Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

(Second and last part – you can find the first one here.)

In the Nineteenth Century, wunderkammern disappeared.
The collections ended up disassembled, sold to private citizens or integrated in the newly born modern museums. Scientists, whose discipline was already defined, lost interest for the ancient kind of baroque wonder, perhaps deemed child-like in respect to the more serious postitivism.
This type of collecting continued in sporadic and marginal ways during the first decades of the Twetieth Century. Some rare antique dealer, especially in Belgium, the Netherlands or Paris, still sold some occasional mirabilia, but the golden age of the trade was long gone.
Of the few collectors of this first half of the century the most famous is André Breton, whose cabinet of curiosities is now on permanent exhibit at the Centre Pompidou.

The interest of wunderkammern began to reawaken during the Eighties from two distinct fronts: academics and artists.
On one hand, museology scholars began to recognize the role of wunderkammern as precursors of today’s museal collections; on the other, some artists fell in love with the concept of the chamber of wonders and started using it in their work as a metaphor of Man’s relationship with objects.
But the real upswing came with the internet. The neo-wunderkammer “movement” developed via the web, which opened new possibilities not only for sharing the knowledge but also to revitalize the commerce of curiosities.

Let’s take a look, as we did for the classical collections, to some conceptual elements of neo-wunderkammern.

A Democratic Wunderkammer

The first macroscopic difference with the past is that collecting curiosities is no more an exclusive of wealthy billionaires. Sure, a very-high-profile market exists, one that the majority of enthusiasts will never access; but the good news is that today, anybody who can afford an internet conection already has the means to begin a little collection. Thanks to the web, even a teenager can create his/her own shelf of wonders. All that’s needed is good will and a little patience to comb through the many natural history collectibles websites or online auctions for some real bargain.

There are now children’s books, school activities and specific courses encouraging kids to start this form of exploration of natural wonders.

The result of all this is a more democratic wunderkammer, within the reach of almost any wallet.

Reinventing Exotica

We talked about the classic category of exotica, those objects that arrived from distant colonies and from mysterious cultures.
But today, what is really exotic – etymologically, “coming from the outside, from far away”? After all we live in a world where distances don’t matter any more, and we can travel without even moving: in a bunch of seconds and a few clicks, we can virtually explore any place, from a mule track on the Andes to the jungles of Borneo.

This is a fundamental issue for the collectors, because globalization runs the risk of annihilating an important part of the very concept of wonder. Their strategies, conscious or not, are numerous.
Some collectors have turned their eyes towards the only real “external space” that is left — the cosmos; they started looking for memorabilia from the heroic times of the Space Race. Spacesuits, gear and instruments from various space missions, and even fragments of the Moon.

Others push in the opposite direction, towards the most distant past; consequently the demand for dinosaur fossils is in constant growth.

But there are other kinds of new exotica that are closer to us – indeed, they pertain directly to our own society.
Internal exoticism: not really an oxymoron, if we consider that anthropologists have long turned the instruments of ethnology towards the modern Western worold (take for instance Marc Augé). To seek what is exotic within our own cultre is to investigate liminal zones, fringe realities of our time or of the recent past.

Thus we find a recent fascination for some “taboo” areas, related for example to crime (murder weapons, investigative items, serial killer memorabilia) or death (funerary objecs and Victorian mourning apparel); the medicalia sub-category of quack remedies, as for example electric shock terapies or radioactive pharamecutical products.

Jessika M. collection – photo Brian Powell, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Funerary collectibles.

Violet wand kit; its low-voltage electric shock was marketed as the cure for everything.

Even curiosa, vintage or ancient erotic objects, are an example of exotica coming from a recent past which is now transfigured.

