A Literary, Scientific, and Artistic
Specimens & Curiosities
Art, myth, bestiaries, natural history, ecology, combine to celebrate thebridging of wonderment, intuition, reflection, and metaphorical ambiguities with evidence, experiment and exploration
@ 21 Century Wunderkammer
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New Species, Liminal Creatures, Curiosities, & the Bizarre
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at miraculous objects – the obscure, the whimsical, and the wonderful – which defy categorical boundaries.
Day 1 PORTHLEVEN HARBOUR
No boats in the Harbour first time in living history.
Sadness amongst the indigenous population.
Fish prices soar.
Museum and gallery curators reopen the cabinet of curiosities concept
Stuffed pelicans, bell-jarred oddities and unicorn horns: the wunderkammer – or ‘cabinet of curiosities’ – is a macabre, colonial throwback. So why is it back in vogue?
Monday Guardian 13 January 2014 18.33 GMT
You can barely walk into a museum these days without being confronted by an eerie-eyed raven or a monkey’s shrunken head. From Margate to Nottingham, from Hackney to Bradford, exhibition spaces are filling up with a macabre menagerie of dead things – from bones and beasts to stuffed birds. Indeed, next week the Milton Keynes Gallery will join the trend, opening a modern “cabinet of curiosities” that will set paintings by Gainsborough, Millais, Warhol and David Bowie next to taxidermied pelicans, medieval maps, and even an Aston Martin DB4, much like the one driven by James Bond in the 1960s.
Some might blame this wilfully digressive trend on over-active curatorial imaginations and the legacy of Damien Hirst’s death-obsessed exploitation of natural-history specimens. Others might point to rising star Polly Morgan’s reinvention of taxidermy as a fine art. But such eclectic tastes are in fact nothing new. From the Renaissance to the 18th century, the cabinet of curiosities celebrated the act of collection for its own sake, in an almost haphazard accumulation of natural-history specimens and other bizarre objects. Crocodiles were hung from rafters, skulls (animal and human) vied for shelf space with toads supposedly found alive in rocks – and then there were the “mermaids”, composed of monkey torsos sewn to fish tails. These items invariably came from far-flung, semi-mythic places: from the ultima thule of the Arctic to the mysterious reaches of the far east; from profound oceans to impenetrable jungles where any kind of monster might lurk.
Among the most famous cabinets was the one assembled by the 17th-century Danish physician Ole Worm, which included everything from dangling polar bears to birds of paradise – but also ethnographic items illustrating the variety of human races. Worm’s intention was as aesthetic as it was instructive, reflecting a catholic, Renaissance sensibility. Only with the advent of strictly demarcated disciplines – science in one corner, art in another – would the cabinet come to be outmoded in the 19th century; although it had its last hurrah, perhaps, in the extraordinary Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford.
Cabinets of curiosities were a strange bridge between atavistic myth and dawning scientific reality. As such, their revival speaks to our own vexed relationship with the natural world, at a time when we seem bent on destroying it – partly as a result, some might say, of the schism between science and art. However, few of the contemporary artists attempting to emulate the exotic appeal of the wunderkammer (wonder cabinet) could compete with what is happening in continental Europe, where curators have some of the most famous works of art in the world to play with.
The sprawling halls of the Prado in Madrid are usually filled with heaving tour groups being led by the nose from one lustrous masterpiece to another. Today, they have been stopped in their tracks. Standing in front of Rubens’s Rape of Europa is a full-sized, majestic, stuffed bull. The beast’s horns point dangerously towards the painting, ready to impale the turbulent body of Europa as if she were a matador. Yet, surreal as it is, there’s something rather apt about the intrusion of this glassy-eyed animal. The Prado was originally created as a natural-history museum to house specimens brought as tributes to the Spanish royal family from around their empire. It was, in effect, a giant cabinet of curiosities.
Which is what it has become again. Three hundred years on, Natural Histories, a monumental exhibition by the Madrid-born contemporary artist Miguel Angel Blanco, echoes that spirit while taking it to another level. “My intention was not to invade the museum,” says Blanco of his project, three years in the making. Rather, he sought to provoke an “alchemical process”.
And so, as well as the in-your-face bull, a dolphin skeleton now hangs from the dome of the museum’s sculpture court, casting its looming shadow over a massive marble Venus and her dolphin. “It’s jumping like a leviathan,” says Blanco, “as it prepares to swallow the goddess.” Elsewhere, a golden eagle soars through vaulted arches. A portrait of Charles II of Spain, who believed himself bewitched and had himself exorcised, is faced by a mysterious round Aztec mirror carved from pitch-black obsidian, as if to reflect the evil spirits within the possessed emperor.
