During the 16th and 17th centuries a new type of exhibition chest caused furor amongst the European aristocracy, the wunderkammer (cabinet of wonders or cabinet of curiosities). Inside them they accumulated rarities from the vegetable, animal and mineral worlds as well as objects of human creation. Their contents were organized generally in two large groups, naturalia and artificialia.
The wunderkammern lacked the characteristic encyclopedic-museistic spirit of the Enlightenment, but more rather satisfied the Baroque affinity towards the capricious, anecdotal and unexpected. Their evolution and systematization gave place subsequently to exhibition spaces with formats that are now so family to us: the zoological park, the botanical garden and the museum. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that museums and zoos stem from a common genetic filum.
The Belgian artist Wesley Meuris showed in the context of the ARCO 2005 Project Rooms his piece Zoologic Classification, a series of refined drawings of visionary architectures (some of them physically built) for diverse animals (apes, giraffes, rhinoceroses, bears ...). The potential inhabitants and their needs were previously analyzed in a detailed catalogue of the animal kingdom (also exposed, like the DNA code of the project).
This taxonomic archive collects the tradition of the wunderkammern but, unlike them, its emphasis is not to be found in the arbitrary succession of exhibited elements, but in the order that classifies and catalogues them. Therefore, in spite of its appearance, it is not an objetc-based piece but a systemic one where the collective series is more relevant than the individual singular sample.
* from the habitat to the room
The cage for the Galago Crassicaudata (an ape from Southern Africa), exposed in Meuris’ Project Room, synthesizes the territorial scale of this animal (habitat/lebensraum) in a concentrated architecture (room/raum); or, looked-at from a different perspective, it expands the artistic object to the scale of an architecture. In any case, the cage surpasses the static qualities of a mere object-space and becomes an object-place, a lived construct, operating for an inhabitant that we do not see. This performing capacity of the space is already a constant in previous works of the young Meuris (Swimming Pool in Willebroek 1994, Playing Field. ..).
* from the zoo to the museum
In the series Zoological Classification the framework (cage) that habitually wraps the observed subject (animal) becomes the exhibited object and the new surrounding container is that of the museum. This way, the exhibition logic of a conventional zoo is trespassed.
Jacques Derrida stated that there is not archive without an oblivion. The intriguing (¿anguishing?) absence (¿oblivion?) of the protagonist of the cage, who is not even portrayed, encourages us to speculate on who could be the inhabitant of such a peculiar structure. The univocal and prescriptive relationship between humans and animals in captivity is disturbed in this piece due to the absence of the latter. We could even imagine ourselves occupying the cage as Joseph Beuys already did accompanied by a coyote for five days (Coyote: I like America and America likes me, 1974, Gallery Rene Block, New York).
special thanks and acknowledgements: Wesley Meuris; Annie Gentils Gallery, Antwerpen; C. Demeter, photo.
Key Portilla-Kawamura, Zürich-Basel, March 2005
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