Cabinets of Curiosities Filled With Peculiar Wonder at Herzliya Museum

Skulls and artistic cow organs are some of the odd objects found in the new group exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, which takes inspiration from a centuries-old tradition of quirky collecting.

In affluent European households during the 16th–18th centuries, you might have found something called a "wonder cabinet" – a space filled with an encyclopedic display of strange, exotic objects that demonstrated the wealth and worldliness of their owners.

"Cabinets of Wonder in Contemporary Art – From Astonishment to Disenchantment," the new exhibition at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, manages to turn the museum into a wonder cabinet of its own – albeit brighter, airier and more self-aware than its forebears. The pure passion for collecting that inspired the originals, however, is replaced here at times with more critical self-examination.

Actual wonder cabinets, which were precursors to museums, are themselves the subject of exhibitions at museums around the world. In this show, however, wonder cabinets are used as inspiration for the participating artists. As such, the focus shifts from the individual collector to the collective viewpoint.

When I visited, on a weekday morning, the place was packed – a strong indication that folks are responding to the subject.

The exhibition is impressive, informative, tight and polished – maybe a little too polished. The show lacks the frayed edges and loose ends that give you something to grab onto and unravel further. But the cohesion also helps the disparate works coexist seamlessly.

The works on display are refined and their contents intriguing, addressing themes like estrangement from nature, the longing for primordial times, ecological disasters, and creation of cultural myths, among others.

The wonder cabinet of artist Einat Arif-Galanti is filled with an intelligent series of close-up photographs of fruits and vegetables.  Many of the pieces in the exhibition share this still life reference (nodding to the popular artistic genre that depicts inanimate, commonplace objects) but Arif-Galanti's interpretation is different, spurred by her enchantment with the otherwise banal. 

For example, some of the fruit and vegetables are wrinkled, rotten and partially eaten while others are perfect – but made from plastic. Her intimate and almost passionate observation of the fruit in aging or plastic form verges on the sacred and the erotic. A photo of a cracked egg, lying on its side as the yolk leaks out, felt like a parallel to the flow of life, and this elegiac photo grants it immortality.

Another great work is Ella Littwitz's "Hollow Heart" from 2012, filled with old slides documenting abnormal development and diseases in potatoes in Germany. In Littwitz's wonder cabinet, this botanical archive becomes an obsolete lecture. Because of the German context, the work offers a sociological and cultural viewpoint broader than the lens of the exhibition itself. There is something nearly addictive about the work, with its moving slides, harsh sound and old-fashioned photography.

"Magicis Cubiculum Curiositatibus" comes from Shay Id Alony, an artist who often works in large-scale, all-encompassing environments. Here he creates a fantastical space, pulling from multiple cultures, religions and faiths. In a sense it's a real wonder room, the density of the treasures piled up and betraying the passion of their collector. Skulls, sculptures, totems and masks appear as actual objects and as painted renderings by Id Alony, inspired by the Belgian symbolist painter James Ensor.

Speaking of skulls there is a lot of them here.  Maybe it's a wink to the popular Latin saying "memento mori" – Remember, you too will die – or a way of ridiculing it. Maya Attoun's piece "Abacus" in particular makes generous use of skulls, about 240 of them, made of linoleum to look like fake wood and stacked on top of each other like color-coded beads on an abacus.

Sheffy Bleier presents two excellent photos that are simultaneously stunning and grotesque. "Garden of Organs, Winter Sunlight," and "Garden of Organs, Full-Moon Night," are poetic titles for the images that show internal cow organs suspended from hooks. The photos smack of Christianity and suffering, but also give a sense of glory and holiness. Bleier has taken the traditions of still life to the extreme by literally stripping the animal of its flesh and presenting the core as an object of admiration.

There are other excellent works in the exhibition, like those by Dina Goldstein ("Wonderland") and Karen Russo, which deserve lengthy viewing.

"Cabinets of Wonder in Contemporary Art – From Astonishment to Disenchantment," Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art. Runs until December 29. Opening hours: Mon, Wed, Fri-Sat 10.00-14.00; Tues, Thur, 16.00-20.00.Closed on Sundays.

cow organs
Sheffy Bleier
Yigal Pardo
Einat Arif-Galanti
Yigal Pardo