Perhaps this is a mere contingency of scheduling, but there’s an interesting pairing of exhibitions at SFMOMA right now. “Joseph Cornell: Navigating the Imagination” is a vast collection of Cornell’s collages and boxes. I’d heard of Cornell but knew little about his work. I still know little about him, but now at least I know how much I don’t know, as not only was the exhibition vast, but each of Cornell’s pieces seems completely saturated with meaning. I was reminded, and I don’t suppose this is a terribly original thought, of Benjamin, both by Cornell’s method of collage (or montage, we could say) and by the sense of nostalgia that pervades many of his works. What’s interesting is that this nostalgia is not merely a sense of loss, but also of possibility, a sense that the past exists in the present as little scraps of utopia. For Benjamin, this appears in the mythological reading of the arcades as portals to the underworld; for Cornell (and here he’s an heir to Grandville, or Grandville as Benjamin reads him), the grand hotels of the past are projected into the heavens.
Benjamin himself describes this as the construction of “an alarm clock that rouses the kitsch of the previous century to ‘assembly,’” the activity of the collector. Benjamin writes:
What is decisive in collecting is that the object is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind. This relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness. What is this “completeness”? It is a grand attempt to overcome the wholly irrational character of the object’s mere presence at hand through its integration into a new, expressly devised historical system: the collection. (Arcades, H1a, 2)
How new is this system of collection, however? Is it not, in fact, the strange unmooring of a rather older system? In his chapter on “Classifying” in The Order of Things, Foucault describes “a grid of knowledge constituted by natural history“:
The documents of this new history are not other words, texts, or records, but unencumbered spaces in which things are juxtaposed: herbariums, collections, gardens; the locus of this history is a non-temporal rectangle in which, stripped of all commentary, of all enveloping language, creatures present themselves one beside another, their surfaces visible, grouped according to their common features, and thus already virtually analysed, and bearers of nothing except their own individual names…. The natural history room and the garden, as created in the Classical preiod, replace the circular procession of the “show” with the arrangement of things in a “table.” (131)
Cornell presents a kind of parodic fulfillment on this sort of natural history, producing “tables” displaying, not natural objects, but the ephemera of history itself. The collector is a parody of the scientist because, by the late 19th century, this method no longer makes sense to us; and Cornell is a parody of the collector because his assemblages of objects no longer have any purpose except to display what he knows is “a surprising and, for the profane understanding, incomprehensible connection” (Arcades, H2,7).
Something similarly incomprehensible greets the visitor to SFMOMA’s Olafur Eliasson exhibition. His piece “Model Room” is like a department store run by a mad scientist. Shelves overflow with imaginative pieces of solid geometry, stellated dodecahedrons, strange wire toroi, a kaleidoscope with the mirrors angled just so, reflecting the couple of pieces of wire at the end into a copper sphere. But Eliasson’s madness is, I think, different from Cornell’s; a collection not based on obsession, but on exuberance.
If Cornell’s work appears so fantastical because of its relation to a now impossible science, Eliasson’s is almost spookily up to date. Perhaps the clearest example of this is “Remagine,” a painting that isn’t there, as it were, formed by the overlapping light cast by a series of lamps. As with many of the works on display here, the art is intangible, immaterial, rarefied like information theory, particle physics, or cosmology. Other of Eliasson’s works emphasize nature, as with the both beautiful and rather eery “Moss Wall” (a wall of the gallery covered in still-living moss) and his photographs of stark Icelandic landscapes. Perhaps the most charming installations combine both these qualities. The rainbow-in-a-room of “Beauty” is a painstaking re-building of nature as artifice. I find myself standing in the middle of an art gallery suddenly thinking of Heston Blumenthal’s molecular gastronomy.
(The title of this post comes from a very different, but equally entertaining, idea of science, Jonathon Coulton’s song, “Still Alive”)