all images are copyright the artists

ex 2009 essay : an abridged history of curiosity

collected for return

‘So that representation, perpetually bound to contents so close to one another, repeats itself, recalls itself, duplicates itself quite naturally, causes almost identical impressions to arise again and again, and engenders imagination.’1

Discussing the works assembled in ex is to discuss a history of curiosity; a history which finds itself rooted in the spaces in which we encounter these works. Repeated and restated within these spaces, the works’ collective claim to an inherited history becomes apparent, a history both engendered by, and engendering, curiosity.

The early modern period represented a culture in which the relationship between the collecting compulsion, disquisition and interrogation became inextricably entwined under the rubric or habit of curiosity. Voyages of discovery revealed ‘new worlds’ and ever expanding limits where curiosity represented not only a desire for knowledge, but in the face of increasing mercantile power, a desire for individual power through unsanctioned knowledge; a mark of discontent.

The origins of museums - wunderkammer - cabinets of wonder or curiosity, were personalised collections both eclectic and disparate in their design, typified by the accumulation and juxtaposition of artificial and natural curiosities. These collections were characterised by their preoccupation with the ‘curio’ or singular object - a disorganisation of rarities, which could best be described as encyclopaedic, and largely unspecialised. To a contemporary viewer, it is difficult to discern any kind of veritable classificatory system; however, the apparent disorder of Renaissance cabinets can reveal carefully constructed narratives - taxonomies of tangential and associative connections. These collected specimens and objects could be juxtaposed and arranged by the similitudes of congenital qualities, seeking to understand the world by evidencing likenesses. In this way, it was perfectly judicious to sit pinecones by the side of hedgehogs.

‘The ‘cabinet of the world’ had to manifest the similitudes which crossed the entire known world. This could best be achieved by assimilating, and therefore controlling, the most diverse and strange objects: the extremities of the world’.2

Curiosity represents the extremes of existence - and in order to represent the whole world, the curio, as an object ‘on the edge’ as it were, also represents knowledge of the ‘interior’. A collection of curios denotes not only ‘what is known’, but conversely, sitting on the borders or periphery of knowledge, what is still unknown - and as such, can only be defined a ‘curio’ because of its ‘unknowability’. The collected object is a fragment, dislocated from origin and the collection itself is a mirrored, artificial world, abstracted from reality; organised within these temporally suspended realms, objects pertain to the narrative which ensnares them - that of the collector. The collection asserts itself as autobiography.

On show is a collection in itself; ex represents a selection of work from students, now artists, at the end of their (our) current studies. While each work is varied and distinct from the next, representing a discursive course through diverse interests, intents, contexts and modes of production, the siting of the exhibition at Leeds College of Art is a return to an origin for each artist who began their studies here, recognising an identified interiority. This collection asserts itself, perhaps less as an ‘autobiography’, but as a collective history, a circular narrative which ends, as it began, at a point of genesis. Rather than inhabiting the sepulchral, retrospective nature of the museum, ex is averse to dusty nostalgia, and as much as it revisits ‘where it all began’, it also marks another beginning, as each artist enters the professional stage of their careers; it represents challenges and chases still unknown.

Art school often seemed bewildering – leaving art school seems even more so – being the first step to running the gauntlet of residencies, awards, dealers, exhibitions, galleries, reviews and grants which (supposedly) lend initiates validity. While the passage to come remains uncertain, built as it is on a shifting, fluctuating foundation of possibilities (this too characterised by its unknowability) the works which are exhibited here seem to reside in a resting place, poised before the tempest. Bringing together this confluence of narratives sees works gathering new associations and alliances, and perhaps some confidence, narratives which might only inhabit spaces together for the first or second (and possibly last?) time. Each one of these works, uttered through individual vernaculars, commingles to vivify a mixed range of discourses and in protean form the space becomes a place for dialogue, for meetings and reciprocal exchange.

As curiosities allowed early collectors ‘access to invisible worlds by enabling them to piece together fragments of the visible world’3 - their methodologies loosening categories in being both indirect and lyrical, the works here find compatriotism in that they are all ‘in pursuit’. Artists create trajectories between worlds - they question, but the thrill is in the hunt, in curiosity - the query taking precedence over categorical or prescriptive answers. Curiosity relies on looking between and outside fixed meaning - and recognizing that while every answer gains an opposite idiom, they do not always have to exist as separate, discrete factions. Perhaps they do not reject conventional modes of knowledge so much as instigate singular enquiries into the existent dominant hierarchies, seeking what is uncertain and unsanctioned. They interrogate their ‘knowns’ and upset the ontologies of their investigations. While these works could be classified as poetic, confrontational, uncanny, they are never so reductive in articulating their own delimitations, existing outside of the regulating precincts of prevailing frameworks and disrupting equilibriums. Even as the artist engages the commonplace, or conventions of their own construction and control, the everyday is transformed and brought to occupy peripheral territories.

The works are encountered on stairwells, in corridors, provoking moments of unexpected arrest and creating fissions between both the presented pieces and their surroundings. They inhabit, rather than impose on the building, which becomes a conduit to how we confront and navigate the works. This spatial experience of the exhibition maintains our own ‘curious gaze’; a gaze that searches out things not yet seen, antithetic to the ‘enlightened’ empirical and restricted vision which replaced that of the first curio collectors. Displayed without assertive agendas, we are invited to establish our own connections between works.

ex is an anthology of journeys - like that of the Renaissance explorer, traversing beyond his ‘known’, these objects, brought back from their destinations, lend the detail and the colour to their constituent narratives – they are objects still invested with the travellers curiosity, perhaps less returned than still in motion, artefacts through which the journey is kept alive with possibilities. Works lead us throughout this derivation, but punctuate the space as protagonists who last met together in a prologue, converging again here where they are re-called and re-told as anecdotal forms, multilateral in their significations. The curation of this exhibition is much like the wunderkammer; residing within the ‘gaps’ and through - spaces of the building it holds no categories, no hierarchies or classifications as an unspecialised (dis) organisation of rarities. Congruously, the connections we find between these works are personal and associative, their only concrete relation being that they are compellingly hosted in a site of origin, fragments of journeys not yet completed. This history of curiosity can only ever be abridged, because the greater part of it lies in potential, in expectations, in what is still to come.

Nicola Celia Wright 2009

1. Michel Foucault. The Order of Things. (New York: Routledge Classics, 2002 c.1970) p.78

2. Sean Hides ‘The Genealogy of Material Culture and Cultural Identity’ in Pearce, Susan M (ed.) Experiencing Material Culture in the Western World (pp.11-32) (London: Leicester University Press; Cassell Imprint, 1997) p.18

3. Neil Kenny The Uses of Curiosity in Early Modern France and Germany.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) p.1