A Dialogue Between The Objects

Building a wunderkammer today is an eminently artistic endeavour. The scientific or anthropological interest, no matter how relevant, cannot help but be strictly connected to aesthetics.
There is a greater general attention to the interplay between the objects than in the past. A painting can interact with an object placed in front of it; a tribal mask can be made to “dialogue” with an other similar item from a completely different tradition. There is undoubtedly a certain dose of postmodern irreverence in this approach; for when pop culture collectibles are allowed entrance to the wunderkammer, ending up exhibited along with precious and refined antiques, the self-righteous art critic is bound to shudder (see for instance Victor Wynd‘s peculiar iconoclasm).

An example I find paradigmatic of this search for a deeper interaction are the “adventurous” juxtapositions experimented by friend Luca Cableri (the man who brought to Moon to Italy); you can read the interview he gave me if you wish to know more about him.

Wearing A Wunderkammer

Fashion is always aware of new trends, and it intercepted some aspects of the world of wunerkammern. Thanks mainly to the goth and dark subcultures, one can find jewelry and necklaces made from naturalistic specimens: on Etsy, eBay or Craigslist, countless shops specialize in hand-crafted brooches, hair clips or other fashion accessories sporting skulls, small wearable taxidermies and so on.

Conceptual Art and Rogue Taxidermists

As we said, the renewed interest also came from the art world, which found in wunderkammern an effective theoretical frame to reflect about modernity.
The first name that comes to mind is of course Damien Hirst, who took advantage of the concept both in his iconic fluid-preserved animals and in his kaleidoscopic compositions of lepidoptera and butterflies; but even his For The Love of God, the well-known skull covered in diamonds, is an excessively precious curiosity that would not have been out of place in a Sixteenth Century treasure chamber.

Hirst is not the only artist taking inspiration from the wunderkammer aesthetics. Mark Dion, for instance, creates proper cabinets of wonders for the modern era: in his work, it’s not natural specimens that are put under formaldeyde, but rather their plastic replicas or even everyday objects, from push brooms to rubber dildos. Dion builds a sort of museum of consumerism in which – yet again – Nature and Culture collide and even at times fuse together, giving us no hope of telling them apart.

In 2013 Rosamund Purcell’s installation recreated a 3D version of the Seventeenth Century Ole Worm Museum: reinvention/replica, postmodern doppelgänger and hyperreal simulachrum which allows the public to step into one of the most famous etchings in the history of wunderkammern.

Besides the “high” art world – auction houses and prestigious galleries – we are also witnessing a rejuvenation of more artisanal sectors.
This is the case with the art of taxidermy, which is enjoying a new youth: today taxidermy courses and workshops are multiplying.

Remember that in the first post I talked about taxidermy as a domestication of the scariest aspects of Nature? Well, according to the participants, these workshops offer a way to exorcise their fear of death on a comfortably small scale, through direct contact and a creative activity. (We shall return on this tactile element.)
A further push towards innovation has come from yet another digital movement, called Rogue Taxidermy.

Artistic, non-traditional taxidermy has always existed, from fake mirabilia and gaffs such as mummified sirens and Jenny Hanivers to Walter Potter‘s antropomorphic dioramas. But rogue taxidermists bring all this to a whole new level.

Initially born as a consortium of three artists – Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus e Robert Marbury – who were interested in taxidermy in the broadest sense (Marbury does not even use real animals for his creations, but plush toys), rogue taxidermy quickly became an international movement thanks to the web.

The fantastic chimeras produced by these artists are actually meta-taxidermies: by exhibiting their medium in such a manifest way, they seem to question our own relationship with animals. A relationship that has undergone profound changes and is now moving towards a greater respect and care for the environment. One of the tenets of rogue taxidermy is in fact the use of ethically sourced materials, and the animals used in preparations all died of natural causes. (Here’s a great book tracing the evolution and work of major rogue taxidermy artists.)

Wunderkammer Reborn

So we are left with the fundamental question: why are wunderkammern enjoying such a huge success right now, after five centuries? Is it just a retro, nostalgic trend, a vintage frivolous fashion like we find in many subcultures (yes I’m looking at you, my dear hipster friends) or does its attractiveness lie in deeper urgencies?

