El Prodigi

1 October - 26 November 2015

Wonder:The Dream of the Wunderkammer

A cabinet of curiosities is a collection of collections, a theatre of the world. Each language has its own particular name for these remarkable spaces: in French they are known as cabinets de curiosités and in English as cabinets of curiosities or wonder-rooms, but I prefer the forthrightness of the German term, Wunderkammer, a word that is solid, unbroken. These cabinets appeared in the time of the great discoveries, during the Renaissance, were later reproduced in the encyclopaedic culture of the Enlightenment and then died at the dawn of modernity, when they reached their final destination and form, the museum.

Stepping into a Wunderkammer is an exercise in nostalgia, a journey back in time to the era when curiosity was the driving force of culture and of humans’ urge to know and understand. These ‘chambers of wonders’ contained objects gathered together in a kind of systematisation of the world in the three kingdoms of nature: animal, vegetable and mineral. The parquet flooring creaked underfoot as you entered, the wooden shelves contained species from the plant and animal kingdomsalongside minerals and diverse other singular objects. If you looked up at the ceiling, you would be surprised by the sight of a stuffed crocodile with gaping jaw. Our cabinet of curiosities, our map of the world, is symbolised by the Internet, which we surf, no course charted and no destination in mind, often adrift, replacing knowledge with information, culture with data.

We do not all share a single idea of nature and similarly no two Wunderkammer are alike. They are all different, each one of a kind, presenting the fantasies and imaginings of their owners. We know of some of these chambers thanks to their faithful reproduction in a print, and as we observe them closely we can learn their every detail. Let us enter, for example, the cabinet of Dr. Ole Worm in the mid-17th century in Denmark. There we find ourselves in a space where horror vacui reigns, where the light filters in through the latticework of two large windows that would not be out of place in a Rembrandt print. Deer antlers hang on the wall between the windows, while fantastical animals are suspended from the ceiling. An Eskimo who looks like Frankenstein stands guard over a universe of miscellaneous natural objects, in which fossils mingle with stuffed animals. There is in such cabinets “a kind of ontological humility before the primacy of nature”, as Umberto Eco puts it.

Chambers of wonders proliferated from the 16th century onwards and between 1600 and 1740 there were more than a hundred cabinets of curiosities in Amsterdam alone. They were private museums, with shelves, cupboards and display cases that contained microcosms in a variety of pieces from every corner of the world, because the Wunderkammer was not just a repository of memory embodied in its objects but also a visionary precursor of the found object, of the objet trouvé or the ready-made, 300 years ahead of its time.

Wonder sprang from the need to construct a cabinet of curiosities in the 21st century. From the moment I had the very first idea for this cabinet, I knew I could not reproduce an imitation of an old cabinet of curiosities because that would be meaningless. I had to adapt the concept of the wonder-room to the present day,hence it was essential to work in partnership with a contemporary artist whose thinking was on the same wavelength. I thought of Pablo Milicua, with whom we had already collaborated on the Piranesi–Milicua exhibition in 2011 and to whom I am tied by the bonds of an intergenerational friendship. Milicua is an artist of the object who is knowledgeable about the background of the Wunderkammer. We had spoken several times about mounting an exhibition that would bring the concept of the cabinet of curiosities into the modern era, and Pablo suggested the title of the show, Wonder. A wonder is something (in our case, an object) that cannot be explained by the laws of nature and is believed to be the work of a superior being. It lies somewhere between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, wakefulness and sleep.

Wonder reconstructs a cabinet by mixing works from the past with those of today in a transverse, hybrid almost organic manner. It is a factory of dreams where you are greeted by King Kong’s younger brother – the same gorilla photographed with Dalí and Ava Gardner when he was in the glass cage of the taxidermist’s on Plaça Reial, back in the days of pre-tourism Barcelona – who invites you to step into a miniature world of strange, wondrous and rare objects. The old pieces displayed include the drawing of a crocodile’s skull by Pancrace Bessa, the Carceri prints by Piranesi, the Anacoreta by Fortuny, realistic plates of food made of ceramic, and a glass horse with a duck’s head, which are shown alongside the surreal and mysterious poetics of Evru, the irony of Carlos Pazos, striking pieces by Marcel·lí Antúnez, intriguing works by Yolanda Tabanera and the conceptual objects and collages of Milicua himself. It is an exhibition unlike those we normally put on, it is true, but there is need to stir, once and for all, the dozing awareness of our collectors.

Artur Ramon

 

Barcelona

The connection with the local, in an increasingly dispersed world, is of considerable importance in this project. Barcelona was named the “City of Marvels” by Eduardo Mendoza and Carrer de la Palla is one of its most magical places, despite the hordes of tourists who wander in a daze and half naked around the Gothic city today. The three local and contemporary artists selected for this exhibition to my mind embody the marvellous and fantastical genius that springs from rauxa (impulsiveness) and hence is characteristic of Catalan creativity.

Encyclopaedia of the non-existent

The collection as a well-organised accumulation. The creation of a reiterative system facilitates systems of comparison and comprehension. It establishes a logical framework that disguises and justifies the urge to appropriate, the cannibal identification that underlies the impulse to accumulate.

Another world

The artist, as a minor demiurge, creates a specular world. Interference in the consensus of reality caused by the irruption of another world is the basis of the wonder, of the curiosity. Interference gives rise to amazement. The curiosity is presented as a description of nature but in it lies the contradiction of artifice. The artificial as human nature. The imaginary as a representation of reality.

Surprising

A child savant. A talking donkey. The curiosity does not do what it is meant to. It pays no heed to the limitations that define it. It effortlessly does more than is expected of it. That’s its nature.

Hybrid

The curiosity is a fusion of several natures. It is impossible and contradictory.

Nature contradicts itself

The disturbing things of nature. The calf with two heads. The monstrous curiosity, as the derangement of reality, was understood by the ancients as a premonitory sign of catastrophe. The disordered universe bears incongruous fruit, extreme exceptions to the observed standards that constitute the normal. These phenomena were symptoms of a possible greater imbalance that could result in changes of a cosmic magnitude. The wonder is the product and sign of change, of the advent of another world, of another state of reality.

 

Pablo Milicua