Instituting as a Box, a Forest, a Swimming Pool
by Viktoria Draganova
As part of this year’s festival The Irritated City (Die irritierte Stadt), Roman Lemberg and Michael Kleine – in cooperation with science historian Hannah Star Rogers, dramaturg Johanna Ziemer, and musician friends – have staged a concert and a performative reading in the middle of a theatrical and obscure museum setting. Their contribution addressed how superstition, fantasy, contemporary science, and commerce have become intertwined since the early days of natural history, and that the natural history museums are still profoundly characterized by the theatrical and the spectacular.
by Roman Lemberg and Michael Kleine, in collaboration with Hannah Star Rogers and Johanna Ziemer — Dez 11, 2020
Shin-Joo Morgantini, flute, Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
In June of this year, the newly initiated festival The Irritated City (Die irritierte Stadt) brought a variety of events to public spaces in Stuttgart. Our contributionwas a staged concert with music by Johann Sebastian Bach in the Museum of Natural History »am Löwentor.«1 It was performed during regular opening hours, and visitors could move freely throughout the museum. The museum’s architecture is mainly organized in a huge interior on two floors, with views, surprising perspectives, stairs, galleries, transitions, corners – a very convoluted and mysterious place. All in all, this space offers an entertaining variety of settings with a specific acoustic: the four musicians – flute, viola, violoncello, and keyboard – played in different, changing positions, sometimes far away from each other, answering each other. Sometimes they were staged in the middle of the setting(s), sometimes hiding in inaccessible places and only audibly noticeable.
They played the ten canons from Bach’s cycle Das musikalische Opfer. These complex tunes, or better, musical puzzles, are open to interpretation and improvisation. They rotate in loops: their instrumentation, duration, and development are mostly not prescribed. They all deal with a recognizable melodic theme called the »royal theme« because the Prussian King Friedrich II suggested it to Bach. We used these canons to create overlays, echoes, communication, and correspondences.
»Since the early days of natural history, creativity, art, superstition, fantasy, science in the modern sense, and commerce have all flowed together, in particular when dealing with prehistoric findings. The presentation of these research areas is still extremely theatrical and spectacular.«
The music entered into a relationship with the exhibition, which presents prehistoric artifacts mostly found in the region – prehistoric skeletons of (wo)men, mammoths, cave bears, dinosaurs, and other species – staged explicitly and dramatically. A mix of sculpted animals, collaged specimens, and original objects like dissected skeletons are placed in artificial settings, which fantastically imitate nature, a desert, a swamp, a forest, and staged as dramatic or »lifelike« scenes: fights, fatal accidents, encounters, family life.
With the science historian Hannah Star Rogers, we dealt with the history of the artistic presentation of scientific findings – since the early days of natural history, creativity, art, superstition, fantasy, science in the modern sense, and commerce have all flowed together, in particular when dealing with prehistoric findings. The presentation of these research areas is still extremely theatrical and spectacular. Through announcements over the intercom and individual readings in one of the museum’s show laboratories, Rogers brought comments and ideas from our research into the performance itself. The concert and performative reading in the museal settings became an occasion to reflect on the connection between art and science in our cultural history and in the institutionalized conservation practice. Furthermore, examples of all these aspects were incorporated into a program booklet with texts and illustrations, some of which we present here.
Jakob Roters, violoncello, Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
Louis Bona, viola; Shin-Joo Morgantini, flute; Jakob Roters, violoncello, Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
Louis Bona, viola; Shin-Joo Morgantini, flute; Jakob Roters, violoncello and Roman Lemberg, synthesizer and keyboard, Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
KaShin-Joo Morgantini, flute, Kanons, June 2020, Museum am Löwentor, Stuttgart, photo: Michael Kleine
Whatever we humans find, digging the earth or the subconscious, instantly becomes part of our imagination. What we have come to know as science or art are practices with vitally shared components: the styles, techniques, and conversion of observation into representation may differ, but the act of symbolic imagination – which enacts a sort of secular transubstantiation where an object becomes another unpresent thing – is central to both of these knowledge-making methods. What we call realism, mythological, rational, subjective, and objective could be understood as aesthetic aims of these cultural practices.
Seen from this perspective, the fantastic dragons of the mythological age and the dinosaurs that modern science has discovered, classified, or invented can be put together in one rubric in the imaginary museum. The same imagination that adds short songbird or long swan feathers to the wings of Baroque angels adds fur, feather, and colors to the backs of these great imagined beasts. You can find some of these evocative potential dinosaur-to-bird bodies in the Löwentor Museum.
»Whatever we humans find, digging the earth or the subconscious, instantly becomes part of our imagination.«
Our collective impulse is to admire and to imagine that somehow, if only in representation, these creatures have outlived their own extinction to be known in our age. Perhaps dinosaurs are a Methusilian fantasy: the hope that we will continue even as we face extinction. In this way, they may be an omen or totem for us; a sign of our own hope for ourselves as we accept our own choice not to turn back and imagine a post-climate change future and what our own fossils might suggest to others.
