Theatrum Mundi

My friend and colleague, Catherine Heard, has a new show at Rodman Hall. It is called Theatrum Mundi and it is very, very neat. She has essentially made a cabinet of curiosity in the gallery and it is jam-packed with all sorts of cool stuff. I was honoured that she asked me to write the accompanying essay (see below). Theatrum Mundi is up for a year, so be sure to check it out if you are in the area!

Theatrum Mundi: A Cabinet of Curiosity

Catherine Heard’s artwork is as diverse as it is provocative. Heard, a Toronto-based artist, has produced a number of works over the course of her career that reference long-standing practices in the history of visual culture. For instance, her wax sculptures are suggestive of both religious votive pieces and of anatomical models of the human body, yet disrupt expectations of both.

Heard’s current installation at Rodman Hall, Theatrum Mundi (“theatre of the world”), is a site-specific project that revives the tradition of the wunderkammer (literally “cabinet of curiosity” or “cabinet of wonder”) – collections of extraordinary objects which were popular among the wealthy and the elite of Europe during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The objects found inside a typical wunderkammer included everything from jewellery to natural history specimens and, while many scholars see the wunderkammer as the precursor to the modern museum, a true wunderkammer could be defined by its lack of strict curatorial practice. These were dynamic displays that changed according to the whim of the collector who would constantly be searching for something even more precious, even more spectacular and even more exotic to place within their wunderkammer.

The inspiration for this installation came from a “cabinet of curiosity” that Heard created for her own home out of a china cabinet she had inherited from her grandmother. The wunderkammer in Heard’s home includes examples of her own artwork as well as objects and art pieces she has collected. Likewise, the Theatrum Mundi installation at Rodman Hall is comprised of both found and created objects. Objects fashioned by Heard are tucked in amongst objects and ephemera that she has either purchased or has been given over the years. The pieces in this installation range from a crucifix made of matches to dolls made of human hair and from a death certificate bearing the artist’s name to hand-blown glass eyes. We, as viewers of Theatrum Mundi, are unable to tell which objects were made by Heard and which objects were collected by Heard; the boundaries between artist and collector are blurred in this exhibition.

Like the traditional wunderkammers of Renaissance Europe, Theatrum Mundi consists of objects of intrigue which raise questions about the world around us. Specifically, Heard’s fascination with the history of science and with the study of human anatomy is evident in this piece. The drawers and shelves of this installation are full of objects which address cultural conceptions of health, illness, beauty and the grotesque. For instance, in Theatrum Mundi precise anatomical drawings are displayed in close proximity to abstract-looking wax sculptures which are suggestive of internal human organs but are, in fact, entirely imaginative creations. The juxtaposition of “anatomical fact” with “anatomical fiction” casts suspicion on what we have come to believe as the truth about the human body.

Collectable photographic postcards of human bodies considered to be “freakish” because they deviated from socially accepted ideals about what the human body should look like in previous eras are an unforgettable feature of the Theatrum Mundi wunderkammer. The inclusion of this type of material draws attention to the shifting contexts of knowledge production – an image made as a “document” for medical history can simultaneously function as an object of entertainment. The perceived veracity of the photographic record shapes dominant understandings in both contexts. The question we are left with when viewing these images of disease, disfigurement and deformity relates back to the “curiosity” factor of the wunderkammer – are these images simply a “safe” and socially acceptable way of visually inspecting one who is “different”?

Themes of death and disaster also figure prominently in Heard’s installation. For instance, photographs of dead children, a once common and socially acceptable practice for grieving parents to engage in, both fascinate and disturb contemporary viewers. A particularly poignant example included in the Theatrum Mundi installation is a photograph in which a young girl holds the body of a dead younger sibling. This photograph was taken outdoors, and the young girl sits posed by the family car cradling her recently deceased brother. That contemporary viewers are startled by this image is a reminder of shifting cultural norms about death and dying. Stereoscopic slides of disaster (including the attacks that took place in the United States on September 11th, 2001) and View-Master reels on the subject of disease and human anatomy are two more examples of how Heard’s wunderkammer forces us to consider the ways in which practices of looking and technologies of vision necessarily shape cultural ideologies.

In the true spirit of a wunderkammer, the installation will change over the year. This will be a gradual and an organic change, and viewers returning to the exhibition over the coming months will no doubt delight in trying to discover what has been added and what has been removed since their last visit.

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