Brian Dillon’s work immerses itself in space, place, ruins, and the residues of memory. At last: an Anglophone writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman
Brian Dillon, Sanctuary, Sternberg Press, 2011.
briangdillon.wordpress.com/ Ruins of the 20th Century
Sanctuary is a fiction set in the ruins of a Modernist building on the outskirts of a city in Northern Europe. The structure, a Catholic seminary built in the 1960s and abandoned twenty years later, embodies the failure of certain ambitions: architectural, civic, and spiritual. But it is the site too of a more recent disappearance. A young artist, intent on exploring the complex and its history, has gone missing among the wreckage. Months later his lover visits the place, unsure what she is looking for, and finds herself drawn into the strange nexus of energies and memories that persist there. Sanctuary is a story about what survives—of bodies, ideas, objects and the artistic or literary forms that might describe them—in the wake of catastrophe. Invoking key works of the last century—the fiction of Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet, the art of Robert Smithson, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Chris Marker and Andrei Tarkovsky—it maps a small but resonant portion of the ruins of the recent past.
‘Brian Dillon’s work immerses itself in space, place, ruins, and the residues of memory. At last: an Anglophone writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman.’ —Tom McCarthy
“A slim but wonderfully rich novella…. Dillon brings a defiantly contemporary aesthetic sensibility to his writing. Scattered throughout the novella are short italicised passages describing in fastidiously sensuous detail the physical appearance of the ruins. A debt to the nouveaux romans of Claude Simon and Alain Robbe-Grillet notwithstanding, such passages have the uncanny effect of turning the ruins of the seminary into a virtual character in the drama of the story…. Dillon has previously used this meandering, Sebaldian style to powerful effect in his 2005 memoir, In the Dark Room, to uncover the dark tapestry of his own hypochondria and the early death of his parents. In Sanctuary he has created a subtle weave that at times reaches far beyond the narrow confines of its pages.”—Aengus Woods
Ruins have inspired many contemporary artists. They are a well-trodden territory, a fertile soil, a common trope in western art and literature. Indeed, the last couple of decades have been marked by an enthusiastically sentimental attitude towards what is called the modern ruin or the relic of the not-so-distant past.
"The ruin reclaimed from destruction is the ruin lost," Robert Ginsberg writes in his book The Aesthetics of Ruins, capturing in one short sentence the contradictory, contemporary desire of many to preserve derelict spaces - from dilapidated power stations to condemned apartment blocks - in some vaguely romantic haze. For Brian Dillon, a Dublin-born author living in England, ruins are, however, simply a challenging topic to write about, as Sanctuary, his fiction debut, convincingly underscores.
The sanctuary of his title is a collapsing building on the outskirts of an unnamed city, built in the 1960s as a Catholic seminary and abandoned some 20 years later. The setting may suggest that the book was conceived as an exercise in retro-futurism, a depiction of nostalgia for the "future that never came to be". Indeed, the recent rush towards ruin-inspired writing, particularly in Britain, stems from this very phenomenon.
If WG Sebald, wandering around the eastern coast of England in the early 1990s, was once perceived as an eccentric figure drawn to disused windmills and boarded-up shops, by now, such pursuits have become fairly mainstream. This year saw the publication of Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, which eulogises decaying grey areas between city and countryside. Patrick Wright's A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, was first published in 1991, before being reissued in 2009. Even two decades ago, Wright was already aware of "an interest in debris and human fallout [that] is part of the New Baroque sensibility, shared by young Apocalyptics and played-out Marxists alike". These books are almost always politically engaged, most notably Owen Hatherley's A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain, which offers a passionate critique of various architectural projects hatched during the New Labour years.
Not so Sanctuary; there is no room here for blue-eyed enthusiasm, prophetic gloom or militant leftism - just beautiful, minimalist prose. The object the author's optics are trained on is so grandiose it almost gets in the way of perception, which, for an ambitious writer, is reason enough to tackle it. The site is modelled on St Peter's Seminary, built in a Glasgow suburb in 1966 and abandoned by the end of the 1980s. Dillon tries to get as close as possible to the fabric of the place in order to do justice to the building's modernism. To achieve this, he draws on modernist literature, echoing Beckett and Robbe-Grillet. The novelist Tom McCarthy calls Dillon a "writer who takes up the challenge thrown down by the nouveau roman", but the author's main strength is his own take on ruins. If they have, indeed, been exhausted as a subject, this book gives them one more chance to impress.
