Otherworldly & Untimely

Amy Bennett

I’m belatedly posting photos from “Otherworldly: Optical Delusions and Small Realities,” which Jess Blaustein and I saw (and loved!) together at the Museum of Art and Design last month. The show was right up both of our (unheimlich) alleys. Jess did some amazing work on dollhouses in her dissertation (which I actually read), and she and I bonded ten years ago at Penn over our shared interest in heterotopias.

Lori Nix, Violin Repair Shop
Charles Matton, Rhinoceros: Homage to Eugene Ionesco

I’m posting here primarily so I can remember the show. My crappy iphone photos certainly don’t do justice to the work; there are much better photos on MAD’s website.

Adolf Konrad, packing list, December 16, 1963Earlier that afternoon we saw the “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art” show at the Morgan Library. I had worked with the curator, Liza Kirwin, last summer on my “Notes, Lists, and Everyday Inscriptions” special issue of The New Everyday. It was great, finally, to see in-person all the artefacts reproduced in the exhibition’s lovely Princeton Architectural Press catalog — but we got the sense that the didactic material in the gallery was a little screwy. Some of the wall texts seems misplaced or redundant.

Charles McGrath wrote in his Times review of the show: “The more you study the Morgan exhibition, the more you realize that lists are everywhere, and that list making is an essential human activity — a way not just of keeping track but also of imposing order on what would otherwise be chaos.” That seems pretty obvious to me. What’s not obvious about the lists on display here — what distinguishes them from the to-do’s I sketch out on napkins and scrap paper — is the fact that these are the enumerations of creative, designerly minds. These are lists of things that typically defy itemization, of concepts spanning a jarring array of rhetorical registers and ontological categories. These are enumerations of a different form and function. Here, aesthetics — what one might regard as “excess” in a form as utilitarian as the list — serves a communicative, a rhetorical, purpose.

In “The Memo and Modernity” John Guillory suggests that, “[i]n our epoch, large numbers of people write, are even compelled to write, but they do not for the most part write poems or scientific papers; they fill out forms, compose memos or reports, send interoffice emails” or make lists. “This writing is informational, and it has the same generic specificity as any other kind of writing.” Kirwin is exploring this generic specificity of the list — and in so doing, she helps to address Guillory’s final question: “why writing has remained the indispensable ‘art of transmission’ in the era of technologically mediated information.”