LASSE ANTONSEN: LOST MUSEUMS
Essay written for the “Jenks Society for Lost Museums,” Brown University, 2015
As an artist I draw on my background as an art historian and curator. I work with objects and texts. All objects and artifacts have a history, known and unknown, knowable and unknowable.
What fascinates me are the layers of narrative that can be established around any object, especially objects or artifacts situated within natural and cultural history. I seek to bring these objects into the realms of philosophy and literature.
Working within the world of what can be presented, what can be narrated, what can be contextualized, what can be imagined, I am fascinated by the history of museums, and the realm of the impossible holds a special fascination.
Jorge Luis Borges, as Eudoro, in the short-story, “Utopia of a Tired Man,” visits a future century and a man who has no name and refers to himself as “Someone.” The man, who is more than one hundred years old, displays a weariness of society and civilization, and Eudoro rather timidly asks if there are any museums and libraries in the future. The answer is “No.” The man adds: “We try to forget the past, except for the writing of elegies.” Then the man adds, “Each of us must himself produce the arts and sciences he needs.”
It turns out that “Someone” has a passion for painting, and he shows Eudoro a room with rectangular canvasses “in which yellow tones predominated.” Eudoro stopped before the smallest canvas, which “represented, or suggested a sunset and which encompassed something infinite.” The man then says: “If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend.”
Some of the canvases left Eudoro, as he says, “uneasy.” He states, “I won’t say they were blank, but they were nearly so.” “Someone” explains, “they are painted in colors that your eyes of the past can’t see.” The story ends with the following paragraph: “In my study on Mexico Street in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.”
As artist and curator I would love nothing more than to follow in Borges footsteps and bring back from the future a series of canvases painted by an artist hundreds of years from now, and to establish a room in an art museum where these nearly empty paintings would be displayed as a reminder of a future sensibility, awaiting the human eye’s evolution and ability to see them as intended. And once that happens, the museum will have been abandoned.
In 2006 I began a series of work related to the writings of Thoreau. It was at a time where the authenticity of museums devoted to a single author held a special fascination. The question of authenticity is intractably linked to Thoreau’s life and writings. He built a cabin, and its existence depended on its material manifestation, but even more on its metaphorical implications.
This statement by Thoreau struck me early in my research:
"I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust."
I decided I had to find the three pieces of limestone Thoreau had thrown out the window.
Many issues stand out in Thoreau’s statement, especially the emotional (and humorous) intensity of the language displayed. Why terrified, why disgusted? Something vital is at play. The “furniture of the mind” was apparently challenged by the immobility or forgetfulness of concrete objects.
And in Thoreau’s supposedly self-imposed simplicity, why did he have pieces of limestone on view? Were they objects of aesthetics, placing Thoreau in the context of Chinese scholar stones with natural forms suggesting vast landscapes, imaginary travel and divine forces, or were they building blocks, reminders of future or abandoned projects? Or were they objects of scientific inquiry?
Thoreau can seamlessly weave together metaphysics and comedy. In one important instance he features himself as a snake oil salesman:
"For my panacea, instead of one of those quack vials of a mixture dipped from Acheron and the Dead Sea, which come out of those long shallow black-schooner looking wagons which we sometimes see made to carry bottles, let me have a draught of undiluted morning air. Morning air! If men will not drink of this at the fountainhead of the day, why, then, we must even bottle up some and sell it in the shops, for the benefit of those who have lost their subscription ticket to morning time in this world. But remember, it will not keep quite till noonday even in the coolest cellar, but drive out the stopples long ere that and follow westward the steps of Aurora."
Again I had to create a tableau, this time of Thoreau’s bottling and selling of morning air.
What is at stake for Thoreau in the “Panacea” statement? More than anything, I believe, his metaphors are bridging a formless despair with the longing for serenity. For Thoreau, these areas of inquiry required metaphors that could only be provided by a poet’s imagination, and could only be played out within the realm of words.
In the following statement Thoreau is at one and the same time a social critic and an Orientalist:
"I have travelled a good deal in Concord; and everywhere, in shops, and offices, and fields, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. What I have heard of Bramins sitting exposed to four fires and looking in the face of the sun; or hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames; or looking at the heavens over their shoulders "until it becomes impossible for them to resume their natural position, while from the twist of the neck nothing but liquids can pass into the stomach"; or dwelling, chained for life, at the foot of a tree; or measuring with their bodies, like caterpillars, the breadth of vast empires; or standing on one leg on the tops of pillars — even these forms of conscious penance are hardly more incredible and astonishing than the scenes which I daily witness."
