Monday, March 12, 2012

Creative Process Journal: Doll Houses and Wunderkammer

The Doll's House of Peronella Oortman c. 1686-1710
Inspiration for Viktor and Rolf's doll house
Another interesting aspect of the Viktor and Rolf 2008 retrospective at the Barbican Gallery was a 6-metre high doll's house which could be viewed from three different levels of the gallery. The giant Viktor and Rolf doll house references the seventeenth century cabinet houses or doll's houses from the collection of  the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where Viktor and Rolf live and work. Designed by Siebe Tettero, the Viktor and Rolf dollhouse, was three storeys, with each room containing one or more dolls dressed in a Viktor and Rolf creation.

The concept of Viktor and Rolf's doll house reminds me of a cabinet of curiosities, or what was once known as the Wunderkammer.

Wunderkammer of Ferrante Imperato, Naples 1599
As a predecessor to the contemporary museum, the Wunderkammer differed widely from the clinical, purist aesthetic common in museums today. Celebrating curiosity and wonder, the Wunderkammer was popular during the 16th to 18th centuries.  Based on the idea that "an entire cosmos could be controlled within the confines of a room", an individual would present their collection of rare and unusual objects therein. The intent was to invoke a sense of wonder and stimulate creative thought. Objects were arranged to highlight aesthetic pleasure and sometimes optical illusions were created through mirrors and special lenses as a way of further distorting reality. The notion of the bizarre, the rare and the precious was celebrated with a sense of capricious lack of rational classification.

The Cabinet of Curiosities played with the same concept but on a smaller scale, generally confined to a cabinet which revealed the collection as drawers and panels were opened. According to Walter Benjamin, the notion of collecting is a form of memory in that "Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories." (from Das Passagen-Werk, Volume 1 quoted in Putnam 12).

Museum by Joseph Cornell c1944-48

Many artists have also been inspired by the idea of Wunderkammer, using assemblage and bricolage to create collections of objects that provoke or inspire through their dialectical juxtaposition. In 1944-48, Joseph Cornell created an assemblage of objects called Museum which was presented in a red velvet lined box which emphasized the delicate contents of the glass specimen bottles contained therein.  More recently, artists like Andy Warhol (Raid the Icebox 1970), Jeffrey Vallance (The Travelling Nixon Museum 1991) Damien Hirst (Dead Ends Died Out, Explored, 1993), Fred Wilson (The Museum Mixed Metaphors, 1993), Sophie Calle (The Wedding Dress, 1999), and others have explored the concept of the museum as a medium of artistic expression.

Raid the Icebox by Andy Warhol, Museum of Art, Rode Island School of Design, 1970
I want to play with the concept of the curiosity cabinet or the more contemporary version of a museum in a box fascinating and use this form in some way as part of my creative project. How that will come together at this point, I'm not sure, but the concept  of containing memory in a box fills me with wonder.


Evans, Caroline. The House of Viktor and Rolf. Ed. Susannah Frankel, et al. New York: Merrell, 2008.

Putnam, James.  Art and Artifact, The Museum as Medium. London: Thames and Hudson, 2009.

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