Review: Wunderkammer at the MoMA

Very Slow, Very Tired
Nicholas Lampert, 2006

I promised last week to review the MoMA exhibition "Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities." Since making that promise, I've heard from several more friends that they've been to see it - so perhaps this review is preaching to the choir! I was extremely impressed with the breadth and curation of this show, and would go again, if I were in NYC.

Wunderkammern, or cabinets of curiosities, arose in mid-sixteenth-century Europe as repositories for all manner of wondrous and exotic objects. In essence these collections--combining specimens, diagrams, and illustrations from many disciplines; marking the intersection of science and superstition; and drawing on natural, manmade, and artificial worlds--can be seen as the precursors to museums. This exhibition presents a contemporary interpretation of the traditional cabinet of curiosities, bringing together a diverse selection of works by twentieth- and twenty-first-century artists who have likewise felt the pull of unusual and extraordinary objects and phenomena.

It's hardly necessary anymore to explain what a cabinet of curiosities is, and MoMA doesn't really try to define it. After all, the Wunderkammer design aesthetic has been a staple of high-end retailers for several years (Anthropologie, Pottery Barn), and artists have been tapping into it like never before. Today, wonder cabinets are slightly overexposed - a paradoxical state, given that they were originally intended to show off unique and valuable specimens, and/or impose order on things so unusual they defy reason and expectation. In short, wonder cabinets are like the Spanish Inquisition: you shouldn't expect them, and if you do, they're not doing their job.

That said, the MoMA curators did their job. Within a small gallery space, and limited mostly to prints, they created a show that effectively elicits both curiosity and surprise. The content of the works varied from disquieting to freakish - with an appreciation that the most disturbing artwork is often that which marries the familiar with the unknown. Jake and Dinos Chapman's Untitled: From Exquisite Corpse (2000) is an obvious example of this, bloating horribly from from the innocent, little-girl head down to the monstrous claws and "feet."


Untitled from Exquisite Corpse
one from a portfolio of twenty etchings
Dinos and Jake Chapman, 2000

The most excellent thing about this piece is that you probably recognize that little girl, don't you?

That's right - it's Alice, after she has eaten the mushroomcake (whoops!) that makes her grow tall:


Alice when she was tall
Alice In Wonderland
Illustrator: John Tenniel

Distorting a beloved childhood book character seems doubly diabolical - until you consider that Tenniel's original illustration is already stretched and distorted! Alice in Wonderland is saturated with distortions of size, time, logic, physics - distortions we accepted with glee as children. As artists, the Chapmans aren't that different from Tenniel or Lewis Carroll - in fact, the Exquisite Corpse series of etchings is based on a Surrealist reinterpretation of a Victorian parlor game! In other words, the strain of freakishness the Chapmans capture here is our own freakishness - the dark side of the childish imagination.

Many of the other artworks were also fantastic chimeras, such as Raqib Shaw's glitter-and-rhinestone Untitled, or Nicholas Lampert's large-scale print series fusing insects and animals with military/industrial machinery (Very Slow, Very Tired, at the top of the post). A book of collage etchings by Surrealist Max Ernst was a nod to the pro-wonderkammer Surrealists, who declared in their 1924 Manifesto that "the marvelous is always beautiful."

I was also grateful to the curators for reminding me that one of my favorite artists, Paul Klee, did a number of eerie, difficult-to-find etchings - they included two, Menacing Head (1905) and the sculptural Aged Phoenix (1905; subtitled Symbol of the Inadequacy of Human Things, Even the Highest, in Times of Crisis, and contemporaneous with the suppression of the Russian revolutionary movement). Not the cheeriest themes. Moving on, Seb Patane's Four Generations is positively Wunderkammer Goth:


Four Generations
Seb Patane

(I can't help it, I love it, but it reminds me of The Ring.)

Even the few superficially innocent images in this exhibition had a dark undercurrent. Consider Not Vital's Kiss (1996):


Not Vital, 1996

Frm the curator's notes:

Vital often uses animal and other natural forms in his work, arranging them in surreal configurations. He often turns to lambs or goats, common in both his native village in rural Switzerland and in Agadez, Niger, where he keeps a home. This work is made from the imprint of the actual bodies of two lambs: he painted their fleeces with a printmaking solution, then laid the animals directly onto a large copper etching plate.

Awwww - kissing lambs! Cute! Right? But it's not for nothing that this piece resembles a Rorschach blot. As one of my friends commented sarcastically, "I wonder how he got them to lie so still?" Er. . . . his name is Not Vital. (apparently that's his real name, too). And one of his previous works, Camel, consisted of 15 balls of terracotta containing an entire dismembered camel. I'm glad the MoMA curators steered clear of that one.

So far, it sounds as if the exhibition were entirely about freakish dead animals. But there were quite a few architectural pieces as well, like Claes Oldenburg's Screwarch Bridge (1980), with its graceful, organic curves in multiple dimensions, and Paolo Soleri's Campanula Multifunction Bridge Project (1958), which resembles a textbook representation of how mass distorts gravitational fields:


Screwarch Bridge
Claes Oldenburg, 1980


Campanula Multifunction Bridge Project
Paolo Soleri, 1958

Throughout the gallery, pieces were clustered together in spatially defined groupings - categorized by architectural pieces, chimeras, even by body part. There was a wonderful section on the eye, featuring pieces by John Bock, Odilon Redon, and Rodolfo Abularach, among others.

