Sunday, November 26, 2006

Rosamond Purcell's Art from Decay

Rosamond Purcell has a long history of providing inspiration to the Zymoglyphic Museum as a photographer of museum specimens, a scholar of curiosities, an exhibit curator, a writer, and an assemblage artist of decay. Her photographs of natural history museum specimens earned her a place in the museum's Photographers of the Marvelous online photography exhibit, and her use of natural light in these pictures has been an inspiration to our own curatorial department's attempts to document our museum's collections. One of her collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould, Finders, Keepers: Eight Collectors, includes the story of Peter the Great's Kunstkammer in 18th century Russia, and, in particular, his acquisition of Frederik Ruysch's collection of anatomical dioramas and other preparations. The book includes Purcell's photographs of some of the few remaining Ruysch objects . Further research on curiosities and marvels led her to write Special Cases: Natural Anomalies and Historical Monsters, examing the historical significance of marvels.

In 2003, Purcell curated a traveling exhibit called Two Rooms. One room was a reconstruction of a small but historically important natural history museum created in the 17th century by Ole Worm. The other room featured a reconstruction of Purcell's own studio/museum, with walls of rusted metal sheets, a library of decayed, worm-eaten books, and arrangements of a variety of objects transformed by nature and weathering. Most of these objects came from a single source, a vast junkyard in Maine which she has been mining for aesthetic gold for two decades, and whose story is told in the book Owls Head

Her new book Bookworm: The Art of Rosamond Purcell finally showcases her photographs of her own found and created decayed objects. The range is a mix of weathered objects and textures, photographic collages, and assemblages constructed for the purposes of the photograph. Shown above is "Book for Fishes", combining a fish skeleton with an old, insect-eaten book found in a Harvard library. For a preview of the book, see the slideshow/review at

There seem to be still more Zymoglyphic inspirations which have yet be fully documented. Above are two photographs from "Two Rooms", the exhibition catalog. The top one is a "miniature museum" from 1994, similar in spirit to the Zymoglyphic shoebox art galleries and the bottom shows a number of objects on display in her studio, any of which would be at home in our museum.

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Saturday, October 28, 2006

Fascinatin' Crustaceans

The Zymoglyphic Museum's Arthropod Division has recently expanded its Crabs of the World collection with a shipment from Conchology, Inc. of the Philippine Islands. The museum's original collection has been a miscellany of eBay, shell shop, and other purchases, not always with proper identification. A recent concerted effort for taxonomic accuracy in identifying its various specimens has been aided by a number of helpful folks at The Crustacean Society.

Crabs have an important place in Zymoglyphic culture. When dead, they often look as though they are just posing for a really long time, and so make excellent diorama characters. They are the stars in the traveling crustacean mini-diorama, as well as supporting actors in many of the museum's aquatic dioramas. They are nautical mechanical marvels, from the tight, interlocking parts of a box crab to the implausibly leggy spider crabs. Some, such as the fiddler crab, verge on becoming "eccentric contraptions", surreal beings whose very existence seems impossible. Some have great character, such as the leopard crab shown above.

In previous entries, we have featured as "natural assemblage artists" the bowerbirds, who collect and arrange various objects to attract mates, and the Xenophora, shellfish which collect and arrange other shells on themselves. Decorator crabs take the latter idea further and make themselves into living, walking gardens. They cover themselves with a selection of living seaweed and plant-like animals, such as sponges, corals, and bryozoans. This is not a weed garden in the sense of just allowing things to grow on the carapace; the selections are carefully nipped and placed on specialized projections on the shell. The purpose is both camouflage and protection due to the poisonous nature of many of the selections. The festively decked-out crab shown here is a Cyclocoeloma tuberculata (photo from

If you are in the Seattle area and interested in crustaceans, there is an excellent collection at the shell museum in Port Gamble, a ferry ride across Puget Sound from Seattle.

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Wednesday, August 09, 2006

World's Smallest Viewing Stones Made From Cosmic Dust

Our director at the Museum of Dust has recently acquired a lovely speck of cosmic dust, and those clever guys in the Zymoglyphic Museum's curatorial department have mounted it as a viewing stone, carrying "miniature" to its logical extreme. The curator has gone the director one better by finding an even smaller cosmic mote, this one a scant eight micrometers high (below). I will leave it to Dir. de Plume to figure out how exactly to incorporate these prizes into the MoD bonsai garden. Obviously they won't take up much room!

Original cosmic dust grains from J. Freitag and S. Messenger via (top) and D. Brownlee and E. Jessberger via Wikipedia (bottom)


Monday, July 10, 2006

Natural Modernism in Sculpture

Recent posts here on Andy Goldsworthy and Hubert Duprat have covered collaborations between nature and people to make art. This is a common theme in Zymoglyphic culture, where the motto for artists is "Let nature do the detail work." The sculptures shown here are a collaboration among a boring clam (boring in that it drills holes, not that it is uninteresting), the sea, and a human eye and hand to select and arrange the results. The clam in question (a specimen from the museums's collection is shown here) is also known as a piddock. It is more torpedo-shaped than clam-shaped and has the ability to rasp its way into rock using the ridges on its shell and a rotating motion. It uses the holes it creates for protection. When the rock is broken up by erosion (often aided by the weakening of the rock by the clam holes themselves), the resulting fragments are worn smooth by wave action and cast up on the shore. The results often bear an uncanny resemblance to that archetype of modernist sculpture, the 3-dimensional free-form blob with one or more holes in it. These are prized by Zymoglyphic collectors. Some the museum's specimens of this type of natural art are featured in the Shoebox Art Galleries 1 and 2. Two of those sculptures have been gathered here for the group portrait; the rest are making their internet debut.