Paolo Uccello, St. George fighting with the dragon, c. 1470, Wikipedia:Public domain
Johann Jakob Scheuchzer, Asian dragon, Itinera Alpina 1708, Wikipedia:Public domain
A still from Winsor McCay's animated cartoon Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). In the finale, Gertie lifts up McCay in her mouth and carries him away, Wikipedia:Public domain
Chang Qu (常璩) (ca. 291 – ca. 361 C.E.) was a fourth-century Chinese historian who wrote the Records of the States South of Mount Hua, the oldest extant regional history of China. Chang Qu wrote about bones in Wucheng (Sichuan), China. Parts of China have particularly rich fossil deposits. Legends and stories about dragons can be found in many cultures. It has been suggested that the discovery of dinosaur bones and teeth gave rise to the dragon myth as this evidence was understood as the remains of dragons – how close to the truth they were!
»In the mountain-region of XuanWu there is a mountain called San Ou, where the bones of dragons were found. The legend tells that the dragon in the mountains flew high through the clouds. But he couldn’t reach his goal, because the door of the heavenly reign was closed. So he felt down and died, and was buried with earth. For this reason his bones could be discovered in an excavation … «2
Ernst Haeckl, Fig. 44: Ammonitida. Ammonshörner, 1904. These lithographs were made after Ernst Haeckel's drawings for the volume »Kunstformen der Natur«, Leipzig and Vienna (Bibliographisches Institut) 1904, Public domain: zeno.org (accessed December 10, 2010)
»She sells seashells by the sea shore.« Though the origins of this rhyme are lost among the generations of children, it has been often suggested that »she« was, in fact, Mary Anning, a fossil hunter and paleontologist of the early nineteenth-century Jurassic Coast near Dorset in England. Like many disadvantaged locals, Anning came to her trade through her parents, who collected and sold shells and fossils to well-heeled tourists visiting their seaside town. She is credited with finding the first specimen of Ichthyosaurus, acknowledged by the London Geological Society when she was only eleven years old.
Anning famously searched the Dorset Coast with her dog Tray. As is the practice today, she both reported finds to the editors of scientific annals and sold fossils through the shop she owned and operated. The geology of Anning’s home region made fossil picking rich but dangerous. Searching for fossils in the sloughed-off coast was a business with considerable adventure, due to rockslides.
A landslide eventually claimed her faithful dog, but Anning escaped. She discovered that belemnite fossils contained ink sacks, and her contemporary Elizabeth Philpot created a new art medium, using the fossilized ink by mixing it with water, which became a common practice for local artists.
Anning’s major discoveries included the first complete Plesiosaurus in 1828. It was the first British example of the flying reptiles known as Pterosaurs, called a flying dragon when it was displayed at the British Museum. These discoveries were crucial to proving theories of animal extinction and forming the scientific networks that enabled the rise of paleontology as a discipline.
Mary Anning, Letters and drawings, 1823–1833, Wikipedia:Public domain
Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin was a natural philosopher, physiologist, slave-trade abolitionist, inventor, and poet. His long poems The Loves of Plants (1791), one piece of the larger compendium The Botanic Garden (1791), investigates the reproduction of plants, which popularized discoveries of the period about how flowers worked, and led to social concerns about women and flowers – and even a craze of women demonstrating their moral uprightness by raising sporate ferns. These, lacking flowers, altogether avoided the discussion on these sexy inflorescences’ ultimate purpose.
The Loves of Plants3
Ye painted Moths, your gold-eyed plumage furl,
Bow your wide horns, your spiral trunks uncurl;
Glitter, ye Glow-worms, on your mossy beds;
Descend, ye Spiders, on your lengthen’d threads;
Slide here, ye horned Snails, with varnish’d shells;
Ye Bee-nymphs, listen in your waxen cells!–
BOTANIC MUSE! who in this latter age
Led by your airy hand the Swedish sage,
Bad his keen eye your secret haunts explore
On dewy dell, high wood, and winding shore;
Say on each leaf how tiny Graces dwell;
How laugh the Pleasures in a blossom’s bell;
How insect Loves arise on cobweb wings,
Aim their light shafts, and point their little stings.
Hannah Star Rogers
Without their companion moths,
these foreign beauties are hopeless.
Here, there is no possibility for seed.
Even the incestuous pollen grains
that might fall to waiting stigmas
are thwarted: there is no wind.
When I lie down in the damp grass,
a star aligns with the blossom.
If I switch elbows,
the symmetry is gone.
Amber with enclosure, photo: Michael Kleine
Mary Anning, Letters and drawings, 1823–1833, Wikipedia:Public domain
The team consisted of Roman Lemberg (concept, musical direction, and keyboard), Michael Kleine (concept and stage design), Johanna Ziemer (dramaturgy), Hannah Star Rogers (scientific collaboration) and the three musicians Shinjoo Morgantini (flute), Louis Bona (viola), and Jakob Roters (violoncello).
See https://blog.everythingdinosaur.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/dragon_record.jpg (accessed December 10, 2020). Translation by WenXiao Zhu
See http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10671 (accessed December 4, 2020).
© 2023 Akademie Schloss Solitude and the author