San Francisco

“The Museum of Jurassic Technology”

New Langton Arts

The Museum of Jurassic Technology was founded two years ago by David Wilson, an artist who designs miniature special effects models for movies and TV. Normally housed on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles, the collection comprises a bevy of eccentric artifacts—some redolent of the ultramundane but most of them chortling at the high end of speciousness. The museum is a belated tribute to the batty logic of 19th-century empiricism, whose will to certainty was paralleled by a taste for the grossly unfounded. An introductory slide lecture encourages immediate identification with “the incongruity of the overzealous spirit in the face of unfathomable phenomena.” Specimens are propped up and decisive scientific discoveries reenacted inside glass cases. Windows give onto tiny stage sets featuring stereographically projected tableaux-vivants of biblical scenes from 14th-century illuminated manuscripts. Each display is embellished with a supplementary wall text or audio commentary. Some still “under construction” are nevertheless “explained” as if already visible.

Wilson’s inventor’s touch provides every convenience for delivering seemingly ironclad bits of disinformation. So adept is he at maintaining his user-friendly museum illusion, you can see how an exhibit is rigged and still be baffled by the evidence. The discrepancy between historical explanations of science facts and the means by which their evidence greets the eye is gratifying: Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s 1891 proof of plasmatic postvisualization—“the ability of vision in the extreme ultraviolet to reconstruct life forms from inanimate remains”—is conveyed by a compact video camera that, turning from the skeleton of a human hand to a bare twig, shows live tissue recuperated on each. Across the room, seen within the larynx of an encased fox head, resides a free-floating image of a man straining forward in a chair, snarling and yelping like a fox. (Here, too, rather than dampening the mystery, the fact that the performing man does dog voices for the movies deepens it.)

There are more skeletal specimens (the ringnot sloth and the European mole, among them) and habitat views (one for the African stink ant, Meglaponera foetens, whose brain is eaten by a fungus spore) and narrative displays. You see the block of lead that trapped a Deprong Mori, the “piercing devil bat” whose X-ray powers permit it to fly through solid matter. You push a series of buttons to hear dead beetles foil their predators by imitating the languages of stones. The ultimate showpiece of all this benign stupefaction is an untitled tableau involving two ghastly reclining wax figures of a man and woman. A set of ministories is whispered on tape and communicated in sign language by hands that seem to hover in midair at the far end of a large vitrine. Nuzzling a pair of catoptric spectacles prompts both the taped monologue and the “hands” image to tell, for instance, how the narrator resuscitated his wife after her fatal automobile accident by sprinkling her body with his dried, opalescent sperm.

The title phrase “Jurassic Technology” is an oxymoron, of course. It implies either that the dinosaurs of the Jurassic Period were conscientious toolmakers or, conversely, that human technology as anything other than a form of rational amusement might usefully consign itself to the scrap heap of historically failed projects, along with dinosaurs and their brethren, the flying reptiles. Probably the latter thesis is what Wilson has in mind. In any case, this gentle artist-technocrat has invented an educational device that releases facts from their obligations to certainty and pulverizes even as it purifies our sense of museological time. On either side of the entryway were what seemed to stand as the museum’s presiding metaphors: a scale model of Noah’s Ark—mechanically rocking on a makeshift floodplain, the first natural history collection—and a wall of old prints depicting the Tower of Babel, humanity’s first big technological non sequitur.

Bill Berkson