Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes

Late in the 1980's, before the Zymoglyphic Museum existed, I had an idea to make an aquarium, not with water, but a scene with a sandy bottom. This would be a big version of the surreal scenes in sandtrays that I had been making at that time. I was recently married then, and the theme was of two fish making a home in a strange world. I liked the idea that the result would be a piece of furniture you would have in your house, rather than a piece of art intended for a pedestal in a gallery. It was even rather practical, in that it would be very low maintenance for an aquarium. The aquarium was made of various things that I had found and had been given. My wife was making intricate hinged fish out of metal and plexiglass, and I thought an aquarium would make a nice home for some of them.

Even the title, "The Quiet Parlor of the Fishes", is a found object, taken from Thoreau's "Walden":

I cut my way through a foot of snow, and then a foot of ice, and open a window under my feet, where, kneeling to drink, I look down into the quiet parlor of the fishes, pervaded by a softened light as through a window of ground glass, with its bright sanded floor the same as in summer; there a perennial waveless serenity reigns as in the amber twilight sky, corresponding to the cool and even temperament of the inhabitants. Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.

"Walden" was one of my favorite books in high school. It provided a mythic and spiritual dimension to nature that transcended the mere collecting, naming, and classifying of specimens, which had been the focus of my original museum. The summer between high school and college, I even tried a brief emulation of Thoreau's year-long stay at Walden pond. I camped out by myself for four days on an island in the middle of a small mountain lake in Olympic National Park. I paddled out to the island on a primitive boat made by tying driftwood logs together, read Walden, and wrote a short journal, trying to emulate Thoreau's 19th century style.

In this dry aquarium, the two fish have a little television set in their parlor and are watching a program that features one of the Judy's art-fish. They also have their own little dry aquarium, foreshadowing the worlds-within-worlds theme of the museum-to-come. This first aquarium was followed by a series of small dioramas inside standard 10-gallon aquariums. Some had a terrestrial theme and some were aquatic. The serenity of the underwater world, eternal and unchanging, gave way to the archetype of the primordial ooze, a crowded, dense, active, messy world of creation, decay, and conflict, and a Walden-like mythological cycle of death and rebirth.

In recent years, I have been trying to capture a sense of the little worlds inside the dioramas in close-up photography and I think this is one of the more successful attempts. It is the little aquarium in fishes' parlor. This picture was, in fact, my entree into hallowed halls of the Museum of Dust.

In the past couple of months, Judy has been experimenting with pinhole photography, using homemade mini-cameras. I was not convinced of the true potential of this technique until she took some photos of the aquarium, which gave the whole thing a dreamlike air. The full set of photos can be seen here. One of the those photos, of an astronaut from the moon who is coming to visit the fish, resulted in her own initiation into the Museum of Dust.

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Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Traveling Crustacean Mini-diorama

Last summer I was invited to participate in a project called The Curiosity Cabinet of the Collective Unconscious. The "cabinet" in question was an old library card catalog. Each participant got a drawer in which to create something having to do with the "collective unconscious". In mine, I ended up making a diorama featuring a little family of 3 crab carapaces in a wooded setting (shown here - click for larger view). I mostly work by just putting things together, often precariously, carrying them out to the museum, and possibly having to repair them when Open Studios rolls around. This was the first time that I had made something that needed to be shipped somewhere. The crabs had wires for legs, so they could be secured fairly easily, and the rest was glued or wired down. It was worth it to me to be part of a collaborative project, which was a welcome change for me.
The drawer had its debut with the rest of the cabinet at the Hive Gallery in August, which provided me with a good excuse to go down to L.A. for an extended weekend. The cabinet then traveled to Burning Man in September to become part of a funhouse that was installed in the base of the Man. The cabinet must have survived the inevitable fiery immolation of its host, as it has recently surfaced again at Create:Fixate in Los Angeles.

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

Michael McMillen's Dioramas

We went down to the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara last weekend to see Michael McMillen's latest installation, Red Trailer Motel. It will be on view until March 18, 2006. If you go, be sure to walk on the gravel, get up close to the doors and peer into the peepholes!

Michael has a long history of creating both full-size and miniature dioramas, always amazing, involving found objects and set pieces that he has constructed. We were fortunate enough to catch his big show at the Oakland Museum in 1991.

For a good overview of his work, see here. One of the interviews there takes place in his yard, where "stuff" has been accumulating for decades. More details of the Red Trailer Motel can be seen here at his Los Angeles gallery's site.

Permanent installations of his work can be found in the following locations:
- The Los Angeles County Museum has "Central Meridian", AKA "the garage", an amazing walk-through assemblage of a garage that is part Egyptian temple. See here for an interview with him that takes place in the garage.
- The entrance to the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena has "Motel (Under the World)" featuring an oil-guzzling robot watching TV in his underground room
- The San Jose Museum of Art has The Third Eye, a peephole into a sixties head shop
- The Oakland Museum has Aristotle's Cage, an evocative miniature diorama of a trailer in the desert.

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