Monday, November 19, 2012

‘The Museum of Curiosity’ by Black Rat Projects, 17th November 2012

When it comes to museums I’m a bit of a luddite.  I’d rather wander through a room full of dusty Victorian display cases rather than a multimedia, touch-screen, swipe card extravaganza.  A lot of my favourite museums showcase private collections put together a long time ago, the result of someone's life spent collecting whatever interested them.  I repeatedly come back to brilliant places like the Wellcome Collection in Euston, or Sir John Soane’s House in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. I love looking at some strange object and trying to figure out what it’s for, or what was going through the mind of the person that made it.  So when I heard about ‘The Museum of Curiosity’ I was naturally excited.  The description I'd read promised to recreate this experience of wandering through these curiosity cabinets, and to showcase some damn weird things in a nice space.

Eyeball Tray
The first thing you’re confronted with upon entering is a large taxidermied ostrich dating from 1785. It sits in an L-shaped display case, the head poking up into a special compartment as if the case was bodged together when whoever was making it realised it was too small.  Ostriches are inherently ridiculous creatures and here even in death it is a figure of fun.  Sometimes the silliest animals find a measure of regal dignity when stuffed, their stillness and glassy stare a challenge to whoever’s looking at them.  Not here though, the way it’s displayed underlines the grotesque extension of its skinny neck and the relative tininess of its head.

This ostrich is definitely dead.  Dead for nearly a quarter of a millennium in fact.  But it’s at home here because this exhibition is a mausoleum, a lot of the art here is composed of various bits of dead things mashed up into each other. 

"The Hunt" (detail), Tessa Farmer
Perhaps the best examples of this creepily morbid aesthetic are the work of Giles Walker and Tessa Farmer, who each have a number of exhibits on display.  Walker shows off a number of pixie-sized bodies with bird skull heads frozen in emotional, dramatic poses.   It's comic and disturbing all at once. Farmer creates impossibly detailed and fragile pieces composed of fairy like insects delicately and gracefully posed.    I last saw her work at the Bedlam exhibition in the Old Vic Tunnels, and while the scale here is smaller the effect isn't lessened.  The tiny posed insect bodies seem impossibly fragile, the mind boggles as to the care and delicacy taken in putting these dioramas together.  Even gently exhaling causes them to sway and spin on their micro-filament wires.  

"Born to Be Wild", Giles Walker
 The death theme continues with various bits of bric a brac placed around the room.  A hippopotamus skull sits on a shelf, there’s a carved walrus’ penis bone, petrified cobras frozen in a mirrored duel, a desiccated mummified cat and skeletons of all shapes, sizes and species, including a rather pitiful human one, awkwardly stuffed into an ill fitting wooden cabinet.

The name of the game throughout appears to be recontextualisation.   Here creation begins with examining what an existing object or organic remain means, and then figuring out how to distort that meaning for your own ends.  Perhaps the purest example of this are the ‘intertwangleized’ paintings of Butch Anthony.  He takes antique portraits of people lost to the mists of time and paints his own cartoony designs over the top of them.  There’s a part of me that instinctively recoils when I see an historical artefact being irreversibly altered, a revulsion at the bare-faced cheek of an artist who assertively declares that something old is worthless, rudely crosses out the name of the original artist and only has use as a canvas for their own work.  But then this feeling of revulsion gives way to wondering whether something simply being ‘old’ automatically makes it more worthwhile.  And after all, who’d really give a toss about these paintings if Butch Anthony hadn’t drawn on them?

"Intertwangleized Woman", Butch Anthony
There are a number of other pieces here that subvert the meaning of their raw materials, notably two enormous wall sculptures constructed from hundreds (maybe thousands) of crucifixes and other religious paraphernalia.  Taken individually these objects could be small and intensely personal mementoes but en masse they impress upon you how much of this stuff is mass-produced.  You imagine assembly lines pumping out tin messiah after tin messiah in a never ending stream, the process making a mockery of individual faith and a ‘personal’ Jesus.  Here too is the stench of death.  Perhaps it’s the lingering after effects of the lecture on morbid anatomy I went to a fortnight ago, but I see the crucifix as a representation of sadistic torture and death rather than as showing holy and noble suffering.

Even the more original pieces are still constructed out of pre-made furniture, but remain no less impressive.  One of my favourite things here was Swoon's 'Dream Reliquary', a towering mountain of old cabinets, encrusted with what looks like calcified bone growing in and out of them.  On top is a large classical head, staring straight ahead blankly.  You're encouraged to open the drawers, each one is stuffed with dreams submitted to the artist.  Some are banal, some are fantastically weird.  It's a very nice concept executed perfectly, the act of opening the drawers and interacting with the piece made me feel some kind of sense of psychic exploration.

"Madonna and Child (14 yrs), Giles Walker
15 Bateman Street is a lovely space and it's a pleasure to explore.  There’s art stuffed into every nook and cranny and the more you explore, the more you’ll get out of the experience.  The only thing I'm struggling with is what all this transformative art signifies as a whole.  Much of what I've seen here is all about taking junk from the past and forcing a new meaning onto it.  Is this a safe way out for art; a reliance on accreted cultural meaning rather than creating anything new of your own? 

Admittedly, the exhibition functions brilliantly as a cabinet of curiosities, a mountain of what the gallerist Mike Snelle describes as “weird shit”.  If filling a space with weird shit is the target that Black Rat have set for themselves then they've more than achieved it.  Even so, by the time I walked out of the door I began to wonder whether just being creepy, kooky and altogether ooky is a substantial enough message.  

But that aside, I had a great time poking about the place, and nearly everything here is interesting as hell.  It’s beautifully lit, atmospheric and extremely delicately detailed.  If you’re walking down Oxford Street feeling blown out on Marmite sponsored commercial Christmas cheer and need bit of mental retuning you should definitely pop along and take a walk on the weird side.

The Museum of Curiosity is open now until Christmas, with late openings on Thursday nights.

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