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Curiouser and curiouser.

A Fortnightly Review of

The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things

Nottingham Contemporary
Through 30 June 2013

Curiosity

Turner Contemporary Margate
Through 15 September 2013

By ANTHONY HOWELL.

OF ALL COLLECTIONS of curiosities, perhaps Peter the Great’s Kunstkamera in Saint Petersburg is the most intriguing. Inspired possibly by the giant Nicolas Bourgeois (introduced to the tsar in Calais, then introduced by the tsar to a Finnish giantess in order that he might breed a gargantuan race), Peter decreed in 1718 that all prodigies and freaks of nature born in Russia should be sent to him; for being of a scientific inclination, this enlightened ruler wished to prove that these were not the Devil’s work, nor due to the hexes of some witch, but the natural product of an expectant mother’s getting a fright during pregnancy – a notion Cronenburg might appreciate.

Having issued his decree, Peter proceeded to fill his cabinet with freaks, aberrations and monstrosities. Peter took pride in his own dental skills, so displayed in a box tastefully lined in velvet are the teeth he drew during his lifetime, though of course few of his courtiers were game enough ever to complain of a toothache.

Click an image to enlarge it.

Next to Peter’s smithy tools (he also fancied himself as a blacksmith), behind the hand imprint and death mask of a Chinese giant but beyond the branch which grows back into being a trunk, we find the heart and skeleton of another giant. It’s not Rasputin (who was only 6ft 4), though as a legitimate monster he should really be included here. No, it’s the 7ft 4 Bourgeois himself – and then there are strange toads and aberrant lizards. Laevenhoek the microscopist discovered that a dash of cochineal in the preservative made everything more life­like – placentae, arteries, blood vessels. This explains the vivacity of pickled specimens with glass eyes, ruddy cheeks and sanguine brains. Then we have mummified Siamese twins and Siamese twins in formaldehyde, multiple foetuses, skulls with holes in craniums, midget frames, hare lips, flat heads, obscure cysts, double heads, faces with four eyes, legs with two feet each, and double headed calves, along with miscellaneous fetishes unearthed by early ethnographers.

There are still some scalps here, unlike New York’s Museum of the American Indian in Harlem which deems it politically incorrect to display them. They hang here in the Kunstkamera, across the Neva from the Hermitage, along with jews’ harps, rams’ horns, mbiras, coins, sextants and compasses. Here we find alchemical dioramas, immense magnifying glasses, and though he could subject them to close scrutiny, Laevenhoek confused sperm with bacteria. I imagine him boiling them up together in alembics, then shaking them in flasks. Here are revolving drums of glass, lightning conductors, sundials – all the sad accoutrements of Durer’s Melancholia. But this is the age of enlightenment, so let’s consider each horoscope and horror under the microscope.

Tastefully displayed in the Kunstkamera, the cherubic foetuses all wear dainty bonnets of lace, and the isolated arms and the little feet born without bodies have very fine ruffs and cuffs and sit happily cushioned on their placentas. Here there are vaginas without legs, eyeless, noseless, headless, armless concoctions of conceived matter. And in the engravings of the time, pathetic homunculus skeletons dry their tears on their placenta hankies.

Outside the building, a sweet little thing, all complete in a shortish polka–dot dress, hangs about by the souvenir stall with her granny. She’s less than a nymphette as yet, nearly plump, but not quite, with honey–coloured skin – and all mercifully intact, which is a relief after the Kunstkamera.

LEONARDO HAS A drawing – it’s in the Queen’s collection – of a cloud raining objects down on the earth: rakes, clocks, ladders, pincers, spectacles, syringes, bagpipes – a ‘cloudburst of material possessions’. The line in Leonardo’s hand at the bottom of the sheet reads: “Oh human misery, how many things must you serve for money?” The objects are ordinary enough, but perhaps Leonardo’s crie–de–coeur is the first expression of a nausea engendered by the sheer multiplicity of the mass of things.