It is perhaps too soon to put forward a hypothesis, but I shall go out on a limb anyway: it is my belief that the rebirth of wunderkammern is to be sought in a dual necessity. On one hand the need to rethink death, and on the other the need to rethink art and narratives.

Rethinking Death
(And While We’re At It, Why Not Domesticate It)

Swiss anthropologist Bernard Crettaz was among the first to voice the ever more widespread need to break the “tyrannical secrecy” regarding death, typical of the Twentieth Century: in 2004 he organized in Neuchâtel the first Café mortel, a free event in which participants could talk about grief, and discuss their fears but also their curiosities on the subject. Inspired by Crettaz’s works and ideas, Jon Underwood launched the first British Death Café in 2011. His model received an enthusiastic response, and today almost 5000 events have been held in 50 countries across the world.

Meanwhile, in the US, a real Death-Positive Movement was born.
Originated from the will to drastically change the American funeral industry, criticized by founder Caitlin Doughty, the movement aims at lifting the taboo regarding the subject of death, and promotes an open reflection on related topics and end-of-life issues. (You probably know my personal engagement in the project, to which I contributed now and then: you can read my interview to Caitlin and my report from the Death Salon in Philadelphia).

What has the taboo of death got to do with collecting wonders?
Over the years, I have had the opportunity of talking to many a collector. Almost all of them recall, “as if it were yesterday“, the emotion they felt while holding in their hands the first piece of their collection, that one piece that gave way to their obsession. And for the large majority of them it was a naturalistic specimen – an animal skeleton, a taxidermy, etc.: as a friend collector says, “you never forget your first skull“.

The tactile element is as essential today as it was in classical wunderkammern, where the public was invited to study, examine, touch the specimens firsthand.

Owning an animal skull (or even a human one) is a safe and harmless way to become familiar with the concreteness of death. This might be the reason why the macabre element of wunderkammern, which was marginal centuries ago, often becomes a prevalent aspect today.

Ryan Matthew Cohn collection – photo Dan Howell & Steve Prue, from Morbid Curiosities (courtesy P. Gambino)

Rethinking Art: The Aesthetics Of Wonder

After the decline of figurative arts, after the industrial reproducibility of pop art, after the advent of ready-made art, conceptual art reached its outer limit, giving a coup the grace to meaning.  Many contemporary artists have de facto released art not just from manual skill, from artistry, but also from the old-fashioned idea that art should always deliver a message.
Pure form, pure signifier, the new conceptual artworks are problematic because they aspire to put a full stop to art history as we know it. They look impossible to understand, precisely because they are designed to escape any discourse.
It is therefore hard to imagine in what way artistic research will overcome this emptiness made of cold appearance, polished brilliance but mere surface nonetheless; hard to tell what new horizon might open up, beyond multi-million auctions, artistars and financial hikes planned beforehand by mega-dealers and mega-collectors.

To me, it seems that the passion for wunderkammern might be a way to go back to narratives, to meaning. An antidote to the overwhelming surface. Because an object is worth its place inside a chamber of marvels only by virtue of the story it tells, the awe it arises, the vertigo it entails.
I believe I recognize in this genre of collecting a profound desire to give back reality to its lost enchantment.
Lost? No, reality never ceased to be wonderous, it is our gaze that needs to be reeducated.

From Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – photo C. Fleurant

Eventually, a  wunderkammer is just a collection of objects, and we already live submerged in an ocean of objects.
But it is also an instrument (as it once was, as it has always been) – a magnifying glass to inspect the world and ourselves. In these bizarre and strange items, the collector seeks a magical-narrative dimension against the homologation and seriality of mass production. Whether he knows it or not, by being sensitive to the stories concealed within the objects, the emotions they convey, their unicity, the wunderkammer collector is carrying out an act of resistence: because placing value in the exception, in the exotic, is a way to seek new perspectives in spite of the Unanimous Vision.

