500 Years of Wunderkammern, from Cabinets to the Cloud


Last weekend I saw a few vastly different exhibitions that ended up resonating in really striking and unexpected ways. I started off at the Grolier Club, a private club for bibliophiles, to see “Rooms of Wonder: From Wunderkammer to Museum, 1599 – 1899,” which uses a selection of beautifully illustrated rare books and ephemera to tell the history of the modern museum.

Check out the crying skeleton on the right!
Check out the crying skeleton on the right!

Like the wunderkammern themselves, with their odd juxtapositions of objects — shells and skeletons, tools and botanicals, and the occasional stuffed crocodile — the exhibition packages together myriad themes — conspicuous consumption and the ideologies of collection, philosophies of classification and epistemology, the nature of objects, Foucault’s tabula and the “orders of things,” etc. — that merit close examination. Roberta Smith’s review in the Times takes up several of those themes. (Interestingly, Rosemarie Trockel, whose exhibition I caught at the New Museum two weeks ago, just before it closed, played with similar ideas of museological convention and display.)

My stealth photo of Rosemarie Trockel
My stealth photo of Rosemarie Trockel’s “Cosmos”

I wandered upstairs at “the Club” and happened upon another small exhibition, “Through a Glass Clearly: The History & Science of the Microscope.” Already I felt an intellectual thread tying me to the show downstairs: the microscope and the wunderkammer both represent ways of observing, analyzing, and classifying the natural world. Both are what we might call “epistemic frames.”



What a coincidence, then, that the first gallery I entered an hour later, at PS1, presented me with the following vision. No, I’m not the greatest photographer — but this isn’t simply an out-of-focus photo: it’s one of Jeff Elrod’s hallucinatory paintings, based on drawings “processed” into an incoherent blur. It feels like we’re looking through an unfocused microscope.

Jeff Elrod
Jeff Elrod

Speaking of blur and incoherence: Metahaven — who drew me to PS1 in the first place — aim to brand (and, in the process, critique the entire conceit of branding) often incoherent entities and concepts, like statehood and information networks. They’ve done some fantastic work onthe cloud,” which they render as something quite other than the puffy cumulus that typically serves as web-based services’ kid-friendly mascot.

We had some hyper-vigilant guards in the room, so I was able to sneak only one photo.
Metahaven. We had some hyper-vigilant guards in the room, so I was able to sneak only one photo.

via lessthannil: "metahaven destroying the hegemony of the cumulus-icon of cloud storage w/ their elusive cirrostratus models 4 the icelandic cloud."

“Islands in the Cloud” is, in a sense, a wunderkammer of the immaterial and inconceivable; it’s a room full of attempts to represent where today‘s collections live — not in cabinets, but in the cirrostratus.

From Artefacts, video to 35mm, via MoMAPS1
From Artefacts, video to 35mm, via MoMAPS1

Cyprien Gaillard’s “The Crystal World” offers yet another set of tools or techniques for observing and classifying the world. He employs a wide variety of imaging technologies — iPhone videos transferred to 35mm film, painting, sculpture, photography, and, once again, cabinets. My favorite of his projects is apparently not new; he’s been working on the Geographical Analogies series for six years now — but this work was new to me, and I found it captivating. As the artspeak folks explain it, these works are…

composed grids of Polaroids that are placed in visual correspondence with one another, presenting impressionistic inventories of landscapes and entropic architectural structures…. The photographs, like much of the artist’s work, capture images of ancient ruins, abandoned bunkers, and graffiti-covered urban structures- in short, disparate sites that are unified by their shared states of physical change, erosion, or decay over time.

Photographic archaeological wunderkammern. Sensing that I’d come full circle, back to the rare-books-behind-glass at the Grolier Club, I thought this the perfect place to stop.

Geographical Analogies. The only photo I managed to take, thanks, again, to the ubiquity of highly conscientious guards.
Geographical Analogies. The only photo I managed to take, thanks, again, to the ubiquity of highly conscientious guards.

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