thu 01/10/2020

Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing, Turner Contemporary | reviews, news & interviews

Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing, Turner Contemporary

Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing, Turner Contemporary

Curiouser and curiouser: what do Venice and Margate have in common (beside the seaside)?

Walrus, Horniman Museum and Gardens

One of this summer’s seaside attractions in Margate is an overstuffed walrus, but day-trippers won’t find it in the town’s Museum of Monstrosities. The taxidermic freak, on loan from the Horniman Museum, is the star exhibit in the new show at Turner Contemporary. Against the backdrop of a North Sea painted by Turner, the adipose Arctic mammal is out of its element.

One of this summer’s seaside attractions in Margate is an overstuffed walrus, but day-trippers won’t find it in the town’s Museum of Monstrosities. The taxidermic freak, on loan from the Horniman Museum, is the star exhibit in the new show at Turner Contemporary. Against the backdrop of a North Sea painted by Turner, the adipose Arctic mammal is out of its element. The fact that it’s also uncomfortable in its overtight skin (thanks to an overzealous Victorian taxidermist who had never seen a live specimen in the sagging flesh) makes it doubly curious - and doubly qualified for inclusion in the latest Hayward Touring exhibition, Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing.

Curated by Brian Dillon, UK editor of Cabinet magazine, this is certainly a curious exhibition: an informatively captioned anthology of intriguing objects - ancient and modern, natural and man-made, real and fictitious - that refuse to fit neatly into the categories of art or science. It features five sheets of doodles by Leonardo and that famous woodcut of a rhinoceros by Dürer (also zoologically incorrect) alongside works by contemporary artists such as Gerard Byrne, Tacita Dean and Jimmie Durham. It opens with John Evelyn’s empty curiosity cabinet (pictured below) and closes with the Horniman’s Walrus, taking in a diverse range of oddities, animal, vegetable and mineral, in between.   

In recent years we’ve got used to museums’ attempts to make science sexy by allying it with art through residencies and commissions, but Dillon insists that his show is “not about art and science.” Its subject is the psychological driving force behind both: the human quality variously described by Lord Byron as a “low vice”, Samuel Johnson as the “thirst of the soul”, Bernard of Clairvaux as the “beginning of all sin and John Locke as the “great instrument nature has provided to remove that ignorance [children] were born with”.

In the age of the internet search engine, curiosity has gone viral and the art world seems to have caught the bug. Last year the Botanique in Brussels staged a contemporary art exhibition titled Wunderkammer; this year the Venice Biennale’s international art exhibition has taken its name from the Baroque wunderkammer’s Enlightenment successor, the encyclopaedia. 

The Encyclopedic Palace is a homage by young Italian curator Massimiliano Gioni to the self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti, who developed a fantastic plan for a Babel-shaped tower containing all human knowledge and filed his design with the US Patent Office in 1955. Like Thomas Browne’s imaginary Musaeum Clausum, Auriti’s dream palace necessarily remained a dream. But that, for Gioni, was part of the point. He found an analogy between Auriti’s unrealisable ambition and the global model of the modern art biennale, with its “impossible desire to concentrate the infinite worlds of contemporary art in a single place; a task that now seems as dizzyingly absurd as Auriti’s dream”. He also saw “interesting parallels between the ‘wunderkammer’ and today’s culture of hyper-connectivity”.

Although his show takes its name from an encyclopaedia, its structure is closer to the organised chaos of the cabinet of curiosities on which the Enlightenment, with its obsession for classification, imposed encyclopaedic order. Like Dillon’s Margate show, Gioni’s Venice exhibition includes work by non-artists. It opens with Carl Jung’s Red Book and features Aleister Crowley’s Tarot cards and Rudolf Steiner’s blackboard drawings. There is even an overlap between the two shows, whose curators only discovered each other’s plans when competing to borrow stones with surreal patterns from the collection of Roger Caillois (pictured above left, Agate, Petit poisson, Mineralogy, Caillois Collection, © MNHN). (Venice got the lion’ share.)

Something distinctly curious seems to be happening. Is the 17th-century wunderkammer staging a comeback as a 21st-century mode of display for the sampling era? Or is a new generation of contemporary art curators rephrasing the old left-brain, right-brain, science v art debate for the conceptual age? In the days when art was regarded as primarily visual, artists were expected to teach us new ways of seeing; now that art is supposedly conceptual, they’re apparently expected teach us new ways of thinking. The Biennale’s president Paolo Baratta described The Encyclopedic Palace as “an exhibition of research” into what makes an artist, and suggested that – under the current deluge of mass media imagery – the world needs artists to “pass through them unharmed, as Moses did in the Red Sea”.

Artists have always taken inspiration from untidy personal collections of objects and images stored in their studios as creative cabinets of curiosity. Baratta’s Red Sea simile may be a ford too far, but is there any sense in his suggestion that artistic thinking can help us cope with information overload? The right-brain approach to the British Museum collections adopted by Grayson Perry in his 2011 exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman was undeniably popular with the public. But that was letting an artist loose in a museum; Curiosity is letting museum objects loose in an art gallery, where left-brainers would argue they don’t belong. Is the experience of viewing a stuffed walrus at Turner Contemporary qualitatively different from viewing a stuffed Guy the Gorilla in the new Cadogan Gallery of selected treasures from the Natural History Museum? Both displays also happen to feature models of marine invertebrates by the German glassmakers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka (pictured above right, Rudolph and Leopold Blaschka, Argonauta argo, c.1860-90, © Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Cymru, National Museum of Wales).

These exquisite creations could help settle the question. Despite their intricate beauty, they were made as teaching aids by artisans who refused to call themselves artists – and yet, argues Dillon, their “sense of strangeness is as much part of science as art”. It may be time to relax the Enlightenment definitions and go with the dilettanteish flow of the Baroque collector. Our obsession with classifying what is and what is not art has helped to create a situation in which expert classification of an object as art is considered necessary to engage an audience’s interest. But an audience’s interest is freely given when its curiosity is pricked, as the Wellcome Collection has repeatedly proved with its category-defying exhibitions such as Death: A Self-Portrait, which juxtaposed human remains with Renaissance vanitas paintings. 

“I don’t think the question of whether they are art or not is very interesting,” Dillon says of the objects in his exhibition. The pleasures of knowing and seeing are too often separated in contemporary exhibitions. Any show that reunites them must be worth a visit, whether in an art gallery or a museum.

Now that art is supposedly conceptual, artists are apparently expected teach us new ways of thinking

Share this article

Add comment

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters