No Wondercabinet for the Waxworks

Yesterday I braved the den of screaming children that is the Science Museum to see what I thought was their revamped display of the Wellcome collection.  I’d read about it on one of my favourite blogs, Morbid Anatomy.  Wellcome’s eccentric somatic artifacts fascinate me, as does the man himself.  The sample collection on display at the Wellcome museum is a very tough act to follow, and I was disappointed to find there was nothing new in the Science Museum’s History of Medicine display, save at the entrance which featured snippets from the Brother’s Quay film that uses some of the collection.  There are a few fascinating objects here– a velvet-lined drug chest, elegant bullet extractors and the loneliest mummy in London. The rest is just dimly lit and numbingly chronological, with dry notations in an 80’s font.

Apparently what has been revamped is the online gallery. While missing the wonder cabinet aspect of the Wellcome’s curation, the objects themselves are fascinating, if difficult to find.  (For a fun starter search, type in “amulets” or “gas mask”  on the object page.  If you want to see the extensive chastity belts in the collection the search will yield no joy. Maybe it’s a work in progress.)

While trying to find the Art of Medicine on the 5th floor, I wandered into History of Medicine gallery on the seemingly secret 4th floor.  All the stairs to the 4th floor are roped off, and it seems only one of the numerous lifts go there. By the time you find it, you’ve left the sticky crowds of school children behind and start to wonder what the museum is hiding here.

I can heartily recommend finding it.  Why fork out £20 quid at the London Dungeon whilst being crowded by hoards of tourists when you can totally get vibed out for free at the History of Medicine dioramas?  I guarantee you that you will be alone whilst taking in the “Dentistry in the 1930s” wax tableau as well as the seen-better-days Modern Operating Room circa 1978 (just what are they doing to that poor wax sod?  Why is the blood transfusion bag all brown and crusty?).  Don’t forget the dimly lit amputation.  It’s hard to make out much beyond the tarred wax leg in the foreground.  And in the center of the floor: a cavernous Victorian sweet shop of a chemist, where the mustachioed wax man leans over the counter to help two wax girls with giant bows in their hair, his old timey jars and bottles obscured in shadow.

I should really mention the most soulful of the exhibits: the neolithic trepanning diorama.  Call me crazy, but those hirsute dudes look a lot more comforting than the wax doctors in the other exhibits.  (Insert need-a-hole-in-the-head joke here).

Palace of Pills from the Marketing Drugs to Doctors case
Palace of Pills from the "Marketing Drugs to Doctors" case

The exhibit’s timeline makes an unintentional argument.  Despite all the advances in modern medicine, the cures and curers are often no less terrifying than a caveman with a sharpened rock.

National Gallery Grand Tour Catalog

From the book’s flyleaf:

“One warm(ish) night in June 2007, while most people were tucked up in bed, paintings from the National Gallery were being ‘set free’ in London. The streets of Soho, Chinatown and Covent Garden were turned into an open-air gallery…”

This catalog for the National Gallery Grand Tour captures perfectly the street life of the paintings: “instead of the public seeking out its art, the art sought out its public.” And this was like the dream-scene in Will Self’s Book of Dave, where all the statues in London come to life and flock to Trafalgar Square.

Plus, this blog is quoted (liberally and prominently) in it– which is a thrill.

Tabloids and Snake Oil

Yesterday I went with M and my friends Alice and Kate to the Wellcome Museum. It was one of those museum-going experiences that lives up to its name– startling and beautiful enough to be a muse of sorts. It is no surprise the museum’s collections have inspired anthologies of fiction in The Phantom Museum, as well as a Quay Brothers film of the same name.

Glaxo Wellcome, the company behind the trust which funds the museum, manufactures the anti-AIDs drug Retrovir (AZT), and has also come under fire for charging an inhumane price for it. This company also makes Ventolin, an inhaler that has dramatically increased my quality of life and no doubt the lives of countless other asthmatics.

sm_wellcome.jpgHenry Wellcome was, among other things, a collector. An American expatriate from the mid-west, this is where our commonality ends. He was a door-to-door drug salesman turned Sir, immersed in men’s clubs and colonial and capitalist pursuits. The summary of his life reads like a book I would avoid, yet I am completely compelled by him, and not just because of the impressive moustache. It is, I confess, his Sadean magpie tendencies, only barely visible in the public collection, that threaten to obsess me.

Henry Wellcome dressed as a Monk

In 1913 he opened a museum of medical history to display objects he had acquired on his travels, but one had to petition in writing to enter the museum, as he did not want “stragglers” in attendance. The museum closed in 1932 and his collection remained in storage for many years. Now a portion of the collection is displayed artfully in the new Wellcome Museum which is free to the public. The small selection of objects are arranged thematically in the Medicine Man gallery in a Freudian triad of birth, sex and death.

The sensation upon entering is that of a straggler walking into a slick, Scandinavian Design wunderkammer. The walls are paneled with a warm wood and the collection displayed within them is almost without text– curation optional. Explanation is secreted away: one must open small doors in the walls in order to read acompanying text, or slide out a drawer to hear an audio commentary. The visitor is left with all the mystery and emotional complexity of the objects themselves.

Death in a medical museum is obvious. Increasingly we encounter death in a clinical setting, and death itself has been pathologized. But sex and medicine is something rarely talked about. Immediately one notices Wellcome’s two portraits, both with a bold moustache. In one he sports a headress adorned with vulvic shells and his eyes sparkle with a singlemindedness, the charismatic maddess of a Rasputin. He is teh hotness. (This other image of Wellcome dressed as a monk is from the Wellcome Library Archives)

To cure one must also seduce. All my life I have been a patient, a sickly girl. Before a man ever touched me with love, doctors had their way with me. (I survived what could be called molestation at the hands of a doctor, but that is actually not what I am getting at here.) I have had a crush on a doctor who was young and attentive and seemed at the time to cure me.

Many of the amulets and tools on display are sexual devices– a tortoise shell dildo or tiny sexual positions diagrammed inside ceramic fruit. But many of the non-erotic items seem to argue the erotic power of the ameliorative object: an elegant artificial hand, more beautiful than the one it replaces; a web of satin ribbons for repositioning the ears, an ebony-handled saw.

The patient’s faith and trust can’t be coaxed or bribed or threatened into being. Perhaps this is why Wellcome gathered not only countless forcepts and knives but also phallic amulets and tera cotta offerings like vulvic cakes– some of the most moving objects in the collection. The smoothed, triangular shape of the vulvas look like huge tablets–“tabloids”– the form which Wellcome invented. Wellcome’s interest in drug marketing must have lead him to remote places in search of such faith-loaded objects, but this can only be a partial explanation of his collection. (It is no surprise that until 1995 the logo for the company was a unicorn, the elusive animal who would only show itself to the pure and faithful.)

But perhaps most marvelous and strange are the torture implements Wellcome collected– a scold’s bridle– an iron mask meant to be worn by women, often accused witches, on their way to burning. Also a chair of blades which is displayed keenly next to a birthing chair and a 19th century dentist’s chair. One notices on the Victorian chair the wooden lions’ heads decorating the armrests have had their manes worried down to smooth, shining masses by the pain-grip of numerous patients, and the footrest contains a bar to brace the feet. Also amongst these torture implements are little spiked rings– male anti-masturbating devices, displayed next to a bog-standard iron and velvet chastity belt, said to be medieval but probably a 19th century fetish object.

One could argue that the fascination with these objects is morbid and voyeuristic, but I am more intrested in Wellcome’s reason for obtaining them. Could it have been a leap of compassion on his part? An attempt to present in material form the more abject and complex condition the sick face in the hands of an always inadequate medical establishment? That brutal and demeaning control of the body, the many uses of pain– what patient of a chronic and near-fatal illness could forget it? Not I.

Couture is Dead, Long Live Couture

Juliana Sissons Knitwear

Last night my friend Kate and I hit the V&A late– it was some kind of couture evening, so they had movies, wine, DJ’s and workshops. We went to a pattern cutting workshop taught by knitwear designer Juliana Sissons. She was a pattern cutter for Alexander McQueen. We learned how to make a pattern block and got started on making a corset pattern. She gave us handouts for making a 19th century corset and I hope to attempt making one.

She was a great teacher, but beyond that her knitwear designs were spectacular. This is one of her designs to the left. Here are her designs from London Fashion Week, 2006. Totally inspiring. It made me want to break out of the chunky knitting i’ve been doing and really dive into some lingerie inspired matrix-y sweaters.

We watched most of The Secret World of Haute Couture. The director’s persistence in gaining access to the highly guarded world of designers and their obscenely rich clients was admirable, and the film argued convincingly that this was a dying art, as even rich people are wearing pret-a-porter now. But the hideous women clients and the designers themselves seem to belong to such a rarefied and sychophantic world where starving was openly mentioned numerous times– it was hard to feel convinced by any of it. We found ourselves laughing openly at much of it. After watching countless rich ugly women in ugly clothes, we decided to go get some wine, listen to the DJs playing remixes of 80’s stuff like Bronski Beat and people watch. Maybe it’s time for couture to die, I thought while looking around at the street-wise fashion in the main hall. I love people watching at the V&A– it’s the one place in London where you can count on seeing people dressed in high spirits.

Fall into the Craic

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

-Judges 12:5-6

Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth replaces the “fun for the whole family” Unilever slides in the Turbine Hall at the Tate.

The installation is dramatic and strange and at first I thought it a bit too facile in terms of its metaphors– a visual pun on “ground breaking” and “shaking the foundations” of the museum.

But then I thought about the name– which, depending on how you pronounce it, could cost you your life– according to a story in the Hebrew Bible.

When I was in school being taught King Lear by a Scot, I marveled at her pronunciation of Gloucester. It’s glosster not glawchester, she corrected me. She was a snob who hated James Joyce. And she also would say “If you can’t spell or pronounce a word correctly, it’s not yours to use” which was essentially silencing a good number of her students. I think she liked it that way.

Living in London as an expat I’m continually reminded that I pronounce things wrong. Now that I live here, I often mumble names if I have not yet heard them aloud, hoping to buy some time until I hear exactly which consonants are swallowed, which vowels are stretched, etc. And of course there are shared words that I must say in my own way, no matter how damning my own accent. How astitute that Salcedo would top off her subversive installation in the land of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle with this title.

Moving here has taught me another “otherness”– I am from a colonized nation, though a remote one that has now become the colonizer. How do you say disorienting? Ok, now say it with a mouth full of marbles.

Salcedo’s piece is serious and angry. Heavy. But there is also something hilarious about it. Watching people follow the fracture up the floor, all peeking as if they are looking for some secret treasure, the point of it all, the inner workings of the Oz of the art world.

I have to admit what I loved most about it were the signs installed by the museum which warned people to watch their step and mind their children. The crack is just the right size for a foot, a hand or a child’s head to get wedged in and stuck there. In an age where museums pander to children to the point of the shamelessness and garish simplicity, it’s nice to see something so small– so seemingly banal– and dangerous.

Train Spotting on National Gallery Grand Tour

I had just emerged from swanky dim sum in the subterranean aquarium of Yauatcha with my friend Liza when I was startled to find that we we in front of a large-scale reproduction of Holbein’s The Ambassadors. The anamorphic skull at the base of the painting confronted passers by– a distorted momento mori at their feet.

When I was studying art in school, I had a bit of a crush on this painting. It made me feel warm and fuzzy, and not just because the men in it were dashing, but their range of possessions fascinated me, and the skull, which my mind could see by turning the painting widdershins inside itself– it was magical. Seeing it on Berwick before me, I was wooed all over again.

