The Naked Eye Medusae & other stories

‘Seen floating in the water, (Cyana artica) exhibits a large circular disk, of a substance not unlike jelly, thick in the centre, and suddenly thinning out towards the edge, which presents several indentations. The centre of that disk is a dark purplish-brown color, while the edge is much lighter, almost white and transparent. This disk is constantly heaving and falling, at regular intervals; the margin is especially active, so much so, that, at times, it is stretched on a level with the whole surface of the disk, which, in such a condition, is almost flat, while, at other times, it is so fully arched that it assumes the appearance of a hemisphere…’
–Louis Agassiz, Contributions to the Natural History of the United States (1862)

In recent studios we explored various aspects of the visual representation of the American Landscape. This year’s studio will extend our research into the expanding knowledge and emerging theories derived by both naturalists and fine artists discovering the New World of Americas. We will explore – from the macro to the micro, from the comprehensive to the incisive – notions of how to collect, map, dissect, examine, describe, classify and display. As Coleridge observed: all men are born Aristotelians or Platonists. The Platonist feel that classes, orders, and genres are realities; the Aristotelians, that they are generalizations. For the latter, language is nothing but an approximate set of symbols; for the former, it is the map of the universe. The Platonist knows that the universe is somehow a cosmos, an order; that order, for the Aristotelian, can be an error or a fiction of our partial knowledge.(1)

During this year studio we will explore the rare archives, hidden collections and lost treasures at Harvard University in search for inspiration to create a new ‘Museum of Curiosity’, which displays and debates the promiscuous discourse between the dialectic worlds of fine arts and the natural sciences. The Museum – which may be anything but a building and rather a Garden of Earthly Delights – will be situated and narrated in a re-wildered and rejuvenated Emerald Necklace, Boston.

We invite students to enter the world of strange beauty and enlightened imagination; the butterfly collection of Nabokov, the dissected specimen of Agassiz, the herbarium of Thoreau and to examine the various insights provided by the remarkable track record of the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry held by illustrious figures such as T.S. Eliot, Jorge Luis Borges, Buckminster Fuller, John Cage …..Students will be stimulated to behave like hyperactive squirrels who will collect and dissect and become unscrupulous tomb raiders, high brow curators and, above all, imaginative designers which will create and give shape.

We start our studio expedition by examining the description of the Naked Eye Medusae (Cyanea Artica) by the Swiss born Harvard University naturalist Louis Agassiz and published in his 1862 book Contributions to the Natural History of the United States. The modernist poet Erza Pound was greatly impressed by Agassiz methodical and thorough prose descriptions and the fact that Louis Agassiz had a reputation for locking up students in an isolated room for weeks in row with the simple task to meticulous describe a slowly disintegrating sunfish. (Obvious Agassiz was not a Platonist. Knowledge of the fish cannot begin until decay has commenced, reducing the specimen to its constituent parts. All knowledge is necessarily fragmented and does not constitute a whole).

As part of the studio submission students will be asked to create their own (virtual) cabinet of curiosities.