Within each grouping, the pieces were diverse in style and tone - successfully evoking the flavor of a real historical cabinet of curiosities, where pieces were often grouped out of phylogenetic logic, on the basis of superficial resemblances, thus creating provocative and sometimes beautiful juxtapositions. Bock's polymer eyeball, sewn with red thread to the face of a fashion model, evokes some kind of futuristic biomedical dystopia, while Redon's The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity (1882), from the same cluster, feels playful and whimsical:


The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity
Odilon Redon, 1882

As I browsed these groupings, I was reminded of the ways categorization powerfully influences our perception of the world, particularly in biology (see my post on the Hunterian Museum at the old bioephemera for more discussion of this).

Cabinet, a glass and metal display by Mark Dion, made the issues of categories and phylogeny explicit. As a standalone piece, it represented an entire collection unto itself, containing urban archaeological artifacts excavated from the museum sculpture garden, accompanied by sketches of a phylogenetic tree and classification system representing Dion's thoughts about museums, collections, and curation. It was placed near the entrance, creating an imposing introduction to the exhibit.



Cabinet (from Projects 82: Rescue Archaeology: A Project for the Museum of Modern Art)
Mark Dion, 2004

During my visit, two charming elderly New Yorkers were poring over each of the glass drawers, speculating about the contents (bricks, doorknobs, tile fragments, the handles from faucets, a microphone, etc.) The power of art to elicit personal associations couldn't have been shown more clearly.

To all who have asked me, yes, this exhibit is absolutely worth the $20 MoMA entrance fee! (And as a DC resident, I'm used to free museums - so that's saying a lot). But if you absolutely can't go in person, they've put together a memory intensive flash site where you can view the works, zoom in on them, and get a virtual tour. It's an excellent site, though you lose the added layer of complexity created by the arrangement of the works into consonant (and dissonant) groupings - the feeling of categorization that ties them all together into one large Wunderkammer, and which, I think, makes this an extremely interesting and enjoyable show.

The show runs through November 10. There will be several gallery talks in September and October (visit for details).

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Although it didn't occur to me at the time, I guess there were a lot of prints. There was so much dimension to the exhibit as a whole that that didn't even occur to me.

That Patane piece creeps me out just as much here as it did in person.

Thanks for a lovely, thoughtful review.

The only thing I didn't enjoy when I read this, is that I couldn't visit it myself! Thank you for thinking of people like myself by providing that link to the virtual tour.

In other words, the strain of freakishness the Chapmans capture here is our own freakishness - the dark side of the childish imagination.

I disagree. As I see it, the Chapman piece captures not the dark side of the childish imagination, but the dark side of the adult sexual imagination. In fact, I think it is purposefully contrasting the childish imagination of the original Tenniel piece with the disturbing sexual imagination of the Chapmans' additions. (Unless I'm just a fucking weirdo projecting my own twisted imagination onto the piece!)

Howdy: I saw it too and I totally dug it. I have to say though, even though I got what they were after in terms of the clustered pictures, I found it annoying to have to keep walking over to the sides to find out who the artists were. It would have been great if they had a laminated guide you could walk around with. Also, you might be interested to know I'm writing an article for another site (not mine, I mean) about museums and shops around the country with a wunderkammern aesthetic. I'll send you the link as soon as its posted. So sorry I missed you when you were in NYC! GRRRR XO, Pam

PP - okay, that is a really good point! Here's another question: do children have a sexual imagination? I think children are curious about sex and their bodies, so I don't think the inclusion of sexual characteristics in the chimeric monster is itself necessarily indicative of an adult sexuality. However, an adult is bound to read the juxtaposition of the crudely portrayed sexual characteristics with the Alice reference as grossly inappropriate and jarring - and perhaps even link it to the gossip about Lewis Carroll's interest in young girls. We have too much baggage to see the piece any other way.

In sum, think that the grotesqueness of this piece is real, but it comes primarily out of the adult spin we put on it. When you describe it as "contrasting" the adult and childish imaginations, I'd agree - but I also see the adult and childish imaginations being linked on a continuum, and the recognition of that linkage in such a sexual piece being another way it disturbs us. What do you think?

However, an adult is bound to read the juxtaposition of the crudely portrayed sexual characteristics with the Alice reference as grossly inappropriate and jarring - and perhaps even link it to the gossip about Lewis Carroll's interest in young girls. We have too much baggage to see the piece any other way.

I have to admit, I didn't get the specific Alice reference until you explained it.

When I first saw the piece, my immediate reaction (which I maintain) was something like, "Whoah! That's a scary way to imagine female sexuality: as enticing (the hands are beckoning), but simultaneously grotesque, horrifying, dangerous, and ultimately leading to pain and suffering (the skull is crying, and it looks like a dude is being crushed under the left foot)."

Well, I meant that is how one would see it in the context of the suite of Alice in Wonderland associations, which I think adds a cool level of complexity (and is why I liked this piece so much). If one doesn't recognize the reference, then I'm sure it has a different kind of impact, as you're describing.

Many thanks for this - very useful for me, stuck on the other side of the atlantic. And I love your choice of images.