Another installation – featuring a lusty 17th-century oil of Orpheus charming the animals in the forest, with his kit off for some unaccountable reason – riffs on the myth of the unicorn. A narwhal tusk, almost three metres long, sits next to the painting. Such tusks, the erupted teeth of Arctic whales, were once touted around Europe as relics of unicorns. They were worth 20 times their weight in gold: the one owned by Elizabeth I could have bought her a new castle.
A cabinet of curiosities was part-witches’ cave, part-apothecary’s chamber and part-science lab. Thus, one of the Prado set-pieces incorporates Goya’s The Witches’ Sabbath: a fabulously gothic depiction of a gathering of witches attended by Satan in the form of a goat. Blanco has responded to Goya’s work by assembling a vitrine containing the ingredients for the hideous crones’ potions: bat skeleton, preserved snakes and toads, all labelled with their scientific names.
A Prado installation in front of the Antón Meng workshop’s His Majesty’s Anteater A Prado installation in front of the Antón Meng workshop’s His Majesty’s Anteater. Photograph: Pedro Martinez De Albornoz
The modern trend for the cabinet shows little sign of slowing down. Curiosity and the Art of Knowing – a brilliant show curated by Brian Dillon that has just left the Castle Museum in Norwich bound for Amsterdam – has as its star exhibit the overstuffed carcass of a walrus. Aquatopia, a watery-themed show currently at Tate St Ives, mixes priceless Turners and contemporary sea-themed film pieces with carved sperm whale teeth and 19th-century diving helmets.
Meanwhile, at Corsham Court in Somerset, artist Angela Cockayne recently restored an original cabinet of curiosities she found hidden in the building’s Elizabethan cellars: a dusty trove of bird skulls, shells and butterfly wings. As a result, Cockayne curated the wonderfully allusive Provenance, with works by Mat Collishaw, Gavin Turk and Tessa Farmer. Farmer’s miniature winged humans, attacking wasps under glass domes like something from a microscopic horror movie, are a particularly effective evocation of the spirit of the wunderkammer.
Literature, too, has picked up the challenge – from Amy Leach’s Things That Are, drawing on animals, plants and constellations alike, to Caspar Henderson’s Book of Barely Imagined Beings, a fantastical but scientifically rooted compendium, subtitled A 21st Century Bestiary. The awful contemporary relevance of the theme is inescapable: busily exterminating species as we are, our modern cabinets are being rapidly denuded. The very idea of collection is generally tantamount to appropriation – in the Prado’s case, fine art paid for by gold and silver stolen from Spain’s Central and South American empire.
The side effects of modern capitalism, now plundering the planet like some kleptocratic emperor of old, are even more far-reaching: from the 4,000-year-old coral spires destroyed by deep-sea trawling to proposals to drill for oil in the Arctic, not to mention suggestions that the newly discovered volcanic vents in oceanic trenches (the last vestiges of virgin territory on Earth, where life itself might have started) are about to be mined for rare metals.. Some estimates put the rate of species loss at 100,000 a year and rising. In this light, a contemporary cabinet would contain specimens that will have gone extinct within our own lifetimes. Collecting as preservation or predation? Art, as ever, only asks the question.
Of all the modern artist-curator-collectors, one stands out for the eccentricity and extremity of his habit. Viktor Wynd is the grandson of the novelist Patrick O’Brian (who himself wrote a biography of perhaps the greatest collector of the 18th century, Sir Joseph Banks). His Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney, London, presents an up-to-date collection of curiosities. Visitors are greeted by more taxidermied beasts, from crows to hyenas; the faint-hearted are advised not to proceed downstairs, into Wynd’s dim and dungeon-like cellar, which contains two-headed babies and antique pornography. (There’s a long tradition of such shock exhibits – guests arriving at the home of the celebrated 18th-century anatomist and collector John Hunter were greeted by the preserved erect penis of a hanged man in his hallway.)
Wynd is about to publish Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Curiosities, a glossy tome celebrating his obsession with collecting. He is currently trekking in the cloud forests of West Papua, hunting for carnivorous plants. “What can I say?” he replies to my email asking for details. “My house and my shop are cabinets of curiosity designed to fill my every waking moment with distraction from the boredom and misery of my life and keep me filled with wonder.” And with that, Wynd adjusts his gaiters, and sets off in search of new specimens for his ever-expanding cabinet. Its contents may well be the last of their kind.
• Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside is published by Fourth Estate (philiphoare.co.uk).
Team includes: Curators Philip Hoare, Angela Cockayne
Producer Sarah Chapman, Consultant Professor Anthony Caleshu, Administrator Katie Shorten.
The astonishing Moby-Dick Big Read grew out of the Peninsula Arts Whale Festival (2009), and Philip Hoare becoming author-in-residence of the Marine Institute. Together with Sarah Chapman, Director of Peninsula Arts and Angie Cockayne, Bath Spa University, they commenced on a project to re-present Herman Melville’s 19th Century novel for a 21st Century audience. Professor Anthony Caleshu, of the English and Creative Writing subject team, was a consultant on the project.
This project, an example of commitment to producing and supporting innovative projects that focus on presenting new modes of interpretation, it attracted celebrities from stage, screen, science, politics, literature and art including: Tilda Swinton, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Stephen Fry and Sir David Attenborough. Each read a chapter, alongside readings from members of the public, which were then released daily on a digital platform created by iDAT (School of Art & Media). Moreover, each chapter was accompanied by the daily release of an artwork from a range of internationally significant and emerging artists.
Audience participation: 2.5 million listeners Sept 2013 (still getting 4-5k listens a day). Now over 3 million downloads
Reviews include: New York Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Observer, La Monde, Radio 4, NPR (US National radio).
Global reach: 42 countries (Peaks in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Toronto, Berlin, Sydney, Vienna, Mumbai, Paris, London, Plymouth).
External Partnerships: Deep Blue Sound, Plymouth City Council, Whale and Dolphin Conversation Society, Bath Spa University.
Now touring to Nottingham Contemporary (July-September 2013) and Tate St Ives (October-January 2014)
Special commendation should be made to Katie Shorten whose administrative support was integral to the success.
Interdisciplinary practice engaging with taxonomy, ecology, natural science, anthropology and ethnography are common themes of research in contemporary visual art practice, exploring the liminal perimeters where myth meets evidence and fact. The use of animals and the natural environment with reference to the animal gaze in contemporary art practice seems to be an increasingly popular subject matter paradoxically in an age where it could be seen as unethical to do so e.g. taxidermy. In an Anthropogenic age (post-industrial dominion of natural resources) something else seems to bare witness beyond materiality, commodity, voyeurism or fetishisation with the use of animals in art.
The Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosity has long held our fascination with the animal gaze where a ‘specimen’ becomes a non-hierarchical spectacle, transforming creature into mythology. John Tradescant’s incredible 17th century collection includes a mermaid’s hand (or a limb of a manatee), a unicorn (or narwhal tusk), all of which inspire wonder and fascination with the natural world, evoking myth and narratives.
Peahen, Crow and Narwhal tusk
The decline of a specific medium in contemporary art practice could be seen as a reaction to “militantly reductive modernism” associated with Clement Greenberg. Almost fifty years have passed since Lucy Lippard wrote the Demateralisation of the Art Object. Rosalind Krauss suggests, “We now inhabit a post-medium age.” A time that seems to “shatter the notion of medium-specificity,” Both food and animals have become materials from which to make- artwork; a tattooed pig, a taxidermied horse, and a genetically modified rabbit, are commonplace ingredients in the shifting sands of plurality that seems to represent contemporary art practice, a desert without signposts.
Cast Narwhal dental implants
It is also twenty years since British film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote her seminal essay that investigates the male gaze, a discourse parallel to man’s dominion of nature, gender and race. Could this consciousness be extended to animal rights? Man has always seen nature as a resource for exploitation but through an acknowledgment of the destruction of species and environments in recent years on an increasingly international scale, a sense of collective guilt seems to be emerging that extends beyond the colonial pillaging of nature as resource.
Photo Shoot 2011 Wax guns with fur, hair, crustacean claws and lens.
The animal gaze represented in Museums and contemporary art practice today seems to go beyond our appetite for natural history, fascination for scientific specimen or curiosity in context of an ecological consciousness. There has been a significant advancement for Natural History museums to engage in a new collaborative approach to repatriation and conservation. The provenance of objects and specimens is highly problematic.
Scientists believe that the sixth mass extinction has already begun through over harvesting, habitat destruction, pollution, global warming, alien displacement and human overpopulation. After 4 billion years of evolution, human activities and influences are accelerating the rate of species extinction exponentially.
