The lighting in the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick was subdued and dramatic for “Wunderkammer: The Museum of Lost and Forgotten Objects” by Nadia Mercuri and Sarah Field and “Epitaph: Bird Specimens and the Culture of Collecting” by Bianca Durrant.
The two exhibitions, both with lots of wonderful boxes and vitrines of objects are good but they could have been great. On seeing them I wish that these separate exhibitions had been completely combined, their themes and style are so close.
Guest speaker, Dr. Michael Vale, lecture in Fine Art at Monash University gave an excellent speech at the Thursday evening opening about the wunderkammer and the politics of display. Vale spoke about the way collections dislocate their objects, the currency of the exotic and the power relationship between the collector and the objects. He pointed out that each of the exhibitions subverted the idea of the collection turning wonders to laments.
There really are three exhibitions for although Nadia Mercuri and Sarah Field are exhibiting under the same exhibition title there are no collaborative works and the work has separate themes.
Nadia Mercuri presents her collection of glass from the Australian Studio Glass Movement of the early 1970s through to contemporary glass work. She examines disappearance of glass blowing techniques in Australia. The old movie of the glass tea pot being made projected on the wall with the actual glass tea pot underneath is perfect. This is one of the best exhibitions of glass that I’ve ever seen. Her collections of objects is fascinating because it covers the whole range of glass making from the decorative to the scientific, from finished work to the raw materials (the great box of rods of coloured glass). The rusting glass making tools contrasting the pristine glass. There are even moments of humour with metal spoons suspended in furnace glass.
Fields works polemically examines violence against women. Although this fits in with the wonderkammer aspect, with the large glass tubes of human hair and the power relationship of collecting. Field’s braiding of human hair is of exceptional quality; Mourning Pieces, 2013-14. However, Fields’s polemic wasn’t that clear in her work; the white ceramic feathers reminded me of the white feather’s that women would send conscientious objectors in WWI and the vitrine of fur, fabric with fur print and white flesh made me first think of the violence against animals for fashion.
Bianca Durrant brings together works in many different media with a focus on the Bird of Paradise. I wondered why there wasn’t a sound aspect to this exhibition as Durrant is the general manager of Liquid Architecture, the National Festival of Sound Art, maybe Bird’s of Paradise are only about the visual. Durrant’s works are mixed, her specimen drawings from the natural history collections of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin are beautifully presented in contemporary style paintings. There is a fantastic beaded feather in a vitrine (Specimen Sculpture – Astrapia stephanie duclais, tail feather, Ernst Mayr) however her beaded Birds of Paradise were a bit of a let down.
Collecting exotic birds returns to the theme of the wonderkammer. Cabinet of curiosities are part of the development of science and precursors to museums. They showed the magic of the natural world but lack the categorical boundaries that divide and organise. They are shrines to wonders and reliquaries for scientific treasures. As the modern scientific world replaced the wonderkammer there has been a resurgence of artistic interest in them.