Devices of Wonder by Barbara Maria Stafford and Frances Terpak
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii May, 2002)
When I was in Los Angeles in December I had the chance to attend a remarkable exhibit at the new Getty Museum entitled Devices of Wonder. Some six years in preparation, the exhibit houses an eclectic array of items drawn from many sources, including the collections of Ricky Jay and John Gaughan (as well as a surprising variety from the Getty itself). Although enclosed in just a few rooms, I spent an exhilarating four solid hours viewing it, and was sorry to have to leave and sorrier still to be unable to return again. The exhibit is scheduled to close around the time of this issue's release, so if you have seen it count yourself fortunate, and if you haven't, you must settle for my condolences, along with the availability of ancillary works like this book.
Devices of Wonder looks at the way that human beings have augmented and altered our perception over the centuries with inventions and devices intended to expand and vary the manner in which we view the world, sometimes illuminating and other times distorting the limits of our own senses. From "cabinets of wonder" in the Age of Enlightenment through an endless variety of optical devices, including microscopes, mirrors, blow books, magic lanterns, and even automata, mankind has repeatedly attempted to recreate the world in order to view it anew. As each new development unfolds, extravagant claims are invariably made as to the accuracy and realism of the new technology—from dioramas and anamorphic imagery and "lifelike" automata, to Twentieth century insistence that stereo sound or virtual reality would be indistinguishable from the real thing. But of course, none of these refinements and explorations actually duplicate reality by any measure whatsoever, and why would we want them to do so, when the reality is always there for ready comparison? Rather, the exhibit suggested to me that each time we claim authenticity anew, what we have really done is found yet another new way to see reality, and to consider it through our imaginations. Only in this manner—by forcing our-selves to pause and think about the act of viewing—can we stop and remind ourselves to pay fresh attention to the subject of our view.
Of course, the same can be said not only of the likes of faceted lenses or the stereoscope, but of all art—it having been said that art is a way of seeing. And just as fiction provides insight into fact, magicians can provide insight into reality by revealing it through the funhouse mirror of illusion. Thus the subject matter of Devices of Wonder is of immediate relevance to the conjuror's art.
The exhibit "catalog," such as it is, is a substantial book consisting of more than a hundred pages of discussion of "the social and cultural intersections between old and new technologies" (according to the jacket copy, since I have not had the time to read this) by scholar Barbara Maria Stafford. This is conjoined with some 200 pages consisting of 31 essays by Frances Terpak, an expert in photography and optical devices. While this is dense academically styled work, the beautiful paperback is also substantially augmented with photographs of items from the exhibit, and is well worth a place on your shelf by deem of this content alone. You can obtain the book on the excellent web site for the exhibit, and be sure to look over the rest of the clever merchandise at http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/devices. I bought a bagful of goodies at the gift shop, including an assortment of excellent optical illusion devices, and even a lovely little bookmark featuring John Gaughan's restored Robert-Houdin automaton, the famous little trapezist, Antonio Diavolo, who can also be seen at rest in the exhibit space (and in action there via videotape).