At Artempo in Venice in 2007: An elephants ear, a Lucio Fontana painting, a Le Corbusier stool, Mario Fortuny textiles, Mark Rothko, lingam.
  • JG
  • At Artempo in Venice in 2007: An elephant's ear, a Lucio Fontana painting, a Le Corbusier stool, Mario Fortuny textiles, Mark Rothko, lingam.
Art has been invaded by the cabinet-of-curiosities approach.

This approach gathers dozens, if not hundreds, of heterogeneous objects together into displays where individual things are not individual things, but rather units in "theatrical art rooms that coalesce into a vast exhibit of scenography."

It is, argues Joseph Nechvatal on Hyperallergic, "a nonlinear luxurious approach that is becoming emblematic of mainstream globalization." His essay is called "Wonder World, or Against the New Universal Exhibition."

Technically, cyberspace is a homogeneous hyper-unified whole because every server of the Internet must behave exactly like any other server: the same requests must evoke the same responses. Even back in 1970, Gene Youngblood, in Expanded Cinema, maintained that the notion of universal unity is a logical result of the psychological effects of the global communications network. And it is so today in art: there is quite an appetite for totalizing collections of diversity; exhibitions that function in terms of some united principle of anti-categorization display this desire. ...

The visual suggestion is that all things are of equal interest in terms of psychic force. What matters are the relational aesthetics of diversity that construct either corresponding or contrasting relationships (it makes no difference, hence the curators can’t lose.)

Nechvatal's right: cabinets of curiosities are now everywhere in art. Beyond curators potentially squeaking past "losing" (meaning, presumably, being on the wrong side either of current style arbiters or of history), I'm not sure I understand the actual non-art stakes that Nechvatal is outlining, though he gestures toward them. He mentions "the individual’s position in relationship to the social unconscious within the media environment."

Is this another way of saying that people themselves are already reduced to units in the global theater, like the objects in these undifferentiated exhibitions? I'm not sure I disagree (isn't that a function of basic late-stage capitalism?), but neither am I sure that I can make the connective leap between aesthetic distinction-making and the formation of identity in a global media environment. Or at least, I don't know how he believes that bridge is built. My mind starts turning for sure. Read it and see what you think.

Is the cabinet-of-curiosities approach necessarily a cop-out or worse? Why are they so damned popular? And what are the differences between them, between, say, last year's Encyclopedic Palace at the Venice Biennale and the Venetian exhibition Artempo back in 2007 (I slobbered all over it), when this sort of thing really started getting going.