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Experience and Its Decay

Lindgren's always figured out how to translate Wilson's eccentric vision to achieve that look of inevitability. She did his No One May Ever Have the Same Knowledge Again, for example, a wonderful collection of letters to the astronomers at Mount Wilson Observatory 1915-1935, and his The Eye of the Needle, about the microminiature sculptor Hagop Sandaldjian. (Both are available from the museum's website,

She's come up with the perfect design again for the new The Museum of Jurassic Technology Jubilee Catalogue (120 pages, $16). Like the museum itself, it's both a loving homage to and a quiet, deadpan send-up of those old-fashioned, plain-faced bound volumes small museums or private libraries or academic societies put out. It could be the annual report of the Royal Society of Steam Engineers, or the index to a volume of 14th-century Arabic sea voyages put out by the Hakluyt Society or the catalog of some small private university library's collection of Piers Ploughman commentaries.

What it is is a welcome overview of the Jurassic's unique exhibitions, and a selection of the brilliant texts that have accompanied and only sometimes explained those exhibits. To recap: The Jurassic may be the most unusual little museum in the world, and I'm including the Mütter in Philadelphia (for which Lindgren has also worked), the marvelous sideshow gaffs of the American Dime Museum in Baltimore, that sex museum in Amsterdam and that museum of parasites in Japan. Founded in 1988 in a storefront on a shabby strip of Venice Blvd. better known for its car lots than its cultural institutions, the Jurassic is Wilson's mysterious, fascinating and utterly charming version of a natural history museum, as well as a modern equivalent of a 17th-century "cabinet of curiosities." Some of the exhibits, like the one of Sandaldjian's microscopic sculptures, have been actual oddities; some, like the famous one about the "Deprong Mori," a bat that can fly through solid matter, have been magnificent fictions; and it's always been a hallmark of Wilson's poker-faced presentation that the visitor can't tell which is which and shouldn't even think about it too hard, but simply luxuriate in the feelings of awe, mystification and/or amusement a trip to the museum (and by extension, any museum, though most don't do it on purpose) can generate.

Wilson's a filmmaker, a conceptual artist and a curator all at once, but I think in the end he's a poet, one who works not only in language?although, as the catalog indisputably demonstrates, he's great with words?but in material objects and space and time and his audience's perceptions and preconceptions. A hint of melancholy hangs over all of it, even the funniest exhibits; as its name suggests, the Jurassic evokes lost worlds, lost lives, lost minds, forgotten knowledge, decaying memory. The stories it tells are often of eccentric scientists and misunderstood visionaries, most likely driven somehow to ruin in their obsessive pursuit of the arcane or the ineffable.

Wilson was in New York a couple of weeks ago to speak at that NYU conference on Athanasius Kircher, the 17th-century Jesuit polymathic scientist, inventor and curator of curiosities who could serve as well as anyone as an historical model for what Wilson's up to at the Jurassic. It was honchoed by Lawrence Weschler, who over the last few years has made himself Wilson's most public fan and cheerleader; he wrote the sometimes aggravating and somewhat misleading book on the Jurassic, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder. Not so long ago, as often as not when you told someone you thought Wilson was some kind of eccentric genius, you'd get a bemused response. An oh that funny little guy with the weird little museum shrug. Then he got a MacArthur "genius" fellowship last year and suddenly it's official and he's being courted by academic conclaves and museums all over the place. But isn't that always the way.

I asked Wilson last week if he feels any smarter since he got the MacArthur. "Oh no," he chuckled in his characteristically self-effacing way. "If anything, I think I'm becoming less smart." He was speaking to me on a cellphone inside an airliner about to take off for Germany, where he runs a "tochter museum" (daughter museum) to the Jurassic in the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum in Westphalia. Makes sense that the land of Kircher gets the Jurassic.

Divorced from the exhibits, the entries in the Jubilee Catalogue shine as pure literature. The text for one of my favorite exhibits, "Stink Ant of the Cameroon (Megaloponera foetens)," is a classic demonstration of how the average Jurassic display could be real, could be fake and is a great Borgesian story either way:

"Our planet's rain forests?rich matrices of life existing primarily in tropical regions?provide us with unique opportunity to observe life in all of its manifold and perplexing beauty. Most rain forests date back some two to three hundred million years. This extreme age has allowed many unusual and complex relationships to develop among the inhabitants of these tropical ecosystems.

