Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures
Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 6 November 2018 – 28 April 2019.
Fondazione Prada Milano, 20 September – 13 January 2020.
Occupying the first floor of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf’s exhibition Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and other Treasures is conveniently set apart from the bustling crowds headed for the concurrent and immensely popular Breughel exhibition. The show forms part of an ongoing exhibition series that invites contemporary artists to curate a selection of the museum’s historic collection. Like previous invitees, Anderson and Malouf have used this invitation to engage with the more unusual objects in storage – many of which are on display for the first time – and to explore more associative and experimental forms of exhibition-making. The show offers a novel perspective upon the museum’s vast collection, sparking curiosity and eliciting fantasy. But does it truly advance the way that viewers experience and understand the objects on display? By foregoing multiple orthodoxies of art-historical narration, this exhibition both suggests an alternative staging of the art collection and raises questions as to how successful such formats can be.
Spanning seven rooms, the exhibition features an extraordinary range of objects. Antique Egyptian clay figures, eighteenth-century French still life paintings, Qing Dynasty bamboo figures, and numerous coloured gemstones populate the exhibition vitrines and result in an eclectic display. The film director Anderson, and his partner Malouf, who is an illustrator and a writer, chose over 400 individual objects, differing in form, material, and historical period, and arranged them by association and intuition, rather than in categories driven by academic research. Rooms are organised thematically, with objects from different periods, styles, and geographical regions clustered together in groupings that are not always explicitly explained to the viewer. For example, the green silk dress worn by the revered Burgtheater actress Erika Pluhar for a 1978 production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler faces an emerald vessel from the seventeenth century. How the two works interrelate in terms of their form, colour, historical use, and cultural meaning are questions left to the viewer and their thoughts.
In arranging such novel encounters, the exhibition signals a departure from traditional, didactic curatorial techniques and instead evokes an older mode of display – the Kunst- or Wunderkammer (cabinet of curiosities). Many of the exhibited objects can be traced back to former curiosity cabinets. Their current restaging revives the notion of a Kunstkammer as a wonderous material encyclopaedia that typically combined scientific, natural, and artistic objects. According to the humanist ideals that guided the arrangement of the Kunstkammer – frequently interpreted as a precursor to the modern museum – the study of these multifaceted collections yielded new insights into the workings of the world that surrounded them. The present exhibition similarly layers different materials, cultures, and geographies in order to test new, uncharted ways of understanding their respective interrelations from an interdisciplinary perspective. In this regard, Anderson and Malouf’s display strategy connects to the writings of art historians such as George Kubler or David Summers who have criticised art history’s fixation on chronology and object classifications and instead proposed a more liberated mode of study that transcends different historical periods and cultural practices. The show presents an alternative to such disciplinary limitations and foregrounds the sense of marvel and the dynamics of experimental thinking that accompany this expansion of established principles of ordering. In recent years, increased focus on individual experience has become popular in curatorial practice – noteworthy examples include Tasmania’s MONA – as a means of bringing back wonder and vitality to spectatorship.
However, despite the guest curators’ imaginative revitalisation of the collection, the show is riddled with a sense of haphazardness and arbitrariness that is never fully resolved. Apart from the evident celebrity attraction, is there a deeper significance in bringing together Anderson, Malouf, and the museum’s collection? Many of the collection’s objects originate from places outside of Europe and are marked by violent histories of colonialism and cultural dispossession. The difficult histories behind these objects – and their status as material witnesses to any such history – bring us back again to the question of whether Anderson and Malouf were indeed the right choice to direct a meaningful re-adaptation of the collection. In the last two decades, museums with ethnographic collections have increasingly started to look for new approaches when engaging with their difficult heritage, such as inviting indigenous and non-Western artists to work with the collections. At best, the opening up of collections has initiated more equal and reciprocal interactions between institutions, artists, and, at times, communities, and has led to a better understanding of the artefacts in question. Yet Anderson and Malouf do not appear to take this approach. Rather than investigating the specific historical, cultural, and material shapes of the collection, they seem predominantly to have focused on how the objects complement their own interests and style. Favouring form over content, their curatorial neo-formalism leads to an unfortunate deferral of the objects’ potentially problematic history. This further calls into question the museum’s intent in offering its collection as a platform for celebrities such as Anderson. In light of the expanding discourse surrounding post-colonialism and its charged relation to contemporary politics, the guest curators’ restaging of the collection seems less like a radical articulation of new ways of thinking about these objects and more like a missed opportunity to imbue them with new meaning and pertinence.
This coming autumn, the exhibition will reopen in Milan’s Fondazione Prada, where the show is bound to meet with another of Anderson’s more recent creations: Bar Luce, the foundation’s coffee house, which combines pastel-coloured furniture and neoclassical wallpapers. Anderson’s signature is easily recognisable in the bar’s stylised retro aesthetics, which attract myriad Instagram posts, a response that quickly obscures the director’s initial aim: to recreate the particular social environment and experience of a Milanese café. Facing the bar, the travelling exhibition might become subject to a similar dynamic: since the objects have been removed from their initial context in Vienna, questions surrounding their problematic provenance will further fade into the background in favour of the guest curators’ cultivated trademark style. Consequently, the reopening is bound to cast an even harsher light on the show’s conceptual unresolvedness. And yet, it might also signal the opportunity to return to the search for other trajectories along which to restage historic collections, perhaps this time giving way to more trenchant and profound solutions.
Sandro Weilenmann is a doctoral candidate at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland. Prior to starting his dissertation project, he completed his MA degree at The Courtauld Institute of Art where he studied with Prof. Sarah Wilson.