Da Cabinets de Curiosités (2011) – foto C. Fleurant

11 comments to Wunderkammer Reborn – Part II

  1. Livio says:

    Tutto terribilmente meraviglioso!!!

  2. Giacomo Miglio says:

    Ottima prosecuzione e conclusione del precedente articolo, la mia sola “paura” nel pensare alle wunderkammer come ad un fenomeno “di massa”, paura che anche in questo caso si possa scadere nel consumismo (mi rendo conto che sia un raginamento un po’ snob).

    Visto che hai nominato Damien Hirst ne approfitto per chiederti se hai mai considerato un articolo interamente su di lui.

    • bizzarrobazar says:

      la mia sola “paura” nel pensare alle wunderkammer come ad un fenomeno “di massa”, paura che anche in questo caso si possa scadere nel consumismo

      Non sei l’unico! Alcuni collezionisti non vedono certo di buon occhio questa esplosione di interesse, si sentono defraudati di un segreto per pochi eletti.
      Il parallelo che ti posso fare, perché ne discuto ormai da anni con l’amico Mariano Tomatis, è quello dell’ambiente illusionistico: anche lì c’è una palpabile “crisi” dovuta all’accessibilità di tutorial e materiali che mettono in piazza i meccanismi della magia. La mia posizione è assolutamente analoga a quella di Mariano: così come lui grida “Magia al popolo!”, io lo faccio (a modo mio) con le wunderkammer, condividendo più informazioni possibile. E non è questione di ideologia, ma di amore per l’argomento, desiderio che non si fossilizzi, che rimanga vivo. La forma-wunderkammer si evolverà? Diventerà qualcos’altro? Ben venga, secondo me. Ogni crisi è bifronte: magari avremo un appiattimento o uno svilimento su certi fronti (anche nella magia può succedere), ma raggiungedo un numero più vasto di persone, chi lo sa che il concetto non incontri qualche giovane artista che lo utilizzerà per qualcosa di straordinario? Quando si parla di meraviglia, ecco, mi sembra che il vero rischio è che resti chiusa nel castello di qualche milionario. In un documentario sulle wunderkammer di prossima uscita, a cui sto marginalmente collaborando, uno degli intervistati dice “la meraviglia è un privilegio”. Ecco, a me questo non va giù. 🙂

      Visto che hai nominato Damien Hirst

      E’ un artista che conosco particolarmente bene. Proprio per questo farei fatica a condensare in un articolo le tante cose (non tutte positive, vista la sua figura controversa) da dire su di lui. Pensa che anni fa avevo diretto un documentario su di lui che purtroppo non è mai uscito. Ne sopravvive il trailer:


      • Giacomo Miglio says:

        Un vero peccato perché dal trailer, correggimi se sbaglio, si trattava di un opera di più ampio respiro proprio sulla tanto controversa arte contemporanea.

        Ottimo pero’ sapere che c’e’ un documentario sulle wunderkammer in cantiere!

        Riguardo al paragone con Magia al Popolo, l’unica remora che mi rimane e’ che quando si tratta di prestidigitazione non ci si limita al solo accesso alla bibliografia dedicata (apprezzo moltissimo il progetto di biblioteca digitale di Tomatis), ma e’ imprescindibile una grande preparazione e dedizione dell’interessato; la “paura” per quanto riguarda collezioni di oggetti, soprattutto se di provenienza “naturale”, e’ che sia poi la legge del consumo e del portafoglio a portare, con un fattorino di Amazon, a casa nostra un pezzo di “meraviglia”.
        Voglio dire, se penso alle storie (controverse per carità), degli esploratori del XVIII e XIX secolo e come si siano allestite la maggior parte delle collezioni museali, ecco quella meraviglia, quel senso di avventura e tutta la storia che alcune collezioni portano con se non credo sara’ più recuperabile, ne’ tanto meno acquistabile.

