The renovation of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Musuem (American Art Museum) was the occasion in 2015 of new work presented, one room each (except the light artist whose lighting illuminated the stairs of the Renwick) by a half-dozen artists. Their subject is Wonder. Their materials include light and coloured light, netting, saplings, basket grass, mixed media of glass and metal and plastic, and rubber.
And there is Jennifer Angus’ room.
Jennifer Angus’ room with its walls painted in a wash made from the bodies of the Mexican cochineal insect was the closest any of these came to Wonder.
Wonder being a whole-body sensation and a whole-mind perception which probably cannot easily be generated upon commission and command for a museum.
In a museum there are too many rules about where you can walk and what you can touch for wonder to take hold. But her work leads you into the general neck of the wonder-filled woods: the gap between what we know and what we don’t know. Where what we don’t know might induce wonder and not fear.
The artist is doing what she can to make us stand still and take in what she presents.
So you stop still: the colour of the walls is so gorgeous and the insects, abundant in Thailand, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea, are so strange.
Patterns of insects and no patterns at all also. The wash on the wall uneven: continents and islands of slightly different depths of colour; and in the corners, drips and a tendency to baldness.
In the center of the room is a vintage octagonal oak chest which had at one time been used in a shop or workshop. It has triangular drawers.
This chest sits on a rectangular chest of drawers with square drawers.
Both recenter you in our world of cozy rooms and furniture and things we own and pile with obscure rationale into drawers.
The drawers are full of attractive things both man-made and natural. Some are strange. Some remind you of your younger brother. Some are sitting on top of drawer-linings aswirl with attractive patterns and colours. Cochineal is forgotten and we are deep in childhood and fusty natural history museums of a former time.
The things in the drawers are all safe and even cute. A key sitting on an upturned open palm invites you to unlock something.
A quiver of oddness and a slight anxiety pass through you as soon as you see the hornet’s nest quivering precariously on a long twig above a corner of the chest. Hornets. Stinging hornets.
The artist has succeeded in toggling us in this room between our two physical worlds : one in which we try to order everything and understand and remove things which are anomalous. And a second world.
This second is the natural world: foreign and gorgeous and sometimes dangerous to us. And not in our control. Our physical worlds.
Leading, as I say, to the possibility of wondrous sensations of body and mind. Leading. This could be an antechamber to wonder.
Jennifer Angus, born Canada, 1961; In Midnight’s Garden, cochineal, various insects, mixed media, 2015. An exhibition about Wonder.
The Renwick (the Smithsonian Museum of American Art), Washington, D.C. 2015.