In the Museum of Natural History — An Incompetent Dialogue?

by Daniel Spoerri

Central Question: What if God was one of us?
Year the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien opened: 1889; Year of Daniel Spoerri’s birth: 1930; Year Spoerri buried the remains of a banquet he served: 1983; Year said banquet was exhumed by archaeologists: 2010; Approximate number of objects in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien collections: 30 million; Number of wolf specimens in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien mammal collection: 214; Minimum number of wolf pelts at owned or utilized by Spoerri at one time or another: 14

The image of Albert Einstein’s hair may represent our most sentimental attachment to the otherwise austere world of modern science. We like to think of it as a kind of synecdoche, an image that embodies its owner’s absentminded, benevolent genius: it is the kind of hair we would have if we were too busy remodeling the universe to worry about a trip to the barber. So great, that hair. But there is another, related idea secreted away in Einstein’s scalp: that of a brain so powerful that its physical vessel can barely contain it. His intelligence pushes against his skull, seeping out through his hair’s roots, trying to touch the world directly, and electrocuting his hair in the process. It not only indicates his lack of concern with superficial things, it presents us with the image of the scientist as a modern Samson, his hair attached to a body that couldn’t bench-press a broomstick but that could reinvent the texture of space and time.

The artist Daniel Spoerri’s In the Museum of Natural History — An Incompetent Dialogue? seems particularly alive to the same presence of warm, personal style in a cold, impersonal universe. On its cover, and dotted throughout, Spoerri has printed a human skull with a large piece of brain coral resting on top: Einstein’s head transformed into a memento mori. The sculpture on which this image is based comes from the exhibition the book documents, which took place at Vienna’s Naturhistorisches Museum Wien in 2012. The museum’s directors gave Spoerri access to its collections, which provided the material for a series of sculptures made up of disparate animal remains and artifacts from ancient civilizations. Spoerri’s characteristic humor—he was associated with the Fluxus group in the ’60s—transforms the enigmatic remains of dead creatures and civilizations into ramshackle chimeras. The jaws of a shark frame a mannequin hand, its index finger delicately extended, palm facing outward as though it had emerged from the animal’s belly to select its dinner; a stone figurine with a crustacean’s claw instead of a head stands mutely, as though it were expecting someone to explain the horrendous mistake that brought it into being.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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—Mark Sussman

Mark Sussman has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bookforum, Capital New York, and Jewcy, among other publications. He teaches writing and American literature at Hunter College.

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