Mapping the Marvellous

Itineraries of curious objects and collections.

Category: books


Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy of this new book by Mark Dion – ‘part exhibition catalogue, part scientific log book, and an archaeology of our fascination with the sea':

Mark Dion, Oceanomania: Souvenirs of Mysterious Seas from the Expedition to the Aquarium (Mack, 2011).

See here, here and here for more info on the exhibition the book accompanied (still heart-broken I missed it).

Oh, and I also can’t wait for Christmas break to begin. Bring it on.

To Tantalise through Distance

Ivory hare with amber eyes.

Research: “… the pleasure of the searching … the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent.”

I had to do a double take to figure out that this is a stag.

Vitrines: “The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalise through distance.”

They all just beg to be picked up - this one even more so.

Both quotes from Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes. You can see all of the other netsuke in Edmund de Waal’s collection here.

The Kingdom of the Pearl

Edmund Dulac, Birth of the Pearl, illustration for Paris jeweller Léonard Rosenthal’s Au Royaume de la Perle [The Kingdom of the Pearl], 1919.

See here for a gallery of the other nine plates by Dulac and here for an extract from Rosenthal’s book (chapter on ‘Myths & Legends’ related to pearls).

The Plant as a Living Creature

All images from Ernst Fuhrmann, Die Pflanze als Lebewesen [The Plant as a Living Creature], 1930.

Less well-known than his contemporary Karl Blossfeldt, Ernst Fuhrmann (1886-1956) was a writer, philosopher, self-taught biologist, photographer and editor (head of the Folkwang publishing house and founder of the Folkwang-Auriga Archive).

Between 1924 and 1935, Fuhrmann published several popular books on plants, in which he developed his ‘biosophic’ theory of plants as living creatures endowed with latent organic energies and animal instincts.

Although Fuhrmann was under attack from the scientific establishment, writers such as Alfred Döblin wholeheartedly embraced his theory of plant-animal analogies (Alfred Döblin, “Die Pflanze als Lebewesen”, 18.12.1931).

Playing with the ‘objectivity’ of the photographic medium, Fuhrmann’s images use effects such as blurriness, magnification and strong light contrasts to emphasise the plants’ organic vitality and to highlight similarities with human and animal (sexual) organs.


In The Novel as Event, a study of nineteenth-century fiction published by University of Michigan Press in 2010, Mario Ortiz Robles writes that

a performative model of subject formation cannot be thought apart from its implication in regulatory practices operating within discursive regimes that circumscribe the “materiality” of the subject through the citationality of norms.

And a couple of pages further on:

The foreclosure of the performative in the Victorian novel is thus the condition of possibility of its disciplined re-emergence as the illocutionary hallucination of the performative as a material event of subjectivity that emerges in a discursive nexus that can be generally named “impersonation”.

I’ve always suspected that reading incomprehensible undergraduate essays has a negative effect on my writing. But I’m convinced that reading incomprehensible, jargon-laden academic studies is far more detrimental.

The TLS awards the Mario Ortiz Robles Prize of Incomprehensibility. See J.C., ‘NB’, in TLS, no. 5624, January 14 2011, p. 32.

Everybody is an Artist, or Reading is Making

Someone's 'Create a nonstop line' page of Keri Smith's 'Wreck this Journal'.

One of my recurring New Year’s resolutions is: less passive consuming, more active making and producing. The trouble is that, to my great dismay, I’m no good at crafts. Painting, drawing, knitting, crocheting, sewing, sawing, gluing, dyeing, stenciling, cutting, folding and welding: all admirably creative kinds of handiwork, but it’s better for everyone if I stick with passive consumption in these cases. So I usually end up whittling all mighty intentions down to: less reading, more writing. While we know at least since Barthes that the process of reading is active and productive, too, two books which recently came to me – one into my possession, via B., and one to my attention, via amazon recommendations – promise to squeeze every last drop of creativity out of their readers.

Quentin Blake and John Cassidy’s Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered, published by Klutz, prompts you to draw and sketch everything from everyday objects such as brooms, specs and candles, to flowers, animals, and people. It comes complete with three different pens and pencils and provides ideas, technique and encouragement around the edges of every page – with the centre left blank for your own attempts. The authors’ credo is that everybody can draw, that there are no such things as mistakes, and that every drawing is successful as long as it catches the essence, or spirit, of its subject. A typical page from Drawing for the Artistically Undiscovered looks like this:

“How far are you going?  -Just up to the Vanishing Point. I’ll be right back.”

