Multitudinous manifestations of mummies

Minneapolis gallery plays underground tomb tunnel to explore the houses of the dead

Becky Lang

We’re used to seeing giant-sized walls of soup cans at Cub or hundreds of decked-out Barbies at Target, but tunneling through rows of skeletons might still have the ability to make us feel small. In “Art of the Catacombs,” a collaborative exhibit between Mark Roberts and Denise Rouleau, thousands of clay mummies are arranged together to demonstrate the eeriness of the catacomb, the tunnels where unmarked dead are lined up indistinguishably, like cells arranged into skin.

Art of the Catacomb

WHEN: Open noon to 5 p.m. weekdays, Oct. 15 through Nov. 9; artist talk at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 2.
WHERE: Nina Bliese Gallery, 225 S. Sixth Street, Suite 100, Minneapolis
TICKETS: Free, artist talk $5

Rouleau was inspired after visiting the Paris Catacombs, where the roughly six million people buried there gave her a sense of the uncanny.

“When your lease on your grave is up, they exhume you and put you down in the catacombs,” Rouleau explains, “None of the bodies have any individual identity, so when you leave you have this very eerie sense of your own mortality, especially when our culture is so obsessed with making a mark.”

The exhibit challenges the impersonality of catacombs through cross-cultural references that point out the diversity of customs across continents. One piece, “Cat-acombs,” is an arrangement of cat mummies and references the ancient Egyptian cultures that both revered and feared cats. Another, “Catalogue,” places a mummy in an exquisite package, gilded with gold and cushioned by red oriental silk. One of the largest pieces is a floor-to-ceiling cross, filled with at least one thousand figurines colored in humble shades of turquoise, burnt-orange, and chalk-white.

Inspiration for this piece was planted when Rouleau visited Europe, but its realization did not come as an instant epiphany. Rouleau had gone to Italy as an International Relations and Italian major from the University, but she found that staring at Catholic art and snacking on wine and cheese doesn’t instantly transform you into a worldly sage.

“When you go abroad, you think you are going to come back with all the answers, but what happens is you have all this stimulus, and it makes you more confused,” she said.

But she believes art can re-arrange what was confusing into a dialogue that finds new answers. Many modern artists have mastered the artistic statement, writing spiels that make it seem as if their piece was created with the meditation and cunning of wizards using exotic unicorn feathers to cast a spell. In the case of “Art of the Catacombs,” the formation was more happenstance than equation.

Rouleau was taking extra-curricular classes at the old Coffman Union, and when they were shut down, she bought the kilns. Her collaborator, Mark Roberts, had acquired printer boxes that he thought would be interesting as miniature mummy caskets. After five years, making mummies proved to be an almost addictive habit and the artists found themselves with thousands. Rouleau connected the vast amounts they had created with the Paris catacombs, and turned them into an experience where they were meant to be looked at rather than buried.

The printer boxes were no longer office rubbish, but had moved on to house the dead. Mummies in robes peek out of some, as neighboring mummies are bound in rope.

“Traces of Existence” is an especially haunting piece. Each figurine inside is stark white, giving them an unfinished look, as if they still await someone to arrive and paint the details of their identities.

Who knows, the collections of old Rolling Stones records or Beanie Babies lying dormant in your basement might also be waiting to be turned into a statement about life and death. Otherwise, there’s always e-Bay.