The Wake, 2011, USA, 5:03 min, Single Channel Video, Original Soundtrack: Sebastian Meissner.
Display as Destination Culture
Dana Levy’s recent body of work in photography and video straddles several interrelated themes, from the war between nature and culture, to metaphors for freedom and constraint. Her work extends even to the use and abuse of the environment and the trafficking of natural artifacts as souvenirs. As such, I wish to look at the sites of Levy’s investigations, the locations she has selected for her shoots, which form not only the background to her films’ “action,” but which are integral to the meaning and structure of her work, oftentimes forming bridges among her various visual investigations.
Of particular interest, for instance, are Levy’s video Dead World Order, which was shot at an unusual historical museum near the harbor at Le Havre, France, and a suite of photographs of confiscated objects she found in the nearby customs’ storage rooms. While the museum houses an historical display of curiosities, Customs in the same town simultaneously stores a more contemporary, illegal variety: confiscated import objects that have been banned by the Washington Convention because they are made of animals nearing extinction. In Dead World Order, the camera follows the caretaker/curator of the museum as she moves from room to room, placing, dusting and replacing the highly eclectic objects of the collection. Through these objects, Dead World Order and the related photographic series can be linked to others, specifically Levy’s Florida Store series, in that all three represent types of souvenirs.
The notion of the souvenir brings several themes of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras into close proximity: the relationship of collecting or collections to the growth of the human and natural sciences and, in turn, this relationship to contemporary tourism and its artifacts. For in Levy’s broader body of work, which of course conveys a strong sense of the collision of culture and nature, one could even say the control of nature by culture, various practices of classification and display are exposed, leading us into a contemporary archeology of sorts. In the end, her photographs of Floridian souvenir shops are not so dissimilar to those in Dead World Order.
” The notion of the souvenir brings several themes of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras into close proximity: the relationship of collecting or collections to the growth of the human and natural sciences and, in turn, this relationship to contemporary tourism and its artifacts.”
Florida Store, 2012, C-print on metalic paper, from a series of four photographs.
No invocation of order or classification can be made without reference to the Enlightenment-era rise, in Foucauldian terms, of the “Modern Episteme,” the period, in which both the human and natural sciences are born, eventually bringing about the type of scientific approach to collecting, classification and display we know today. Such types of classification systems form the background of two of Levy’s other video works The Wake and Silent Among Us, both filmed in types of museums of natural history. The “Modern Episteme” is marked by an attribution of a history to objects. According to Foucault, during the “Modern Episteme” era, human beings, artifacts and, even language, start to have a history and the sciences for tracing these histories begin to form, up to and including the nineteenth century. In order to achieve this, Foucault argues, systems of classification not previously in existence are born. Without these systems, objects of study cannot be seen as having each their own histories. “To classify, therefore, will no longer mean to refer the visible back to itself, […]; it will mean […] to relate the visible world to the invisible, to its deeper cause, as it were.”(1) For instance, studies of language become philology, studies of species become evolutionary, studies of the human psyche become typological. This is the case due, in fact, to the creation of a grid (the grid of human rationality) for displaying and comparing artifacts, as in the gridded drawers designed to display monarch butterflies in The Wake, or similarly, the fossil record display in many natural history museums, or even in the shelving, encasements and displays in Silent Among Us. Indeed, it is during the rise of the “Modern Episteme” that the natural history museum is conceived and named.
Disengagement, Still from a Video, 2005, Austria, 3:00 min.
By the mid-sixteenth century, as colonialism expands to all parts of the globe, just prior to the emergence of Foucault’s “Modern Episteme,” we witness the emergence of the “curiosity” in Western Europe and with it, its particular mode of display, what has become known as the “cabinet of curiosities” or “Wunderkammer,” in which such systems of classification do not exist in the same way. Instead, objects are displayed together in groupings based on similarity or the aesthetic considerations of the owner. One of the earliest known collections, which began before the first usage of the term “curiosity” in this particular sense, is that begun by the humanist and theologian Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1536. His collection was of such importance that it was acquired in full by the city of Basel in 1661, forming the heart of one of the world’s first public art collections. Indeed, due to this individualistic aspect of self-edification, as Stephan Bann notes, “[f]or the scientific temper of a scholar like Bacon or Descartes, the habit of ‘curiosity’ was offensive because it attached itself almost obsessively to the individual object, rather than using classes of objects to arrive at general conclusions which would have the force of law.”(2)
The Fountain, 2011, USA, 3:00 min, Single Channel Video, Sound by Matthew Dotson, I-park Residency.
The earliest collections were non-scientific of course, but more importantly, they represent an emerging globalism, which later develops into the scientific gathering of specimens and artifacts. Derived as they were from the travel to the New World and the Near and Far East, such collections were from the beginning the result of travel. Travels, even if only within Europe, are reason enough to bring home things and fragments of things: human mummies, or chips of ancient sculptures. No “natural” or historical link was necessary among such objects to rationalize their collection. Indeed, the cabinet of curiosities, which began as a show of power, is always linked to travel, hence, one would suppose, the location of the museum near a seaport in Levy’s Dead World Order.
In many senses, Levy’s current body of work suggests a bridge between what might be called “display culture” and, what scholar Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls “destination culture” (3) in her study of historically themed museums and contemporary ethnography. They meet at the site where the absurd and the scientific overlap in the fantastical imagination of the beholder or owner of the artifact or souvenir. Transported to the here and now, coming to life or encased in glass, the objects and creatures, as represented in Levy’s recent work, can be seen to meld display with destination culture, as much as a living fantasy is, and can be, based on a deadening, re-ordering of things.
1. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences
(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p. 229.
2. Stephen Bann, “Shrines, Curiosities, and the Rhetoric of Display,” in Visual Display: Culture Beyond Appearances (Discussions in Contemporary Culture), Lynne Cooke and Peter Wollen, eds. (New York: The New Press, 1999), p. 24.
3. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
Christopher Eamon is an independent curator and writer. He has curated exhibitions at international museums and galleries and published books on film and video art. He is the former director of the distinguished Pamela and Richard Kramlich Collection, San Francisco; and the New Art Trust; and former assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Spreads from World Order, published in collaboration with Sternthal Books, Braverman Gallery, and CCA Tel-Aviv.
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