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Here’s the story behind the giant, moving installation in the Anchorage Museum atrium

  • Author: Yoshina Okamoto
  • Updated: August 23
  • Published August 23

Bruce Carr, from Anchorage, uses virtual reality glasses to tour the “Murmur: Arctic Realities” installation at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, AK on Friday, Aug 10, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

It's hard to miss the newest installation at the Anchorage Museum.

Standing at 42 feet tall and 38 feet wide, you see it as soon as you step across the squeaking floors into the atrium. It's a pingo (Inupiaq for "small hill"), or at least artist John Grade's version of it.

Pingos are naturally occurring permafrost features that add texture to the flat, Alaska tundra. They're made of stacked layers of thousand-year-old ice covered by a thin sheet of flora. Over the course of sometimes 10,000 years, the ice core goes through a process of freezing, melting, re-freezing and melting again. That causes the soil shell to thin and eventually crack, exposing the interior of the pingo and deflating the entire structure.

Enamored by these naturally occurring features, Grade set up camp in the Arctic and spent days studying, sketching and planning the piece in Alaska's Noatak National Preserve. Over the course of five months, Grade and a team of 20 artisans constructed the installation from surveyed data he had collected from his time in the blustery, Alaska cold.

The “Murmur: Arctic Realities” installation sits in the atrium at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage on Friday, Aug 10, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Crafted from salvaged yellow cedar from Southeast Alaska, the sculpture is peppered with hundreds of holes that cast spotted shadows across the floor. The title, "Murmur: Arctic Realities," is meant to evoke the sound of Arctic wind as well as the shapes made by flocks of birds called murmurations.

Its walls open and close, representing a 24-minute recap of the pingo's life cycle, and visitors can walk inside and around the sculpture, immersing themselves in the Alaska wildlife.

After debuting at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut in January, the piece came to Anchorage in June. The atrium will house the piece until Nov. 4, when the pingo will travel internationally for a few years before returning to the Anchorage Museum as a permanent installation.

From there, the plan is to install the piece to the ceiling over the eye of the atrium, where it will open and close for years to come, said Jim Kohl, exhibition and AV manager of the museum.

Brothers Bruce Carr, from Anchorage, and Bill Carr, from Estero, FL, use virtual reality glasses to tour the “Murmur: Arctic Realities” installation at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, AK on Friday, Aug 10, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

"It adds a tangible tie into our Alaskan landscape," said Kohl. "It tells the geologic history of the state and really brings people into an aspect of Alaska that many don't get to see."

Grade, a former artist-in-residence at the Anchorage Museum, worked with new media artist Reily Donovan to bring the project to life. Through augmented reality headsets and iPads, visitors can immerse themselves in the Arctic landscape. Animated images and spatialized sounds of the tundra surround the piece.

"Cotton grass blowing, insects flying around, you'll hear birds flying by," said Kohl, "It really puts you in the place."

Brothers Bill Carr, from Estero, FL, and Bruce Carr, from Anchorage, use virtual reality glasses to tour the “Murmur: Arctic Realities” installation at the Anchorage Museum in Anchorage, AK on Friday, Aug 10, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

"Murmur: Arctic Realities"

Where: Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.

When: All day until November 4

How much: Free with museum admission

For more information, go to anchoragemuseum.org.

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