Sunday, 25 January 2015

Dresden Conference: The one with Horse Blood and the Hunt

Can't resist this mirror
So this is it. The concluding session of the Dresden Conference on Cabinets of Curiosity. That two day event has provided a wealth of material, as well as making me think about the most extraordinary things. On reflection, the last three sessions were far more controversial than I originally thought; death and colonialism; classifying the unclassifiable; and this final session, which amongst other issues, discussed the blurring of boundaries regarding human and animals. I've combined Marion Endt-Jones and Sarah Wade's talks because they are relevant for my work, and they both used the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature as a case study.

As Donna Roberts had already noted, 'cabinets of curiosity' have been the topic of many shows to greater and lesser critical success. Marion Endt-Jones suggested we were in a new age of curiosity, citing a raft of shows, from the Manchester coral show, various European exhibitions and the growth in alternative wunder- museums. She suggests that this revival is not just inspired by surreal art but a wholesale 'questioning of institutions'. It is also a reaction to the corporate nature of the white cube, an inevitable and long overdue rethink of ubiquitous bland, open, unnatural, cold galleries.

As an observation, it is interesting to note that our slow reacting national museums and galleries have tried desperately to find a niche in this desire for white empty spaces. Thankfully they are now realising that the items gathering dust in store rooms and dark corners are coming back into fashion. For instance the German hunting lodge mirror in the V&A, currently in storage, should take centre stage of a show. Preferably in a refurbished ex white cube gallery, finally taking on the guise of a laboratory of the marvellous, a space which is finally going to take you to take you to a new place.

In the early modern versions, as we  noted on the previous day, each object held a special significance to the elite, expert collector. Whether agents were dispatched to foreign countries to trace rarities; or the owner went on special expeditions abroad; or were given precious items as gifts, each one would be the result of extravagance, and designed to inspire wonder in the viewer. The items would potentially have no need of labelling because the owners cherished and knew them well. She stated that 'Nicolas Bourriard has critiqued the Wunderkammer as passivity-inducing environment reserved for insiders'. Rather than being a catalyst for wonder, human enquiry can be shut down by novelty - because there can be no connection when something is 'marvellous'.

Some contemporary cabinets of curiosity seem to have taken this on board and taken this opportunity to re-engage visitors by removing labels and titles - as did some of the white cube galleries. Rather they encourage relational experiences, and tangential experiences such as those related by Rosamond Purcell. As Endt-Jones said, the best museums surprise, enchant, engage, ensure a collective experience, and deepen the visitors knowledge. This is something that can't be experienced on a screen.

She took three examples. Firstly the Museum of Jurassic Technology with a permanent collection of Megloaponera Foetens / The Stink Ant of the Cameroon Bernard Maston, Donald R. Griffith and the Deprong Mori of the Tripiscum Plateau Fruit Stone Carving The Horn of Mary Davis of Saughall It asks the visitor to turn detective and judge the reliability of its narratives, to examine evidence, and try to work out if this is a museum or art installation. It attempts to overturn fact v fiction, historical v contemporary, and rethink Western binary thinking.

The second example left me cold. The Museum der Unerhörten Dinge in Berlin is held together by fiction. Each random found object has a fictional label, the aim is to give the surrealist object a voice through an interesting story. This would clearly require the visitor to spend time reading a label which could be a trial for some. This is more a literary Wunderkammer - they have recently opened up their storeroom of objects awaiting a story and she suggested that this was more interesting that the front of house. This returns to the idea that back rooms tell a more honest/poignant/interesting narrative.

The final example, as I mentioned in the introduction, is the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris. Originally the collection of a couple of 'ethical hunters' and opened in 1967, it was designed to look like the private home of an 18th century hunting enthusiast. It recently underwent substantial modernisation. Sarah Wade has studied this museum and described it in her short presentation. 

Turning away from the traditional method of labels, dates, and conventional groupings, the curators have taken the original collection and made it more relevant to an urban audience using contemporary art. Without signage or information, it asks the visitor to hunt your own way through the 'house' using chance and curiosity, opening doors, making connections, challenging you to take part in the 'man v animal-nature' conversation. Designed to unsettle, leave you doubtful and uncertain, it is a collection of objects in what feels like a noble person's home; thematic rooms such as the Boar Room, Dog Salon, Bird Room juxtapose the undergrowth and clearings, rational and irrational, light and dark, playful and serious, nostalgic and present.

Almost the antithesis of a white cube, all senses are catered for and imaginative and multilayered installations are not just visually appealing, but touch and smell too. Deer excrement enlivens the atmosphere of cabinet drawers, Mark Dion's 'Dungeon of the Sleeping Bear makes no secret of how a wild animal can assault the nose. Bill Culbert's 'light pouring wine' is also reliant on smell.

Hunting is naturally a divisive hobby, now more than ever with the urban/rural divide becoming ever wider. The museum doesn't shrink from asking difficult questions about the love/hate it engenders, the dread/delight, ravish/revolt and explores the ambiguities which arise from hunting. Horses have always played a vital part in sport, enabling the wealthy to travel long distances to hunting grounds in mountains, forests and commons. My particular area of expertise saw horses as central to parades and festivals, so that the Elector could display the wealth and superiority of his state. The desire to share the equine experience was taken to new levels at the museum when they held the 2011 performance art piece 'May the Horse Live in Me'. Where the bio-tech art created new life, this saw human/animal boundaries being blurred. Again, utterly revolted, I quote from the artists;

The artists (Marion Laval-Jeantet and Benoît Mangin), who have been creating since 1991, operate in the interdisciplinary space, linking together different areas of art (mainly body art), scientific research in the field of ethology, immunology, ecology and broadly perceived experimentation. Their works are very often a result of the artists’ protest against the system of standards and management towards the world of animals which had been imposed by men. Such is the case of the award winning work. To become a body for an animal, a “storage” of a selected species, to become a man-horse, a man-panda, is an idea which resulted from a protest against the absurd – according to the artists – principle setting rules for making a list of endangered species which are subject to protection. May the Horse Live in me is an experimental performance which was about transfusing horse blood to Marion’s body.

Although I recoil from this, I have no ethical issues with this art. A consenting adult has chosen to have an animal blood transfusion and any ill effects will be suffered with the knowledge that it was done in the name of art. However this raises questions about the horse and whether it minded donating blood.

This leaves me in a strange place for a conclusion. I didn't want to depart the conference when in such an ambivalent frame of mind. But if the point of cabinets of curiosity is to leave the viewer confused, wondering, questioning, then this conference of curiosity succeeded in its aims. When we go into a space such as those mentioned about, the viewer becomes a partner in knowledge, and a contract between the viewer and 'museum' is created. This inevitably requires work on both sides and if it is successful, the result is interaction and meaningful discussion. Indeed, I expect a lot more discussion regarding these Wonderful places.

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