James Ensor, whose work appears in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition Wunderkammer: A Century of Curiosities, described the attic over his parent’s souvenir shop in Belgium as “dark and frightening … full of horrible spiders, curios, seashells, plants and animals from distant seas, beautiful chinaware, rust and blood-colored effects, red and white coral, monkeys, turtles, and dried mermaids”. Ensor drew a lasting inspiration from these stashed-away objects, and eventually moved his whole studio into the attic. Wunderkammer, organized by MoMA’s Sarah Suzuki, explores the pull that such perverse bric-a-brac has had over artists during the last century, in a display that recalls the curatorial and scientific inclinations of chambres des marveilles, a mid-sixteenth century phenomenon which MoMA calls “[an] ancestor of the museums of today”.
Works are hung salon-style in three rooms, grouped into loose categories that form some very interesting alliances (one wall is shared by Paul Klee, Louise Bourgeois, Peter Blake, and Rene Magritte). The categories are subjective; I counted creatures (plants, insects, and beasts of all stripes); freaks (bearded ladies and tattooed men); and medical phenomena (eyes, brains, and one singular vest made out of nipples) among them. Two actual “cabinets of curiosities” are on view—one that gathers tiny, impish objects from a diverse array of artists: a wax shoe sprouting human hair by Robert Gober; a Mind Expander/Fly Head Helmet (1968) by Haus-Rucker-Co; an Unhappy Meal (III, 2002) by Jake and Dinos Chapman; and two laundress aprons revealing male and female genitalia by Marcel Duchamp. The other, Mark Dion’s Cabinet (2004), is the result of an archeological dig Dion undertook in MoMA’s backyard which yielded modern urban ruins—radiator knobs, the soap dishes and checkered bathroom tile indigenous to Manhattan apartments, dented mailbox doors, stamped bricks, and rusty razor blades are all carefully arranged in stainless steel drawers. It’s a reminder that one day these items will be proper ruins, artifacts of an extinct metropolis.
With Wunderkammer, it feels as though Suzuki embarked on her own archeological dig, plucking talismans, objects d'art, and sketches from artists’ studios, or in a broader sense, their creative processes. By artfully re-contextualizing these artifacts, she has presented MoMA viewers with whole new avenues for wonder.
Images: Gerhard Marcks, Vampire (1948); Marcel Duchamp, Couple of Laundress' Aprons (1959). Courtesy Museum of Modern Art, New York.