It’s a bewildering show: a bravura exercise in juxtaposition…Leckey is fascinated by the tension between real and hyper–real…between the object and its virtual representation.

This ‘cloudburst of material possessions’ could describe an exhibition running till 30 June at Nottingham Contemporary – The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things curated by Turner prize–winner Mark Leckey. It’s the latest of Hayward Touring’s artist–curated exhibitions, and it’s a bewildering show: a bravura exercise in juxtaposition. One room is filled with car stuff, another filled with animal stuff, another room is dark, another concerns our bodies. Some of these objects are ordinary, but arranged in some disconcerting way, others are freakish, extraordinary. Leckey is fascinated by the tension between real and hyper–real (in Baudrillard’s phrase), between the object and its virtual representation. He says in his introduction that he selected things that he believes inhabit a ‘thin place’, a spot where the membrane between the actual and virtual worlds is especially leaky. These objects, which seem almost ‘from the beyond’ exercise a strong hold on our imagination. We may dream of them: rocks that mysteriously move themselves across the desert flats and what might be a miniature water buffalo – made from the undigested contents of a human stomach, and an anatomical cross–section of a cartoon character and, in a small box, the Holy Prepuce, Christ’s foreskin, that is (of which there are apparently fourteen). Though why should his mother have kept it, in the first instance? My mother didn’t keep mine.

It is precisely via such provocative questions that objects become enigmas. And then these enigmas get commented on in blogs, and thread their way like tapeworms through the body of the internet. But the internet doesn’t have a body. It’s a web, isn’t it? In this exhibition it is imagined as a maze of connections and bifurcations, in which a minotaur may prowl. At the same time, its passageways are clogged with representations. Meaning succumbs under the excessive weight of information.

However, the cacophony this plethora implies can engender a species of random messaging that communicates other matter – as a JC Penny kettle can resemble Hitler, or as a small collection of carefully arranged objects can suggest a family assembled for a photograph – as in a Morandi. In this way, things speak to each other – often changing their identity as they become hyper–real representations – thus an apple becomes a computer company – but who is the Adam who takes the bite out of it?

This “addressability” that affects objects and their representations appears to be the ‘message’ of the exhibition, but the virtual world where it operates most effectively is also its weakness. There is nothing ‘hyper’ about the reality of the objects deposited in the Kunstkamera – whereas in this Nottingham show, Blake’s ghost of a flea is a reproduction mounted on a light–box, the Cerne Abbas giant is a representation drawn on a gallery wall, the symbolic petition of the Chippewa chiefs is a copy, and we only have a photograph of Jeff Koons’s rabbit – itself a representation of an inflatable toy cast in stainless steel. But the trouble with the power of freaks, relics and other monstrous enigmas is that their magnetism leaks away with duplication. We have to “experience” the actual shroud, the one in Turin – even if its reality is a simulacrum – as is the case of the rabbit in steel.

There’s a gigantic Felix the Kat inflatable in the show, and it ought to be by Paul McCarthy, but it isn’t. It has been conceived by curator Mark Leckey. Perhaps it is not quite rude enough to be a McCarthy. But the feeling is of one artist reproducing another’s work; and while there are authentic pieces in the show – a Louise Bourgoise, for instance – I wonder whether the exhibition would have been stronger, the message more clearly stated, if all the objects had been either fakes or reproductions. As it is, I am left in some lacuna between the urge to experience the genuine and an insight into our duplicitous age. The catalogue works better than the show.

MORE SATISFYING IS the Curiosity exhibition, which has just opened at the Turner Contemporary in Margate. This is another Hayward Touring show, and Roger Malbert (Touring’s director) is to be congratulated on this and other shows the Hayward initiative has mounted over the years – including the artist–curated ones. The touring shows have often focused on the peculiar or the eerie, maintaining a fine balance between museum culture and gallery art. Suffice it to mention the Fetishism show– seen at various venues in 1995 – with its African “power objects”, its Surrealist evocations, and, memorably, a hair–shirt by Jordan Baseman.  Then there was the Carnivalesque, inspired by the theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, that was shown in Brighton in 2000 and featured performance art – to which I was invited to contribute with a live event involving two wieners (adolescent pigs).

Familiar objects that are invested with more than their due share of interest may have become fetishised and as fetishes they may well feature in cabinets of curiosity.

Both fetishism and the carnivalesque have a bearing on the nature of curios. Familiar objects that are invested with more than their due share of interest may have become fetishised and as fetishes they may well feature in cabinets of curiosity. The carnivalesque, that fascination with the world turned upside down may also contribute to the curious – silver plate photographs of Popes and bishops staring into the heavens through the powerful lenses of telescopes in the Vatican observatory induce a vertiginous sense of the topsy–turvy.

Curiosity has been curated by Brian Dillon, editor of the magazine Cabinet. Unlike the collage–like juxtaposition of things in Nottingham, Curiosity has been designed to allow each item its isolation, though specific works by the same artist may be found at different points as you move through the gallery. This is the case with the stuffed chimeras of Thomas Grünfeld. As you move past the fabulous windows of the Turner, with their uninterrupted views of sea and sky, you are greeted by a Saint Bernard with the head of a sheep. Both animals seem contented with this accommodation, unlike the peacock you come across later who seems disgruntled, saddled below his neck with the lower half of a penguin.

The Leonardo drawing of the cloudburst raining objects has been borrowed for this exhibition, as has the colossal walrus from the Horniman Museum in South London. Stuffed and mounted by taxidermists who had no idea what a walrus actually looked like, the creature is more colossal than he should be, because its characteristic folds have vanished. Puffed up by dint of being overstuffed, it has been a huge job for the exhibition staff to prise him out of the Horniman and install him here at the Turner, but the idea of such a visit to the seaside is just wonderful! This is curatorship at its most creative, curatorship as art.

For Brian Dillon, curiosity can be a child ripping a toy apart to examine its innards, or a voyeur, or an eavesdropper. In this exhibition, there are some scuffed and faded photos taken surreptitiously by Miroslav Tichý of women and girls which intrigue the viewer precisely because one knows they have been taken secretively. I’m reminded of a drawing by R. B. Kitaj of someone at the turn of the stairs peeking at someone who is spying on a couple making love. We are peeking at these voyeuristic results, and there is a thrill to this that epitomises curiosity.

Nina Katchadourian. Turner MargayeObjects can engender curiosity or be curious. Katie Paterson’s History of Darkness is the latter – simply a large tray filled with box after box of slides containing photographic images of darkness sourced from researchers and observatories from around the world. The slides are as opaque as you might expect them to be. Nina Katchadourian goes into aircraft toilets with a camera phone and improvises mock–Flemish bonnets and ruffs from the materials to hand there – thus creating Lavatory Self–Portraits in the Flemish Style. Susan Hiller and David Coxhead have acquired a collection of drawings by Alfie West – each made from a hair – Alfie has a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest number of lengthwise splits (17) ever made in a single human hair.

One of my favourite sections in this exhibition presents the work of an artist group called Agency who have amassed a list of things (documented in boxes) whose classification is uncertain or in dispute. It is difficult to see any difference between Tyco bricks and Lego bricks – and this has led to bitter legal dispute. Agency present a whole table of copyright infringements, including a clip of a film involving a magician’s coat that has been filched, the scene in itself filched from another movie. Hilarious!

To my mind, this is a show to rival The Uncanny, an exhibition presented in the Gemeentmusum Arnhem in 1993 which was curated by Mike Kelley and rather established the benchmark for shows of this kind with its deconstruction via exhibits of Freud’s notion of the uncanny as a strangeness that may affect the familiar in a shivery way.  There is plenty of that in the Curiosity show, together with its opposite: a familiarity about a sense of strangeness – as in deja vu, angels tiptoeing over one’s grave and so on. But I should desist from listing each intriguing object to be viewed currently in Margate. There’s plenty more to be pondered over, and I don’t want to spoil it. I merely wish to whet your curiosity.

 ♦

Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of  The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

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