We do not have the footnotes for Thoreau’s references in this passage, though he says “we have heard of” and uses quotation marks. There was, however, a direct visual source for this imagery of of extreme physical and spiritual practices: the French artist Bernard Picart’s five volume book, "The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World," printed in 1723.
I decided a loose plate from this influential work of comparative religion would have been available to Thoreau, and that he had framed the image he referenced of men “hanging suspended, with their heads downward, over flames” or “chained for life, at the foot of a tree.”
I imagined Thoreau would have had the print displayed in his cabin, in a deep frame with dried vine segments as an inner ornamental frame, as a play on the vine growing on the poles holding the man suspended over fire in an image referencing time and extreme human endurance. The framed print would have been hung high and tilted forward, thereby less noticeable for the casual visitor, but easily seen by Thoreau when seated.
In our collective mental museums, imaginary tales travel. We have descriptions by writers who themselves relied on other, earlier writers or travelers, all narrating and embellishing strange foreign customs and rituals, and rarely do we have any first hand accounts.
Visually, Picart is an artist in a long line of artists depicting foreign lands and foreign cultures out of the fertile Western mind and imagination. Each artist borrowing from those who came before, and all of them limited by their own cultural references and the prevailing artistic styles. Writers and artists, all borrowing from a collective curio cabinet of the dark and outrageous that Thoreau was happy to borrow from too.
I began the series of work based on Thoreau’s writings while in residence at the Stone Quarry Hill Art Park in Cazenovia, New York in 2006. I still occasionally add to the series, which now consists of nine works, all objects for an imaginary Thoreau cabin.
DESCRIBING THE SHADOWS
In 2010, I was one of five artists featured in the year-long exhibition, “Curiouser: New Encounters With the Victorian Natural History Collection,” at the Providence Museum of Natural History in Rhode Island. The exhibition gave the artists the opportunity to do research in the museum’s collection, and to incorporate and feature objects from storage, objects the visitors rarely, if ever, have access to.
The five installations were to be displayed in the entrance atrium which - besides two paintings flanking the doorway, on the left a depiction of Copernicus, and on the right of Galilei - carries a religious text border inside the perimeter of the ceiling, drawing on Hebrews 2: 6-8 and Psalms 8: 3-5, and reads:
“WHEN I CONSIDER THY HEAVENS, THE WORK OF THY FINGERS, THE MOON AND THE STARS WHICH THOU HAST ORDAINED: WHAT IS MAN, THAT THOU ART MINDFUL OF HIM? AND THE SON OF MAN, THAT THOU VISITEST HIM? YET MADE HIM A LITTLE LOWER THAN THE ANGELS.”
In the storage spaces and cabinets in the basement of the museum I was attracted to a collection of bird skins gathered in the 19th century in India, and another selection of bird skins collected at the same time, but locally, in the immediate vicinity of the museum.
Most impressive, when pulling out drawer after drawer of bird skins, is the obsessive scientific urge to collect as many samples as possible of one species in order to compare and generalize underlying manifestations of patterns and meaning. The quest for something written in Nature, by Nature, that it would be possible to bring to light.
I decided to feature the bird skins with a text, an excerpt from a 1936 essay, “For a Militant Orthodoxy: The Immediate Task of Modern Thought,” by the French philosopher, Roger Caillois, translated and included in the collection, “The Edge of Surrealism: A Roger Caillois Reader.”
The area in the atrium assigned for my installation consisted of a shallow wall display unit and a large rectangular, covered pedestal. I decided that the two surfaces of the cabinet and the pedestal should be seen as pages in a book, and scanned the selected printed pages of the essay, and had them printed out so that the sentences would run almost the full width of the two spaces, left to right. I then mounted the enlargements on boards and cut the pages into individual sentences.
For the wall display window I built shelves and mounted the sentences onto the front of the shelves and placed rows of bird skins on the shelves themselves. Visually the sentences “carry” the birds, and the birds became interspersed as a text line. On the large pedestal, the birds were in the same manner arranged on the flat surface in rows between text lines. The enlarged text lines thereby flowed from the wall display cabinet onto the pedestal.
Caillois’ essay opens with a quote by the 19th century poet Baudelaire, which I placed in the crescent window above the the display case, and a footnote referencing another 19th century French poet, Rimbaud, which I placed on the front of the pedestal.
