Popular in the sixteenth century, Wunderkammern or ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’ were expansive collections of valuable, rare or historically significant objects gathered by wealthy nobles or scholars during expeditions and trading voyages. The objects were selected to evoke wonder in the viewer, and reveal the fascinations and preoccupations of the Age of Discovery.
A new UQ Art Museum exhibition, Wunderkammer: The strange and the curious, was inspired by these eclectic collections of objects and organised to coincide with the Australian and New Zealand Association of Medieval and Early Modern Studies (ANZAMEMS) 10th Biennial Conference.
The exhibition takes the form of two related displays. The first comprises objects that embody a Medieval or Early Modern (c. 600–1800) aesthetic, and include scientific and medical instruments, religious paraphernalia, coins, illuminated manuscripts and contemporary works of art drawn from The University of Queensland’s collections (including Fryer Library, Marks-Hirschfeld Museum of Medical History, Physics Museum, RD Milns Antiquities Museum, UQ Archives, UQ Art Collection, and the Vertebrate Palaeontology & Biomechanics Lab).
Complementing this is a Wunderkammer conceived by artist Luke Roberts, also known by his performance persona Her Divine Holiness Pope Alice, who proclaims herself ‘The World’s Greatest Living Curiosity’. In his Wunderkammer, Roberts overturns cultural hierarchies and celebrates the weird and the wonderful in all its abundance.
This month we caught up with Luke Roberts for an insight into his Wunderkammer…
Q: What inspired you to begin your Wunderkammer works?
A: There are many inspirations for the Wunderkammer works I’ve made. Perhaps the earliest inspirations came from my Catholic childhood. We were told of the relics of the saints. There were obligatory relics in the main altar of our church. Some of the priests and nuns wore relics. Relics were either pieces of a saint’s body (bones etc.) or clothing once worn by them. The relics I was familiar with were small fragments, but we were told of entire bodies of saints that remained in Europe and were displayed in ornate cases in magnificent church buildings there.
I was also born in the early years of space exploration. This was the era when terms such as flying saucers and UFOs were coined and we could watch satellites moving across the night sky.
Q: How do you source and select the objects you use when creating your Wunderkammern?
A: These items can come from anywhere. I’ve collected them from around the world. Some are genuinely what they are labelled to be, to the best of our knowledge, and others are pure fabrications. There isn’t any particular source or selection process other than a very personal one.
Q: What role does humour, myth and mystery play in your work?
A: Humour, myth and mystery are all interlinked and I’d place the Divine in that mix as well. Life simply does not make sense without humour. It’s the best way to impart knowledge. When we laugh we are in touch with the Divine. Laughter is mysterious. The Divine and myths are inextricably linked. Humour comes in many shapes as well. I’m aware that the humour employed in my Wunderkammer installations can vary widely in quality. It can operate as puns do. Sometimes puns can be truly uplifting and magical or they can be very mundane and with an almost embarrassing lack of sophistication. Punning, however, is simply a process whereby one word is replaced with another, either deliberately or through lack of knowledge.
Typos can happen even with the best of intentions and professional editing. My labelling usually doesn’t deliberately employ typos, but I do use various means to question our knowledge and beliefs. The viewer is asked to decide whether or not they’ll accept the description given to the object.
Q: Did your early years spent living in Alpha in Central Queensland influence your artistic practice?
A: Yes, very much so. The bases for my work were formed in Alpha and Alpha continues to influence my work. I was fortunate to be born in a town with an ancient name loaded with meaning. While Alpha itself is a fairly ordinary, small Queensland country town, the name invokes origins, alphabets, outer-space, history etc. These are some of the central themes in my work. We didn’t have an art gallery. We had the church and the cemetery. These were my main ‘art’ galleries apart from the wonderful books that would come my way via the town library.
Q: How did you and Her Divine Holiness Pope Alice meet?
A: We met when I encountered Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Däniken in 1972. I didn’t fully realise at the time the enormous effect this new information would have on my life, but I was aware that life had been given a new and wonderful direction and a far richer set of references than I’d ever had before. The Catholic Church had connected me with a rich history and great stories. My own research as a child gave me a lifelong fascination with Ancient Egypt and other cultures and mythologies. My own search for meaning had produced some results that worked for me. Chariots of the Gods tied these together in an extraordinary, exciting and unexpected way, which nonetheless felt oddly familiar.
In 1972 I was struggling with my beliefs, many of which weren’t working for me. While I was ‘seeing’ Pope Alice in the writing of von Däniken, Pope Alice didn’t fully reveal herself to me until the mid 1970s. She first reappeared in public in Australia in 1979.
Q: Are there any parting words of wisdom that you can send us from Her Divine Holiness Pope Alice?
A: “You may think the world a queer place, but it’s actually far queerer than we can possibly imagine.”
Wunderkammer: The strange and the curious was co-curated by Dr Dolly MacKinnon, Emily Poore and Michele Helmrich and runs until 13 September on the lower level gallery at UQ Art Museum.