By the Way: Victorian Steampunk and curiosities at Mass MoCA, Bennington Museum


It feels in places like a permanent Saturday morning. Waders, specimens in jam jars, keys, books on the names of things -- the objects in this room show their owner as mix of curiosities.

I can imagine the rolled up pants, the sunburnt skin, the untidy grey hair and the absorbed look of an adult too busy ever to retire, and one who remembers how it feels to be 6 years old at the edge of a stream.

The owner of this room draws charts, sits at that desk in the lamplight, reads those books to identify lichens and crawdads, and puts wood in the stove. It's a one-room microcosm, a real study. And it could belong to man or woman.

In fact, "The Octagon Room" belongs to Mark Dion. The description above is a character, the person I imagined as I peered into the cabinets -- a tough, limber-minded loner who collects things. Mass MoCA will celebrate Dion's retreat -- and Xu Bing's "Phoenix," Tom Phillips' and Johnny Carerra's "Life's Work," and the arrival of the "One Minute Film Festival" -- with a gala and dance party on Saturday.

But I saw it last week, and I'll be back.

"The Octagon Room" reminds me of the cabin in Maine that my grandfather built (with help), with a pump and an outhouse and a collection of sea-weathered wood and clam shells, where I learned to row a wooden dinghy and sat on the porch reading a volume of Sherlock Holmes that I found for 5 cents at the local library's second-hand book shop.

A rounded room has a comfortable feeling. Our Maine cabin has eight sides too, and the space feels wide and snug at the same time; you never come up against blank wall. They're all softly at an angle, an in any case, none of them are blank -- they're all too full of sea wrack and dominoes and stick matches and notes from long-ago visitors and a scrap of shirt cardboard my brother carved into a birthday card when he was 5.

"The Octagon Room" has some of the same feeling of a space well-lived -- the feeling of an active mind that has time to be active -- and that feeling is soothing on a busy day. It has the calm purpose of a children's book, like Jeremy Fisher in the Beatrix Potter stories fishing for sticklebacks and filling his larder with wild honey.

And, like those books, this room has a darker edge. The heads of deer mounted on the wall are as black as mourning clothes. If this room reminds me of the genial Tristram-Shandy kind of country gentleman with binoculars and a seine net, it also reminds me that that kind of gentleman killed butterflies in jars.

Victorian bug collectors even made mosaics out of beetles. Some are hanging just up the road. The Bennington Museum has tackled this contrast in another new exhibit, "Victorian Extreme: American Fancywork and Steampunk, 1850-Now."

The museum describes the show as a compilation of hair wreathes, crazy quilts, bug art and ‘A Stitch in Time,' sculptures by Steampunk artists Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic, Steve Conant from Conant Metal and Light, and Steve Brook of Steampunk Fabricators.

Steampunk is a genre of art and writing that projects Victorian style and science into the future, an alternate future built on clockwork, valves and hydraulics. It tends to blend the mischievous and the macabre.

Victorian England had streams clean enough to fish in -- and a fascination with evolution that led to fads for ostrich plumes and hunted some birds near extinction. It had advances in surgery (Joseph Lister pioneered sterilization) -- and measles quarantine and flu epidemics. It had global trade and flint-hard cultural insularity.

And it didn't have the electric light switch.

Victorian England had a surge in liberal and scientific thought and a value for land, an enjoyment of mud puddles, care for children. But it also had whalebone corsets, factory workers stirring white lead, a war strategy of supplying opium to China, and cholera in the rookeries of the London slums. (Its literature fueled many of my college English courses.)

Maybe this sense of contrast, of an edge between enlightenment and desperation, draws artists and writers to this period. And maybe they are drawn to the voices who were becoming educated enough, well-fed enough, strong enough or frantic enough to be heard. In that time, Oscar Wilde -- Virginia Woolf -- the early suffragists and the reformers in the London streets -- Charles Dickens among the workers -- in America, Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth -- all were speaking for their lives.

Maybe their time feels similar to ours.

But Steampunk has a new possibility. Bring the Victorian time into the future, and you can not only confront the tensions in it -- you can change them. When I looked up contemporary Steampunk, the examples I found included fantasy writer China Mieville. I'm now inclined to bring my copy of his "Un Lun Dun" to read in the Octagon Room, or in a Bennington coffee shop after I've checked out the crazy quilts. Mieville builds an alternate London out of the city's discards, houses build of tires and trash, red double-decker buses powered like hot air balloons.

His UnLondon is embattled, and his heroine, Deeba, is a Desi Londoner who finds her way there and stays to help. And she doesn't do things by the book. She takes charge. I'd like to see the "Octagon Room" and "A Stitch in Time" through her eyes, to see what they save and what they change.


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