Reaction: Edmund de Waal's "During the Night"

The concept of curation has been appropriated by pretentious pseudointellectuals outside of art (no, I do not consider #menswear an art).  The Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts, offers us instead this opportunity to experience outsider curation of art itself.  Edmund de Waal, ceramicist and award-winning author, has organized an eclectic set of fewer than 100 objects into “During the Night,” a dimly lit, dreamlike reframing of items dating as far back as 150 million years to, in the form of his own new work, the present day.

What is “During the Night”? The first piece in the exhibition sets its tone, the haunting Dream Vision inspired by a nightmare that awoke artist Albrecht Dürer “sometime during the night” 500 years ago.  A bleak watercolor landscape with harrowed description on a page in Dürer’s Kunstbuch.  Perhaps it is a sign of my own limited culture, but the bleakness and otherworldliness of Dürer’s landscape cannot simply accidentally remind us of the background to Dali’s Persistence of Memory.  A stage set for the disturbing and the surreal.  De Waal’s own comment to the piece recalls his own trepidation at feeling “exposed” in the museum, concluding with the troubling “These are the last days of mankind.”

De Waal’s comments accompany each piece in the exhibition.  Reading them without greater information about the pieces invites comparison to the angst of commentators on Sprockets or the preternatural Weltschmerz of the pastiche Twitter account @WernerTwertzog: despair taken to a humorous level.  Refuse the invitation.  “During the Night” forces us to re-examine items removed from the safety of traditional museum curation: that is, situation among items of similar history and provenance, explication that creates safe distance.  “During the Night” reminds us to privilege our visceral responses to art, including, in the case of an exquisitely crafted “shakebox” whose delicate mechanical snakes, beetles, scorpions and indescribably beasties jiggle and creep whenever the box is touched, a disgusted shock – or to be more direct, WTF? 

Our disgust at the shakebox’s denizens gives way to a remembrance of the impossibility of capturing life, the impossibility in fact of capturing, documenting or containing what we wish to: grotesque reliquaries, which de Waal notes contain attempt to imprison some essence from the most wretched scraps of a saintly host richly packaged; shockingly crude carved wooden crucifixes from Germany that resemble eldritch fetishes rather than the Son of God, even a tiny devil captured inside a prism.  In the 18th century, the imperial treasury in Vienna had deemed it an actual demon that had been driven out of a person and neutralized within glass.  Today, it still powerfully symbolizes our attempts to control – not just our world around us but the demons inside us we wish we can exorcise.

Bleakness cedes to the grotesque, to the futile: handstones and paintings (including one by a member of the school of Hieronymus Bosch, of course) of the path to salvation appear to our modern eyes founded on exploitation and uncertainty – as de Waal points out of a Lucas Cranach painting on the subject, “the path disappears.” 

The path disappears.  De Waal attained worldwide recognition for his family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, which recounted the despoliation of the Ephrussis, a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family moved gradually west over the centuries, though, like the Camondos of Constantinople and later Paris, apparently not far west enough to escape the unimaginable horrors of the last century.  (How ironic, of course, that the only appropriate reaction to today’s political context is to force ourselves to imagine them again.)  De Waal’s comment to the first piece in “During the Night” adds immediacy to the anxiety underlying his curation. It also evokes the world, or world’s end, of his book.  Worlds end.  But what really ends is our particular way of perceiving the world, our presumptions of order and assumptions of what lasts, what we take for granted.  “During the Night” gives the lie to timelessness (including, to my mind, the persistence of so-called permanent fashion). Our inability to arrest time, in fact our inability to assert control or effect self-determination despite our most expansive efforts through amulets (including certain made of bezoars, the indigestible masses found in the stomachs of livestock – and humans), talismans.  

A personal favorite, of course, were the red and black corals, part of the largest collection of the 16th century amassed at Ambras Castle in Innsbruck.  I’ve always been fascinated by the beautiful shapes and colors of these sinuous branches. De Waal re-situates my fascination by reminding me of the classical Roman story of how coral was created: the decapitated head of Medusa, carefully placed by Perseus in a gentle bed of sea plants, petrifies their leaves and fronds as they leave the water, to the delight of the sea nymphs.  Beauty in metamorphosis (pun intended), in displacement, in exposure to monstrosity. We cannot capture and we cannot have, but we can contemplate with anxiety and wonder.

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