Wunderkammern: Actual and Virtual

The notion of the Wunderkammern is discussed in the work of Shiralee Saul (an on-line hypertextual essay for the World Wide Web WWW) and Luke Roberts ( a series of exhibitions from 1990 onwards).

The 'Art World' and its economy relies foundationally on a separation between the artist and the Collection (with its concomitant entourage of professionals - curators, conservators, registrars, administrators, managers, and directors). To question this separation is to destabilise this economy. The role of the artist is defined by its position within a larger 'art world' machine - the artist is not-curator, not-administrator, not-director, not-dealer, and so on. In the performance which is the contemporary art world, the artist assumes centre stage and title billing while the other professionals recede to the background as invisible stage hands - with the exception of the curator who claims a type of meta-authorship which I will discuss later. These 'invisible' professions of curatorship, directorship, dealership, etc are strongly networked together as 'infrastructure' and underwritten by rationalist, pseudo-scientific, and economic paradigms. On the other hand, the artist is separated or seen to be held at arms length from this infrastructure, and governed by a different paradigm - an aesthetic paradigm. In this way artists occupy the space of the 'other' within the very industry which supports them. The aesthetic paradigm, rather than being the primary language of the artist, is equally the language of the art world, and thus it functions as a kind of interpretative/controlling bridge between the known rational world of museology and the unknown intuitive, irrational, wild world of the artist (as 'other').

In this article I discuss the notion of the Wunderkammer in the work of artists Luke Roberts and Shiralee Saul, and their disruption/ interruption/corruption of this discursive and monetary economy. Roberts' Wunderkammer is central to his artistic practice and has taken many shapes and forms, best known of which are Wunderkammer, State Library of Queensland 1990, The Voyage Within The Wonderful Continues in Australian Perspecta, Art Gallery of New South Wales 1991 and Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera Queensland Art Gallery 1994-95. In each of these installations Roberts presented cabinets and dioramas of curiosities, some real, others fraudulent, comprising items on temporary loan from public and private collections, together with those from Roberts' personal and ongoing collection. In the case of Shiralee Saul, I will refer only to her most recent work, entitled Wunderkammer, an on-line hypertextual essay for the World Wide Web.

In the early 1920s Kurt Schwitters began work on what he at first called a Schwitters-Saule, a column made of an accretion of wood, plaster and all kinds of collaged objects which quickly grew to the ceiling of his apartment in Hanover. It went on to grow down and across the walls; niches were made to contain mementos of friends, and later covered over; the work finally grew up through the ceiling, down through the floor, and even out onto a small projecting roof. The whole thing was finally called a Merzbau, or merz-house. Merz, a word arrived at by chance when Schwitters cut up a newspaper containing the word kommerz for one of his collages, came to stand for anything he did: merz-poem, merz-picture, merz-house. Schwitters made various versions of the Merzbau, all of which were destroyed. His final work of 'total art', begun just before his death, was a Merzbarn, made in the English countryside, one wall of which survives in the Collection of the University of Newcastle, England. Schwitters also conceived of the Merzbuhne, the total merz-theatre, which translated into performance the merz-house concept - an immersive and structured environment, combining chance encounters, everyday living, and abstraction.

Schwitters' Merzbau is, for me, akin to the wunderkammer, and the notion of merz as taken from kommerz, I interpret as an organising principle in the economy or ecology which is Schwitters' praxis. Of course Schwitters is not alone - he is simply a core example, embodying central concerns of many of the movements he was involved in or related to (Dada, Surrealism, Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus, etc), or which evolved after him (such as Fluxus). He is an example of the artist as Collector, Curator, and Artistic Director. Through his appropriation and mimicry of the art world machine, Schwitters claims a corporate ownership of his practice. This complex claim to the intellectual property of his work is a common and central characteristic of the collective spaces of the avant garde. The diminution and disappearance of the avant garde and its various movements since the 1960s can be linked to increasing levels of institutionalisation of contemporary art practice and thus the transference of corporate ownership.

Roberts has established a praxis akin to Kurt Schwitters and even more fully realised and deeply orchestrated in the performative and theatrical, through the persona of Pope Alice. "Her Holiness is Patron to, or owner of this collection. Given that the 16th and 17th century Wunderkammern were seen to 'represent a world view, a cosmological explanation, which included within it the position of the subject for whom the view was constituted', the magical and transgressive powers which form the mythology of Pope Alice are therefore paramount to our understanding of Wunderkammer/Kunstkamera". Pope Alice is the fictional collector/curator who assumes and subsumes the authority of the institution and its interpretative powers, while herself being 'The World's Greatest Living Curiosity'.

What Roberts creates through the Wunderkammer is a desiring machine which anticipates and navigates multiple paths of chance encounters for the viewer. In becoming curator and collector, Roberts disrupts the foundational logic which separates art from object, object from viewer, viewer from meaning. In the Wunderkammer, the viewer becomes another curiosity networked in chains of sensational signifiers. In the museum or gallery proper, found objects and fragments or even works of art, are habitually read metonymically, as parts or fragments which stand for 'the whole'. The museum/gallery always offers the viewer 'the missing link' to complete a picture, to restore lack, to frame, to either solve a mystery or to conjure it as a complete spectacle. In the Wunderkammer, objects remain partial, lost and found, and thrown together chaotically through Pope Alice's eclectic embrace. The viewer is not asked to complete a story, but rather to apprehend the objects playfully in their partiality.

