By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
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!