"In the rain forest of the Cameroon in central West Africa lives a floordwelling ant known as Megaloponera foetens or, more commonly, the stink ant. This large ant?one of the very few to produce a cry audible to the human ear?lives by foraging for food among the fallen leaves and undergrowth of the extraordinarily rich rain forest floor.

"On occasion, one of these ants while looking for food is infected by inhaling a microscopic spore from a fungus of the genus Tomentella. The spore seats in the ant's tiny brain and begins to grow, causing changes in the ant's patterns of behavior. The ant appears troubled and confused; for the first time in its life the ant leaves the forest floor and begins to climb.

"Driven on by the growth of the fungus, the ant embarks on a long and exhaustive climb. Completely spent and having reached a prescribed height, the ant impales the plant with its mandibles. Thus affixed, the ant waits to die. Ants that have met their end in this fashion are quite common in some sections of the forest.

"The fungus continues to consume first the nerve cells and finally all the soft tissue that remains of the ant. After approximately two weeks a spike appears from what had been the head of the ant. This spike is about an inch and a half in length and has a bright orange tip heavy with spores that rain down onto the rain forest floor for other unsuspecting ants to inhale."

The text for the exhibit "Garden of Eden on Wheels: Selected Collections from Los Angeles Area Mobile Home and Trailer Parks"?a kind of Christmas garden featuring scale model trailer homes?hypnotically interweaves the invention of the mobile home with the story of Noah's Ark (a recurring motif) and the fact that the universe is expanding (and thus, in a sense, all homes are mobile homes). The story accompanying the well-loved "Delani/Sonnabend Halls" is a fantastical romance novella with hints of Fitzcarraldo. It relates the circumstantial intersection of two lives at the Iguassu Falls in South America: Madalena Delani, a famous opera singer afflicted by bad memory, and Geoffrey Sonnabend, a neurophysiologist who, through Delani's music, became obsessed with the nature and operation of memory.

"In Obliscence: Theories of Forgetting and the Problem of Matter, Geoffrey Sonnabend departed from all previous memory research with the premise that memory is an illusion. Forgetting, he believed, not remembering, is the inevitable outcome of all experience. From this perspective,

"We, amnesiacs all, condemned to live in an eternally fleeting present, have created the most elaborate of human constructions, memory, to buffer ourselves against the intolerable knowledge of the irreversible passage of time and the irretrievability of its moments and events.

"...Sonnabend believed that long-term or 'distant' memory was illusion, but similarly he questioned short-term or 'immediate' memory. On a number of occasions Sonnabend wrote, 'there is only experience and its decay,' by which he meant to suggest that what we typically call short-term memory is, in fact, our experiencing the decay of an experience..."

The Museum, and the catalog, dutifully reproduce Sonnabend's elaborately graphed "Model of Obliscence (or model of forgetting) which, in its simplest form, can be seen as the intersection of a plane and cone."

Wilson printed 5000 copies of the Jubilee Catalogue. It'll be sold at the museum and through the website, he says, but not available through conventional bookstores.


Lately Wilson has returned to filmmaking, and created a remarkable short documentary shown in the museum: Levsha, subtitled "The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea." It was shot in Russia and is narrated in Russian, and shows Wilson's knack for genre mimicry: If you didn't know better you'd think it is in fact a Russian film, one of those arty things that's gloriously lensed, glacially paced and with a storyline that's just a little off, just a little alien to a Western viewer. (It's also reminiscent of Herzog's poetic and allusive documentaries.) Once again, it involves the world of microminiatures?and yet, in one of Wilson's dreamlike associations, it also manages to be about Russian rocket science: ingenuity, that is, on both the miniature and the monumental scale.

The film's based on a Russian folktale about a tiny mechanical flea given to Czar Alexander I by the English. The jealous Russians decide to recreate this marvelous toy, to show that they can do it. They hand the task to a group of gunsmiths, including Levsha, who produce their own microscopic flea. (Wait, now I see the connection: those gunsmiths are historical antecedents to Russia's rocket scientists.) The Russian flea doesn't dance like the English one does, but they've done something even more astonishing: they've shod it with infinitesimal shoes, and inscribed their names on them. All but Levsha's; he claims to have written his name "on the tiny nails that held together the flea's shoes. But even with [a] microscope, no one could see such a tiny thing to say whether or not he was telling the truth."

That's so Jurassic. So is Levsha's tragic end: like so many of Wilson's eccentric heroes, he dies impoverished, misunderstood and believed to be mad.

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