Collage Installation Photograph
Moore Adventures in Wonderland
Text Panels from the essay “Sue Johnson’s Curious Cabinets”
by Jennifer Cognard-Black
Just as Alice ﬁnds the creatures of Wonderland ﬁrst curious and then curiouser as she moves through an astonishing and mysterious landscape, Sue Johnson’s work in Moore Adventures in Wonderland plays upon multiple meanings of “the curious” by bringing together the curiosities of Carroll’s Wonderland with the curioso poetics of Marianne Moore.1 In large boxes that resemble specimen cabinets, Johnson creates trompe l’oeils of curious curios: found objects from Marianne Moore’s own possessions held by the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which Johnson sets in thoughtful arrangements reminiscent of Victorian scenes or scenarios from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Akin to how both Carroll and Moore gather together bits of language and image from a range of cultural sources in order to construct their poems and novels, Johnson’s work parallels both Carroll’s and Moore’s own processes as authorial curators. Thus Johnson’s assemblages ask viewers to take on an inquisitiveness that is simultaneously Carroll’s and Moore’s—a curiosity both slightly suspect as well as exacting.
1. From the Latin curiosus, to be curious. The word originally meant to pay close attention to detail, although by the Renaissance, the word became synonymous with inquisitive, particularly a desire to know odd things. Through the Enlightenment, a curious object, or “curiosity,” was one made with careful skill, while a curioso was an individual who inquired into esoteric matters of either science or art, including the collection of curios—i.e., scientiﬁc specimen or objets d’art that were interesting for being original, rare, or strange. During the eighteenth century, cabinets of curiosities were immensely popular, kept by private collectors or exhibited in museums and displaying such items as horns, nautilus shells, or boxes made of bone.
In “Tea Party,” Sue Johnson takes the Wonderland tea party as her referent, portraying Carroll’s creatures with objects culled from Marianne Moore’s possessions.1 The Mad Hatter is a tiny green top hat, the Dormouse a small toy. The March Hare becomes a painted ﬁgure resembling Albrecht Dürer’s hare, while Alice is signiﬁed by the famous tricorne hat worn by Moore herself. At ﬁrst, this imaginative group seems serene. Moore’s gloves are folded demurely, and each object is both separate and distinct, almost at rest.
Yet the means of display are crucial. As with all of Johnson’s cabinets, the “Tea Party” box is viewed from above, as if on-lookers are scientists examining specimens. The white background and long shadows heighten this sense of a clinical space in which items are scrutinized and deconstructed. Under such scrutiny, the objects become less calm. The Dormouse’s shadow looms larger than its own body, and the obnoxious Hatter has been silenced and defaced, reduced to a tagged miniature of his own metonym. The tea cups are empty, the creatures largely absent. Instead, what remains are the material leftovers of Moore’s own lived life: her gloves, her cups, her hat. In a sense, Johnson’s “Tea Party” turns this particular assemblage into a Wonderland scene where “wonder” is closer to fear than to awe, for the objects are reminiscent of death more than life.
In another sense, however, “Tea Party” suggests the very opposite, for Moore’s own poems are produced by gathering together quotations from “dead,” eclectic sources and then reassembling this found text into immortal poetry. To engage fully the objects within Johnson’s cabinets, then, viewers must apply their own curious imaginations, which revolutionizes “Tea Party” into a site of productive interaction—one in which artist and viewer co-create meaning.
1. At the original party, the Victorian institution of taking tea is turned into a highly curious event, where the rude Hatter butters his pocketwatch, the somnambulant Dormouse is stuffed into a teapot, and the foolish March Hare offers Alice wine when he has none.
“The Walrus and the Typewriter” is one of only two cabinets in which no painted ﬁgures appear. Instead, Johnson has chosen just two objects: a walrus statuette and a typewriter, both owned by Marianne Moore. Johnson selected these objects from Moore’s Greenwich Village living room, reconstructed by the Rosenbach in the space above the Moore Adventures in Wonderland exhibit. In this way, “The Walrus and the Typewriter” is suggestive of how Moore curated her own physical and mental spaces, creating her own kinds of Wonderlands.
Physically, the Rosenbach Museum & Library’s reconstructed Greenwich Village living room holds curiosities galore—perhaps most famously Moore’s gifts from other Modernist poets, such as a footstool from T. S. Eliot and a yellow rose painted by E. E. Cummings. Yet Moore also displayed numerous animal-shaped ﬁgurines in this room, including the walrus statuette.1 This mode of living implies that Moore didn’t merely write like a curator; she lived like one. As such, it is not just her poems that serve as metaphorical curio boxes—so do her own, private spaces.
The Moore Adventures in Wonderland exhibition itself is a kind of through-the-looking-glass exhibition space down the rabbit hole beneath Moore’s reconstituted living room. Viewers of Moore Adventures in Wonderland are asked to be every bit as imaginative and playful as Moore, for they inhabit a whole-room cabinet of curiosities that is Sue Johnson’s theater of wonder. In this sense, viewers are all authors, all artists, all Alices.
1. On her Greenwich Village writing desk, Moore kept a small replica of Dürer’s rhinoceros. Dürer has been a touchstone artist for Johnson as well as Moore. Fascinated with the legacy of Dürer’s rhinoceros, in 1996 Johnson made a print in dialogue with the history of this famous image, entitled “Reversed Rhinoceros with Gauntlets, after A.D.”
Dr. Jennifer Cognard-Black is an Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of Women, Gender, and Sexuality studies at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. She specializes in transatlantic Victorian literatures and ﬁction writing. Her publications are eclectic, encompassing critical articles, short ﬁction, a symphony text, popular essays, and three books, including Kindred Hands: Letters on Writing by British and American Women Authors, 1860 – 1920.