A nameless heroine comes to the seminary looking for her lover who, having become obsessed with the site, had made it the subject of his art project, tirelessly explored the ruin and, on his last visit, vanished. After six months of fruitless search, she still hopes to find him. We learn, however, that she has a rare condition, a scintillating scotoma, a blind spot in the human eye, whose symptoms include excruciating headaches followed by nausea and a slow recovery. Crippled with pain, the sufferer is attacked by flashing images - "jagged lines and geometric splinters [...] at the edges of the formless vague" - as a hole develops in the field of vision. Dillon sets up her character with these sensations, but supplies almost no other background details, save for this physical disturbance. It allows her, of course, to see things in a different light: "All this apprehension regarding her own body leaves her feeling removed from the world [...]. At the same time she is extremely alert to certain details and textures."
She had, it transpires, fallen in love with the hero before they first met, when editing his texts for the art magazine she works for, only to find that "there was not a word to be touched. His sentences were long, his vocabulary sometimes wilfully arcane, but the clauses were crystalline and inextricable." It is not known how much work went into the preparation of Dillon's manuscript, or whether his editor felt the same way, but reading the finished version you certainly share this sentiment; any changes would only disturb the delicate balance. The quality of his writing is best described in his own words: "rigorous but free, pared to its necessary surprises."
The missing hero is that familiar solitary figure of an "artist in landscape", eager to grasp the space around him. At first he intends to record the history of the seminary, but eventually finds himself "interested instead in the substance of the place, in the way that concrete and stone, and even earth and air, might embody or imply the ghosts of individuals and their ambitions".
He follows in the footsteps of many explorers whose devotion to their subject verges on insanity; this is highlighted in Dillon's brief nod to Tarkovski's Stalker ("approaching the Zone...", his last text message reads). The heroine has mixed feelings about his passion for the project: true, to understand a place like this requires obsession, but his total immersion in his subject is such that it makes her "wonder if she too seemed to him to be immaterial or evanescent." Of the two, she is certainly the more tangible, the more integral to the surroundings, while the hero, instead of merging with the romantic image he cultivates, disappears, as if into the black hole of her vision.
The artist's image is conjured not only in his lover's memories but also in his notes. Interspersed with the main text, they are mostly factual, in contrast with the heroine's more intuitive, visceral account. Her first impression of the building is described in a traditional manner, with no special effects:
"Above her, the interior structure of the ziggurat mirrors the outside: three floors of wooden balconies stretching laterally more than halfway towards the sanctuary extend upwards into shadows, and a crosshatched chaos of burnt wood sits at the summit. Below, the concrete remains of a diagonal staircase, from which almost every trace of steps and banisters has been burnt away, rise to an intermediate floor that covers the refectory at the southern end but stops abruptly in midair before reaching the chapel."
But as the pain sets in, she experiences the place in the way made possible only by her condition: "Everything spins above her, the tower falling away again under her feet and drilling into the earth, the whole complex suddenly thrust upwards into view, concrete and branches and glass bristling at the edges of her vision so that she sees the site whole for the first time."
By the end of the scene you cannot help but share her feelings of physical exhaustion and elation, realising that the moment will stay in your memory as vividly as if you were there in the flesh.
Throughout, Sanctuary strikes one with its unique style achieved without sacrificing the rigour of traditional prose, and a question arises, is this conventional or experimental writing?
