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Jurassic Sequels 

Bughouse anthropology and panoramania

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001

From time to time I have lent my hand as a tester of loose electrical wiring (among other chores) at the Museum of Jurassic Technology -- which is why you never read me on the subject of what is surely one of the single greatest artworks of the ‘90s in Los Angeles. People come and go in the backroom at the Jurassic -- carpenters, artists, inventors, writers, interns, homeless schizophrenics -- and two of the young women I met passing through that dark place have since re-emerged elsewhere in Los Angeles, with ambitious installations that draw on their time in Mr. Wilson’s gnomelike presence.

Mimicking the sheer unlikeliness of the Jurassic -- a pocket of 19th-century cultural anachronism in the middle of a crumbling, sun-blasted commercial neighborhood -- the Velaslavasay Panorama sits hunched among the palm trees of Hollywood Boulevard like a UFO with its cultural cloaking device stuck on the wrong era. From the outside, it‘s ’50s tiki-tecture, namely the Tswuun-Tswuun Rotunda, a former Chinese restaurant slightly east of the Walk of Fame, slightly west of the giant hot-dog sculpture next to Le Sex Shoppe.

Inside, it‘s a curious hybrid of pre-modern pop-cultural re-creation and postmodern painting practice. Artist and proprietress (and former Jurassic intern) Sara Velas’ “360-degree marvel” is a revival of a mostly forgotten precursor to cinema -- particularly CinemaScope and IMAX. Patented by Robert Barker in 1787 as “an entire new contrivance or apparatus, which I call La Nature a Coup d‘Oeil, for the purpose of displaying views of Nature at large by Oil Painting, Fresco, Water Colours, Crayons or any other mode of painting or drawing,” the panorama, as it came to be known, took on many forms but always boiled down to the use of a painted, illusionistic vista that stretched past the viewer’s peripheral vision, often to form a complete cylinder. A small industry grew up around this form of entertainment, and many of the hundreds of buildings devoted to panoramas were outfitted for elaborate theatrical displays, including music, narration, sound effects, special lighting and projected magic-lantern slides. A panorama built for the Paris Fair of 1900 re-created a railway voyage from Moscow to Peking in 45 minutes, using ultrarealistic luxury railcars as the theater and four concentric bands of painted scenery, each more gigantic than the last, which spun past at different speeds to simulate the parallax view, at up to 1,000 feet per minute.

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In some ways, Velas is more of a purist, using only the single-cylinder format and judiciously dimmed recessed lighting to create her immersive simulation. But touches of less than academically anal fidelity to historical accuracy in many aspects of the presentation queer the deadpan museological pitch of her panorama, opening the discussion to contemporary critical fascination with this particular piece of obsolete virtual-reality technology (beginning with Walter Benjamin) and to the imprint of the artist, whose original chosen medium -- Velas studied painting with Sabina Ott in St. Louis -- often requires elaborate conceptual framing to buttress its currency. The painting itself is fluid and sketchy, a landscape of the Los Angeles basin as it might have appeared 150 to 200 years ago, at the height of the original panoramania. The Panorama of the Valley of the Smokes is well-painted in a way that serves its primary illusionistic function, but there is no attempt to re-create the style of the era. Sketched-in pencil marks showing through hazy washes, roughly impastoed daubs of paint representing foreground blossoms, and a general fuzziness of detail constitute an impressionistic take on reality that would have scandalized paying customers 150 years ago.

But early on in its evolution, the panorama was already sensational -- the moral equivalent of Sensurround -- and the reduction in stimuli between bustling Hollywood Boulevard and the serene, low-impact Velaslavasay Panorama environment is jarring in an inverse way to its ancestor. Velas has plans to include three-dimensional diorama effects and projected slides (some audio would be nice) in future displays. Having recently applied for nonprofit status, she hopes to establish her quirky anachronism as a new kind of Hollywood landmark, changing the show periodically as the institution settles into the neighborhood as a fixture for locals and a stop for offbeat tourists.

