Last Saturday, first thing in the morning, I found myself surrounded by people, mostly young women, all sitting at plastic-covered tables and filling the limp, hollowed bodies of dead rats with mounds of fluffy white stuffing.
The crowd was focused, with a low buzz of excitement to the conversation. When I asked one group of lilac-haired girls what they would do with their rats after the class, they told me that they were going to dress them up in gowns and use them for a photo art project. One teacher suggested sewing magnets into them. All involved were excited, and looking forward to using their new skills in their art. It is certainly the most inspired I’ve ever felt while in the presence of a dead rodent, which is, I think, part of the beauty of Curious Gallery.
Curious Gallery, an annual two-day event that is equal parts gallery, convention, and art workshop, is modeled on the wunderkammer, or curiosity cabinets, of the 16th century. Wunderkammer were collections of oddities of the natural world, and the precursors to museums as we know them today. They were an opulent homage to not only natural science (which was still in its nascent stages) but to the preserved remains of mythological creatures, taxidermied animals from far-away lands, relics, reliquaries and art.
While the inheritors of the wunderkammer — our museums of natural history — are still popular, they deal more with the realm of strict science than what Lupa, founder of Curious Gallery, calls the intersection of art, culture, and nature.
“The cabinet of curiosities is not an institution — it is an artistic medium.” Lupa speaks quickly, as if her thoughts are a minute ahead of her words, and she’s hurrying to catch them up. “And the reason I say that is because it’s basically a form of sculpture. A cabinet is you, bringing together a number of items that speak to your view of the world and what you find important in it in a personalized assemblage.”
The displays in the main room of Curious Gallery are a testament to this ethos. They are a glorious jumble of natural wealth. Lovingly taxidermied creatures ring the room. There is a wolf lounging on a table, seemingly alive and at ease. A tiny, baby goat is frozen in mid-gambol nearby. These tributes to scientific representation and the taxidermist’s art are given the same pride of place as a carefully assembled dragon’s skull, wired together with the same precision as any real skeleton. Tiny fish’s fins give the dragon a sharp fan. It looks real, and would suitably impress any 16th century observer with its legitimacy. Jars holding small, floating bodies are clustered next to crystals and bones. Art lines the walls, with subjects ranging from realistic flora and fauna, to depictions of fantastical creatures and magical scenes.
The fantastic doesn’t undermine the artifacts of natural science; if anything, each serves to underscore the other. The scientific setting gives the magical items an air of authenticity and believability. The oddities make the viewer cast a more critical eye over the scientific specimens, looking for the art. A well curated cabinet of curiosities cultivates an appreciation for both.
There’s a comfort with the macabre here that is rare to see outside of a goth club. And while I won’t deny that there is a preponderance of the black clad, lace-gloved variety of person at Curious Gallery, for the most part, the crowd is normal… well, Portland normal, at least. White-haired women in hiking gear exclaim over a display of carnivorous plants, college students kneel to inspect a comedically surprised-looking taxidermied wildcat which peeks out from underneath a table. The atmosphere is festive, in a way that is surprising to see in a setting so saturated with items traditionally associated with morbidity.
“I feel strongly that the renewed interest in the morbid and the renewed interest in curiosities is an attempt to fill a void,” Lupa opines when I ask her about the morbid and wunderkammer.
“In the U.S. we have a really bad relationship with death. … There’s no thread in this culture that accepts death as a normal part of life. We’re very youth obsessed, we want to avoid the idea that we’re going to die someday. And I do think that’s a legitimate part of the cabinet of curiosities because the cabinet fills a void in the world.”
Lupa is on to something. As author Lawrence Samuel once pithily pointed out in Psychology Today, “The notion of one day disappearing is contrary to many of our defining cultural values, with death and dying viewed as profoundly ‘un-American’ experiences.”
If one of the themes of Curious Gallery is death as a form of art, they’re not alone in their fascination. Death, it seems, is making a comeback, perhaps as a backlash against our youth-obsessed culture. The last few years have seen a resurgence in an interest in death that is reverberating outside of subculture and beyond TV crime dramas. Books about the realities of death and dying are hitting the bestsellers list, and one author, Caitlin Doughty, has even started a wildly popular Death Salon, a death convention full of classes, panels, and presentations around death in our culture. Young Americans, having grown up in a society in which aging and death is taboo, are making the study of death part of the zeitgeist.