Dillon seems to be aware of the dangers both hold - to him, neither suffices. His prose is clear, precise, laconic, measured: no space-fillers used, no liberties taken. He never wanders on the page, always knowing exactly what he wants to say. Being avant-garde is not simply a matter of being different: you need to know your conventions inside out before you can get rid of them and do something original, much in the same way as you have to know your ruins before you can step into and out of them. These are the two rules Dillon follows in his book to ensure that the image of the space he creates remains on your retina as a series of flashes, scintillating long after the artist is gone. - Anna Aslanyan
On yet another trip to SFMOMA to see the Serra exhibit and Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break before they both moved on, I wandered around the shop afterwards and ended up spending more than I meant to, but the catalogue for the Serra was on sale for 30 bucks, and they had a rather nice sweatshirt that ended up being way too big for me, and in the criticism section, misfiled to be sure, I found this slight thing. It’s a beautiful object. Smaller than a paperback, cloth-bound in blue with contrasting red lettering. The word “Sanctuary” large in front, and a glowing blurb by McCarthy (also in red) on the back. I was predisposed to like it from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but then I started reading it, holding a sweatshirt and a heavy exhibition catalog and fell a tiny bit in love.
Once I got it home, my plan was to read it in one go, some Sunday afternoon at Arbor, drinking coffee and maybe a beer before heading home; but as soon as I started it in earnest I knew I should give it more than an afternoon. So I gave it a week. 91 pages. Dipping in and out, re-reading, taking it slowly. I am, by nature a fast reader, but this book begs to be given time, room to breathe.
This is a story of themes more than actions. It’s a story of memory, love, loss, and pain. A woman arrives in a remote town, ostensibly for work (art criticism and editing), but it’s also the last place the man she loved was seen. A filmmaker, he was exploring the ruins of an old seminary built in what sounds like the Brutalist tradition, all imposing concrete forms with sharp angles never quite sharp thanks to the material, cold, immovable. In 91 pages she has a migraine, eats food, recalls moments of love and frustration, explores, puts off more exploring, questions her own grief, takes walks, rides buses, and finally explores fully, attempting to walk in what she assumes were his last steps.
And while that’s a pretty accurate summary, it misses what makes me love this. There is a patience to the writing, and an obsessive attention to detail. Sanctuary feels old. Dillon spends pages describing the way concrete can break down, describing what goes on inside the walls and why they are failing. There are pages on the structural problems the building faced, the history of this place that was meant for something so traditional but designed and built with only the new in mind. These things clashed, and neither is good or bad, or rather neither is described as such. The lost filmmaker was obsessed with these tensions, with the difference between use and design; but he was also obsessed with telling the building’s story. Not the story of the building, or the story about the building’s failing, but the story of the building itself. The woman describes at one point how the filmmaker said he felt the only way to really tell the story would be through the remnants of the building itself, that the story was contained in the failing concrete, the broken stairs, the wooden beams fallen to the ground, the dust and dirt and water and new animal life. The only way he could tell the story was to go there, to be in these things. For her, the story of him is to be told by examining his obsession, examining the notes he left, revisiting all the conversations they had, and finally, by going herself, and climbing through the fence. The only way to understand is to go to the seminary.
In some ways, Dillon’s writing does more than beg to be given time, it demands it, quietly, patiently. There is no forward movement, or very little. There is no plot pulling forward. There are mysteries, questions unanswered, but no answers, no resolution, because the unanswered questions are really about the people, and this is not a book about people. Again, the only way to understand is to go to the seminary.
This is a book about a place, and the filmmaker and the art critic are there to help Dillon explore that building. That is why we don’t need the answers, because the questions she asks herself are for herself, they are tangential to the real purpose, to give that building, not a voice, but its due. The old seminary is not a character, it is a structure, that is never in question, but it is the focus. And in 91 pages Dillon lovingly describes for us each detail from a number of perspectives. The art critic who associates every new room, every new discovery with the filmmaker, the filmmaker’s obsessive interest that describes the building via context and history before even setting foot in it, and finally a detached view, associated with no character, just simple italics delivering the most detail of the three. Describing with care the cement, the wood, the dirt, the air, the light the decay, the building as it is now. And that’s key to me, that both the critic and filmmaker try to understand the seminary but always turn back to either personal associations or historical context. Those italicized portions really get it.
McCarthy mentions the nouveau roman in his blurb, and it’s apt. The seminary is the reason this novella was written, and in 91 beautiful pages Dillon gives it its due. - BW Diederich
There are other few critics at work today more consistently interesting on as wide a range of subjects as Brian Dillon. Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, the London Review of Books, Art Forum, frieze and Cabinet, the indefinable conceptual quarterly where he works as UK editor. Come of age under the influence of Roland Barthes, Dillon is a writer whose revelatory criticism – often quietly engaged in transcending its own form – wears the weight of its theory lightly. Since leaving academia a decade ago, Dillon’s voice has become steadily more apparent and more authoritative. He is perhaps the closest Ireland has come to producing a Susan Sontag.
