I’m not sure how to describe “The Underhill” to someone who didn’t go, because it is nearly impossible to explain. The installation (which is not exactly the correct word, but it’s the one I’m going to run with) is a mix of mystery, fine art, sound art, horror, fantasy, science fiction, and storytelling. It ran from Friday to Saturday at Drama House on the Fraternity Quad.
The set up is as follows: The year is 1998. The place is Rochester. A young girl has gone missing. Her mother vanished several years prior. When I walked into Drama House to begin the experience, a police officer (played by an actor) gave me all this information in the breezeway. Other officers were stationed, seated or pacing, in every room, giving the faintest traces of information about the mystery. The exhibition led me through Drama House, exploring rooms on the upstairs one moment, trying to make sense of the basement the next.
I’m going to come clean here. If there was a mystery to be solved, I certainly didn’t solve it. Similarly, if there was a story to be told, and I’m pretty sure there was, I only scratched the surface of it. “The Underhill’s” strength may not be in the storytelling department, but that’s quite alright, because the brilliance of its two greatest strengths absolutely outshined the other’s absence. The first strength that I refer to is that of world-building.
This observation is nothing new, its long been a popularly accepted (and true) criticism of George Lucas’ “Star Wars” saga, or J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. You (or at least I) don’t read “Lord of the Rings” to absorb all of the hobbit dialogue. I read it because I want to be in that world. For 10 minutes, or however long I’m reading, I want to exist inside of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Tolkien was not a particularly good writer, but he was a brilliant world-builder. The specificity with which his fantastical universe is constructed is irresistable.
Similarly so with “The Underhill.” I walked through the staircase, looking at drawings, diagrams, and frantically written notes. I wondered whether I was following the path of a detective, conspiracy theorist, or lunatic. When I found an almost entirely redacted letter from the girl to her father, I was examining the father’s study (and admiring the awesome typewriter that was on the desk), and when I was looking at the news clippings and photographs that made up the trail of research that I, as viewer, followed, I felt like I was there. I was in the world of “The Underhill.”
The second great strength of “The Underhill” was simply the caliber of art. The way the rooms played with light and sound, photography, and paintings was beautiful and unsettling. One of the most striking manifestations of this was a finely set dinner table, complete with fancy silverware and a red, embroidered tablecloth, covered in black and white, vaguely violent photographs of an unknown woman. The ambient noise was disturbing in a way that was impossible to put one’s finger on. (It’s worth noting that the eerily effective sound design was done by student Brenn Whiting.)
The paintings featured were altogether remarkable. One, titled “Threefold” by seniors Kristi Thomas and Hayley Orciuch, depicted a woman with ram’s horns and embroidered eyes. Each work seemed more striking than the last. The imagination and skill level of the artists involved was essential to the universe that “The Underhill” cast itself into.
After I had finished exploring “The Underhill,” I spoke with the installations directors, juniors Saralinda Schell and Elise McCarthy. They told me that they planned out the exhibition in one burst at 2:00 a.m., Dec. 19. “The Underhill” feels just like a light night or early morning creative explosion should: beautiful, messy, and completely enveloping.