Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman discuss the beginnings of their collaboration and their dialogue with the history of museums
One of us was born in Buenos Aires, the other in Detroit, but the art collective now known by the name of Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman, which unites both of us in a creative dialogue, was born in Hinckley, Maine, at the L. C. Bates Museum.
This is the story of how that collaborative relationship came about.
The actors in the story: two professors of Art History. One of us (Véronique Plesch, the one from Buenos Aires) teaches at Colby College, the other (Louis Alexander Waldman) at the University of Texas in Austin. Both of them, before becoming art historians, had studied drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking. Some of the many artworks on display in Véronique’s office at Colby attest to her early efforts, and Louis has continued to draw over the years with varying degrees of quirky commitment.
The story unfolds in a remarkable place: the L. C. Bates Museum, dating from 1903, part of the campus of Good Will-Hinckley, a charitable organization founded in 1889. Over a century after its founding, the L. C. Bates Museum is still housed in an imposing red-brick Victorian Romanesque pile overlooking Route 201 in Hinckley. It takes about two hours to hike there from our house in North Fairfield, through cow pastures, following woodland paths, passing by ponds, little swamps, and tree-lined cliffs. It is our favorite walk in the entire world.
The L. C. Bates Museum is the type of highly eclectic museum that was once quite common, though few examples survive today. It is a teaching collection that combines beautiful dioramas and displays of natural history specimens—everything from seashells to bears—along with man-made, cultural artifacts. Modern visitors may be surprised to see a plaster bust of President Grant, cases of Chinese porcelain and pre-Columbian figurines displayed right around the corner from insects, fossils, geological specimens, and a trophy marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway.
But heterogenous as this collection of diverse objects may seem, it is rooted in a tradition with a very long history. The L. C. Bates is, in fact, the early-twentieth-century descendant of the Renaissance Wunderkammer—a cabinet of curiosities, which would bring together artifacts of nature, science, and art.
These collections, which unlike today’s museums were private and not open to the public, functioned as tools for understanding the world and, in the process, inspiring curiosity. Like those early cabinets of curiosities, the L. C. Bates Museum represents and models the epistemic values of its own time: an inquiring, positivistic age that valued the encyclopedic amassing and classification of knowledge.
Since 2010 Véronique Plesch has supervised a program that trains Colby College students in museum skills by allowing them to curate the L. C. Bates Museum’s summer art exhibition. Working over several months, the students get to experience every aspect of the process of curating an exhibition: selecting the artists and contacting them, choosing the works and finally installing the artworks, along with a myriad of other tasks, such as filling out insurance forms, printing and mounting labels, writing press releases, and organizing workshops with featured artists. Each exhibition focuses on an aspect of the natural world of Maine, dovetailing with the museum’s collections and teaching mission. Recent shows have explored the Maine landscape through the seasons or considered the debt this land owes to the glaciers that have shaped it; others have looked up to the sky or contemplated humanity’s place in the natural environment. The show two years ago was entitled Open Spaces: Reimagining Pastoral Maine; last year’s exhibition, Maine Wood(s), moved from those wide-open fields to the inner reaches of the forests, and also shed light on how Maine’s arboreal environment provides a material—wood—that is important for the actual making of art. Whatever the theme, all these shows share a remarkable feature: the works by contemporary artists are interspersed throughout the galleries containing the L. C. Bates’s permanent collections, creating a dialogue with the museum’s historic core holdings.
In May 2018, the opening of a new summer show, On and Off the Wire: Birds in Urban and Natural Landscapes, was fast approaching, Véronique enlisted Louis to help her and her students with the installation. The exhibition was already coming together: most of the art was hung, everyone was editing and printing labels, but in the midst of all our momentum we suddenly realized that we had a bit of a situation—literally right at our doorstep.
Upon entering the galleries, the first sight that greeted the visitor’s eye was a painting—part of the temporary exhibition—hanging above a large oak display case filled with poisonous Amazonian toads and toxic arrows dipped in venom. Even though the summer show is installed amidst the museum’s permanent collections, that particular vitrine struck everyone as a confusing distraction right there at the entrance to the galleries. It was too big to ignore and it was guaranteed to set visitors up with the wrong expectations. Birds were the theme of this year’s show. And poisonous toads are not birds.
What were we to do?
Exhibition Design to the Rescue
It was time to put our heads together and think like exhibition designers. With the blessing of museum director Deborah Staber, we came up with a simple, straightforward solution in order to bring the incongruous vitrine in line with the exhibition’s ornithological theme. Our idea was to replace the vitrine’s contents—and the threat of cognitive dissonance they posed—with a small collection of taxidermied birds drawn from the museum’s collection. Lining the case’s glass shelves with some natural materials would provide these specimens with a natural environment resembling the dioramas of the L. C. Bates Museum.
