Curiosity. (Art and the pleasures of knowing). Turner Contemporary Margate. 2013
When approached for an idea for an exhibition at Turner Contemporary, guest curator, Brian Dillon, editor of the arts magazine Cabinet, hit upon the concept of ‘curiosity’.
The idea is to create an exhibition that reflects the 17th century ‘cabinets of curiosities’, collections of uncanny objects collated by wealthy gentlemen from their travels in an era when there was no divorce between science and art.
The exhibition becomes, in effect, a walk through cabinet. As such, the original Architect, David Chipperfield, was called upon to create smaller and more intricate spaces for the exhibits, thereby reflecting the nature of a true cabinet.
The artefacts found within are, as befits such an item, a mixture of medias and, indeed, time frames, including both modern and antiquated pieces.
The initial room, or ante chamber, effectively sets the tone by showing an original cabinet of curiosity that is both aesthetically pleasing, with its marquetry, but also intrigues with its hidden panels and intricate system of drawers.
This room consciously focuses on the idea of curiosity itself. At the centre are a number of illustrations by Leonardo da Vinci. These reveal a curious brain in operation with their strange doodles and annotations.
The exhibition then becomes a journey of discovery. Many of the displays deal with the natural world, more specifically sea life. This chimes with the 17th century original collections, but also is designed to acknowledge the seaside location of Turner Contemporary. It is a self conscious effort to attract the approval of local residents.
As the visitor wanders through the rooms, science and art are co-joined, especially in the case of the vivid under sea worlds painted by Phillip Henry Gosse. These are complimented by the exquisite glass sculptures of sea creatures made by the Blaschkas, a father and son team, over a hundred years ago.
The natural world is further represented by the misfits, Thomas Grunfeld‘s stuffed hybrid animals such as a penguin mixed with a peacock, that are uncanny and yet create a strangely satisfying new animal. These reflect the original cabinet owners’ predilection for bringing back stuffed marvels of the animal kingdom, represented again in the giant walrus that dominates the final room.
Inevitably every cabinet of curiosity must contain items than inspire not wonder but queasiness in the viewer. This exhibition does well to emulate such content. The central room introduces the negative connotations of curiosity, that of voyeurism. Thus we have a splendid Dutch painting of a servant eavesdropping on her employers, her wicked gesture of silence making the viewer complicit in the act. Similarly the row of photos taken of women without their knowledge, or permission, adds to this baser aspect of curiosity. It is further developed by a presentation case containing tiny ivory figures of females used to delineate our reproductive and internal organs. The discomfort here is two fold, the casual use of ivory and the objectivity of the female body.
This sense of unease peaks in the extraordinary photos taken of model crime scenes, created by Francis Glessner Lee, the first woman to enter the American Academy of Forensic Sciences. The originals, still used in Baltimore for forensic purposes, depict crime scenes in miniature that have been transformed into art by virtue of this series of large photos. Indeed, photography amplifies their impact, particularly in the case of the image showing a cot splattered with blood.
Much of the more contemporary work deals with this, looking anew at familiar objects. This is particularly effective in Richard Wentworth’s photos of overlooked, found items that are offered to us for re-evaluation. Amongst the more modern take on curiosity was my favourite exhibit, that of a white door with a bright light issuing from underneath by Gunda Forster. Whilst for many, the other side of the door may seem sinister, suggestions at the very least including a dentist. I on the other hand found my curiosity stimulated sufficiently to want to open the door and enter the room.
The idea of looking anew is again seen in Salvatore Arancio’s modern re-workings of Victorian plates of Mount Etna. Similarly, there are art works that look antiquated but are, in fact, modern. The paintings of Pablo Bronstein have the feel of architectural plans by John Soans. Neo- classical in design, they recall the new homes that might have housed the original cabinets. One particular design, with its detailed rooms and artefacts, becomes an imagined representation of some fictitious new museum.
This is but the tip of this rich exhibition. There are letters by Shackleton; a gallery devoted to photographs of Catholic Church officials examining a giant telescope, seemingly reconciled 400 years after his death to the findings of Galileo, and at the same time in keeping with the original cabinets, a nod to the supernatural with the scrying mirror of John Dee.
In an era where the concept of curiosity seems old fashioned and is damped by a culture of mass media, this exhibition, then, is constructed to stimulate the curiosity of its visitors. The physical act of passing through ante chambers and down corridors is a pleasure in itself, and is designed to build up a feeling of anticipation. The curiosities found within will satisfy every one from art lover, historian and scientist. Children, who will clearly derive pleasure from the weird and the wonderful, not least the misfit hybrid animals and the glorious walrus.
Fiona Sinclair © 2013.