A Collection of Curiosities

Antoine de Galbert room, (photo by N. Savale © FHEL, 2019)

LANDERNEAU, France — At once pleasurable due to their spectacularly over-determined visual formation, and being pedagogical in presumption and highly malleable in syncretistic fusion, outlandish cabinets of curiosities attest to our desire to dive into the unknown. I did just that at the Hélène & Édouard Leclerc Fund for Culture’s art space when visiting Cabinets of Curiosities; Laurent Le Bon’s panoramic curatorial meta-statement that raises from the darkness and makes interesting conjunctions among many disparate things of heterogeneous categories. Indeed, flaunting a taste for astonishment, his collection of collections has EVERYTHING for the postmodern globalist in the age of data retrieval! (I know I sound like Bill Hader’s character Stefon here.)

Cowbell collection, (photo by N. Savale © FHEL, 2019)

A form the Surrealists appreciated for its incongruity and poetry, a typical cabinet of curiosities contains an excess of various ethnographic objects and exotic souvenirs. Formally, it sets out to overwhelm by virtue of abundance, rarity, opulence, and strangeness; it floods the eye with sensory impressions and hints at an inter-relational realm of unknowing.  Yet in general, this glossolalia-like eloquent show sided with elegance. It is a well-organized, elaborate avalanche of cultural things (and some art) that stimulates desires to identify. Yet its promising profusion seems not really meant as information transfer but as a sublime experience. (Immanuel Kant and Edmund Burke conceptualized the sublime as a visceral encounter with divinity or immeasurable nature.)

Collection of Entomology from Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, (photo N. Savale © FHEL, 2019)

Even though there has been growing skepticism that “pure” postmodernism has damaged the necessary capacities to draw distinctions, the plethora of Le Bon’s curatorial choices bend that way, going for a mock magnificent, chock-a-block blockbuster installation by collecting other people’s collections and assembling them into a massive mega-cabinet. Opening impressions are established with an enormous blown-up mural of the frontispiece engraving from the 1599 Ferrante Imperato Dell’Historia Naturale book and Domenico Remps trompe-l’oeil painting — faux cracked glass and all — of a gluttonous cabinet of curiosities “Scarabattolo” (1690), seemingly bursting its seams. With this, Le Bon takes up the gauntlet of excess, drawing together a vast heterogeneous display, both playful and melancholy, from the Parisian National Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Hunting and Nature in Paris, the Montpellier Conservatory of Anatomy, and the Secq Tournelles Museum, devoted to the art of wrought ironwork. He then turned to individual collectors Théo Mercier, Patrick Mauriès, Antoine de Galbert, Émile Hermès, François Curiel (of Christie’s – his is a collection of art auction hammers), Miquel Barceló, and politically pertinent pieces judiciously culled by Jean-Jacques Lebel from his art collection. Thus, there is little threat of bored satiety here. In fact, the intellectual mood harkens back to times when people aspired to know more and more about the wide world (theoretically everything), in contrast to today when much current anxiety is typically fueled by too much information.

Frontispiece from the 1599 Ferrante Imperato’s Dell Historia Naturale book (© National Museum of Natural History)
Domenico Remps “Scarabattolo” (1690) oil on canvas 99.5 x 137 cm, with the authorization from the Italian Ministry Property and Activities Cultural – Museum dell’Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence

Playing with these general/abstract, specific/detailed productive tensions, Le Bon’s sleekly presented, well labeled, magpie mix-up is not only sizable, but also diverse, bringing together magnificent troves of bric-à-brac: a bevy of old cowbells, oodles of hourglasses from Jacques Attali’s collection, gory anatomical models like the “Anatomical Venus” (ca. 19th century) which is suitably hoary in derivation, cantankerous stuffed animals, gorgeous collections of entomological specimens, jewel-like gemstones, many golden (but disappointingly static) automata, a wide selection of lovable sardine boxes, Andreas Gursky’s amazing “Amazon” (2016) digital photograph, rooms of marginalia knick-knacks, seashells (beloved by Renaissance collectors for their intricate designs that seem to be the work of an ingenious, infinitely playful, craftsman), functionally inexplicable rhizomes of pink coral, and a bogus unicorn horn. That’s just a small part of the entire exhibition. So, my leisurely meandering through the promiscuous paths of Cabinets of Curiosities promoted a feeling of the world’s infinity of things running into my more parsimonious sense of aesthetic pleasure.