        Poi sul fatto che queste meraviglie vadano rese disponibili a tutti, anche come spunto di riflessione e critica proprio su come si sono andate assemblando nei secoli passati, sono più che d’accordo; il primo esempio che mi viene in mente e’ il Museo di Storia Naturale di Londra.

        • bizzarrobazar says:

          quando si tratta di prestidigitazione non ci si limita al solo accesso alla bibliografia dedicata (apprezzo moltissimo il progetto di biblioteca digitale di Tomatis), ma e’ imprescindibile una grande preparazione e dedizione dell’interessato; la “paura” per quanto riguarda collezioni di oggetti, soprattutto se di provenienza “naturale”, e’ che sia poi la legge del consumo e del portafoglio a portare, con un fattorino di Amazon, a casa nostra un pezzo di “meraviglia”.

          Per quanto riguarda l’illusionismo, non mi riferivo alla semplice formazione del prestigiatore ma a una discussione più ampia (vedi ad es. questo articolo sempre di Mariano) sull’opportunità o meno di “aprire le porte” ai curiosi.
          Quanto alla legge del portafoglio, quella c’è sempre stata e sempre ci sarà. Così come la mancanza di conoscenza e la superficialità: non a caso qui inizio la ricognizione proprio dal concetto di camera delle meraviglie come miope sfoggio di opulenza. Se il fattorino di Amazon è un futuro pressoché inevitabile, ciò che si può fare in contemporanea è provare a diffondere cultura e consapevolezza.

          E la democratizzazione di cui parlo sta anche, a un ulteriore livello, nel “riprendersi” la meraviglia, togliendone l’esclusivo appannaggio ai grandi collezionisti e reinventandola al di fuori delle logiche di mercato. Ad alcuni non va giù che si parli di wunderkammer riguardo al ragazzo che, ossessionato dalla morte, raccoglie lo scheletro dell’uccellino caduto dal nido, o all’artista che colleziona conchiglie dalla forma bizzarra per includerle nei suoi progetti – vorrebbero rimanesse un concetto nobiliare, legato solo allo sfarzo. Eppure forse i veri cultori della meraviglia sono proprio il ragazzo e l’artista, più che il milionario che tiene il tirannosauro in salotto.
          La forma-wunderkammer può fornire un quadro teorico alla loro ricerca, equipaggiarli di un complesso e solido arsenale concettuale; così come diffondere la cultura dei cabinet de curosité può spingere altri a inventare nuove forme di stupore, che vadano magari al di là del negozio online o del conto in banca.
          In fondo, è meraviglia ciò che ci serve per riaprire gli occhi all’incanto. In questo senso le wunderkammer possono essere ancora strumenti d’esplorazione, sia individuale/introspettiva (il ragazzo) che collettiva (l’artista).

          Come giustamente sottolinei, le grandi “avventure” dei collezionisti del Settecento e dell’Ottocento non torneranno più (e grazie a Dio, verrebbe da dire, pensando ai tanti aspetti sinistri della loro storia). Che i puristi rimangano a contemplare il loro bel passato, fossile e idealizzato; io preferisco un’idea di wunderkammer viva e utile – anche a costo di piegarne un po’ il significato originale -, una meraviglia che parli alle orecchie e agli occhi di oggi.

          • Giacomo Miglio says:

            “In fondo, è meraviglia ciò che ci serve per riaprire gli occhi all’incanto.”
            Assolutamente d’accordo.
            Grazie anche per il link all’articolo di Mariano.

            Mi viene spontaneo concludere che in fondo BizzarroBazar e’ proprio questo, una wunderkammer virtuale aperta a chiunque. E per questo, come sempre, ti ringrazio.

            Buona continuazione e buon lavoro, Ivan.

          • bizzarrobazar says:

            Grazie a te per la bellissima conversazione!

  3. Caterina Landi says:

    Complimenti! Questo articolo è davvero ben scritto, approfondito e molto interessante. Come tutto il blog, d’altra parte ? Grazie del suo lavoro

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