Speaking of offbeat tourists, they don‘t come much more offbeat than Aby Warburg. Warburg (1866-- 1929), a German-Jewish art historian and anthropologist who traveled from Hamburg to Arizona in 1895 to photograph Hopi kachina ceremonies, developed elaborate art-historical theories about the recurrence of pagan visual symbolism in the European Enlightenment and world culture (well before Jung), and documented his researches in a semipublic library (which continues to this day as the Warburg Institute in London) that was labyrinthinely cross-referenced using a modular cataloging system that has been recognized as a precursor of the Internet. Much of Warburg’s investigations were an attempt to reconcile the rational and the irrational in a way that was continuous with European cultural history -- at a time when the European nation-state‘s fundamental zaniness was learning to express itself industrially. By the end of World War I, the deeply personal aspect of this schism drove Warburg to the bughouse (a.k.a. Kreuzlingen Bellevue Sanatorium), where he remained for five years.

Warburg literally talked his way out of the insane asylum, striking a deal with his keepers that if he could deliver a coherent lecture to doctors, fellow inmates and academic colleagues, he would be free to go. The text of that successful bid for “Not Insane” status forms one of five equivalent points of entry to “Asylum in the Library: The Method, Madness and Magic of Aby M. Warburg,” a small but ambitious exhibit at UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Another cylindrical environment steeped in the aesthetics of classical museology, the Fowler exhibit is the master‘s thesis of Hannah Miller, former digital exhibition designer at the Jurassic. Miller is one of the first two graduates of UCLA’s new critical and curatorial studies program, headed by artist Mary Kelly and cultural artifact Henry Hopkins.

Miller‘s show works on several levels simultaneously. It is beautifully installed -- a warm wooden maze with subdued lighting, extraordinary visual components and murmuring soundtracks -- improbably plunked in the midst of a vast and excellent (though more conventionally installed) survey of Latino posters. The show’s circular structure mimics the oval reading room at the center of Warburg‘s original library, an exquisite model of which stands at the center of the exhibit -- one of several original artworks commissioned for the show. Surrounding the model are reproductions of representative pages from Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an elaborate scrapbook designed to lead the viewer by image alone through his ideas on the history of human expression. Opening off this chamber are four small, curved galleries containing, respectively: a slide show illustrating his bughouse lecture, which equates the rattlesnake ceremonies of the Hopi with Greek and Roman mythology; an artist‘s re-creation of wax votive figures of the Medici family; a cloud-bedecked display on a Renaissance theatrical pageant re-creating Apollo battling the great Python; and an elaborate display of mock books comprising an astrological exegesis by Warburg on a nearby Durer etching.

While this package makes for a sensational first impression, offering a marvelous public spectacle in the finest Wunderkammern tradition (like, what’s with those feet?), its seemingly arbitrary showmanship dissolves as the wall texts and recorded narratives are absorbed, and one catches a glimmer of the depth and non-hierarchical complexity of Warburg‘s vision. Organized by the same irrational associative method as Warburg’s own library, Atlas and world-view, Miller‘s show succeeds in communicating the details of Warburg’s life, summarizing his major cultural contributions and creating a remarkable contemporary curatorial artwork that connects current museum practice with the rhizomatous, visually driven scholarship Warburg pioneered, transforming the museum into a site of ritual and reactivating his struggle to reconcile the irrational with European cultural history.

This is, of course, pretty much the mandate of the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The Jurassic has influenced a lot of artists over the last decade, but we are only now beginning to see artist-curators reconfiguring the authority of museum practice to convey the exhilarating sense of mystery and possibility missing from the default pedantry of most institutions. Museum staff and academics have been among the most enthusiastic supporters of the Jurassic for years, so it wouldn‘t surprise me if Miller’s “Asylum in the Library” and Velas‘ “Velaslavasay Panorama” turned out to be the first in a wave of such cross-disciplinary crowd-pleasing curiosities, with the potential to revitalize contemporary curatorial practice from the dry delusionary prime directive of white-cube minimalism and the torturously drab emperor’s new clothes of post-structural theory. Surf‘s up!

  • Bughouse anthropology and panoramania

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