Sunday, 18 January 2015

Dresden Conference: Part One Cabinets of Curiosities / Wunderkammern / Kunstkammern

View from the theatre
These are the first set of many notes taken at the Dresden Conference on the Cabinet of Curiosities in Contemporary Art (16-17 Jan 2015). As background, the programme states that 'we seek an overview of current debate, artistic, and curatorial strategies. The contemporary version of the cabinet of curiosities is a machine for alternative world views, because inquiring minds and the thirst for knowledge cannot be tamed. What are the curiosities of the 21st century? The mirabilia of the digital age? What are the politics, ideologies and dynamics of today's Kunst- Wunderkammer?'
So why here and now? In 2014 the Academy of Fine Arts celebrated its 250th anniversary of its foundation. This conference came about as part of the celebratory events. It accompanies Mark Dion's 'Academy of Things' which is currently on show at the Hochschule. I will come to that separately. Dresden is uniquely placed to host this sort of event because of its own Kunstkammer pedigree, but also its proximity to the Hapsburg collections and the House of Wettin with its pan European connections. Not to mention the desire to cut into contemporary art debate.

We started with a lot of questions from the programme, and yet the introduction failed to address the most important one. Given the linguistic duality of the conference (English and German), we have not resolved the vexed 'kunst-' 'wunder-' 'art-' 'treasure-' 'curiosity-' kammer, rooms, chamber, cabinet, study, studiolo issues. So many words to describe what is essentially a private collection of objects that an individual assembled. Everyone here would have their own idea so we are starting from very different points - not that helpful, in my view.
After a showing of the wonderful Jan Švankmayer's Historia Natura (Suita) (1967), we opened with a panel discussion on the practice of the Wunderkammer. Meanings were partially touched upon here but they missed an opportunity to really get to the back of the cupboard. 'Cabinet of Curiosity' is hackneyed in modern discourse and used with little regard to historical sensitivity - a recurring theme critically addressed later. Not all collections are cabinets of curiosity; not all collections are historic.
We covered contemporary reimaginings later but we can link our thirst for knowledge with the explosion of the web, which Petra Lange-Berndt suggests is a ginormous cabinet of curiosities. The link of new tech and collections was first explored in 'Les immateriaux' at the Centre Pompidou in 1985. Many installations have drawn from the historic associations of rational/subversive/magic/irrational/playful. For instance 'L'Allemagne avant le guerre après la guerre' 2013 and Susan Hiller's 'Witnesses of UFO Sightings' 2000. They collect information from our internet age.

Mark Dion tried to grasp meanings but it wasn't drawn out enough. He said that the academic study - in English - of cabinets of curiosity didn't really emerge until the 1990s. Of course now there are entire libraries of material. He suggested that precision of language has been lost in the subject's development, as it become a more popular thing. English researchers also have a different historic development with which to contend. Victoriana and the obsession of bringing nature inside has confused the issues. He is upset about what it has become and lack of historical precision is a problem.

After reading so much of his work, Dirk Syndram was the man I'd come to hear. I have always suspected that art historians get so involved with theory and details, they fail to see the chamber itself, so they end up writing about something quite different. Which is basically what he said. The 16th century saw a new exploration of the world, and princes and rulers wanted to replicate these discoveries, producing a macrocosm in microcosm. Obviously no one could do it all. No one knew 'how' to collect, classify or categorise these new specimens/objects. In 1565 a guide stated that they should be divided into natural products enhanced by man's art ; paintings ; God's invention.

This mix of art and the natural world is probably the closest we get to an understanding of what a cabinet of curiosity was/is. Syndram pointed out that the Dresden collections are fortunate because they are inter generational. Although the princely cabinet would change, it was never fully dispersed and lost, unlike many European collections. It began as closed and private, but in 1586 Christian opened it to show off the chamber. So it took on a different character for each elector, becoming a focus for tourists and other visitors.

As far as I understood, he suggested that 'Wunderkamer' existed before the art chamber. In the context of August I, I would agree - in his collections he had carved cherry stones, machines/automata, instruments etc. These are priceless historically, yet not treasures such as August the Strong collected. They created curiosity in the beholder, and they charmed by art and craft. Items like the Coral Daphne doesn't tell the time or measure anything, it's not even a drinking vessel, it is a sculpture and its value makes it unusable. Yet utterly captivating.

This is a central question. What was the purpose of these collections? The answer depends on the individual collector. In August's case, his private space was his to make objects using his specially commissioned tools. This has an interesting political implication. On one level it turns him into an everyday craftsman, no better than his subjects in their workshops in the market place. But alternatively it turns him into a creator, shaping natural materials into fine objects d'art. A prince who has the power to transform materials is an extremely powerful person. The way he uses the space and the objects within is what makes the wire drawing bench so interesting. It also raises questions about the definitions around cabinets of curiosity. Everything that was touched on later presupposed a different type of collection.

Robert Williams, the third panellist is also an artist and works as a lecturer at Lancaster University. His view of a collection reflecting the personality and learning of individual is absolutely right. Yet his view seemed to come out of the 19th century cabinets which were collections of unrelated odd things, released from constraints around science. He suggests that as an artist you should follow irrational thoughts to their rational end. For me this flies in the face of August's collection, where he was following his rational thoughts to their irrational end.

The panelists discussed the importance of these collections, as well as why they have generated so much discussion. Syndram explained that when the Dresden art chamber re-opened, historian Horst Bredekamp said that it was a fantasy, you have to look,' and 'it made your ideas walk'. So since so much of the material worked with such craftsmanship is now forbidden, it's a fairy tale and 'out of reality'. We are fascinated by these collections because of their unique nature and the stories that their contents and history relate.

The different names - above - suggest their divisions in wunder/art kammer and explorations into proto science. From Vienna to Copenhagen, Florence to Oxford, they have one foot in magic and the hermetic tradition, and one in natural philosophy and science. As a tool of dominant society and colonial ideas, wunderkamer are generally systematic creations and have to be decoded, so that we can understand the language - and worldview of the creator. Naturally as a contemporary visitor you would never negotiate them alone, you'd have an explanation as the host would tell you about their collection.

Therefore our perception of objects is related to our imagination and they may seem jumbled or irrational at first glance. Similarly inventories have their own rationality. Part of this understanding relates to religion. We cannot underestimate the importance and this has been lost in modern creations. We have to look beyond the fantastic. If we learn, build the right vocabulary, and make collections by putting the irrational together, we can create our own collections, but how does this fit in with rational, scientific collections of knowledge? This is a question which can only be answered by looking at the art of Rosamond Purcell. Ultimately you are making the connections between objects and transforming them physically/psychologically to fit your own world view. However ultimately it was all about power, influence, trade control of environment, stability and ideology.

So, locked doors to private rooms have been opened; where do we go now?

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