Dillon is the author of five books, including In the Dark Room (2005), Nine Hypochondriac Lives (2009) and I Am Sitting in a Room (2011), a Oulipian-style study of writers’ rooms written before an audience in just 24-hours. His work does not necessarily take place within the form of the essay. Yet even his novella, Sanctuary (2009), is notable for its sense of ‘alertness’, ‘attention’ and ‘transcription’, three qualities Dillon says ‘justify the miscellaneous essayist’s way of being and working’. Dillon’s work is always essayistic, in other words, even when it’s not. And so the forthcoming publication of Objects in This Mirror, a selection of essays written over the last ten years, makes for a particularly welcome addition to his growing catalogue. With essays on contemporary art, ruin aesthetics, photography and the essay itself, Objects in This Mirror reflects a core set of Dillon’s interests. At the same time, essays on the Common Cold Unit, the Dewey Decimal System and Victorian gesture manuals work to deflect the idea that a merely core set is ever adequate.
You write that Objects in This Mirror is ‘a book that is also partly (like all such collections) a way of naming and putting an end to a phase in your writing’. Do you mean ‘phase’ in a merely temporal sense, or is there something more substantial to it? Are you about to start writing sports journalism or what?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. If it’s a phase, I think it’s in the sense of an education. A decade or so ago, I had finished a PhD in English – I started it in Trinity, then moved to Canterbury and finished up at the University of Kent – when I realised, first of all, that I didn’t really fancy the idea of an academic career, and that, secondly, academia didn’t really fancy giving me that career. I started writing for magazines and papers, doing book reviews for places like the TLS and the Irish Times, and writing about art for magazines like frieze and Art Review. It was an education in art, firstly. I was always interested in contemporary art, but I’d never properly engaged with it in terms of writing. Secondly, it was an education in a different sort of writing, in leaving behind a certain kind of academic style and trying to invent a different voice. I think of it as a phase of discovering what was possible for me. Also, when I started out, people would always say that it was no longer possible to make a living as a reviewer, as a critic, as a freelance writer. They said that era was over. Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I felt like testing that. And it turned out that it was actually possible to make a living – a really meagre living, but still. On several levels, then, I suppose it’s been a phase of figuring out.
Within that phase, can you notice your own style changing – from book to book, say? Do you still recognise the Johnsonian style your father identified in your undergraduate writing?
I think George Orwell is a badly overrated writer. I don’t like George Orwell, and I don’t like his essay on book reviewing much either. But there is something that piece that I think is true: book reviewing is a performance. After a while, it becomes harder to sustain that performance. So I’m really glad that I started writing about contemporary art, a field that I wasn’t particularly familiar with, because I think that the career of a literary reviewer is quite limiting in the end. Looking back at the early stuff, then, I think that if things have changed it’s that I’m a little less… smart-arsed.
I wrote a few books along the way as well. I realise that narrative is something I was once quite afraid of, something that I thought perhaps I couldn’t do. But I wrote the first book, which is a kind of memoir, and the second book, which is a book of essays about hypochondriacs, each one of which is a sort of mini-biography, and then I wrote a novella. I suppose this is the first time I’ve ever thought about it, but if anything has changed, maybe it has something to do with having constructed narratives – even if they weren’t especially substantial narratives. In some way, I think it alters the way you think about pace in other kinds of writing as well – in essays, for example. And so, although I don’t think that my style is easy-going, I think it’s probably a little bit more relaxed than it was when I started, if that makes sense.
You speak of writing ‘first on books and then on photography, increasingly of contemporary art in general’. Did this transition take place because of a perceived lack of conceptual strength in most contemporary literature? Do you think this lack of conceptual strength is perhaps the reason why a career as a literary reviewer can be quite limiting?
