Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for Joseph and Jurassic

The amazing 17th-century Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher's
magnetic divination devices at the MJT.
Via Running Wolf Productions. in Joseph Cornell and the Museum of Jurassic Technology, two major inspirations for me in my dream of the Museum of Joy. (Obviously J is also for Joy, but that's a cop-out post.) Both the man and the museum I'm invoking today are magically adept at putting enormous and fantastical worlds into very small spaces, thereby simultaneously expanding the universe and filling it with very cool stuff. I've written about them both before in my post on marvelous museums, but they deserve a revisit today because they've been so intensely influential. They're important enough to me that they serve as catalysts for the imagination: if I'm feeling stuck or dispirited, I just need to spend a little time in contemplation of one or the other and I feel refreshed, revitalized, and full of creative zip and zest. (Actually, there's a thing I forgot to put in my guide to fishing for inspiration -- casting your line into the wild aquariums of other people's awesome ideas!) (Is this metaphor getting out of hand? George Orwell would not approve.) So here, today, just a  quick and tantalizing sample of stuff from the minds of men who think they way I'd like about evocation, dream, wonder, and the weirdness of the world...
The front of the Museum. Via Markasaurus.
First of all, the Museum of Jurassic Technology is awesome because it is utterly unprepossessing on the outside and utterly magical within. It is much, much larger than it looks, and also windowless and dimly lit, a kind of black velvet labyrinth with an eerie illumination only on the exhibits. (Those of you who read my snarly rage over the over-lighting of the new Academy of Sciences and my fondness for the dark weirdness of the Exploratorium will get very weary of hearing that I find this to be an important factor in the mystical museum experience. Deal with it.) This peculiar sense of larger-on-the-inside is part of what makes the mind feel it's been plunged into a dream museum, an impossible collection that couldn't really exist; but the exhibits themselves are also wondrous and bizarre enough to complete the illusion of unreality on their own merits.

Don't pretend like you don't know what this is. Of course
Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs can hang out on a needle.
Dwarfs are small, right? By microminiaturist Hagop
Sandaldjian, via the MJT website page about his work.
For example, there's a whole section on old wives' tales, complete with demonstrative exhibits like a glass case containing mouse pie and mouse on toast (it's a good cure for, you know, stuff.) There's an exhibit of microminiatures, from a bank of microscopes that hold beautiful iridescent pictures of  birds and flowers made by the arrangement of butterfly scales to tiny portraits in the eye of a needle.The afore-mentioned bizarre and wonderful Athanasius Kircher has a whole exhibit to himself, full of awesome magical-looking contraptions. And all through the place, you get the creeping sensation that if you don't look carefully at an exhibit, it might be gone when you get back, or be transformed into something else - if you can even find the room you thought you saw it in.

The Conversion of St. Eustace at Mentorella, a diorama
illustrating some of Kircher's fascinations. Depending on how
you look, at it, the glowing symbols appear and disappear.
(I get this feeling, anyway, and sad for you if you don't. Of course, I've been having strange museum dreams since before I can remember anything else, and I'm used to the idea of exhibits melting and disappearing, or the strange phenomenon in which the thing you thought was a microscope was of course a triceratops all along. The worst nightmares I can remember are of museums where something was horribly wrong with the exhibits, and some of the coolest things I've ever seen were in dream museums, including - oh, never mind. See, this is the reason I've never been drawn to the use of psychedelics: my unconscious is weird enough as it is, thank you very much.)

The Museum is the brainchild (in the sense, actually, of being a physical manifestation of the inner workings of the mind) of a very cool, very peculiar dude named David Wilson. (He's the subject of a fascinating book called Mr Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder, and you can read a nifty interview with him, too.) I was lucky enough to meet him in 2005, but given that I was 16 at the time, even my total paralyzing enthusiasm for the Museum wasn't enough for me to ask him any really good questions or remember much other than awe about the encounter. Sorry. You should probably just go visit. Oh, and "Jurassic Technology"? What does that mean, anyway? Ah, hm, well, I could tell you, but that would necessitate me having any fucking clue. Which I don't. Just go with it.


