Influencing popular culture and artistic tropes through research informed artistic practice: cabinets of curiosity
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Cumbria
Unit of AssessmentArt and Design: History, Practice and Theory
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Curatorial and Related Studies, Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium is a highly significant collaborative art
work by University of Cumbria
Professor of Fine Art Robert Williams and renowned US artist Mark Dion,
which has often been
cited by scholars, curators and critics from the worlds of art,
archaeology, literature and museology
as an influential work that explores the nature of collections,
collaborative art practice and museum
oriented contemporary art work within what is often referred to as
As an early example of a collection based piece of work in contemporary
art, the work has also had
significant impact on the resurgence of the use of cabinets of curiosity
or wunderkammer as a
prominent modern artistic theme, influencing artistic practice.
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium was commissioned by Professor Lord Colin
Renfrew of the MacDonald
Institute for Archaeological Research, as a collaboration between Mark
Dion and Robert Williams,
following the 1999 project the Dion project the Tate Thames Dig,
in which Williams participated.
This new art work was commissioned as part of the 2001 Sculpture in
the Close Jesus College
Biennial, University of Cambridge, and has since become a signature piece,
and engaged with critically.
The project explored the relationship between the human condition and the
wider world, drawing in
the practice of both collaborators in utilising taxonomy and collections
in artwork as a way to
explore the artificial deconstruction and reconstruction of the world as a
method of understanding.
The process also specifically brought in the established alchemical theme
within Williams' practice,
as a parallel approach to understanding, viewing and shaping the world.
The research process
involved identifying alchemists to embody in constructing the work, and
schema to complete the contents.
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium exists as a series of collections within
an armoire, or closet,
comprising of three cabinets which make physical the alchemical scala,
or ladders of being, which
defined the post-Aristotelian cosmologies of two alchemists, Ramon Lull
(Dion) and Robert Fludd
(Williams). Despite the fact that these men were separated in time by a
century or so, they both
used a similar model for their individual cosmologies. The ladder, or scala,
is invoked as a model
of evolution, development or progression: it can be read as a description
of the steps that need to
be taken in order to fulfil the Philosophick aim of becoming as God.
Fludd's (1619) Scala, from
Utrisque Cosmi, reveals a familiar trope to modern eyes of an
evolutionary schema which could be
read as cultural, or even psychological in character, as they form
taxonomic schemae within which
objects, materials, natural and cultural, can be classified and organised.
In Lull's Ladder from Del
Nova Logica (1512), we see a different evolutionary scheme, which is
familiar as belonging
perhaps to Nature, and in which we can more clearly recognise elements of
Aristotle's Great Chain
of Being (Scala Naturae). Shelves were used to represent the
alchemical ladders, and strategy for
the form of the cabinet was developed by each partner separately, but with
discussion and sharing of drawings. The central cabinet houses a human
skeleton, referencing the
Renaissance idea of the Memento Mori, a means to meditate on the
certainty of death, and a silent
admonition to the faithful to live authentically by way of preparation for
judgment before God. The
work seeks to explore these taxonomic and epistemological relationships
cosmological schemes; Lull representing nature, and Fludd culture, and the
way in which culturally
determined `truths' are constructed and mediated via objects
The Armarium was stocked with a core collection by Williams;
however, the work was designed to
source borrowed material from institutions wherever it was exhibited. This
was the case until it was
finally acquired by the D. Daskalopolous Collection from the Galerie
In Situ, Paris. In the first
incarnation of the piece, we were able to borrow collections from
institutions within Cambridge
University: amongst others, the Whipple Museum of Technology, The
Museum, and the MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. The
strategy was mirrored
in both the French and German exhibitions during the tour of the cabinet
(see section 3).
Robert Williams was Programme Leader of Fine Art at Cumbria Institute of
the Arts in 2001, one of
the legacy institutions which became part of the University of Cumbria at
its formation in 2007, and
is now Professor of Fine Art. Mark Dion is a renowned US artist.
References to the research
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium. Mixed media installation, Mark Dion and Robert
Theatrum Mundi was shown as part of the following exhibitions:
• Sculpture in the Close — The Cambridge Biennale. Theatrum
Major collaborative installation with Mark Dion — Jesus College Chapel,
Cambridge University. Co-Exhibitors: Anish Kapoor (UK); Julian Opie (UK);
(UK); Carl von Weiler (UK); Danny Lane (USA). Exhibition opened by Tim
A5 20pp, text by Rod Mengham, forward by Robert Mair, afterword by
Professor Lord Colin
Delivery of a Lecture with Mark Dion at the MacDonald Institute for
Cambridge University, the Archaeological Projects of Mark Dion.
Inaugural event for Sculpture
in the Close 2001,organised by Professor Lord Colin Renfrew.
• Theatrum Mundi: Armarium. Curated by Fabienne Leclerc.
Installation at Galerie In Situ,
Paris. October — December 2001
• Mark Dion: Collaborations. Theatrum Mundi: Armarium —
Mark Dion & Robert Williams
Editioned Print, 2001. Bob Braine; Nils Norman; J.Morgan Puett; Alexis
Schefferine; Jason Simon; Josef Strau; Robert Williams; The Photography
Club of Andover
High School. January 31 - March 9 2003. University of Hartford. Hartford
Art School — 125th
Davis, Zina (ed) (2003). Mark Dion: Collaborations.
Joseloff Gallery. Hartford University.
• Encyclomania (1) Curator: Andreas Baur. Villa Merkel, Galarien
de Stadt Esslingen am
Neckar, Germany. 1.12.2002 - 2.2.2003
• Encyclomania (2) Curator: Dr. Annelie Pohlen. Bonner
Kunstverein, Germany. 12.2.2003 - 30.3.2003
• Encyclomania (3) Curator: Dr. Martin Engler. Kunstverein
Hannover, Germany. 5.6.2003 - 17.8.2003
Baur, Andreas & Berg, Stephan (eds) (trans. Robinson, Michael).