To the right of the large pedestal I placed a smaller pedestal with a copy of the Caillois’ Reader. Since the cover features a death-head moth, I placed a mounted specimen of a death-head moth in front of the book. To the left of the large display case I placed a large, black bird skin, a crow, as an example of a bird too large to be included in the rows of birds between the sentences.
It was important for me to create a theatrical presentation, unfolding and documenting different interpretive entry points. I gave the installation the title, “Describing the Shadows.”
The text by Caillois weaves together strands of thought related to research, art, science and society, formulated under the immanent, world-wide threat of Fascism, which had by then spread to Germany, Italy and Spain. In the context of intellectual history, the essay expresses a profound disappointment with Surrealism and its promise of a liberated reality and new consciousness.
The text, and the installation itself, was meant to establish a different conceptual framework for the existence of a natural history museums. It was not until I had created the installation that I realized that the bird skins could be read as metaphors for ideas that once were alive and “able to fly,” but are now no more than empty, albeit beautiful and alluring, feather dresses.
In the context of Borges writing, the bird skins are also “substances” from the past that should have been “scattered over the whole planet” a long time ago, but instead have been “frozen” in time, placed in the “eternal” darkness of a museum storage.
In 2014 I was invited to create an installation at the Bristol Art Museum in Bristol, Rhode Island. It gave me the opportunity to proceed with the creation of an imaginary character, something I had contemplated for some time.
The installation was called: “I AM Lidholmtheviolinmaker,” and the origin of the project was based on a book I had acquired in a used bookstore in North Carolina in 2007, a book in Latin published in 1774, comparing ancient northern European languages.
It immediately fascinated me that the book was signed “Lidholmtheviolinmaker,” merging name and occupation into one word, and also that a violinmaker would acquire a book on linguistics, already almost one hundred and fifty years old.
I knew from the name that it would have to be a Swedish violinmaker, or a violinmaker of Swedish descent. I established that the violinmaker’s full name was Erik Johan Lidholm, and that he had immigrated to America in 1892 when he was twenty-one years old.
Once settled in the United States, Lidholm apprenticed with a violinmaker in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and later established his own workshop in St. Louis, Missouri. He continued to build high quality violins under his own name until his death in 1942, at the age of seventy- one.
I was also able to established that Lidholm married and had two children, and that it was especially appreciated by his contemporaries that he was not only an outstanding violinmaker, but also a fine violin player.
The introductory wall label to the exhibition had the following text:
"In this exhibition, Antonsen is presenting objects, and altered objects, that Lidholm might have collected, treasured, and put on display. Each object in the exhibition has a wall label providing insight into Lidholm’s thinking about music, nature, travel, art and literature. As many immigrants, Lidholm was torn between a deep appreciation of his new country, with its culture, landscape and people, and a nostalgic longing for his lost homeland. Equally powerful for Lidholm was a nostalgic sense of what else he could encountered had he traveled to other countries, what other centuries he wished to have lived in, and the strange, foreign lands he traveled through at night, in his dreams."
For a curator, who has written wall labels for years, it was especially thrilling to be able to write texts that were literary, in a hybrid label and short-story format.
A niche in the entrance area of the museum, allowed me to create a site-specific installation:
“The Natural and the Ethical Mind”
Mid-18th Century French Tapestry Fragments, 19th century chair, dried leaves, flowers, branches.
The wall text reads:
While delivering a violin to a client in New York, Lidholm was invited to a workshop that restored old French tapestries. He was enthralled by the intricately woven scenes and large scale of the tapestries, their vibrant though sometimes faded colors, and the enchanting complex designs.
At a certain point he noticed a large pile of tapestry fragments. He was told that some tapestries unfortunately were beyond repair, and that the restorer not only did not have the heart to throw the individual sections away, but occasionally was able to extract yarn from the smaller fragments for his repairs.
In the warm June afternoon, sitting in front of an open window with a view of the Hudson River, Lidholm began to select a rather large group of small fragments, which the restorer agreed to let him purchase. Back in St. Louis, Lidholm decided to display the individual fragments in the alcove of the third floor hallway in his house. The hallway was adjacent to his daughter’s and son’s rooms. That fall he began to collect dried flowers, plants, and seed pods, and hung them next to shapes in the tapestry fragment they somehow echoed or spoke to.
For most of the woven fragments it was almost impossible to decide what would have been their original position within the larger tapestry they had belonged to, although some sections were clearly from borders and had repeat patterns.
