A few days ago I visited the Art Institute of Chicago. Among the many works there—including the new Picasso exhibition—one thing that later struck me was a small section called “Cabinets of Curiosity.” These are meant to stand in for the type of 16th century collections of rare, expensive (or both) items, that would have certainly been “curious” to the collector and the collector’s contemporaries. Items, like those shown in the photo above, include sea shells from the Americas, Chinese porcelain, and more. I thought to myself, how odd it is, that even now when I have access to images of so many of the items in museums across the world, we still are drawn to the physical originals. I’m sure this is a worn-out topic in art history, but the question still strikes me. The museum’s corresponding text on the wall reminds me, however, that perhaps a sense of the sacred within objects seems weaker than was normal in the 16th century: “Collectors believed that the magical properties of relics and rare minerals were further enhanced by the workmanship of master craftsmen; in other words, the handiwork of nature was complemented by that of man.” My one wish would be that the museum had collected some of these “cabinets” as they were curated by the original collectors themselves, rather than make their own cabinets by all the means afforded by such an institution in the 21st century. I’d love to read any associated texts written for these princely courts.
I was brought back to the memory of my recent visit to the museum when reading William Gibson’s novel Count Zero, which is set somewhere in the future–perhaps 100 years or less from now. Even there, Gibson imagines that our curiosity for such things would remain fresh. In a meeting in virtual reality, where the setting is a replica of Antoni Gaudí’s Park Guëll, a curator is entranced by a rare work of art in a box, owned by a wealthy businessman:
“The object set into that length of bone is a Braun biomonitor. This is the work of a living artist.”
“There are more? More boxes?
“I have found seven. Over a period of three years. The Virek Collection, you see, is a sort of black hole. The unnatural density of my wealth drags irresistibly at the rarest works of the human spirit. An autonomous process, and one I ordinarily take little interest in. . . .”
But Marly was lost in the box, in its evocation of impossible distances, of loss and yearning. It was somber, gentle, and somehow childlike. It contained seven objects.
The slender fluted bone, surely formed for flight, surely from the wing of some large bird. Three archaic circuit boards, faced with mazes of gold. A smooth white sphere of baked clay. An age-blackened fragment of lace. A finger-length segment of what she assumed was bone from a human wrist, grayish white, inset smoothly with the silicon shaft of a small instrument that must once have ridden flush with the surface of the skin–but the thing’s face was seared and blackened.
The Box was a universe, a poem, frozen on the boundaries of human experience.
Although Marly experiences the sensation of this box within virtual reality, her knowledge of its reality excites her more than any other fabricated replica of the same thing. Perhaps it is the item’s rarity, or its evocation of human experience and history that draws us into such things. Is it merely just a crumbling hurdle of proper replication of these objects for the viewer to see?
I could spend a whole day perusing pictures online of paintings by Mark Rothko, but it never compares to standing before the colossal works and feeling their soft colors loom tragically in space.