An eye-popping spectacle of half-breeds and star-gazing popes, the Turner Contemporary’s latest exhibition builds bridges through time and space. It is one of this year’s best shows, writes Rory Olcayto
It’s like a freak show. Or a mystery tour. Or even a mystery freak show tour. There’s a narwhal’s tusk (scavenged by a reverend in the Northwest Passage). Photographs of Loch Ness, but none of the monster. Exquisite models of dazzling, colourful, sea creatures made of glass. A hybrid monster, half-dog, half-sheep (stuffed) resting in a glass cabinet. John Dee’s ‘scrying’ mirror, which he used to ‘predict’ the future. There’s even a drawing by Pablo Bronstein of a Palladian-style museum, in which all of these things – and many more – are clearly displayed. This strange exhibit of exhibits is a neat trick, and just one of the many charms in Margate’s Turner Contemporary and its latest show Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing – one of the best exhibitions in the country this year.
Curated by writer Brian Dillon for the Hayward’s touring programme, it transforms the upper floor of the Chipperfield-designed gallery into a walk-through ‘cabinet of curiosities’. (In another neat twist, David Chipperfield Architects’ Matt Ball designed the exhibition.) The popular term, writes Hayward curator Roger Malbert in the sumptuously produced catalogue, is used by museums to ‘celebrate the heterogeneity of their collections’ and recalls an ‘age of amateur enthusiasm and unregulated knowledge’, and the Wunderkammers which inspired today’s specialised institutions. It could also refer to the personal image collections we ‘curate’ on social media sites like Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram – the digital cabinets we access through our phones. (It also signposts the Turner’s lack of a permanent collection, and quietly poses the question of what a museum might actually be.)
Dillon’s collection may seem pretty random, but patterns do emerge: John Dee’s artefacts can be seen alongside Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings, two seemingly different men united by a lifelong curiosity. (While a photo series of popes looking through telescopes – yes, really – neatly bridges the occult and scientific worlds Dee and Da Vinci explored so thoroughly.) Strange creatures are trumped by even stranger ones – the overstuffed walrus on loan from the Horniman Museum is odder than any Loch Ness monster that goes unseen in Gerard Byrne’s photos. And there is an unabashed celebration of sea life, whether as glass replicas, watercolour details, or in the cyanotype impressions of algae. Should you visit – and you should – you’ll find your own patterns. Don’t rely too heavily on Bronstein’s drawing though: while accurate, as an index of all the things you can see, it depicts them out-of-scale, suggesting the building they sit within is a doll’s house, or Brobdingnagian, depending on your reference point. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice herself would say.
Thomas Grünfeld’s Misfits series of hybrid animals is an extended joke: they’re funny because they’re almost familiar, yet not quite right. But the particular combinations he creates divulge their serious intent. Grünfeld sees the Victorian fashion for displaying taxidermy as an important part of a longer history of the humans objectification of animals. We mould them, he suggests, through breeding, training, containment and, ultimately, elimination, to suit our purposes. Misfit (St Bernard/sheep) (1994) is a sheep/dog, a hybrid of one animal bred to control the other, while Misfit (pit bull/fawn) (2005) combines species regarded in the popular imagination as villain and victim. Grünfeld’s composite creatures are modern-day Wolpertingers – incongruous beasts with wings, antlers, tails and, of course, fangs, said to wander the forests of Bavaria. Lauren Wright
The 17th-century diarist John Evelyn’s consuming project was Elysium Britannicum, an encyclopedic history of gardens and gardening. He never published it, but the book seeded some of his greatest writings; including a treatise on tree cultivation titled Sylva (1644), A Philosophical Discourse of Earth (1676) and Fumifugium (1661), the first English book on pollution. Evelyn possessed not only a compendious Wunderkammer of a mind, but also a number of actual cabinets in which to store and order the rarities that he acquired. In 1652, Evelyn’s wife Mary bought him a cabinet from Paris. It has veneered ebony doors with fruitwood and ivory marquetry inside, and the whole unfolds elaborately to reveal drawers and compartments. It may have been made by the famous Dutch cabinet-maker Pierre Golle. Evelyn used it to house prints and other objects. As he had already filled another cabinet, this austere but complex object is evidence of Evelyn’s growing collection and expanding curiosity. Brian Dillion
The Dutch genre painter and portraitist Nicolaes Maes painted several domestic interiors in the mid-1650s featuring a servant woman eavesdropping at an open doorway or the foot of a staircase, and turned amusingly to the viewer with a fi nger raised to her lips. In most of these paintings she is witnessing a scene of seduction, but in An Eavesdropper with a Woman Scolding (1655) it is evidently an argument: the mistress of the house is admonishing someone, presumably her husband. A silk curtain occupies a third of the picture. Maes often used these domestic scenes to play with pictorial space - doorways framing pictures-within-pictures - but this is the only painting with such a striking trompe l’oeil effect. The eccentric composition invites the viewer to complete the scene by spying further, inducing us to imagine what lies behind the curtain. Roger Malbert
