Occidental's Wonder Cabinet Drops Jaws

Hundreds of people filled Occidental's Thorne Hall April 24 to explore the kinetic qualities of paper, how planetary orbits relate to the music of the spheres, why pickpockets and horned ladies were 18th century celebrities, and the role the nose plays in shaping visual perception at Lawrence Weschler's day-long Wonder Cabinet.


Billed as a celebration of odd, the marvelous, and the drop-jawed amazing, the series of interdisciplinary presentations by artists, scientists, and historians who, by way of music, film, Powerpoint and folded paper marked a return to the days before science and the arts separated into mutually exclusive domains.

"With the rise of the Internet and social media we may be returning to an era in which leaders in these fields have all kinds of things to say to each other," said Weschler, the writer, critic and intellectual impresario and Occidental's 2010 Remsen Bird Artist in Residence. "The Wonder Cabinet aims to facilitate that conversation. But it's also simply a celebration of all things cool."

The program also served another important function: "to announce to the artistic community of Los Angeles that Occidental is open for business," Occidental president Jonathan Veitch said in his opening remarks, echoing his call in his October inaugural address for Occidental to become a center for the arts in Los Angeles.

One of the films featured at the opening of the program, Boris Hars-Tschachotin's Lurch (Lizard), an exploration of a man transformed by a collection of preserved reptiles and amphibians, was followed by a preview of images from photographer Lena Herzog's Lost Souls, a soon-to-be-published book of her haunting and evocative images of 17th-century Dutch fetuses preserved in Peter the Great's Wunderkammern in St. Petersburg.

Herzog was followed by famed magic historian, actor, and sleight-of-hand master Ricky Jay, who delved into his impressive book collection to discuss the 18th and early 19th century fascination with remarkable personages - people famous for their age, their size (or lack thereof), their criminal tendencies or, as in the case of one London hardware merchant, for never bathing after the tragic death of his fiance.

In the afternoon, the audience learned from Museum of Jurassic Technology founder David Wilson about the origins of the Soviet space program in the mystical musings of an obscure Moscow librarian, about the real reasons why no two snowflakes are alike from Caltech physicist Ken Libbrecht (temperature, chemical impurities, and the hexagonal shape of water molecules all play a role), and the parallels between two invisible forces - love and radiation - from artist Lauren Redniss, who previewed her new, lavishly illustrated joint biography of physicist Marie and Pierre Curie.

Joking that people in his profession always see patterns where no one else does, Oscar-winning film and sound editor Walter Murch outlined his efforts to fuse a once discredited 18th century law of celestial behavior with modern astronomical observations and his discovery that the ratios of planetary orbits parallel those of musical octaves, enabling the audience to actually hear what the music of the spheres might sound like.

The crowd rushed the stage to be able to handle and exclaim over Matt Shlian's intricate and eye-popping paper sculptures - pieces that have attracted the interest of scientists working on nano-technology. "How cool was that?" said one audience member after the sculptures were reluctantly handed back to disappear into Shlian's suitcase. Obsessed with the nature of visual perception since childhood, identical twin artists Trevor and Ryan Oakes demonstrated their new method rivaling that of a camera obscura or camera lucida for drawing landscapes - but one that relies on nothing but the interaction between the artist's naked eye and nose. The Cabinet finally closed with a rousing performance by the punk-folk duo Guitar Boy (Nancy Agabian and Ann Perich).