These sculptures can be seen as Modern Age descendants of the miniature viewing stones that were so popular during the Zymoglyphic region's Era of Oriental Influence. The boring clams themselves have their place alongside the Xenophora in the Zymoglyphic pantheon of molluscan artists. The clams are seen as true "sculptors", rather than, like the Xenophora, assemblers of found objects.


Thursday, July 06, 2006

"Designer" Jewelry with Insect Larvae

Caddis flies live near ponds and streams. As larvae, they live underwater and make wearable tubes from local materials, such as twigs, sand, stones, or snail shells. The items they select are bound with silk and the larva hooks itself inside with the end of its abdomen. They are thus candidates for our stable of "natural assemblage artists" which include the bowerbirds and the Xenophora. The tubes serve various purposes - stones can be added to increase traction in fast-moving streams; irregular twigs make the tube (and its inhabitant) difficult for a trout to swallow. This may be considered more engineering than artistry, but in this case nature has a human collaborator. French artist Hubert Duprat has developed a method of getting the larvae to use more upscale materials, such as gold flakes, pearls, and sapphires, which would of course have no practical benefit in the wild and thus gets much closer to "art". Here is an interview with the artist as he describes the process in detail, and he and an art critic discuss whether there is actually a creative contribution from the insect in this "collaboration".

Here are some examples of what the caddis fly larvae build on their own:

from Scotland's Hunterian Museum Animal Architecture Collection

From the book Animal Artisans

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

Bowerbirds: Assemblage Artists of the Jungle!

While some may question whether Xenophora, the shells that collect and arrange shells, are truly "Assemblage Artists of the Deep", as the Zymoglyphic Museum claims, bowerbirds can make a much stronger claim to the title of "artist". These birds live in the rain forests of New Guinea and northern Australia. Males use sticks to build bowers, which are staging areas for their collections of interesting objects. They arrange these objects in particular ways to entice females, who are the judges of quality, to mate. Their selection of objects has remarkable overlap with Zymoglyphic art - snail shells, bones, small skulls, moss, fungus, dead bugs, flowers, and the occasional interesting plastic figure. One bird was even found to collect skeletonized leaves! Each individual bird has his own style, often preferring, for example, that all objects in an arrangement be a particular color, or a pair of colors.

David Attenborough has produced an excellent documentary on these birds. My favorite part is when he proves that the birds don't just collect these objects, but are are quite particular about the arrangement of them - he moves a few of the objects around when the bird is off somewhere, and when the bird comes back, it cocks its head quizzically at the disturbed objects and puts them back where it had them originally. There is also a sequence in which he compares the birds' elaborate stick bowers with a stick pile made by artist Andy Goldsworthy. You can see that clip here. The last part of the film shows the influence of the modern age on bowerbird art. In more urbanized settings, they collecting all manner of plastic toys and shiny things for their arrangements.

The documentary is available in the US as Nova - Flying Casanovas. In the UK, it is included on the BBC DVD "Attenborough in Paradise".

The photo above is from Animal Artisans

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Andy Goldsworthy's Collaborations with Nature

As I noted last week, in David Attenborough's documentaries, the natural world is teeming, bizarre place of baroque mating rituals, predation, and survival. A more bucolic view of nature is one that looks at the beauty in natural forms and patterns. One of the themes in Zymoglyphic culture is making art from natural objects, often with minimal transformation. Andy Goldsworthy is the purest Western practitioner of the craft of arranging natural materials into art forms. Usually, it is a matter of lightly imposing some human abstraction - a circle, spiral, or an unnatural crack - in a natural landscape to somehow achieve a magical effect. Some of his creations are permanent installations in stone, but most are ephemeral structures of ice, leaves, water, sticks or the crackles in drying mud. For these, his photographs become the final creative product and only remaining evidence of the work. The photographs in turn are available in a series of high-quality books. A good survey is Andy Goldsworthy: A Collaboration with Nature.

A lesser-known type of work that he does are "snowball paintings", which are created by putting a snowball stained with a natural dye on paper and letting it melt. The result is an amazingly detailed pattern created by the way the dye is deposited as the snow melts and the water evaporates. A detail from one is shown here, with an enlargement here. The Zymoglyphic acrylic paintings achieve a similar effect from the deposition patterns of the (unnatural) acrylic pigment.

An additional dimension to Goldsworthy's work is provided in the excellent documentary Rivers & Tides, which shows his work in a context of time and motion that you don't see as much in the still photographs. A pile of sticks by the shore is demolished bit by bit by the tides; a string of leaves snakes its way lazily down a creek.

He has two permanent installations in the Bay Area. One is Stone River in front of the Cantor Arts Center on the Stanford University campus, and the other
is at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park.

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