Like the MJT (and, um, me), Joseph Cornell was a man for whom the cabinet of curiosity was a preoccupying and animating force. He was a kind of lonely guy, born in 1903, who lived most of his life in a house on Utopia Parkway, which is a name that could mess up anyone. He was poor, wary of strangers, and pretty much self-taught, and if you ask me, when poor lonely dudes (or gals) with no formal artistic training make spectacularly cool & beautiful things, it increases the awesomeness of said things by an order of magnitude. You can research him in plenty of places; as I see it, my job is to gush, not provide you information you can darn well get on Wikipedia. Listen. This is a guy who fell in love with Lauren Bacall and a bunch of ballerinas, who loved the Transcendentalists & the Symbolists, who made cabinets full of evocative collages of bottles and birds. If I'm not physically related, I certainly consider him spiritual kin (as I do almost anyone who bases a creative practice on a combination of ideas from woodsy wonderland dudes like Thoreau on the one hand and mystic dream painters like Odilon Redon on the other.) He was wandering around New York around the same time as another of my favorite people in the universe, Henry Miller, who picked up scraps of peculiar encounters the same way Cornell picked up odds and ends from bookshops and thrift stores. He wasn't especially into garbage, though; he liked bits of forgotten poetry, old fragments of lovely things, delicate shreds. Although hailed as a Surrealist, I don't think he really was one, in the same way that I find it hard to think of Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington as Surrealists -- not because they weren't surreal, but because they offered up a world that was, in its own way, utterly coherent and understandable -- in an instinctive, imaginative sense, I mean.

Remedios Varo, Papilla de estrellas, 1958.
Via Ribbon Around a Bomb.
That is, while I see Dali's clocks as expressive, I can't imagine really going about in such a landscape; Cornell's boxes, though, like Varo's paintings and the world evoked in Carrington's The Hearing Trumpet, are like doors to a reality I know perfectly well, only it happens to be just slightly tangential to normality - say, an angle of about 15 degrees and a red flower. Maybe this is only because the soft, celestial, spooky, alchemical elements of the worlds they built such lovely doorways into are part of my own dream vocabulary, in the same way that ants and clocks are part of Dali's -- but there's a part of me that also can't help believing that they're simply in touch with something else, a living realm that the other Surrealists simply weren't aware of, or couldn't find the map to get to. Despite Cornell's shy, romantic persona, I hesitate to ascribe this feeling to some kind of cliched feminine essence; I hate that crap and think it's silly. I prefer to see it as a kind of simple mysticism that the rest of the Surrealists, in their devotion to ordinary scrambled weirdness, just weren't looking for: the idea of a cohesive sense of beauty, perhaps a spiritual sense of beauty, was not, as far as I'm aware, all that important to the Surrealist movement, but I'm fairly sure it was to Cornell, Varo and Carrington. Maybe I'm putting words in their mouths; I don't really know enough about them to say with certainty, and they're too dead to ask. (My bad timing: Carrington died in May 2011. My fault for never telling her thank you for the wonderful things she brought to the world.) It's just a quiet, subtle, pervasive feeling. But Cornell was a lifelong Christian Scientist, and I find it difficult to believe that some sense of genuine, personal otherworldliness did not imbue his works with a strange and luminous tinge. They're a little too rich and weird to be just whimsical, just as Varo's world's are a little too alive to just be surreal. They serve us all as doors, pathways into miniature, unbounded dreamlands. And what better thing to call a museum than just that?


  1. You are 23? Jebus! Watch out. You sure know a lot of stuff about the world. I hope you do build a museum of Joy. I have a feeling you will.

    1. 24...did I manage to fail at math AND the alphabet? Thanks for the vote of confidence, 'cause I'm gonna need every bit of kudos I can get what with this whole no-math-no-spelling business.

  2. Well, that sounds like a cool place. Never heard of it before.
    And, now, I'm never going to be able to get the image of a microscope as a triceratops out of my head.
    That's my favorite dinosaur you're messing with there, you know.

    And I -never- would have thought you were that young. Now, I feel old.

    1. Hahaha. My dreamlife can have a nasty infectious effect on reality occasionally...

      But there's no need to feel old just because I'm a young'un! I'm just lucky to have had a whole lotta smart people around me all my life, and hopefully some of it's rubbed off :)

  3. Hope you’re enjoying the challenge so far!
    --Damyanti, Co-host A to Z Challenge April 2012

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z


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