Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Museum of Joy: an etymology

One day I will build a museum that is the delighted child of every collection of the marvelous, a gracious bow to the old cabinets of curiosity in how they strove to show the great harmony of being, a grand new dance of entrancingexhibition...but in the meantime, a selection of some other magical locations in which the dust of fascination sinks slowly through the dark:

The Main Street Museum, White River Junction, VT

The closest I have ever been to this fantastic idea is its website, but my friend Sarah assures me it is as bizarre and wonderful as it appears: full of peculiar taxidermies and objects in assorted wonderous categories such as "Carbon; Color as a Hysterical Reaction; Cute Things; Flocking; Objects Chewed by Pets; Teeth, More Teeth, Things with Nail-holes; 'Things Made from Animals or Parts of Animals,'" etc... (from their Wiki)

The Museum Of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles, CA

Now, I have been here, and it was one of the two times in my waking life I have ever felt like I was entering into the space of my dreams. The exhibits range from Napoleon-inspired collages to alchemical clock experiments to superstition boxes; on the left, please examine a lovely mosaic made entirely from butterfly scales arranged with a boar's hair, viewable only under microscope. The place itself seems at first glance to be a small and shabby warehouse, but like all good dream places it is far larger on the inside, and the dark halls carry the uncanny sense that you had better look at everything, because even if you are lucky enough to find yourself in the same room a second time there is no guarantee that it will be the same...

The Museum of Love, now accessible only via the gardens of nostalgia and the internet

My father built this for his 40th birthday. It probably explains a lot about me. If pictures survive, I'm still too young to see them. This will be true at least until my deathbed. This most excellent image, however, called The Museum of Love and Mystery, by the equally excellent Jim Woodring, will suffice to show the spirit of the party. (In fact, if the "Dutch Uncle of Dreamland" wasn't there, it was just because the merry-go-round had other plans for him that night.)

This is probably the time to explain that my father taught me most everything I know about how to love the truly weird and beautiful. He also has a wonderful recipe for absinthe, a copy of which I was promised upon my 21st birthday, but the 2nd anniversary of that grand holiday is fast approaching and so far no dice. (It is, of course, a closely guarded secret.) A semi-thwarted alchemist, my dad had to content himself with growing wormwood in a hidden El Cerrito backyard and consulting books on alembics for proper distallation techniques. I did my bit by testing for methanol content, i.e. drinking a lot.

The Museum at Purgatory, a book by Nick Bantock

This is not the Museum at Purgatory, but rather a 15th century
illumination: 'Souls Released From Purgatory' from the 
'Hours of Catherine of Cleves' at the Morgan Library &
Museum, borrowed from the Wall Street Journal's website.  

I was not highly taken by Griffin and Sabine, although as a lover of artist books, arcane letters, collage, inventiveness and the macabre I have been told that my feelings on the matter are nonsensical and I'm just jealous I didn't think of it. This is not true in the least; I'm jealous I didn't think of The Museum at Purgatory, which is not only a cabinet of curiosity in the form of a book but also takes place in an ever-shifting city that I thought I had invented, at the age of sixteen, in a short story called The Man in the Orange Silk Shirt. Apparently there are multiple gateways to that marvelous and melancholy metropolis, as it seems evident that Bantock's Purgatory is the same bloody place as my unnamed citadel...(I will find the story somewhere and present quotes from the two texts side by side, but it will have to wait until after my laptop's quite done self-destructing and I can find my files again.) Anyway, this book gave me shivers of delight: instead of letters, it displays wonderful invented artifacts, from an imaginary geneology of spinning tops to a set of archaic altar boxes. It takes to the luscious extreme the longing inherent in books written on collections, from the section on The Collector in Walter Benjamin's The Arcades Project to the cabinets in Bruce Chatwin's Utz: the reader's desire to see the magnificent object in all its strange and holy order.

The WebMuseum: Joseph Cornell

Here you may see collected images of the work of Joseph Cornell. Their physical forms are all over the place; there is no Cornell museum, although Robert Coover's The Grand Hotels (of Joseph Cornell) and Charles Simic's Dime Store Alchemy: The Art of Joseph Cornell are essentially hybrid museums in themselves, prose poems displaying Cornell's essence as surely as the bottles in the Pharmacy (left) display their mystic contents, the books themselves like the careful, crafted cabinets...