"In the wake of Freud, Kleinian and Lacanian psychoanalysts apprehended, each in their own way, this type of entity in their fields of investigation. They christened it the 'partial object', the 'transitional object', situating it at the junction of a subjectivity and an alterity which are themselves partial and transitional. But they never removed it from a causalist, pulsional infrastructure; they never conferred upon it the multivalent dimensions of an existential Territory or with a machinic creativity of boundless potential."

Lacan, with his theory of the 'object a', released the object of desire from its narrowly limited Freudian field - the maternal breast, faeces, and the penis - in order to relate it to the voice and the gaze. His equations of desire, tracing movements and limits of subjectivity, established the notion of the desiring machine. However, Lacan remained within the humanist paradigm and the corporeal. What Pope Alice invites us to do within the Wunderkammer, is to become machinic in our desire, to acknowledge our subjectivity and identity as both multiple and partial, to be discovered/collected/curated by Her Holiness, and become part of the multiple chains of signifiers in a chaotic, random, and deeply structured space.

To experience the Wunderkammer, is to allow ourselves to be activitated by the incorporeal space of the virtual. The dominant view of the virtual is a space of both simulation and displacement. This is linked to our understanding of machines and the machinic. For on the one hand machines are either seen to be prosthetic devices (enabling a disabled body in the real world) or as a simulator, actually disembodying us so that we 'lose touch' and float freely in uncharted space. However our relationship with the machine is now different to the mechanics and dynamics of modernism. Unlike the locomotive devices such as the aeroplane or car that interested Marinetti and Le Corbusier, it is now information that moves instead of the body. Smart machines create new spaces of body and mind.

In the virtual space of the Internet, I curated an exhibition for the inaugural MAAP Festival (Multimedia Art Asia Pacific), entitled Shoreline: particles and waves. As part of this exhibition Shiralee Saul constructed an on-line essay entitled Wunderkammer The work is an elaborate, multilayered document, linked through hypertext, made up of a multitude of interconnected quotations, images, and Saul's own writings. Like Roberts, Saul confounds the roles of curator, collector, and artist. She assumes the authorial site of power in the work, but rather than perform an interpretative function, she sets the viewer adrift to make their own meanings, for there are 'no signposts in the sea'.

For Saul, the Internet is the Wunderkammer to end all Wunderkammern. Though we may believe that there are professionals out there who 'know' and are in 'control' of this space, for Saul chaos is the only (virtual) reality. Her leading quotation which loads as flashing word signs like concrete poetry begins .. "There is a tsunami of data that is crashing onto the beaches of the civilised world ... ". For her, the personal computer is the cabinet, and we are all urged to go and explore the Internet, to comb the beaches of unknown lands and bring back flotsam and jetsam of the exotic, the strange, and the curious. The Wunderkammer is a model for knowing and being, partially and through fragments.

Saul's Wunderkammer is her personal collection of textual fragments, images, and diagrams. These fragments are drawn from a number of discursive streams - mappings, museology, art history, and cultural theory to name a few. Her hyperlinks thread together Saul's own cosmology, knitting a poetic intersection between and within these data streams. The governing logics of curating and collecting are appropriated and the many canons upon which we invisibly rely are undermined: the art historical canon, the academic convention, the rational sciences, the objective gaze of history, and many others, all now archived according to another logic, placed in the public-private collection of Saul's virtual Wunderkammer.

Both Saul and Roberts make evident the ongoing project of colonisation and appropriation which is foundational to the Wunderkammer and the Enlightenment project which ensued from it. They reveal the contemporary western psyche as inescapably entrenched in this relentless logic. However, for both Saul and Roberts, the experience of the Wunderkammer is not a journey which leads back to an origin. Objects may be fictitious or authentic, fraudulent or sacred - however their significance to the viewer is a forward movement - a folding of the past into the present-future. They release objects from the scientific disciplines which organise and appropriate them. Instead, they continue to add more voices and more objects in more elaborate connections. Through the desiring machine which is the Wunderkammer, partial subjects meet and meld with partial objects, in a desiring exchange, mobilising the space of the 'other' to unleash creative potentials, (rather than being systematically sublimated by representation and tied to a fixed iconography). For both Roberts and Saul it is the virtual space of the non-human (or perhaps posthuman) which activates such an ecology or economy of becoming.

Gilles Deleuze draws a distinction between the 'realisation of the possible' and the 'actualisation of the virtual'. For Deleuze, the virtual is a space of multiple potentials for new connections or unseen relations. The space of the virtual supposes something singular that is yet to be constructed - not doubling or simulating Nature, but rather multiplying, complicating, releasing other forms and pathways. And again to quote Deleuze: "The virtual is real without being actual, ideal without being abstract. It thus calls for a special kind of intelligence." The space of the virtual is different again from modernist truth and postmodern parody. The virtual space says 'yes' and 'and' and more, more permutations, more connections, a rich intensity of arrangement - a geometry not drawn by fixed points, a dynamic of chance. The virtual gallery is the one which holds together the most, and most complicated, different possible worlds in the same container, allowing them to exist together in a constructed plane with no need of a pre-established harmony - a wunderkammer.

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