Kugel collection of golden automates, (photo by N. Savale © FHEL, 2019)
Andreas Gursky, “Amazon” (2016) Inkjet printing 207 x 407 x 6.2 cm (© Andreas Gursky, courtesy Gagosian Gallery / ADAGP, Paris, 2019)

Art collector de Galbert helped melt my overly skeptical sangfroid by installing a sly selection of artworks dealing with the animal condition, including: rabbit slippers by Wim Delvoye, a drippy-gooey octopus by Thomas Feuerstein, a snake with legs by Joan Fontcuberta, and Meret Oppenheim’s splendid “L’écureuil” (The Squirrel, 1969) that represented for me the reverse side of European Renaissance rationality. Oppenheim bore into my head a squirrelly vibe of feral fairy-tales in which rationalist rules need not apply.

Meret Oppenheim, “L’écureuil” (The Squirrel, 1969) (collection Antoine de Galbert © Adagp, Paris, 2019, photo by Célia Pernot)

Radically richer was Jean-Jacques Lebel’s examples of human heterogeneity by emphasizing facial feature fractures he deems necessary within our selfie and over-surveyed facial recognition culture. This was well exemplified by a wide offering including his own collage work “Portrait of Man Ray” (1962), Francis Picabia’s painting “Transparent Head” (1935), and a wonderful wall installation based on Erró’s Grimace film (1962–1967). The radical contingency of “Transparent Head” particularly touched on the marvelous for its painted faces were conflictual and shimmered like mirages. Lebel’s goal for his installation is to inspire the practice of principles of defensive masking and metamorphosis that might protect us against the dizzying collapse of our freedoms into the panopticon of artificial intelligence tracking algorithms. Somehow he managed a magical balancing act here where such weighty political aesthetics concerns somehow resist crumbling in the general gesamtkunstwerk crush of the exhibition.

Jean-Jacques Lebel, “Portrait of Man Ray” (1962) (© Adagp, Paris, 2019)

I had popped into Cabinets of Curiosities prepared to consider what the lives of the objects here could tell me about the destruction of cultural values under the French postmodern model that I didn’t already know. I was hoping for something besides the often unaddressed, highly problematic, colonialist, racist underpinnings that pieces brought into Europe from around the world invoke in terms of the repatriation-versus-preservation debate. But almost everything here comes from Europe’s own current, modern, classical, and prehistoric past, including the plastic rhinoceros horn in Jean-Michel Othoniel’s cheeky “Rhinoceros Trophy Horn” (2006), which makes Cabinets of Curiosities a gripping chronicle of self-accumulation and a cultural step towards acknowledging that everything relates necessarily to both global and local physical space. In that sense, the exhibition may represent a turning point in the history of global spectacle. It speaks of collecting fragmentation against scattering and loss, but also of futility, eccentricity, astonishment, admiration, awe, and a kind of dazed submission to the abundance of the world.

Medical Heads from the Conservatoire d’anatomie room, (photo by N. Savale © FHEL, 2019)
“Anatomical Venus” (19th century) Collection of Pierre Spitzner, Faculty of Medicine at the University of Montpellier (photo @ University of Montpellier)

The mode of curatorial taste inspiring this super assemblage, however tenaciously wide-ranging it is, is tempered by invisible, taciturn intellectual restraints that focus the eye on specific details and factual content — judicious restraints of identity and lucidity that approximate the very love of things that inspired these acts of collecting. As such, the show is not only astounding, not only informative, not only amusing; but it also returns art aesthetics to an intellectual intermediate zone of the anomalous and occult. And for that we can be very appreciative.

Cabinets of Curiosities, curated by Laurent Le Bon assisted by Patrick Mauriès, at the Hélène & Édouard Leclerc Fund for Culture (Aux Capucins, 29800, Landerneau, Brittany, France) remains open until November 3, 2019.

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