OPINION

Curiosity: Art and the Pleasure of Knowing

Margate

30 May 2013

The sign above Margate’s seafront still reads Dreamland. That famous ruin, prototype for the many beachside amusement parks that subsequently spread around the coast, started life in the 1870s as a pleasure garden complete with menagerie, statues and mock crumbling abbey, offering visitors an escape into an alternate world.

Its evolution soon saw it peddling a less genteel, if no less popular, form of escapism; when the rollercoaster that still dominates the site was added in 1920, the ride carried half a million people in its first season.

Though that particular attraction has long been mothballed, the town is once again enticing tourists in similar numbers. At the other end of the beach the Turner Contemporary, now in its second year, is hopeful of shortly accepting its millionth visitor. Its latest show, Curiosity: Art and the Pleasure of Knowing, would be a wholly fitting enticement by which to reach that milestone.

Curated by Brian Dillon, critic, essayist and UK editor of Cabinet magazine, the show is pitched as a wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, and brings together its own menagerie of artifacts and artworks spanning several centuries. Historically, such collections (usually private, they were the forerunners of the public museum) acted as fairground mirrors that reflected a skewed image of the world from which they were drawn; an aggregation of things that pointed incongruously towards each other and then, in unison, outwards. The effect of Dillon’s modern interpretation is similarly mesmerizing, if a little overwhelming; were the Dreamland sign to be re-attached to the gallery’s glass cladding from now until September, it would not give a false impression.

This is confirmed when, on entering the exhibition proper, the viewer is confronted with an architectural section detailing an entirely different museum. This elaborate neoclassical building, complete with cupolas, acroteria and colonnades, contains exactly the same works as the display of which it is itself part, though at significantly altered scales. The drawing, by the artist Pablo Bronstein, was commissioned especially for the show, and acts a fittingly capricious map to an exhibition that wants to return to a modern, hyper-networked audience some of the wonder of exploration that drove many pre-20th century collectors.

The first exhibit in the opening room belonged to one such figure: a dark-wooded cabinet formerly owned by John Evelyn, a 17th Century scholar and diarist, who utilised the many compartments within its interior to organize his curios. For the purpose of this exhibition Dillon is Evelyn, and it is no surprise that this writer-turned-curator has opened his own cabinet with this complex series of reference and counter-reference, readily admitting that he didn’t approach this task as any different to producing one of his esoteric and far ranging essays.

These two pieces also make a clear statement about the necessary physical construction of the wunderkammer; curiosity can only be sated by discovery, and discovery first requires occlusion. In its original state, Chipperfield’s gallery would find this difficult to deliver: the main exhibition space comprises three large rectangular galleries, arranged along a short corridor, which draw Margate’s famous pearlescent light down through large clerestory windows and rooflights so that, even in the corners, their isn’t a hint of shadow. These rooms are designed for long looks, for striding around, and to provide enough spatial flexibility to accommodate even the most quixotic of contemporary artists (as well as allowing Turner’s own works, always on display, suitable margin).

Convinced of the need to adapt the space, but unsure of how to work with the building, the curatorial team approached Chipperfield for direction. The architect was more generous, however, as Dillon explains: “We went looking for advice and got a gift.” Without fee, Chipperfield has remodeled the upper floor, adding temporary partitions so as to create a series of different sized rooms that allow an appropriately tortuous progression. Light levels have thus been varied as befits the range of media on display and their conditions (especially crucial for the several projected works included) while also adding drama to each transition.

It would be pointless to try and articulate the range of objects included in Curiosity; for all that a writer has curated this exhibition, in its trans-historical leaps and its juxtaposing of science and art and philosophy and religion, it seems somehow beyond what writing could achieve without requiring a lifetime of the reader's concentration. Yet headline inclusions are Leonardo da Vinci’s annotated sketches, drawn from the royal collection, and the swollen Horniman walrus, which hadn’t left its London home since 1901.

No one piece ever overcomes the rest however. That da Vinci can be studied alongside examples of Alfie West’s artworks constructed from split human hairs, Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka's glass aquatic models, and Nina Katchadourian’s airplane toilet photography is one of the strengths of the show. What connects all these items under Curiosity’s title is the universal quality of attention that drives human endeavor across disciplines.

And so what sort of world has Dillon created in his role as demiurge? It is certainly fantastical, but not because of the objects themselves so much as the personalities that they indicate and the condition of wide-eyedness that binds them together, incredible in our age of cynicism and “total knowledge”. As the exhibition pamphlet jokes to the visitor, “Perhaps you will prove an interesting enough specimen to remain in here with the others”; in truth the display acts as a lesson in how to regain a pressing interest in that which surrounds us.