Friday, August 5, 2016

Exhibiting Strangeness

Review: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders by Lawrence Wechsler


Crowds at turn-of-the-last-century freak shows knew why. Viewers who binge-watch the daily recap of the US Presidential election circus understand, as did those who once breathlessly followed the trials of celebrities like Michael Jackson and OJ Simpson. Mysteries at the Museum and a host of ghost-hunter-reality cable programs take calculated advantage of it.

If it’s weird, strange, bizarre—especially if it’s also slightly creepy—we can’t help ourselves. We are drawn to examine, comment, pick over and wonder at the strangeness we find amongst us.

HUMAN HORN: Like the sailor in Gay Purr-ee who displays his yellow tomcat to “prove” a cat will dive overboard to rescue a friend, the horn of Mary Davis of Saughall is exhibited mounted on a plaque, jutting from the lacquered wood as it is claimed to have done from the back of the woman’s head in 1688.

David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology (MJT) in Los Angeles is the particular curiosity cabinet that Wechsler documents in this book. Like the Medieval wunderkammer upon which it is based, the MJT takes its “performance art” foundation very seriously. Everything in the book and the museum seems like a consciously satirical spoof of natural history museums, from the carefully dusty exhibit cases to the intentionally dim lighting. An appropriately pompous professorial voice narrates the museum-style video which runs continuously.

ANT HORN: Embedded in ancient-looking yellow plastic is a South American ant with a curious prong extending from its head. The prong is the fruiting body of the fungus Tomentella. “After being inhaled, the spore seats in the ant’s tiny brain and begins to grow, causing changes in the ant’s patterns of behavior. The Ant appears troubled and confused; for the first time in its life the ant leaves the forest floor and begins to climb.”

Wechsler strives to show how the curious objects displayed in “Cabinets of Wonder” change human behavior, acting on us like the spores of Tomentella on the ant; but in truth we need no infection to drive us to make this climb. We all chase after the oddities of the world, willing slaves to celebrity and absurdity.

The book is as curious as the museum it documents. Wechsler has managed to convey the fundamental ambiguity of the MJT, but also finds parallels with circus sideshows, Victorian surgical theatres, 17th-century European curiosity collections and the Ashmolean museum in London. The reader is taken on the same voyage of discovery Wechsler has made, starting with a healthy tongue in cheek, and finishing with a puzzled respect for the magician’s trick David Wilson has performed.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology has something to teach us. Possibly, it is no more than our shared need to slow down as we pass that highway wreck—but certainly it is something far more profound than a horned ant trapped in vitrine, or a human horn trophy-mounted on the wall.