Or like this:

Creatures we’re encouraged to draw here include the Great Steaming Blurge; the Hopeless Flopper; the Small Hairy Gloob; the Ten-legged Unexpected Thing; the Nervous Furblow; the Long-tailed Werble; and the Greater Spiked Glunk.

A similar emphasis on creativity and participation underlies Canadian ‘guerilla artist’, writer and illustrator Keri Smith‘s books – most famously maybe Wreck this Journal. Here you are encouraged to create by destroying: you can tear up the pages of the book, crack its spine, spill coffee on it, punch holes in it, and scrape it along the ground – the muddier the better.

Keri Smith in Wreck this Journal.

Similarly, Smith’s This is Not a Book prompts you to think about different uses for the object and to interact both with the book itself and, through the book, with people around you. Thus the book can be transformed into a secret message (tear out a page, write a note on it for a stranger, and leave it in a public place); a recording device (have everyone you contact today write their name in the book); or a musical instrument (create as many sounds as you can using the book, like flipping the pages fast or slapping the cover).

It’s all been done before – a fact Keri Smith acknowledges in How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum (“None of the ideas in this book are new. Many of them have been pilfered, borrowed, altered, and stolen from great thinkers and artists of our time.”). But originality is not what these books are about; they are about doing, about dropping passive consumption in favour of active making and producing.

For book previews (in German) of Wreck this Journal, This is Not a Book, and How to Be an Explorer, see here, here and here. The German translation of Wreck this Journal adds a nice layer of meaning to the book: ‘Mach dieses Buch fertig’ means both ‘Wreck this Book’ and ‘Make this Book Complete’.

And other sordid details.

‘Whitie’, Teddy Bear, Margarete Steiff GmbH, c. 1907, V&A, London.


by Jason Guriel

In a glass-faced box, I forced together
four glass marbles (the sort whose sole point seemed
to be to round out a pouch), a feather
(plucked from down on which Victorians dreamed),
and wallpaper (strategically distressed
with tea water). I added assorted
props of death and blight: frost-white wedding dress
scorched black by spinster, and other sordid
details, such as stuffed teddy bear entrails
draping the blade of an antique ice skate.
I was pleased how little work was entailed.
With ease, the incongruous congregate
on the altar of the diorama
like offerings to my deus ex machina.

From Jason Guriel, Pure Product, Signal Editions, 2009

Unnatural Encounters

Unknown, Boy with owls, c. 1911, photo postcard.

Unknown, Person riding camel, c. 1908, photo postcard.

Unknown, Performing bear, c. 1910, photo postcard.

Unknown, Man with dog, c. 1908, photo postcard.

All images are part of an online exhibition at Luminous Lint; they are also included in Robert Bogdan and Arnold Arluke’s recent book, Beauty and the Beast: Human-Animal Relations as Revealed in Real Photo Postcards, 1905-1935 (Syracuse University Press, 2010). As the authors write,

“[t]his exhibit is the result of a book project in which we used real photo postcards to explore the relationship between humans and animals, 1905-1935. It was during this period that both photo postcards were most popular and Americans experienced profound changes that altered their connection with animals. America was in transition from being predominately rural to a country dominated by cities, from a society where everyday contact with a variety of animals was common to one in which such contact was limited. Cars and trucks replaced horses. Viewing animals, other than pets, came to be done mainly in circuses, zoos and in the movies not in peoples’ own backyards. Food production became industrialized making the animals that are the source of our produce almost invisible. Our book documents the range of roles animals played from pets to vermin. We look at live as well as dead creatures, real as well as fantasy, loved and hated. We explore the contradictions, dualisms and paradoxes of our connection to animals, illustrating how animals were distanced and embraced, commoditized and anthropomorphized.”

Longing for a Distant Land

Judith Schalansky’s Atlas der abgelegenen Inseln, which I wrote about back in January (here), is out in English and French translation. Perfect timing, if you are (or know) an armchair explorer and lover of imaginative and beautifully designed books, still looking for a Christmas present.

Coffee with vinegar and mustard, anyone?

Victor Hugo, … according to a description by Théophile Gautier, would mix together on the same plate a cutlet, beans in oil, a ham omelette, and Brie cheese, and would drink café au lait seasoned with a dash of vinegar and a spot of mustard.

R. B[runet], ‘La Cuisine régionale’, in Le Temps, 4 April 1940, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project.


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