What fascinated Lidholm -- and what he had selected on purpose -- were plant and flower imagery. What furthermore fascinated him was the play between nature and artifice, between the artists’ study of plants and the artists’ desire to create decorative designs.
What fascinated Lidholm more than anything, however, was that the textile fragments were created before or around the time of the writing of the American Constitution. The leaves and flowers somehow appeared to hold a key to what was the mind -- the natural and ethical mind -- behind a document created to guarantee an individual’s universal and natural freedom. Symbolically, he saw the fragments as the fragments of thinking that had given rise to the creation of the vision of what was to be the greatest country on earth.
Looking at the fragments, Lidholm was reminded of the intricate beauty and poetic strength of words when spoken and written by inspired individuals. He loved that the fragments remained open for interpretation, indicating or pointing to a much larger reality, a reality forever out of reach.
At this time, Lidholm had begun reading Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writings, and especially “Reveries of a Solitary Walker,” a work written around the time of the writing of the Constitution. Lidholm admired Rousseau and saw him as a great, yet flawed, individual and wondered if any man of genius would ultimately pay a price for his uniqueness with public persecution and hatred. He also wondered what role a narcissistic obsessiveness played in greatness, and what the attendant delusions and paranoia meant.
For Lidholm, Rousseau spun intricate, and at times, crystal clear thought patterns from natural observations, always seeking universal laws behind or beyond appearances in the actions of Man and Nature.
What also fascinated Lidholm was that Rousseau had acquired the Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus’ “Systema Naturae,” with its new classification system of plants. Rousseau described vividly in the “Reveries” his delight in a renewed study of flowers and plants, literally discovering a new dimension of Nature below his feet."
It became important for me to establish what other significant books Lidholm might have had in his library, which lead me to Cicero.
“A Passion for Discovering Truth”
Tullii Ciceronis, “Officiis,” early 20th Century Wind-Up Bird
One of Lidholm’s treasured books, was a 1616 Latin version of Cicero’s “De Officiis.” The book contained the kind of thinking that Lidholm early on had longed to partake in, and that he somehow knew had to exist somewhere, thinking that had to have been thought by somebody at some point.
Cicero had been a revelation for Lidholm once he arrived in America. In seeking balance between a life of action and a life of contemplation, Cicero stood out as the ultimate individual, a man active in politics while pursuing the depth and clarity of philosophical reflections.
Lidholm also appreciated that the book was written by an individual knowing his life was in danger and his time limited, a man who still wished to impart wisdom to his son. For many years, Lidholm felt Cicero became his spiritual father, guiding him in ways his real father had not been able to.
In the book, this especially stood out:
“Above all, the search after truth and its eager pursuit are peculiar to man. And so, when we have leisure from the demands of business cares, we are eager to see, to hear, to learn something new, and we esteem a desire to know the secrets or wonders of creation as indispensable to a happy life. Thus we come to understand that what is true, simple, and genuine appeals most strongly to a man's nature. To this passion for discovering truth there is added a hungering, as it were, for independence, so that a mind well-molded by Nature is unwilling to be subject to anybody save one who gives rules of conduct or is a teacher of truth or who, for the general good, rules according to justice and law. From this attitude come greatness of soul and a sense of superiority to worldly conditions.”
Cicero’s writing, which Lidholm had studied so intensely shortly after he arrived in America, and which he had fervently wanted to be able to read in both English and Latin, represented the trajectory of his early engagement with thinking and contemplation.
Although Lidholm moved on to many other thinkers and writers, he always felt a deep gratitude to Cicero. He marveled at the thinking of a man who had lived so long ago, and had nourished so many great individuals, century after century.
Lidholm marveled that Cicero’s thinking could be alive today, shaping an individual toward what that individual only needs to be reminded of in order to proceed on a path of contemplated action.
The Latin version of the book, published in Ingolstadt, Bavaria, in 1616, was bound in parchment, a cover that after years and years of being held by human hands exuded the extraordinary presence of the human spirit and awareness.
Lidholm had found it on top of a rare book dealer’s locked cabinet in New York. Even though rather expensive, the dealer had given him a special price. The dealer had not yet had time to repair the book, and was apologetic that it wasn’t ready to be sold, but for Lidholm, the true message of this copy of the book was its age and the marks and traces left behind by its successive readers.
The antiquated copy of Cicero’s text added a new dimension to Lidholm’s appreciation of Cicero’s writing. It physically connected him to a long line of readers who as eagerly as he, had absorbed and contemplated what right action and right thinking could be. And Lidholm was especially fascinated that the binding had started to come apart, revealing hidden handwritten pages, as if literally pointing out that there is always a text behind a text.