My patience for fiction that isn’t very sophisticated is kind of limited. This sounds stupid, but I like really, really, really good fiction. I get bored very easily with what you might call ‘middling’ fiction. Even writing about non-fiction can be kind of limiting, simply because there aren’t the same kind of venues for doing that outside of newspaper reviews and the big literary magazines. I started writing about contemporary art because I started writing for art magazines, which seemed a little different. It seemed like art magazines were interested in all kinds of things. So, for a magazine like frieze, I could write about, say, the history of zoos or the history of notebooks – all sorts of subjects – because the editors were interested in making a publication that reflected a culture not limited to that of contemporary art and the views of contemporary artists, curators and so on. It turned out that the art world and artists were far more interested in the culture around them than it seemed the literary world was. The art world was a place where you could write – where you could be a writer. It seemed more welcoming and much more intellectually curious than the literary world – certainly the mainstream literary world anyway. Other people have said this, of course. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was famously published by a tiny art press in Paris. Over the last decade, which is the span that this book covers, the art world has felt like a very welcoming place to be a writer.
There aren’t many negative pieces in this collection, I notice. Do you believe in the value of negative reviews? Or do you think, like the critic Lev Grossman, that in an increasingly democratised cultural field, where everyone has their say online, the role of the critic is not to judge, in the sense of thumbs up and thumbs down, but to suggest how a work of art might best be approached?
The Russian art critic Boris Groys said on this topic that the role of the critic is no longer to judge, but simply to point. To say to the reader: this thing exists; it is worth your paying attention to. And I suppose that’s kind of true. A lot of reviews of books and exhibitions are really just deictic – they simply point; they say ‘here is this thing’. I don’t relish writing bad reviews, but nor do I go along with that piece published a few years ago in The Believer called ‘Against Snark’, which was against the idea of a bitchy literary culture. I just think that’s nonsense. That kind of upbeat, inclusive culture sounds terribly dull to me. I’ve written some fairly nasty reviews – mostly of fiction, oddly – but I didn’t put any of them in the book. John Banville says that he’s never published a collection of his essays because he doesn’t think he writes essays; he thinks he writes reviews. I don’t know if that’s true of him, but I think it might be true of some of those book reviews that might have gone in this book. They just seem a little bit too tied to their moment.
Can you read off-topic while researching an essay?
This sounds like I’m being deliberately oblique, but I think I probably only read off-topic. In a lot of these things I call essays, I’m by no means an expert. Each of them is a sort of digression, even if it’s not very clear what they’re a digression from. I’m not a very good researcher. I’m not a diligent researcher. I’m a rather haphazard researcher, in fact. But I think that some of the most successful pieces here are ones where I’d started to research something else in quite reasonable detail and then just got distracted. Somehow I’ll find there’s a relationship between the thing I’m supposed to be doing and the thing I’ve been distracted by. And this is one of the things I like about the idea of the essay: the conjunction between unlikely topics or unlikely narratives; that something can happen in quite a short length of text that sets off something else entirely.
You tried to arrange an interview once with the late film-essayist, Chris Marker. Do you know what you would have asked him?No! No, I don’t actually. I feel like I’m actually a really bad interviewer. No matter how much I’m interested in somebody’s work, I never quite know what I want to ask. So, for example, there’s an interview in the book with Sophie Calle, which is not presented as an interview because we had a very stilted conversation in which I asked her some really stupid questions. She remained incredibly charming and interesting, but something went wrong between us. Really oddly, at the end, as we were saying goodbye, she said: ‘I will not remember you’. She said: ‘if we meet at the opening of some exhibition, I will not remember you’. That’s a really strange thing to say someone. I find doing interviews quite uncomfortable.
I suppose with Marker, though, I’m really interested in him as a writer and as a reader. Of course, I love the films and have written about the films. I actually wrote a long essay on Marker that is not in the book because I’m not quite sure what I want to do with it. There’s something I still want to do with regard to him; I feel like that essay might have another life somewhere. But I’m really interested in Marker as a writer. He published a novel called Le Coeur Net around 1950, which was translated and then published by John Calder. I guess I’d like to have asked him why that novel just languishes now as this super expensive anomaly of his work. One of the things Marker is – and this is a banal thing to say on one level – is an essayist. And not only a film essayist: he seems to have been really immersed in literary culture and history, as well. I guess I’d have asked him what he was reading.