While it’s safe to say that Curious Gallery rests firmly inside of this trend, with its classes on taxidermy, the cleaning and preservation of bones, and a panel on Morbid Curiosities, the thing that makes Curious unique is the casualness with which the macabre rests within the larger purpose of the gallery. The common thread between all of the classes and panels is creativity and nature. In two days, you can learn to dye silk with leaves and natural dyes, weave baskets from invasive species, knap flint, felt a bag, or discuss ancient forms of cosmetic crafting. While Curious Gallery doesn’t disappoint with its’ collection of natural artifacts and ephemera, the weekend seems focused not on what the crowd will see while there, but what they will learn and how they will utilize their new skills afterward. If Curious Gallery is saturated with death, it is because death is the final form of nature, and at this convention, nature is the progenitor of all art.
And what belongs in a cabinet of wonder but art, nature, and death? These three things are the source of almost all human wonder, and topics that we never tire of marvelling and obsessing over. Curious Gallery brings it all together, and the effect is, well, wondrous. While the subject matter does cover some of the ground of a museum, and some of the ground of an oddities display, it’s true that a cabinet of curiosities is an art form. At times serious and macabre, beautiful, or with a wink towards the silly (adorable skeletons in costumes, unicorn horns and Cthulhu), the wunderkammer does what some museums, with their carefully sorted and isolated subjects, fall short of. It inspires wonder.
As I regretfully prepared to leave Curious Gallery, I reflected on Lupa’s final statement. When I asked her if there was any message that she wanted to get across that I hadn’t covered in our interview, she emphasized that “the wunderkammer revival is not just for specialists. It’s accessible to people with a casual interest… I think because of the oddities vibe of the cabinet, it’s assumed that it’s only really for weird people. We want to open this up to all kinds of folks, people with outdoorsy kids or people who appreciate going to art walks, or those interested in local culture or history.”
And while I would consider the oddities vibe to be a major draw of the event, it’s hard to deny that Lupa has a point. Curious Gallery really wasn’t about the rats or the skulls. It was an investigation of the relationship between art and nature, and a celebration of the resulting culture. It was, as Lupa said, about the wunderkammer revival, about developing a closer relationship with nature, especially in an urban setting, by engaging with nature, and taking it into our homes. Lupa wants you to find out what nature means to you and your world view — whether that is a story about beauty, renewal, creation, or death — and to make art out of it, and she wants to give you the tools to do so.
Whether you’re a skull enthusiast, a gentle nature lover, or just curious, you should go to Curious Gallery. Curious Gallery won’t come around until next year, and I promise that, next year, instead of a review, we will be urging you, weeks ahead, to buy your ticket. Until then, here’s a list of reading material, resources for wildcrafting in the Portland area, and shops just in case you’re inspired and feel a need to litter your house with geodes, skulls, and carnivorous plants. (I brought home a very hungry Cape Sundew and a lovely piece of selenite.)
ReWild is a non-profit organization which educates the community in earth-based traditions. A portion of the profit from Curious Gallery 2015 went to supporting ReWild.
Custom Cranium is a resource for bones and natural bits, and also hosts excellent classes for aspiring taxidermists.
Dermistidarium is there for you when you have some really top-notch bones, but aren’t sure how to clean and preserve them for your cabinet-in-progress.
Sarracenia Northwest will provide you with a carnivorous plant (I named mine Severus,) but more importantly, will teach you how to not kill the poor thing.
Wildcraft Studio School is a bit further out, but offers a variety of classes on wildcrafting, or the integration of art with nature and traditional skills.
Paxton Gate is a San Francisco classic now open in Portland and a retailer of natural oddities on Mississippi Ave.
The Order of the Good Death is a coalition of death-industry professionals and academics who are at the forefront in a revolution in how our society thinks about and views death.
The Denial of Death is the seminal work of Ernest Becker, and provides an entertaining analysis of how death influences the psyche and our culture.