We have known for over one hundred years that carbon dioxide and man made emissions are harmful to bio diversity and our environment yet we have failed to act on this. The oceans like the Amazon rain forests, filter two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. Acidification though sea temperatures rising, is harming vital microscopic plankton.
We are I believe at a pivotal point in history, nature will address the balance but perhaps to a world without mankind if we do not face up to our responsibilities on an collective and international scale. The map is man made we must act beyond territories and plan a future that accommodates for biodiversity, sustainability and an environment for all life to flourish.
In the scheme of things, the blink of 200 years, we seem to have plundered natural resources, and continue on a course to potentially devastate our own habitat, a paradise that took billions of years to evolve. Our own future like that of many species may hang in the balance if we continue to consume unsustainably in a finite system.
Culturally the animal gaze seems to represent an ethical consciousness and a self-awareness that in protecting and conserving an environment for all we protect biodiversity and ourselves. The representation of the animal gaze used by artists in an ecological context is an increasingly important one and ultimately holds a mirror to reflect human nature and perhaps our own destiny.
Charismatic species like the whale, panda or polar bear are sentinels, barometers not only of our environment but also of our own civility. Adorno said there could be no poetry after Auschwitz. Perhaps there has never been a more important time for a consilience of art and science and animal representation and ‘in absentia’ the gaze between human and animal becomes pertinent, like the Dodo and the Tasmanian Tiger who have become mythologised in their absence by our dominion. It is now thought man will live four years beyond the bees, perhaps the red list; a testament to man’s destruction of an ever increasing list of extinct species, through destroying the environment will signify the animal gaze returned.
Tooth Heads Sheep and horse teeth found on shoreline
It’s interesting to reflect that if all insects were to disappear from the earth, within fifty years all forms of life on earth would perish. We depend on them that thoroughly. But if all human beings were to disappear from the earth within fifty years all other forms of life would flourish.
— Jonas Salk
Times Higher Education
Natural Histories: A Project by Miguel Ángel Blanco
19 December 2013
Natural Histories exhibition (19 December 2013)
The alchemy between art and nature gives food for thought, writes Philip Hoare
Natural Histories: A Project by Miguel Ángel Blanco
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid
Until 27 April 2014
For some time now contemporary art has shown a fascination with the cabinet of curiosities, or Wunderkammer. This early modern fashion for collecting objects of natural history has inspired a number of artist/curators, not least because of the light it throws on our own conflicted relationship with nature: from Turner Contemporary’s Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, curated by Brian Dillon (now at the Castle Museum, Norwich), to Nottingham Contemporary’s eclectic Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep (now at Tate St Ives); Angela Cockayne’s allusively beautiful Provenance at Bath Spa University and Corsham Court; and the gothic wonders of Viktor Wynd’s Little Shop of Horrors in Hackney. It is a trend reinforced in literature, notably with Caspar Henderson’s inspired The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: A 21st Century Bestiary, and Wynd’s forthcoming book on the subject.
But few artists have been given such a sweet shop to play in as Miguel Ángel Blanco. Born in Madrid in 1958, and celebrated for his nature-themed work, he has been let loose on the Prado’s collections, inspired by the fact that the museum was originally intended to house the Spanish royal family’s natural history specimens. And if the entire building was intended as a vast cabinet of curiosities, then Blanco is merely returning it to that lost function.
The surreal note is set as you enter the museum. Far above the parties of tourists busily being led from one lustrous, world-famous masterpiece to another, a golden eagle soars through a vaulted arch to hover above an oversized bronze statue by the father-and-son sculptors Leone and Pompeo Leoni, Charles V and the Fury (1551-64). The bird may be stuffed, but the image is a powerful one – imperial hauteur transcended by natural beauty. It provides the underlying tone for this fabulous show of 32 such set pieces, each more surprising than the last.
The effect is surprisingly emotional. As the sanctity of nature has been abused, science attempts to understand. Only the artist is free to comment
Relying on an excellent site map (in English) and the patient knowledge of the Prado’s staff, you wander at will through the three floors of the museum, with no idea what will leap out next. Here, for instance, next to a rather sensual 17th-century oil painting by Alessandro Varotari of Orpheus enchanting the animals of the forest – in which the young musician has, unaccountably, decided to get his kit off in order to commune with a unicorn – stands an upright narwhal tusk. Nearly 3m long, this spiralling ivory beam is the particular attribute of Monodon monoceros, an Arctic cetacean, and is in fact an erupted tooth that grows through the animal’s upper lip.