The piece on Calle is probably the most formally adventurous in the collection. Did you receive any response from her? In your essay on the essay, you call for more adventure within the form. You say of Franzen, Lethem and John Jeremiah Sullivan that: ‘they fail in the end to trouble the form as form.’ When working on your own essays, is form something that you consider in tandem with content – or is it only when you sit down to write the thing that you consider its form?
I think I got an email from one of Calle’s assistants saying that she’d liked it. But if you get an email from an assistant of a famous artist who says ‘the artist has liked your piece’, who knows whether the artist gave a shit? As for form, I think I probably think about it at the same time as content. You’re right, though: not many of the essays really play around with form to a huge extent.
There’s the one on aphorisms.
True. So, some of them are fragments, some of them are lists. I quite like that as a form, but I’m also a little wary of it. It’s too popular in a way; and sometimes it just feels like a very easy thing to do. The thing for me, I think, is always my struggle with language, to find exactly what the voice of the piece should be. Even if the voice is not particularly idiosyncratic or forceful, it’s always about trying to find the style that this thing should be written in – to be able to hear that.
So style as a primary formal concern?
In a way, yes; but when you put it in those terms, it sounds awfully aesthete-like. And maybe it is. But I think what I mean has more to do with trying to hear a kind of rhythm for the piece, which in turn tends to determine all its sentences, its particular vocabulary. The voice determines not just how I say something, but what I actually think.
Another one of the essays that seems to challenge the form is the one you wrote for frieze on the subject of charlatanry. Its epigraph, which you attribute to Robert Burton, is a fake. Did the open letter you wrote to the *frieze* editors, in which you admit the forgery, come from a genuine concern for ‘a diligent graduate student’? Or did it come instead from some frustration that nobody had heard your joke? A way of saying, to go back to Sophie Calle, ‘did you see me?’
[Laughs] It was really a response to the brief of that Cabinet issue, the theme of which was ‘Deceit’. But, I don’t know, maybe it was kind of an egotistical thing to do; to say, look how I pulled the rug over the otherwise erudite eyes of the editors of frieze. Really I just quite liked the idea of writing a public letter. I hoped that the editors in question wouldn’t take it too badly. I don’t think they were very happy, but they were perfectly charming about it.
You got a letter from their assistant saying: ‘the editors have liked your joke’.
That particular Burton epigraph was faked, but he’s one of quite a few literary historical figures whose work you regularly ground your own in. Essays you write on very contemporary artistic ideas are full of quotations by Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Michel de Montaigne, etc. Does your familiarity with these authors precede your interest in those more contemporary ideas? Or do you come to these older authors by way of their relation to contemporary ideas?
It’s something of both, I think, because the names you’ve just mentioned are all of writers I’ve loved for a very long time. Partly what I love about them is a certain kind of excess in style. This is certainly the case with De Quincey and Browne, anyway. I really love their excess, even if what I write doesn’t have the same kind of scrawl. It’s something I really admire about certain periods, I suppose. One is the 17th century; the other is the Romantic period, although I guess De Quincey is kind of an anomaly. The other thing I like is how these writers treat the essay as a form. Going all the way back from the 19th century, through to the 17th century, right back to Montaigne, what you see is a sort of curiosity, a kind of variety, a sense that in the essay you can write about absolutely anything.
So, if they were around today, it’d be a tiny art press in Paris publishing these guys?
Totally. They’d be writing in Cabinet. They’d be publishing Cabinet. - totallydublin.ie/
Interview with Brian Dillon, Curator of Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing
Behind glass doors, in rows on little wooden shelves; spread across rooms, on plinths, on mantelpieces, suspended from ceilings, objects – from sea-creatures to meteorites, from strange bones to unidentified mushrooms, from mummified cats to fragments of ancient pottery – line the “cabinets of curiosities” of history. These objects – however colossal, however miniscule – have for centuries represented the progression, boundaries and limits of our knowledge: little fragments of the world that we are forever attempting to define and understand.
Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, an exhibition curated by writer and UK editor of Cabinet magazine, Brian Dillon, has recently seen the seaside gallery, Turner Contemporary, transformed into a labyrinthian cabinet of sorts. In a sometimes strange, sometimes enlightening and eclectic collection of exhibits, it combines contemporary art works with historical artifacts and specimens from natural history. Aesthetica visits to meet Dillon and discuss the ideas around the show, a week before the exhibition opens, on the day that one of the most important, exciting and perhaps most surreal of exhibits is due to arrive: the Horniman Museum’s overstuffed Walrus. “The walrus is a great example of where discovery overlaps with speculation and absurdity,” Dillon explains. “Most zoologists and taxidermists at the end of the 19th Century had never seen a live walrus specimen or even a photograph or drawing of a live specimen. In this case, the walrus was shot by a Canadian hunter called James Hubbert and then stuffed by people who didn’t realise that the folds were supposed to be folds: that they weren’t supposed to just carry on stuffing until it was completely full! So, eventually, it turned into this great, fantastically bulbous creature.”
There is a strand that runs through the exhibition that seems to highlight the often-stunted end of discovery: the boundaries of knowledge. Of course, with the walrus, the scientific accuracy of the object is stunted by the stretched and expanded deformity it suffers from being over-stuffed. A series of photographs by Katie Paterson also similarly reflects the boundaries of discovery, but in a perhaps more deliberate manner. “History of Darkness by Katie Paterson is a series of images taken from observatories and amateur astronomers around the world, and each one simply shows a black portion of sky; they’re all, simply, small rectangles of pure black, all exactly the same,” Dillon explains. “There’s something very pure and poetic about Katie’s work. What it reminds me of is the sheer strangeness of discovery… that it’s not just about saying ‘this is what we know.’ It’s also about representing the moment where we don’t see, where we don’t discover… where knowledge ends.”
Our conversation spins off on a few tangents, but soon returns to the mysteries of discovery and knowledge. “Do you know about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death?” Dillon asks, sipping on his tea. “In the 1940s an American heiress, Frances Glessner Lee, made these dollhouse-sized dioramas, each representing a real death – some murders, others suicides or accidental: corpses in bed, blood on the walls and so on. And they used – and still do use – these constructions to train detectives in Baltimore. So, we’re exhibiting images by Corinne May Botz: really beautiful photographs of these scenes. And, of course, they hold secrets: secrets held by the Baltimore police department. I couldn’t even tell you what’s happened in the scenes, because I don’t know myself! So, in this work, there is another, different dimension of this sense of not knowing… and never knowing.”
Despite the obvious – though probably accidental – strand on the limits of discovery, there is, notably, little in sense of order and categorisation in the exhibition: “What is important is that it’s not an archive or chronology of curiosity. It’s not an exhibition about science and art in any direct way either; we were very much more interested in a kind of oblique, suggestive or intuitive relationship between all the objects we have chosen to exhibit,” Dillon says. “Our starting point was eclecticism: in some ways a reflection of the variety, strangeness and eccentricity of the historical cabinet of curiosities.”
“We’d been having conversations for a while with Rodger Malbert about Cabinet Magazine doing a show for Hayward touring,” Dillon continues. “And we decided, rather than having an exhibition focus on a specific theme, as the magazine does, on hair or dust or laughter, it was actually better to look at the core sensibility of the magazine, which is curiosity… Sina Najafi who set up the magazine in 2001 always talks about curiosity as a starting point – not just the historical cabinet of curiosities, but a kind of notion of contemporary interdisciplinary: the real sort of capacious curiosity in contemporary art. He wanted a magazine that would not exactly fully reflect curiosity and art, but would inspire artists and create curiosity. The exhibition, in its creation, came to be as unpredictable as when creating one issue of the magazine… so we kept finding that we were kind of surprising ourselves as we were making the show; hopefully, the show itself will actually surprise visitors too.”
As our conversation ends, the walrus arrives. The staff crowd around as it appears at the back entrance in its big wooden crate and follow it, in a procession, as it is wheeled to its new room. There is certainly a sense of awe surrounding this unconventional delivery. As it is revealed, wearing a strange protective duvet coat and headdress, the small crowd murmur, gasp and giggle. When I eventually leave, the most important and most celebrated item of Dillon’s cabinet has taken its place on its plinth and is having its feet hoovered and tusks polished.
