Mastering the art of uncertainty

David Wilson, keeper of the Museum of Jurassic Technology, brings oddities and irony to Baltimore.

Ideas

May 07, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

When David Wilson begins his slide talk at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, the audience is plunged into darkness. That works practically and poetically. After all, it's David Wilson, meaning you're in the dark even when the lights go up.

Who is this man, really? Really, what's he up to? You have to ask.

You have to ask as soon as you walk into the auditorium and you hear this odd music streaming from two little box speakers at the podium. It sounds like a cross between a violin and an oboe, maybe a viola and a bassoon, an instrument playing with such abundant sadness that it straddles the line between tragedy and comedy. That'll work, too, given what one knows of Wilson, founder and keeper of a storefront collection of natural and man-made oddities in Los Angeles called the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

You heard right: Museum of Jurassic Technology. Isn't that good? Doesn't that make a nice mix of a serious thing and another thing that makes you go "huh?" The place presents an array of strange exhibits, all done with the kind of hyper-serious scientific and historical presentation one associates with old-fashioned museums. All those wood and glass cases, all that exhaustive detail in the labels suggest deep research. Yet there's always something to make you wonder if it's on the level. "Huh?" isn't much, but at least it's a starting point for some deeper dialogue.

"I feel that state of mind that people find themselves in, that uncertainty, is an enormously valuable and constructive state of mind," Wilson says. "People tend to create this kind of shell that's impenetrable, or subtly impenetrable, that protects them, or protects them much of the time from experiences that can be expansive. We are interested in penetrating that shell."

This 54-year-old former cinematic special effects man is no celebrity, but his national profile did rise after publication in 1995 of a book about him and his museum: "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonders." And here he is, invited to MICA for a week of visiting, hanging with students and speaking.

A museum of curiosities

Number among Wilson's fans many artists and museum types, people who look at this soft-spoken, slight fellow with the gray beard and gentle blue eyes and see a performance artist, a man focused on Big Questions about knowing and seeing. The Museum of Jurassic Technology stands on Venice Boulevard in Culver City like a little theme park: Welcome to Ambiguityland. If Wilson made bumper stickers they'd probably say: "EMBRACE UNCERTAINTY."

It's not bad advice. What else can you do when you're sitting there with this peculiar music playing and the lights going out and the next thing you know you're looking at pictures of teensy-weensy sculptures said to be carved from human hair, small enough to stand in the eye of a needle.

Right. Of course. Sure. What-everrrrrr.

Here's a figure of Pope John Paul II in full papal regalia -- crimson and white vestments, miter, crosier -- standing in the eye of a needle. You like that one? Here's Snow White and the dwarfs, all seven of them, arrayed on the end of a needle. Here's Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. And if you like an extra dab of irony, here's the famously diminutive conqueror, Napoleon, remarkably reduced further in stature to the size of a few grains of sand.

It's all presented as the work of a now-deceased and obscure Egyptian-born Armenian California transplant named Hagop Sandaldjian, a violinist and micro-miniaturist. In 1990, a few weeks after Sandaldjian died at 59, the Museum of Jurassic Technology exhibited his work. Really, you could look him up.

But then you'd be getting all worked up over the matter of verifiability, as Wilson feels Lawrence Weschler did in writing "Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder."

Wilson praises the book and is grateful for the attention it brought to the museum. But he says Weschler's typically journalistic frame of reference may have missed the big picture. In Wilson's view, Weschler spent too much time running around trying to figure out what was "real" and what wasn't.

Wilson is not so excited by the "Meet the Press" approach to public discourse. He's not defensive about the veracity of museum exhibits. It's not as if it's a question of his personal credibility. In his view it's a philosophical point about the value of the state of unknowing.

The closest Wilson comes to acknowledging the role of illusion in his own work is to make a parallel with sleight-of-hand magician Ricky Jay, whom he has befriended.

"As he's talking he's doing these things in front of your eyes that are just incredible," Wilson says. "I'm not sure I want to know what's going on there. He's ardent in divulging nothing. I never really want to break through that wall."

Connecting with people

The lecture crowd apparently is with him on this. The auditorium is packed with some 200 students, instructors and local museum folks, but nobody's challenging the veracity of anything.

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