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Cabinets of Curiosities

Madeline von Foerster

These paintings invite the viewer into the bewitching, claustrophobic realm of the Cabinets of Curiosities, or Wunderkammern. Such cabinets were originally an invention of Enlightenment-era collectors and amateur naturalists, where the “wonders” of nature (and especially the offerings of newly discovered, exotic territories) – coral, minerals, taxidermy, and the like – were lovingly and often fetishistically contained and displayed.

In this series, I have created nine imaginary cabinets, in which to explore humanity’s often destructive relationship with nature (and in particular, the crisis of deforestation). These wooden cabinets intentionally allude to the once-living trees that were their source. Some are carved into the shape of women, personifying trees, whose bodies have become cabinets. Meanwhile, the “curiosities” displayed are actual species, dependant on the trees for survival.

The omnipresence of cabinetry or other wooden framework in every painting (a direct visualization of Heidegger’s concept of “enframing”), becomes the symbol for our way of relating to nature: within the cabinets, nature is controlled, collected, “speciminized.” But this same framework forms a barrier between nature and ourselves. We wish to peer into nature’s lush realm, to reenter the garden through ownership of its parts, but, “the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct.”(1) Our invasion gives birth to our exclusion.

As carved wood references a tree, so also does it necessarily indicate the destruction of that tree, our interference with natural systems, and our appropriation of nature for our own uses. This “matyrdom” is implied in the carved figures that echo the reliquaries and saint grottos that were the medieval antecedents to the Enlightenment’s Cabinets of Curiosities.(2) By correlating these two purposes – science (Wunderkammer) and devotion (reliquaries) – to the immediate, urgent knell of deforestation, I am striving to create a vocabulary for a new possible relationship to the natural world.

1.Heidegger, Martin, The Question Concerning Technology. Vorträge und Aufsätze, 1954.
2.Mauries, Patrick, Cabinets of Curiosities. Thames and Hudson, London, 2002

Artist’s site:  Madeline von Foerster

All images and text are the sole copyright of the artist and gratefully used here by permission.

Single click images to enlarge.

Site tags: luminous, evocative, portraits, creatures, trees, wood, historical reference

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