Q&A: Brian Dillon on Curiosity, Art and the Pleasures of Knowing

Q&A: Brian Dillon on Curiosity, Art and the Pleasures of Knowing
( © Brian Dillon)

Cabinets of curiosities have been the inspiration for the Hayward Gallery’s forthcoming exhibition, “Curiosity: Art & the Pleasures of Knowing” which opens on May 25, 2013 at Turner Contemporary. The show has already won column inches for its diverse array of curious exhibits – from Leonardo drawings sourced from the Royal Collection to the Horniman Museum’s stuffed walrus, which took to Twitter last week to complain about the perils of its transportation to the venue.

The show is near encyclopaedic in its references, organically strung together like the polymath mind of a committed curiosity collector, obsessed as much by exquisite minerals as delicate artworks. So did that make this show more difficult to pull together than a more conventional exhibition in a museum or art gallery?

BLOUIN ARTINFO UK spoke to the show’s curator, Brian Dillon, as he put the finishing touches to the show, to find out.

How did the idea for the exhibition come about?

I had been talking to the Hayward about curating an exhibition arising from the sensibility of Cabinet magazine. If we were to translate the magazine into an ambitious exhibition it had to be different to one of the magazine’s themes. It had to be about the fundamental impulse of curiosity. That meant immediately if we called it “Curiosity” we could ground it to some degree in the history of cabinets of curiosities, which is one of the key reference points for the magazine. But that’s also a dangerous things to do as people have tried before to mount shows which explicitly make comparisons between contemporary art and cabinets of curiosities. So it’s kind of a risky undertaking for us and I hope we’ve negotiated that historical reference point reasonably well. The other thing that happened is that it completely exploded the range of objects and the historical span we could actually cover in it. So if we call this a kind of cabinet of curiosities it could go from the Renaissance to present day, starting with Leonardo and ending with the likes of Gerard Byrne.

How have you categorized such a diverse array of exhibits?

We didn’t go about starting with a series of sub-themes, though some of those have emerged as we have gone on. There’s a line to do with secrecy and voyeurism but we didn’t want to overplay that too much because it’s well covered ground. Clusters of works have to do with collections and archives. It felt that if we approached it from sub-themes or topics we could kill the whole thing quickly. The process should surprise it. Putting the show together should feel meandering and unpredictable in the way we hoped the exhibition would eventually. Really it’s emerged organically through conversations with artists we decided we wanted early including Tacita Dean, others have surprised us as we’ve gone along. In terms of the Hayward Touring programme there were obvious precursors including Tacita Dean’s exhibition a few years ago. In that, Tacita suggests that each work suggests the next one…we weren’t quite feeling like that…but there was an intuitive relationship for us between one object and the next.

How have found imposing an idiosyncratic sensibility on a multi-purpose gallery space?

One of the things we have been blessed with is that David Chipperfield has helped us re-conceive some of the spaces, so we’ve done quite a lot of building in the first gallery and made quite a labyrinthine path into the subject in a way. So you start off in spaces that demand close looking and some of the older works, for example the Leonardos, are in this early area. Then things open up. In the final gallery there’s a spectacular moment. So it comes down to the architecture and this amazing gesture on David Chipperfield’s part.

Is this modeled on any specific historical cabinets of curiosity or collections?

It was really much more of a sense of a sensibility rather than modeling on historical examples. There is one historical cabinet in the exhibition and that is John Evelyn’s and that came relatively late actually. It’s a really beautiful, quite austere black cabinet that seemed ideal, that stands for a kind of English history of the curiosity. He negotiated between scientific knowledge and appreciation of art, antiquarianism and horticulturalism that attached itself to this sensibility.

What, to you, is the most exciting piece in the exhibition?

One of the really exciting things for me is that we have a selection from Roger Caillois’s collection of stones which were loaned to us by the Natural History Museum in Paris. He was a renegade surrealist, like most people was thrown out of the Surrealist group by Breton. He died in the mid-1970s and in the 1960s he wrote a book called the Writing of Stones which is about nature’s mimetic faculty, the way nature mimics culture. Massimiliano Gioni is showing some of the others in Venice. We have certain objects and they have certain ones. There is a nice connection.

Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing, Turner Contemporary, Margate, May 24 – September 15, 2013