To realize this initial plan, everything needed was available at our home in North Fairfield. Some birds’ nests—random finds while walking around—gave a sense of the birds’ lives in nature, but also served as examples of their own patient, brittle artistry. During the preceding winter, snow had broken a limb of a centuries-old pine tree beside our house. That loss provided materials—boughs, needles, and pinecones—to suggest a native habitat for our birds. Moss and rocks from the garden would help us set the stage with realistic detail and texture.
However, as we were busy collecting these natural materials, we kept thinking…
Nothing exists without a context, and inevitably we mulled the question of how our installation would enter into a dialogue both with the contemporary works from the summer show and with the permanent collections of the L. C. Bates. Instead of merely displaying a few random birds, we asked ourselves, how could we create something that would actually engage in a dialogue with the exhibition and the museum itself? We came to realize that, rather than limiting ourselves to trying to mimic the L.C. Bates’s natural history dioramas and display cases, it would be exciting to include other types of objects that might provoke reflections about the very history of the museum and the intellectual genealogy that had shaped its heterogeneous, encyclopedic character.
The idea of adding other objects, and specifically man-made ones, was inspired by the concept of the Wunderkammer. We already had naturalia—natural history specimens—and it was in keeping with historical tradition for us to think of adding artificialia—the products of human creativity, artistic and scientific. Our display case was itself becoming a museum in microcosm, and one that reflected the early cabinets of curiosity that had led to the development of the modern museum.
From Wunderkammer to Vanitas: Evolution of an Idea
Soon enough, a second guiding concept emerged. As we moved ahead with our plan to amass a miniature collection of natural and artificial objects, the individual items we were choosing began to resonate with us. We are scholars of Renaissance art, after all, and people in that period were accustomed to assigning symbolic meanings and allusions—often multiple, sometimes even contradictory ones—to more or less everything in their world. These hidden messages were meant to be more or less transparent to anybody with the cultural preparation to interpret them. In literature, in sermons, and in art, even the humblest objects of the everyday environment became laden with meaning. The meanings of these symbols could be profane, related to the vagaries of everyday life, but often they carried a moralizing, philosophical, or theological significance.
What brought these reflections to our minds was an object that would have been powerfully symbolic to a Renaissance viewer. It was a skull.
The skull of a beaver, to be precise.
The beaver it belonged to must have spent its working life in Martin Stream right behind our house. But for us, art historians, a skull is never just a skull: we realized that the object we had casually thrown into our baskets of materials for our installation was an age-old symbol that echoes throughout the history of art. A human skull, in particular, is often found at the center of Renaissance and Baroque paintings devoted to the theme of Vanitas (the vanity of worldly things), where it stands for impermanence and mortality.
Images of Vanitas comment upon the transitory nature of earthly life by juxtaposing the skull with objects that people value, things that symbolize human desires and aspirations (such as wealth, fame, knowledge, power, etc.). The presence of the skull affirms how vain and unwise it is to be attached to worldly things when faced with the inevitability of death.
The beaver skull proved to be a pivotal element for us, because it reoriented our thinking about the meaning of our assemblage of found objects. When we came to think of it not merely as a natural artifact but as a symbol, a link in a historical chain of signification, the aims of our project shifted. We moved beyond the literal imitation of historic natural history museum displays (themselves imitating nature), to a type of installation that is by definition anti-naturalistic. We would include things never actually found in nature, since our goal now was to marry or to warp together (in dialogue) two opposing representational systems.
To the beaver skull we added other objects that admonished about the passage of time. Out of our kitchen cabinets and bureau drawers came an hourglass (formerly a mere adjunct to the cooking of soft-boiled eggs) and a pocket watch (long since stopped) on a rusty chain. Also in keeping with the traditional repertory of items included in Vanitas iconography, we added objects of human desire (such as a string of pearls) and the paraphernalia of human endeavors (tools and scholarly books). In the new context created by our modern interpretation of the Vanitas theme, the abandoned nests and stuffed birds also came to refer to the unavoidable demise of all things and the futility of all worldly pursuits.
We also included peacock feathers—at first glance a not very surprising choice for a display centered on birds—but a detail whose polyvalent symbolism we found particularly compelling. Although the contemporary viewer might be tempted to interpret the peacock feathers as symbols of worldly vanity, in Early Christian times the bird, whose flesh was thought not to decay after death, came to represent the opposite of Vanitas: eternal life.
We sat down and cogitated many of these deep thoughts at the Flatlanda Diner, just about four miles south of the L. C. Bates Museum on Route 201. Waldman-Plesch had the fried haddock special ($9.95) while Plesch-Waldman, in more of a breakfast mood, opted for a Mexican omelet with a side of baked beans and Texas toast ($6.95). At a table near a window, we set to work writing our piece’s explanatory exhibition label. By now it was clear, after all, that our vitrine was no longer a decorative accessory to the show, but had become an artwork in its own right.
The writing of the label forced us to confront the issue of the piece’s title. Plesch-Waldman, who took Latin in college (a long time ago), muttered an old saying about the vanity of worldly things: “Sic transit gloria mundi…” (“Thus, worldly glory passes away”). She looked up at Waldman-Plesch, who also took Latin in college (a long time ago), and said: “How about that, but with birds?”
