The image of Albert Einstein’s hair may represent our most sentimental attachment to the otherwise-austere world of modern science. We like to think of it as a kind of synecdoche, an image that embodies its owner’s absentminded, benevolent genius: it is the kind of hair we would have if we were too busy remodeling the universe to worry about a trip to the barber. So great, that hair. But there is another, related idea secreted away in Einstein’s scalp: that of a brain so powerful that its physical vessel can barely contain it. His intelligence pushes against his skull, seeping out through his hair’s roots, trying to touch the world directly, and electrocuting his hair in the process. It not only indicates his lack of concern with superficial things; it presents us with the image of the scientist as modern Samson, his hair attached to a body that couldn’t bench-press a broomstick but that could reinvent the texture of space and time.
The artist Daniel Spoerri’s In the Museum of Natural History – An Incompetent Dialogue? seems particularly alive to the same presence of warm, personal style in a cold, impersonal universe. On its cover, and dotted throughout, Spoerri has printed a human skull with a large piece of brain coral resting on top: Einstein’s head transformed into a memento mori. The sculpture on which this image is based comes from the exhibition the book documents, which took place at Vienna’s natural history museum in 2012. The museum’s directors gave Spoerri access to its collections, which provided the material for a series of sculptures made up of disparate animal remains and artifacts from ancient civilizations. Spoerri’s characteristic humor—he was associated with the Fluxus group in the ’60s—transforms the enigmatic remains of dead creatures and civilizations into ramshackle chimeras. The jaws of a shark frame a mannequin hand, its index finger delicately extended, palm facing outward as though it had emerged from the animal’s belly to select its dinner; a stone figurine with a crustacean’s claw instead of a head stands mutely, as though it were expecting someone to explain the horrendous mistake that brought it into being.
Several essays accompanying the images, written by Spoerri, among others, suggest that Spoerri’s career-long interests in chance and archaeology reach their logical intersection here: the artist as amateur archaeologist, allowed to rummage through the archives of one of the world’s great natural history museums. But where Spoerri’s An Anecdoted Topography of Chance, his best work to date, used the unplanned arrangement of objects on his desk as the launchpad for an exercise in amateur phenomenology and collective memory, but there is something both goofier and more profound happening here. In their awkward construction, Spoerri’s sculptures suggest not so much the incompetence of the untrained archaeologist as that of God in a godless universe—the Abrahamic, interventionist deity puttering around evolution’s workshop, misusing the tools, screwing the wrong head on the wrong body, trying to make dumb human sense out of nature’s elegant complexity. Spoerri’s sculptures present the notion of God, in whose image we are made and who thus has the misfortune of being too much like us, operating out of his depths in a field remade by modern science, where the topography of chance is defined by laws most people, even experts, find it difficult to understand intuitively.
So, on one hand, we have the inherent goofiness of a fossilized crustacean with bird legs, and on the other hand the quandary of what to do with the still-resonant image of the creator-God after he’s been one-upped by Darwin and Einstein. Spoerri suggests that we might want to rethink our notions of the power of intentional creative force, in turn raising the question of how we should rethink the notion of the artist in the wake of evolution. What to do when the comparatively weak sauce of paint and canvas runs up against the Star Trek–y aura of suns that have become supernovas? Wordsworth and Coleridge had their waterfalls, which provoked the feeling of the sublime and spurred them to write poetry in an attempt to invoke that same sense in their readers. Spoerri takes a different tack: rather than compete with the power of natural beauty, art has at its disposal the appeal of its own weakness. In the Museum of Natural History’s valorization of the un-chic and the schlubby isn’t mere incompetence; it’s the reframing of incompetence as the essential and worthy domain of man. Rather than ape Samson and try to grow out our hair, Spoerri seems to say, we’d do better to glue together the clippings on the barbershop floor.
Year the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien opened: 1889; Year of Daniel Spoerri’s birth: 1930; Year Spoerri buried the remains of a banquet he served: 1983; Year said banquet was exhumed by archaeologists: 2010; Approximate number of objects in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien collections: thirty million; Number of wolf specimens in the Naturhistorisches Museum Wien mammal collection: 214; Minimum number of wolf pelts at owned or utilized by Spoerri at one time or another: fourteen