Since the medieval period, such tusks have been touted around Europe as true relics of the unicorn. As Blanco’s text (tersely written, and to the point) notes, Philip II of Spain’s cabinet contained no fewer than 12 such tusks, each worth 20 times its weight in gold. Papal croziers were fashioned from similar specimens. Elizabeth I of England was given a tusk by Martin Frobisher on his return from Baffin Island in 1577; worth the price of a castle, it later became a royal sceptre.
“My intention was not to invade the museum,” says Blanco of his project, three years in the making. Rather, he sought to provoke an “alchemical process”. His interventions evoke a Spanish gothic – empire, opulence, power and abuse, with a particular obsession with the supernatural. Thus Juan Carreño de Miranda’s portrait of Charles II – who believed himself bewitched – is reflected in the dark roundel of an Aztec obsidian mirror next to it. Such a juxtaposition suggests that the monarch is haunted by the mysterious depths of the polished volcanic rock (other fragments of which were worked to razor keenness in order to excise the beating hearts of human sacrifices).
Similarly eldritch are Goya’s tarry “black paintings”. Witches’ Sabbath or The Great He-Goat (1820-23) now boasts a predella-vitrine containing the ingredients of their potions: the bones of a hartebeest, a bat’s skeleton, a preserved cobra, toad and salamander, all with the whiff of sulphur about them. Blanco’s interventions do not seek to upstage the paintings (if that were possible). Rather, he extends their meaning, from the past into the present, through shifting cultural contexts; the notion of collection itself becomes a comment on imperialism. Two paintings in particular illustrate this.
One, of a dolorous-looking lute turtle (Pedro Juan Tapia, 1597), portrays the gigantic leathery beast, salvaged from the sea as a tribute to Philip II. As it died and rotted away, its immortal likeness took its place in the king’s cabinet – now counterpointed by the fragments of a reassembled skull of a green sea turtle. It is a somewhat mournful, bereft conjunction (as bereft as one imagines Madrid’s Museum of Natural History to be, after Blanco raided it for his displays).
The second image is that of a giant anteater, brought back alive from Buenos Aires to Madrid in 1776. Again this is a painting on a gargantuan scale, depicting the life-size creature with its probing snout and bristly black and white striped coat.
It is also saddled with its fate. No one could source the 35,000 ants and termites that constituted its daily diet, and so the poor beast starved to death. Now its ghostly skeleton, articulated and cased, has been reverentially placed in front of its image, much in the way that the bones of saints lie in effigy in echoing Spanish churches and cathedrals. Here, too, the effect is surprisingly emotional. As the sanctity of nature has been abused, science attempts to understand. Only the artist is free to comment. It might almost be a critique of the Enlightenment itself.
In all this eloquent grandeur and mute oppression, one scenario makes a deep impact by the slightness of Blanco’s gesture and the ambition of his intent. Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) is the ornament of the Spanish Golden Age; its assembly of the court and children of the royal family of Philip IV foregrounds the artist’s restrained voluptuousness. Its enigmatic faces still challenge us over the centuries. Yet so familiar is the painting that one might hurry by, keen to avoid the crowds permanently clustered around it like mussels on a rock.
But then you notice, perched above the upper edge of the 3m high painting, a tiny stuffed bird. It is an albino sparrow – the most ordinary of birds, made spectral by its lack of colour.
Blanco imagines the sparrow flying in through the window of Velázquez’s studio, to conduct a conversation with the dog lying on the floor. The connection between these two animals speaks, to Blanco, of the aerial, out-of-body view of the artist himself as he gazes at us out of his own painting. The bird’s silvery-grey tones reflect Velázquez’s monochrome palette. Its brief life is long over, but so too are the lives of those privileged figures: equally immortalised, equally dead, even as they also live on.
To me, a dark inheritance of kleptocracy – of art bought by stolen South American gold and silver, and other abuses – underlies Natural Histories, especially given its setting, in this imperial city of grand, monumental buildings. These animals – whether mythic or real – might stand for other, human, races. Reflecting upon reflection, Blanco’s eerie installations seem to suggest an Edenic state, before humanity made its mark. Outside, in the museum courtyard, is the artist’s final gesture: the recorded song of tropical birds, piped from speakers, singing in an invisible rainforest. They echo, forlornly, around the Prado’s walls.