And thus, the title for our installation was hatched: Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi. Which one could translate in a variety of slightly different ways, due to the polyvalence of the Latin language: “Thus, the birds of the world pass away.” Or even: “This way, the worldly birds pass.”
With the writing of the label text and the naming of the piece, our thought process and intentions came into focus. We discovered that something we had done rather playfully and spontaneously had a much deeper resonance than we initially bargained for. In hindsight, it hardly seems surprising that, as scholars of Renaissance art history, we would gravitate towards the idea of the Wunderkammer and consider its dialogue with the tradition of Vanitas images.
To celebrate this intersection between our art historical research and neonate artistic practice, we decided that alongside our collection of objects symbolizing the transience of worldly endeavor we would represent the ‘vanity’ of our scholarly practice by including pages from two of our own (individual) publications. One of us chose the first page of an article on Maine artist Maggie Libby, whose work was included in the L. C. Bates exhibition. The other chose an article on Italian Renaissance wood sculpture, and suggestively placed it next to our stuffed woodpecker.
Since we were now turning the theme of the vanity of all human endeavor backwards, like a mirror, upon ourselves, we realized that these scholarly works needed to show the ineluctable passage of time—after all, will our work still be remembered after our demise? So, before we inserted our scholarly essays in the case as part of our installation, we burned the edges of the pages, soiled them, folded, spindled, and mutilated them—replicating time’s unavoidable assault on all that is created by man.
To reflect our burgeoning sense that the two of us had merged into a creative unit, we decided to exhibit our work under a collective name: Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. For a long time before working on this installation, we had already taken to calling each other “Plesch-Waldman” and “Waldman-Plesch” for the simple reason that, even though we may argue a lot, we also tend to agree even more, and we generally do things and think so much alike that we often feel like halves of the same person. The order of names was a bit of mischievous fun: once we discovered the central, tongue-twisting alliteration of “Plesch-plus-Plesch,” we couldn’t resist using it.
Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman: Dialogue as Working Method
What had started as a spur-of-the-moment lighthearted desire to fill a vitrine opened up unexpected dialogues. Dialogue, as our collaboration on Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi highlighted for us, inevitably generates ideas and linkages. Our ongoing, part serious/part playful collaborative modus operandi led us from a place where we thought we were finished to another place where we realized we were only beginning.
Just as the writing of the descriptive label text gave us the occasion to reflect upon and articulate our message, the invitation to write this article has offered us a chance to further think about the nature of our collaboration. Dialogue, the topic of this special issue of the Maine Arts Journal, turned out to be a felicitous concept for us to think about further, because, as our story shows, it drove the thought process behind Sic Transeunt Aves Mundi. The dialogue by which we developed the concept, gathered the items, arranged them, and wrote about them, is only one of many dialogues at play in this installation.
Something that we were repeatedly made aware of during our work is the way the meaning of an individual object is transformed whenever it is juxtaposed with another: a dialogue results. Because our installation reflects the traditions of the Wunderkammer, the dialogue between objects could be thought of as multi-lingual, since it bridges the two realms of the natural (naturalia) and the man-made (artificialia). In a similar fashion, we experienced how words (like a gallery label) can inflect objects. And likewise, how coming up with a title for an artwork may lead to certain decisions and alter your thinking about it: once you settle on a title, the words of the title are constantly there, talking back to you.
In our play upon the conventions of the Wunderkammer, there is also a dialogue with the past. And that temporal conversation can be followed even in the very origins of the objects included in our installation: some found, others borrowed from the L. C. Bates, some owned by us, and some collected especially for the display.
As we realized at the outset, our work was going to create a dialogue with the L. C. Bates Museum’s summer exhibition—engaging with its ornithological theme—and also with the museum’s eclectic permanent collections. By appropriating a preexisting vitrine, borrowing specimens from the collection, and challenging visitors to think about the history of museum displays (while also tipping our hats to the history of the Wunderkammer and its role in the formation of modern museums), we became parties to a conversation that was already playing out on many simultaneous levels when we joined in.
Our serendipitous collaboration at the L. C. Bates turned out to be so fulfilling that we have continued to make art together as Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. The staccato rhythms of that chiastic name would barely lead one to suspect the multi-dimensionality of dialogue involved in our working practice. Instead of merely connecting two individuals, a dialogue also connects our individual identities as art historians to our joint identity as the art collective Waldman-Plesch+Plesch-Waldman. Somewhere in the interstices, a new dialogue is beginning to unfold between the studying and the making of art, in which the practice of art underpins a meditation on the practice of art history, and the practice of art history provokes a critical reflection on the practice of art.
On and Off the Wire: Birds in Urban and Natural Landscapes opened on May 11 and runs through October 15, 2018 at the L. C. Bates Museum, Good Will-Hinckley, Rt. 201.