Build Thee More Stately Mansions

<i>Bluffs</i>, antique wallpaper.

Bluffs, antique wallpaper.

Wooden cabinets and antler chandeliers at Anthropologie. Decorating monthlies advising readers to put coral branches in beakers on side tables. Sheep grazing on wallpaper toile. Fashion’s new naturalism has adopted the Wunderkammer as its interior-design touchstone because it fits the cultural recycling imperative of the industry and bears a credibility-boosting, if merely passing, resemblance to the institutional critique-based installation art of the last thirty years.

Naturally retail trend-watchers aren’t bothering with Robert Smithson’s work, or Bruce Mau’s new book and exhibition, Massive Change, chronicling his abandonment of minimalism and aesthetic-based work altogether to tinker with nature as an ecological fact rather than a Victorian artifact. Their work dispels any of the leafy clichés of the nature-lite found in the market mandates of the fashion world. Mau reiterates the charge that the concept of nature must be replaced with the concept of ecosystem ASAP, so that we can reinsert ourselves into the chain of causality that begins with a commercial for a warm, safe S.U.V. perched over a stormy summit and ends with a hurricane crashing through your living room. Clearly no one remembered that the original naturalist Wunderkammer displays were made to maintain a belief in the great clockmaker, manifest destiny, and other damaging ideas we should never consider again.

Why reinvest the concept of ecosystem with reactionary mystifications, country-clubbing pastorals, and Joe-Versus-the-Volcano sublimations? The Wunderkammer, according to art historian Carla Yanni, sets up a Noah’s Ark-like metaphor for the visual ordering of a scientific subject that was mainly for hobbyists at its beginning. The ordering would constantly change with the rearrangement of objects, reframing the questions until the hobby became a discipline. The world could be discovered as new arrangements would be admired, and so would begin the endless displacement of God into more refined states of design.

It makes sense that fashion would try to find a model of visual culture that would address Information Age vertigo and the vague sense of a renewed responsibility to “nature” fueled by the dubious aesthetic of well-meaning environmentalists who unwittingly encourage a dangerously old-fashioned sensibility. The concept of nature as, alternately, an oppositional force and a leisure setting as imagined by the Victorian cabinet of curios may soften the edges of converted loft spaces in gentrified warehouse districts across the U.S. But the revival of mad scientist curiosities and haircuts sprayed into windswept picturesque fails to account for the irrevocable fact that these same gentlemen naturalists fostered a culture of ecological destruction so complete that we don’t even remember what was lost.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, house poet of the American Medical Association, whispered to his chambered nautilus collection “Build thee more stately mansions” as he dusted off his shells. “Let each new temple, nobler than the last/ Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast. . . .” Holmes was writing about collecting specimens that signified the perfection of nature’s design. He didn’t realize that this dubious objectification would lay the ground for the 21st century’s obsession with actual mansions and the archaic visions of nature we keep inside, cutting ourselves off from what we thought we were getting closer to.

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