"[We were] drawn to the sheer audacity of the attempt to explain existence, to create an artwork that embodied a microcosm and explained how we know what we know."1
In this "luminous interval" between birth and death, we struggle to create and compose. But what meaning is generated by this struggle and how? What role does the material world play in this meaning making? How can a collection of materials contribute to-or demonstrate a theory or theories about-the world? Often, collections of objects can begin to speak to greater ideas when viewed in concert. As Dimitris Daskalopoulos has said: "Collecting is about creating a whole where artworks can be put in conversation and thus say something more than they do individually." The word "collection," he reminds us, is derived from the Greek words for "speak" and "together."2
Some artists in Daskalopoulos's collection specifically explore how we make meaning through collections of material objects. Mark Dion (b. 1961, New Bedford, Massachusetts) and Robert Williams (b. 1960, Liverpool, United Kingdom) collaborated on a work to explore the ways in which humans have attempted to impose structure and order on a complex and chaotic natural world. Dion has described their work as "creating an encyclopedia of the methodologies of how one arranges things to make meaning."3 In Theatrum Mundi: Armarium (2001), based on a collaboration with scholars and scientists at Cambridge University, the two artists filled two nearly identical cabinets with objects representing the belief systems of two cosmologists, Ramon Llull (b. 1232, Palma de Mallorca; d. 1315, Palma de Mallorca) and Robert Fludd (b. 1574 Kent; d. 1637, London). Each cabinet could be thought of as representing a cosmologist (a scientist who studies the universe in its totality), and each shelf in each cabinet represents a different category of his theory. The top shelves of both cabinets were left empty to symbolize both men's belief in the existence of God. The cabinets are connected by a single-shelf cabinet containing a human skeleton. The skeleton points to the limited ability of man to conceive of the universe. The artists have great awe for the "sheer audacity of the attempt to explain existence," but also recognize how inevitably "humancentric, and thus deeply flawed" this attempt is.4
1 Mark Dion, quoted in Susan Thompson entry on Mark Dion and Robert Williams, in The Luminous Interval: The D.Daskalopoulos Collection, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, exh. cat. (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011), p. 77.
2 Dimitris Daskalopoulos, in "Curating Rooms in My Head: Dimitris Daskalopoulos in Conversation with Nancy Spector," in The Luminous Interval, p. 20.
3 Mark Dion in The Luminous Interval, p. 77.
- Before looking at Mark Dion and Robert Williams’s work, give students the title: Theatrum Mundi: Armarium (2001). Ask them to discuss its meaning. From Latin, it translates as “World Theater: Cupboard.” What would they expect of an artwork with this name?
- Now, show them the work and ask them what they notice. Ask them to try to identify some of the objects on the shelves. Do the objects on each shelf have something or things in common? How can they connect the objects and the method of displaying them to the title, if at all?
- Ask students to think about the artists’ choice of display. Imagine other ways in which Dion and Williams could have displayed the objects. Would a different type of display have changed the meaning or message?
- Tell students that each cabinet represents a different cosmologist (Ramon Llull of the 13th and 14th centuries and Robert Fludd of the 16th and 17th) and their theories about the universe. The shelves are arranged to illustrate the levels or categories of their theories. Ask them to make guesses about the men’s theories based on the objects on their shelves. If students cannot figure out what the objects are, you can tell them that the right cabinet’s shelves contain plants and taxidermied animals [natural things], whereas the left cabinet’s shelves contain religious items, musical instruments, and books [cultural things].
- Llull organized his belief system around nature whereas Fludd grounded his theories in themes of culture. The top shelf of each cabinet is left empty to symbolize their shared belief in God. Why do students think the artists placed a human skeleton in between the cabinets?
- The artists have described this artwork as “a meditation on, and perhaps a memorial to, the noble but impossible aspirations of the universal museum.”1 What do students think Dion and Williams could mean by this?
- In this work, Dion and Williams reference an historical precursor to the museum or collection display called the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities. Rulers and scientists of Renaissance Europe in particular used their cabinets of curiosities, which contained objects from around the globe and the scientific disciplines, to symbolize their control of the world and their place at the forefront of knowledge. What do students think would be in a Wunderkammer of today?
1 Mark Dion, quoted in Susan Thompson entry on Dion and Williams, in The Luminous Interval: The D.Daskalopoulos Collection, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, exh. cat. (New York: The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2011), p. 77.
Create a Cabinet Display
- For this activity, students will create a cabinet display, or Wunderkammer, that exemplifies their own personal interests and beliefs. First ask them to answer a questionnaire about themselves that includes the following questions: What do you consider to be most important in your life? What adjectives best describe your personality? In what do you believe most strongly?
- Next, ask students to list objects that can represent these beliefs or aspects of their identity. Once they have created a list, ask them to think about how to arrange and display these objects to communicate even more about their identity. Would they like to use gridlike shelving or would they arrange the objects haphazardly on a table or floor? From a ceiling or on a wall? With labels or without? Their choices for the organization and display of the objects will say just as much about them as the objects. For instance, by choosing to organize everything by color, they could demonstrate that they see the world primarily in terms of color. By choosing to leave the objects disorganized, they communicate their resistance to classification systems or, perhaps, their hectic lifestyles.
- If possible, students should create these displays with actual objects. If this is not possible, students can draw or collage images collected from magazines or downloaded from the Internet on standard sheets of drawing paper.
- Share the final displays and ask students to think about what their classmates chose to include, how they chose to organize these objects, and what the displays as a whole can say about their identities.
Rethinking the Museum Display
- For this activity, visit a local museum as a class or assign students to visit one on their own. Give students an assignment to report back on the museum’s displays. Make sure that students address the following questions in their reports: How is the museum organized or “curated“? What do they think determines which objects are displayed in which rooms? Which objects are placed adjacent to each other? What determines which objects are chosen for display (versus objects that are not in the collection, not borrowed, or are kept in storage)? What does the organization and/or inclusion or exclusion of works say about the museum’s beliefs or preferences?
- Ask students to rethink the museum’s display by creating a plan to re-hang or rearrange one gallery. What would the objects have in common in the room? How would the display be different from what the museum already does, if at all? They can alter the unifying theme of the space, the labeling, the display format (in a glass case, on the walls, etc.), and even the rest of the gallery’s environment, including sounds, smells, seating, and temperature. Ask them to write a proposal to the museum detailing these proposed changes and explaining why the changes are a good idea (or just a fun one!).