Rubens on Ganton

Next, we stumbled upon Samon and Delilah on Ganton street– Ruben’s dimpled and generous flesh at eye level— and I knew something was up. I was in Soho– a place full of ad agencies, fashionable clothing stores and porno dens. Samson saited with sex on Delilah’s generous lap– this was really out of place here in the bastion of mechanized sex and silicone, air brushing and size zero dresses.

After returning home and doing some Googling I realized this wasn’t just a fluke, it was an actual show. The National Gallery has hung replicas of several paintings from their collection throughout the streets of Soho and Covent Garden, with surreal and fantastic results. I made a list of all the paintings I wanted to see, drew myself a map and headed back into Soho.

Some, unmapped, thrust themselves upon me. Others came with an Easter-egg hunt satisfaction– their gold frames an eye-catching give away. Some, like the Rousseau that I most wanted to find, eluded me.

Madame Pompadour at her Tambour Frame, Drouais.

She would die a month before this painting was completed. Blamed for the Seven Years War and called the “Godmother of Rococo,” here she sits beside a queue of taxis, outside the Picadilly station, working at her needlepoint with her little black dog.

Caravaggio’s Salome Receiving the Head of John the Baptist.

Someone curating this has a sense of humor. Painted while Caravaggio was on the run for killing a man– he used prostitutes and criminals as models, so in many ways this painting is at home in Walker’s Court, a narrow alley of sex shops. I would have liked to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Beheading Holofernes here, but all the same, the choice of Salome is inspired. Much has been written about beheadings in art history as metaphors for castration, but I will leave that up to the Freudians.

Despite generic chain store take over and general sleaziness of much of London streets, many corners remain elegant, and this show seems to prove this. As I was walking I saw many perfect naked spaces that wanted an image.

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, Jospeh Wright of Derby.

I found this one by surprise, meandering off Wardour. Wright uses chiaroscuro, usually a technique used by artists like Caravaggio to relay a spiritual dichotomy of dark and light. Here the dichotomy is presumably in the service of science– enlightenment or ignorance. Only the picture’s moral ambiguity saves it from being pedantic.

The cruelty of the spectacle was heightened for me– on the sidewalk before the reproduction lay a disemboweled bird, and a few feet away a nutter followed what looked to be its mate, speaking to it as if it were an acquaintance, and periodically reaching out for it. Why the bird didn’t fly away is troubling to contemplate. Of all the reproductions, this was the only one that has suffered a vandal– somone had keyed the surface beneath the gentleman on the far left. I wondered if it was the same man that was tormenting the birds there, performing his own cruel experiment beneath the candle lit scene.

The show, sponsored by Hewlett Packard, is supposedly graffiti proof. The blogosphere has called it a “challenge to Banksy” and “two fingers up to Banksy.” But in many ways, the National Gallery has learned a trick or two from Banksy. Musuems in London are free, so this lesson is not so much about accessibility but recontextualization. Does the art elevate the street? Or, more happily, does the street change the art, humanizing it so that the paintings become mirrors for myriad Londoners. Ironically, the public display makes the work more intimate, private.

Grotesque Old Woman, attributed to Quentin Massys, Foubert’s Place.

I saved the Grotesque Old Woman, one of my favourite paintings in the National Gallery, for last. Sure, the intention is mysogynist, but she is such a fabulous creature– more memorable than the hundreds of portraits of beauties hung about her in the museum. But here she is alone on a brick wall, above some plumbing, holding her own. I stood there saying my silent hello, as a old man on a ciggie break sitting on the bench beneath the painting became increasingly annoyed at my presence. From what I could tell he had no idea what was behind him– a typical, incurious Londoner– sitting in front of what could be a suitable beau for him! He soon had enough of my hovering and wheeled his rolling suitcase away, cursing under his breath.

The treasure hunt aspect of the Grand Tour made me confront my shifting topography of Soho, the place I frequent most in London. I’ve gotten lost in the most familiar of streets there. Soho is infinite and mazelike, a meeting place of shifting landmarks and furtive delights. It seems fitting to me that the National Gallery has secreted away these surprises here.

A map of the paintings as I found them.