Ruth Lynda Deyo, an American pianist and composer died about 20 years before Garnett was born. When the museum had to postpone its exhibition, curator Rebecca Matalon and CAMH director Hesse McGraw switched gears and commissioned another work that would allow Garnett to expand on their new project.

It helps – well, a little – to know the backstory. A child prodigy who performed internationally, Ruth Deyo moved to Cairo in 1924 at the age of 40. There she spent the second half of her life, literally enchanted by the ancient Egyptian culture. During the apocalyptic period between two world wars, she suffered from mental illness and embraced esoteric spirituality. She filled scrapbooks, journals, and letters with visionary conversations she believed she was having with multiple spirits.

She also composed The Diadem of Stars, a three-act opera with a 700-page score (and a poetic libretto by her husband, a British diplomat) that was never fully produced. The “musical drama,” as Deyo called it, interprets the history of Egypt’s 18th dynasty – the era that produced such legendary rulers as Queen Nefertiti and the pharaohs Akhenaten and Tutankhamen, some of the spirits with whom Deyo communed.

When she died in 1960, Deyo left a large number of archival trunks to her family. Though some of them wanted the story to be more direct, to Garnett’s 21st-century eyes, it reeked of fetishism, colonialism, and cultural appropriation. The archive is “only really important in the way it’s resonating now,” she said during a public call with Matalon last month.

CAMH attendees can listen to the audio recording of I Was Just A Boy, one of the works from Mariah Garnett: Dreamed This Gateway, at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Sean Fleming

Garnett, who lives in Los Angeles, works in a nebulous territory between documentary and experimental film, responding to historical material in ways that reflect questions and concerns of the here and now. And alongside all the issues of a global pandemic, their “here and now” is heavily biased towards racial and gender integration.

I happened to start in the room with The Pow’r of Life Is Love, the 13-minute multi-channel video installation Garnett was working on in 2020. Part 1 contains a scene from Deyo’s opera which I probably never would have thought was staged in its own way. Garnett used the casting to make a gesture of reconciliation: her singers are a pair of amazing, empowering young African-American rising stars, soprano Breanna Elyce Sinclairé, who is a transgender woman; and tenor Christopher Paul Craig. They wear period formal attire on a stage that is empty save for a piano that almost suggests a third character that could represent Deyo’s phantom.

Watching it, I was unaware of Garnett’s deliberately nuanced casting, only that the scene’s two characters were isolated lovers who longed for one another. Through the poetic libretto, Sinclairé and Craig sing passionately about crossing a “bridge of dreams” over an opal stream, in a place where jewels hang from the trees like fruit. It could easily be described as a depiction of a pandemic isolation playing out everywhere.

Part 2 of the video is more woo-woo, even campy. The singers are gone and we are in an early 20th century theater looking at a dramatically lit stone modeled after an ancient bust that Deyo owned. She believed it contained spirits, although the original probably didn’t actually speak. Garnett’s stone has an artificial intelligence-generated voice and recites an entry from Deyo’s journals: Her spirit lover (TAA or Tutankhamun) assures her that her artistic efforts will be rewarded and that he loves her.

The show’s funky sound track, “I Was Just a Boy,” sits at one end of a larger screening room, accessed through a curtained passageway. Put on the headphones and you’ll be transported. Whether the journey takes you to a fever dream or hell depends on your appetite for classical global and abstract contemporary music.

The theremin-driven soundscape hooked me from the opening notes and kept me hooked as it progressed to a shaky archival recording — an anti-colonial hymn by Egyptian Mounira El-Mahdiyya, who was a contemporary of Deyo — and then “I Was Just a Boy,” one of the new “Medium Songs” written for Garnett’s larger commission.

The word “medium” here refers to a person, not a size. The lyrics of the song came as a message from Tutankhamun, which Garnett received from a psychic she was visiting in Cairo as part of her research. Though skeptical of Deyo’s mysticism, she was curious enough to see what might happen if she could get in touch with her great-grandaunt’s spirit.

A scene from Mariah Garnett's video installation The Pow'r of Life is Love, featuring soprano Breanna Elyce Sinclairé and tenor Christopher Paul Craig.

A scene from Mariah Garnett’s video installation The Pow’r of Life is Love, featuring soprano Breanna Elyce Sinclairé and tenor Christopher Paul Craig.

Sean Fleming

The five-channel installation “Dreamed This Gateway” drew me further into the reverie despite being a deliberately unfussy, contemporary production. Holland Andrews, a sensational American singer, composer and performance artist, specializes in speech decomposition and voice distortion. Standing at a mic in front of windows overlooking an overpass, Andrews sings hard-to-decipher lyrics and layers electronic sounds with a foot pedal. The ears float between chaos, dissonance and meditative moments.

The lyrics are taken from Deyo and Garnett’s diaries, with a song by playwright Raphael Khouri. They are contained in a small “Song Book” which contains further diary entries and interviews with Sinclairé and Craig.

When: 11:00-18:00 Wednesday-Sunday, 11:00-21:00 Thursday until August 28th
Where: Houston Museum of Contemporary Art, 5216 Montrose
Details: Free; 713-284-8250,

Preferring to keep it simply abstract, I also focused on Garnett’s unusual images, which alternate between longer shots and close-ups of Andrews’ expressive, tattooed hands or his heavily distorted face. Sometimes the room’s five screens are synchronized; sometimes they are consciously not.

Matalon, the curator, points out that Garnett’s exhibition is partly about what it means to be a medium. “There’s a diversity implied that’s channeled into multiple voices, which in itself is a strange concept — what it means to always be diverse, never singular,” she adds.

Garnett and her collaborators—actually all artists, if you think about it—are mediums; Vessels that communicate through materials that can be as tangible as color or as immaterial as sound and movement.

At home, I delved deeper into the “song book” and settled on one of Deyo’s diary entries about the source of creativity. “The brain thrives on light and radiant energy, but few utilize etheric powers,” she wrote in 1938. “… Do not think this is madness. It is knowledge of the highest kind.”

I’m glad Garnett listened and responded and let us ride.

Molly Glentzer is a Houston-area writer.

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