Verlag für Moderne Kunst, Nürnberg.
• The Luminous Interval: The D. Daskolopoulos Collection.
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium (2001) Mark Dion & Robert Williams.
Curated by Nancy Spector &
Katherine Bimson. The Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain. 12.4.2011 - 11.9.2011.
Spector, Nancy (ed). 2011. The Luminous Interval: The D.
Guggenheim Museum Publications: New York.
• 3rd Athens Biennale 2011. Monodrome. Curated
by Nicholas Bourriaud, Xenia Kalpaksoglou,
Poka-Yio. Diplareios School at Plateia Theatrou, the Eleftherios
Venizelos Museum and the
Eleftherias Park Arts Centre 22.10.2011-11.12.2011.
• The Macabre Treasury. Mark Dion; Dana Sherwood; Robert
Williams; et al. Museum Het
Domein, Sittard, Netherlands. 20.1.2013 - 5.5.2013.
Details of the impact
Theatrum Mundi: Armarium is a highly successful collaborative
work, and is cited by scholars and
critics in making reference to wider cultural and art practice by both
Professor Williams and Dion. It
is frequently invoked and included in publications that explore, for
example, the relationship
between art and science, cosmology, epistemology and taxonomy. A limited
edition print made by
Dion and Williams for Galerie In-Situ, Paris, is also frequently
reproduced within both art-world
publications, and in academic analyses, and further helps to disseminate
the impact of the piece in
terms of critical discourse and audience reach. The list of international
publications which feature
discussion of the installation provides a commentary or analysis of the
work. This critical
positioning of the work within on-going cultural discourses focus on
themes of the relationship
between art and science, of collections and collecting, the construction
wunderkammer (historic and contemporary), collaborative art
practice and museum oriented
contemporary art work. The widespread dissemination of the work as an
early example of a
modern use of a cabinet of curiosity as an artistic vehicle has influenced
the rediscovery of the
wunderkammer as a form for contemporary artworks.
Of particular note is the analysis found within Professor Lord Colin
Renfrew's influential book,
Figuring It Out (2003) which investigated the relationship between
archaeologists and artists as
practitioners and cultural researchers. The inclusion of the work within
Umberto Eco's visual essay
in his book The Infinity of Lists (2009) is significant, not only
because of the epistemological nature
of that work, but also because it is `activated' by the engagement of the
viewer as part of the
process of interpretation. After touring venues in the UK, France, and
Germany, Theatrum Mundi:
Armarium was selected and included in the seminal exhibition The
Luminous Interval, at the
Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, in 2011. The wider reach of the Guggenheim
Bilbao exhibition is
shown in the attendance figure of 532,287 visitors during the period, with
1250 Spanish and 2000
English hard back catalogues produced. This was a large scale survey
exhibition of artwork from
the D.Daskalopoulos Collection, curated by Nancy Spector of the New York Solomon
Guggenheim Museum, which sought to offer a new critical context for
the most significant
examples of international installation art from contemporary
practitioners. This ground-breaking
exhibition was followed closely by the inclusion of the piece in the 2011
Athens Biennale, curated
by Nicholas Bourriaud, Xenia Kalpaktsolglou and Poka-Yio, which
articulated further issues in the
exploration of value, commodity, knowledge and power in the context of
relational aesthetics and
socially engaged practice. A highly visible piece, Theatrum Mundi:
Armarium has an important
international reach, the most recent incarnation is within the 2013
exhibition The Macabre Treasury
at Museum Het Domein, Sittard, Holland.
The position of Theatrum Mundi as an important modern incarnation
of a wunderkammer is seen in
its inclusion in the Patrick Mauriés volume, Cabinets of Curiosity
(Thames & Hudson, 2002). This
book has extensive reach, with an initial printing run of over 16,000
copies in four languages, and a
number of additional print runs almost doubling this number, including a
Interest and engagement with the piece is shown by its inclusion on a
variety of websites, from
those interested in critical analyses, reviews and influences within the
community, and which reflect interdisciplinary discourses, to those
concerned with more academic
and scholarly issues, which seek to locate the work thematically within
the discourse tropes (such
as art historical or practitioner education contexts), and to blogs and
sharing sites of the general
public and developing artists, showing engagement with the alchemical,
collecting or cabinet of
curiosity and memento mori themes.
The importance of the work in understanding historical and psychological
engagement with and perception of the world through collection and
categorisation is also shown
through the selection of the piece by the Guggenheim for production of
resources. The teacher's guide includes questions and activities related
to the work, and are part
of a series aimed at enriching history and social science curricula, as
well as arts education.
Theatrum mundi was one of only three installations from the Luminous
Interval exhibition used as
an educational resource, which remains on the Guggenheim Bilbao website
alongside an image
of the work.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Contacts to corroborate the choice of the work for the Luminous
Interval exhibition at the
Guggenheim, including impact of the work on art practice and
- Associate Curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
(Assistant Curator for the
- Associate Director of Curatorial and Research at the Guggenheim,
Book references, excerpts available on request:
- Aloi, Giovanni (2012) Art & Animals. I.B.Tauris.
- Eco, Umberto (2009) The Infinity of Lists. Maclehose.
- Renfrew, Colin (2003) Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of
Artists and Archaeologists.
Thames & Hudson.
- Mauriés, Patrick (2002) Cabinets of Curiosity. Thames
Web Links, blogs showing work as key image of cabinets of curiosity:
Web link, cabinets of curiosities images board of Italian Museum and art