In 1843, Anna Atkins published Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, the first book illustrated with photographic images. Atkins became interested in photography as soon as it was invented. Her father, John George Children, was a prominent scientist who in 1839 chaired the meeting of the Royal Society where William Henry Fox Talbot described his process for making photogenic drawings. The cyanotype is a camera-less photogram process whereby items are placed directly onto paper treated with chemicals and exposed to light. It takes its name from the cyan blue colour it creates. The cyanotype method was simpler and more reliable than Talbot’s approach, allowing Atkins to create the first part of her book in October 1843, before Talbot was able apply his own invention to book form. She eventually created three volumes with more than 400 plates. LW
For his book Wonders of the Volcano (2012), Salvatore Arancio, who grew up in the shadow of Mount Etna, took an obscure 19th-century geology book and reprinted it. The text, imbued with a Victorian spirit of adventure and discovery, remained unaltered, but Arancio used a process of photo etching to rework the original etchings, incorporating unlikely motifs and forms. The technique involves scanning the original picture, which is then digitally manipulated by the artist. In Arancio’s reworked images, volcanoes billow smoke like chimneys, or create abstract cloud shapes. Modernist structures are inserted into dystopian landscapes that are devoid of human life, and yet bear its trace, creating post-apocalyptic scenes that recall those of HG Wells or the monolithic forms in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Roger Parry
Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka
A father and son partnership, the Blaschkas called themselves ‘natural history artisans’. In the 1850s, Leopold, then specialising in glass ornaments and glass eyes, came to the attention of the Staatliches Museum für Tierkunde, Dresden, which commissioned him to make a dozen models of sea anemones. His reputation spread and he added snails and jellyfish to his vitreous repertoire. By the 1870s, Leopold’s clientele included museums throughout Europe. In time, Leopold was joined by Rudolph; they worked alone at their Dresden home, employing no assistants. The range of creatures they could reproduce expanded: octopi, sea slugs, cuttlefish, squid, sea cucumbers. In 1890, they stopped making sea creatures, having been commissioned by Harvard Botanical Museum to supply glass flowers. BD
Tacita Dean’s work uses the vanishing technology of 16mm film. She has made several film portraits of older men – the painter Cy Twombly, poet Michael Hamburger, choreographer Merce Cunningham – engaged in acts of artistic concentration. Manhattan Mouse Museum (2011) is a study of the artist Claes Oldenburg in his studio, handling and dusting with a paintbrush the small objects that line his bookshelves. The film hints that paying close attention to his collection of curios is not an exercise in memory or nostalgia, but part of the artist’s preparation for making new work. BD
Toril Johannessen’s work operates in a terrain between (social) science and art, adopting empirical strategies to visualise natural and manmade phenomena. In the series Words and Years (2011), Johannessen charts the frequency with which certain highly charged and contentious words, such as ‘love’, ‘crisis’, ‘hope’ and ‘reality’, are used in publications including Time magazine and National Geographic, raising intriguing and often humorous links between the titles of these publications and the words they contain. Systems of belief are plotted against systems of economics, with language acting as the binding agent. Hinting at secret cycles and trends at work within society, the artist draws out poetic relationships between the natural and economic through the editorial tendencies of the journals in question.
The Center for Land Use Interpretation
Since its founding in 1994 in Los Angeles, the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) has amassed a vast archive of images, data and source materials that are used to interpret humanity’s imprint on the landscape as a ‘cultural inscription’, evidence to be read, decoded and understood. Here, CLUI presents a series of Rolodexes, recently acquired from the collection of Ed Grothus, containing business cards of suppliers and company representatives of the sort that a national nuclear weapons laboratory might need to call upon. Grothus was a lab technician at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, contributing for almost 20 years to the development of nuclear bombs. Disillusioned by the war in Vietnam, he resigned in 1969 to operate a salvage company and thrift store called the Los Alamos Sales Company, better known as ‘The Black Hole’. The business cards are mostly from the 1970s and ’80s – the height of the Cold War arms race and its technological development. They are a record of everything from major military contractors to obscure, hi-tech software widget suppliers. RP
Exhibition Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, Turner Contemporary, Margate, Kent, free, until 15 September