Lidholm also appreciated that the title page had the representation of a female, her hair spread out as if she has wings, holding scales and a sword, an image he saw as the ultimate depiction of balanced thinking.
Doubting that Cicero would be read by future generations, Lidholm placed an old wind-up bird on top of the book. The wind-up bird no longer worked, it was the carrier of a missing song, a quelled voice inside a beautiful, worn presence."
After making this tableau, as I imagined Lidholm might have done, I realized how a bird that no longer sings is thematically related to the bird skin installation I had done earlier at the natural history museum.
It has often been remarked that artists tend to circle around the same stories and themes, and it often becomes apparent that other artist and writers have developed similar themes, and that all participate in the creation of a larger context of meaning.
I was reading Haruki Murakami’s novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” at the time I began the Lidholm series, and the tableau can be seen as an homage to his work, and as an homage to the extensive presence of birds in the writing of many other authors, including Anton Chekov.
I displayed twelve tableaus and texts in the exhibition at the Bristol Art Museum. Since then I have created two more, and I am constantly amazed at how I keep finding books and objects that once belonged to Lidholm, often in places that I would least have expected.
The series is still open, and will most likely include an additional ten to twenty stories. I find myself drawn back to Lidholm’s childhood friend Sven, the girl (unnamed) he left behind in Sweden, his close friend, the poet Isaac Vollenbaum, his mother, and especially his wife.
Along the way, as I developed Lidholm as a character, I found to my surprise that he was deeply fascinated by Japanese culture, and reserved much of his metaphysical musings, especially as he got older, to the Japanese sensibility regarding nature and culture.
19th century Samurai dress, metal/paper string
Late one evening, visiting his close friend the poet Isaac Vollenbaum in Wisconsin -- while seated by the lake, looking at the moon -- Vollenbaum mentioned to Lidholm that in Japan they would build houses that had a special balcony, situated so that you could sit and watch the moon at night. Especially important would be to situate the balcony, he said, so that the moon could also be seen reflected in water, just as they now saw it reflected in the lake.
For some reason the image of moon, reflection, architecture, and landscape, created a feeling of extraordinary longing in Lidholm, almost as if a physical suction had taken place in his chest. It happened that evening by the lake, and it happened again later one afternoon, as he sat at his work table. Lidholm realized that a new awareness had entered into him, or escaped out of him, either way, something upsetting, almost violent.
On his travels, Lidholm would always make sure he had time to visit stores selling Asian artifacts. On a mild early spring day in Boston, on one of those rare days when the tulip trees are in full bloom, Lidholm came across a worn ceremonial garment of a Samurai. It was crumbled up with a pile of other clothing. The dealer asked more for it that Lidholm though reasonable, but he had to have it.
Once back in St. Louis, Lidholm hung it in his closet. It remained there for quite a long time. Lidholm was keenly aware of it being there, feeling that it was somehow his worn clothing. Not really a costume he had worn, but rather something he had been shedding, but he didn’t know where or when.
Lidholm finally decided to display it on the third floor hallway where at certain times of the year the clear moonlight would bathe the wall opposite a large window in pale, sometimes eerie, blue light.
From his studies of Shinto, Lidholm knew that it was not a religion, but rather an awareness of the unseen forces residing in Nature, an awareness channeled through ritual. But he also felt that the Japanese knew the presence of ghosts more than anybody else. The ghosts inside us, the ghosts of the dead, the ghosts leading us into the future. Perhaps the Japanese had realized that we always reside somewhere else at the same time as we are present in our ordinary state of awareness. Perhaps they knew that we are present as ghosts in the future and as ghosts in the past, and they had discovered how to make contact.
Lidholm added the white strings at one point, to indicate the breathing spiracles connecting the released dragon fly with its empty exoskeleton, referencing the kind of exoskeletons he had seen and collected at his poet friend’s lake in Wisconsin.
When I create a tableau, time and space are expanded, and the objects speak. When we are in despair, especially in a dark room at night when we ought to be asleep, we are called by a dark shadow. Quite extraordinarily, in setting up the lighting and staging of our imagination, we can have many, many shadows, all performing and interacting at once.
Lost Museums are everywhere, in the present, in the past, in the future. Many artists are motivated to create work because they long to experience something that they know somehow exists somewhere, something calling them to be materialized. Artists rescue and retrieve stories that were placed in the future, making them unfold and breathe in the present.