“Shakespeare thought in pictures,” reports Mike Witmore in his oracular voice, and a swirling array of books, photographs, and objects that have grown out of that perception are now overflowomg the Folger gallery. I made a quick trip to DC last Monday for the opening of the show he’s co-curated with Rosamond Purcell, “Very Like a Whale.” Now I’m speculating about whether I can get back there before the show closes in early Jan 2013.
I knew what to expect because I taught an undergraduate class last spring using their collaborative book of photographs and Shakespearean snippets, Landscapes of the Passing Strange. The magic, as Rosamond explained to the audience in the Folger theater, is in the bottles. Her large framed photographs, which were on display throughout the hall, were all taken of the reflections of ordinary objects in these old mercury-lined glass bottles, which were originally used to store light-sensitive dyes. The results dance right up to and past the line between representation and abstraction: they are photographs, which is to say real visible things, but also changed, sometimes beyond recognition.
The book contains just the images and fragments from Shakespeare but the show adds objects from assorted collections and from the Folger Library. Highlights include a case entitled “All the Whale’s a Stage,” which gets its title from an image of a man playing bagpipes on top of a massive cetacean body, a burned page of The Tempest from one of the Folger’s many Shakespeare Folios, an automaton (!), and many other things.
“Wood from Shakespeare’s house in the Caliban case,” claimed Rosamond during the curators’ talk. “From the property behind the house,” clarified Mike. Which led to a wonderful exchange in which Rosamond admitted her own identification with the poetic monster who finds scamels in the rocks, and suggested that Mike be cast as Prospero.
After discovering the book at MLA back in Jan 2010, I built an undergrad Shakespeare course around these strange images during the fall of 2011, including setting up an exhibition of photographs at St. John’s and having Mike and Rosamond come for a memorable visit in October. The charge of these images is the strange push they give to your imagination as you look at them, the mobile and unexpected ways they ask us to reconsider Shakespeare’s language and the imaginative art of seeing. As I said when reflecting on the visit to Queens last year around this time, it’s good to share strange things.
That sense of radical play dominates the larger exhibition at the Folger right now. It’s a hard show to take in, especially on opening night when the hall is full of people to catch up with, meet, and congratulate. But when I stood there making academic small talk and looking at the automaton, or peering into the gorgeous array of books on objects in the “Wind” case,” I considered the larger project of putting such strangeness inside an academic institution. I remember my students being at first amazed, then a bit bewildered by the photographs in Passing Strange. But when we lingered in front of an image — I remember a great liquid desert portrait paired with lines from Antony & Cleopatra, which I did not see at the Folger Monday — things would swim into the imagination. The gambit is that such strangeness speaks to the same part of the mind that’s moved by Shakespeare, and it certainly works for me.
You could make a case that the Folger exhibition hall is overfull right now, with photographs and objects spilling out of every window-nook. But if you have all this wonderful stuff, why not give us excess of it, and more besides, and something else we’re not expecting?
If you can’t get to DC during the rest of the fall, here’s the mobile tour of the show. But you really should get there if you can.