I return to attend the private view a week later and the walrus is surrounded by visitors and a huge collection of other curious exhibits: Robert Hooke’s famous close-up of a flea from his Micrographia, Durer’s rhinoceros engraving, the exquisitely realistic and perfectly-formed glass models of aquatic creatures by Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, artworks by Tacita Dean, Richard Wentworth, Jeremy Miller, Turner, Da Vinci… As I meander through all the rooms and corridors, happening upon moments of intrigue, mystery, strangeness and wonder, I am reminded of a brilliant word that Dillon had used during our conversation last week to describe the exhibition; taking a bite from his lemon shortbread, with his tea in one hand, he had said, between mouthfuls “I want the exhibition to be… to be flummoxing in a way… I want it to inspire, yes… but to also… flummox.”
Part of me experiences just this – a flummoxing bewilderment in which it becomes clear just how little I know, how much others know, how much the world knows and how little the world will ever know – however, part of me too becomes intoxicated by the potential for learning imbued in every single object on show. My thirst for knowledge and understanding – my curiosity – pleasurably takes over.
Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, until 15 September, Turner Contemporary,Rendezvous, Margate, Kent, CT9 1HG.
- Claire Hazelton www.aestheticamagazine.com/
published in Cabinet:
- Listening for the Enemy
The sound mirrors of Dungeness
Issue 12 The Enemy (Fall/Winter 2003)
- Cutaneous: An Interview with Steven Connor
On, in, through, and beneath the skin
Brian Dillon and Steven Connor
Issue 13 Futures (Spring 2004)
- Forget Me Not: An Interview with Geoffrey Batchen
The camera as a machine of memory
Brian Dillon and Geoffrey Batchen
Issue 14 Doubles (Summer 2004)
- Very Funny: An Interview with Simon Critchley
Toward a philosophical history of humor
Brian Dillon and Simon Critchley
Issue 17 Laughter (Spring 2005)
- Fragments from a History of Ruin
Picking through the wreckage
Issue 20 Ruins (Winter 2005/06)
- Elementary Particles: An Interview with Peter Brimblecombe
Sneezing in the library
Brian Dillon, Sina Najafi, and Peter Brimblecombe
Issue 20 Ruins (Winter 2005/06)
- Inventory / A Poet of Cloth
Beau Brummell’s knot theory
Issue 21 Electricity (Spring 2006)
A short history of hypochondria
Issue 22 Insecurity (Summer 2006)
- Virus Camp
The story of the Common Cold Unit
Issue 23 Fruits (Fall 2006)
- Inventory / Talk to the Hand
Deciphering the language of gesture
Issue 26 Magic (Summer 2007)
- O Altitudo!: An Interview with Robert Macfarlane
Brian Dillon and Robert Macfarlane
Issue 27 Mountains (Fall 2007)
Testing the waters
Issue 29 Sloth (Spring 2008)
- Perchance to Dream: An Interview with Elunded Summers-Bremner
The meanings of insomnia
Brian Dillon and Eluned Summers-Bremner
Issue 31 Shame (Fall 2008)
- The Perfect Crime
An open letter to the editors of frieze magazine
Issue 33 Deception (Spring 2009)
- Inventory / From Acne to X-Ray
Issue 34 Testing (Summer 2009)
- A Dry Black Veil
The hovering horror of the plague-cloud
Issue 35 Dust (Fall 2009)
- Silent Witness: An Interview with Jean Duprat
Interplanetary dust and the birth of the solar system
Brian Dillon and Jean Duprat
Issue 35 Dust (Fall 2009)
- Blue Notes
Selling the siren song of the medicine cabinet
Issue 38 Islands (Summer 2010)
- Lighter than Air: An Interview with Carol Mavor
The ambiguity of the Edwardian boy
Brian Dillon and Carol Mavor
Issue 39 Learning (Fall 2010)
Blooms amid the ruins
Issue 41 Infrastructure (Spring 2011)
- Blow Up
Explosive adventures in the air’s uncharted ways
Issue 43 Forensics (Fall 2011)
- Paper Machines: An Interview with Markus Krajewski
The index card and the card index
Brian Dillon and Markus Krajewski
Issue 47 Logistics (Fall 2012)