There are those you don't discover until you find that you have been following their spirit's leavings for the last two hazy decades. I did not know Cornell existed until I was already making things he might have loved. But without his starry influence, silent and spidery, would it has passed into my blood, this love for old encyclopedias, small krakens, tiny bottles, amulets and charms...?

Friday, January 14, 2011

the night garden

Salammbô, 1896

Flirt advertisement, 
circa 1895-1900
There is a city sleeping in my house right now, a labyrinth, a dream of fronds and pebbles glossy underwater, a reverie, a columbarium, a living room. Think of that: a room that is alive, that could breathe life into us, a room we could inhabit like the two cupped hands of a garden. I have not built it yet. But it is there, peaceful, waiting for me to draw it from the realms of the unmanifest into the manifest. It is a room without windows, a funny little cave blown open by the gust from the front door, and therefore it must be a night garden, full of the wondrous damp plants that love the dark and exude like jade perfume the earthy smell of moss and root and wet soil. I woke up the other morning and the whole room was in my head, a splendid hothouse Parisian cafe dream of longing for lands of sun and minaret among the mist and iron lampposts.

Two panels from Les Heures du Jour, 1899: 
Repos de la nuit & Éveil du matin. 

Imagine if the Art Nouveau paintings were a place, if the unfurling struts of Alphonse Mucha's artwork were delicately folded into a doorway. For his paintings have no ordinary backgrounds, seem glimpsed instead through scrollwork, a tracery of leaves, more kaleidoscope than landscape and yet inviting and warm as the door to some grand salon swung briefly open to reveal a burst of light and laughter, the smell of blossoms, fragrance, smooth bare shoulders fresh as peaches in the winter night. Though they now exist on everything from necklaces to iPad cases, when has a room ever been built that allows you to step into the brocaded intricacies of his imagination?

Victor Horta, later Baron Horta, came perhaps the closest with the Hôtel Tassel --and why is it that I can only find pictures of this bloody stairwell? Here are three different views of it, all of them lovely, if perhaps a bit maddening in their insistence; of course other pictures do exist, but they all seem rather barren compared to the living curves and fernlike profusion here at the turning of the steps. I have yet to see a room by Horta that seems as alive and sinuous as this movement between floors....

Another marvelous place my living room has its roots well folded into is the Chapel of the Chimes, a columbarium built by Julia Morgan in Oakland, California. This place seems more holy library than repository of death, a labyrinth full of exquite vaulted chapels full of open stonework windows, so that from afar you may see one room full of a sacred light but when you try to reach it you find yourself inexplicably elsewhere, in a mossy garden echoing the sound of water, or a hallway like the spine of a magical beast...

Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1874
And I am influenced, of course, by the tattooed work of the great Gustave Moreau, whose Salome Dancing Before Herod helped shift the river not only of art but also of ten centuries' worth of dance...but that's another story. For now, his mystic space, o ye spirits, how he sees light...everything bathed in a kind of moonlight, the spray of a fountain, the silvering of stars at twilight.  His paintings are draped with dreamers, sleepers, if he undsterstood before anyone what Baudelaire meant by La Chambre Double. An Orientalist, to be sure, but one interested in the realm of reverie; his Salome, dancing, is not a lewd seductress but a mystic, in a trance state...later artists (including Mucha) painted her increasingly as a scheming strumpet, but Moreau allowed her a kind of dignity (with the exception of a peculiar watercolor of such a completely different style I feel brazenly entitled to overlook it entirely. This not being an art criticism lecture but a sheerly personal imagining, I will simply pretend it doesn't exist...)

And finally, there is my own last, lost, living room, an ode to Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin, Gaston Bachelard, Lewis Carroll and Louis Aragon. Here, a glimpse of its celestial ceiling, a miniature cathedral in the making. I don't miss it; I hadn't learned how to make a sacred space a living one. It was magical, oh yes, but not alive...(Do you see the moss that creeps into Cleopatra's room? How wonderful -- not the usual violent female Pharoah up to her elbows in blood and rose petals, but a woman caught between two worlds, the earth coming to speak to her in the splendor of her chambers...)

Wish me luck.