By Tucker Neel
Originally published in The L.A. Alternative Press, Vol. 5, March 31, 2006, 8.
If I told you that the Museum of Jurassic Technology’s new show consists of painted portraits of dogs, images of cigar-puffing Dobermans huddled around green poker tables probably come to mind. Thankfully, this is not the case at the MJT. In fact, The Lives of Perfect Creatures: Dogs of the Soviet Space Program intriguingly refigures the rich tradition of royal and state portraiture, effectively painting Man’s Best Friend in a very unexpected and refreshing light. And besides, do you really need an excuse to go the Museum of Jurassic Technology?
Although the museum should be a rite of passage for any true Angeleno, for the uninitiated the MJT is part cabinet of curiosities, part magical shrine, part secret wardrobe, and part miniature Noah’s Ark, with a heavy smattering of intense postmodern critique thrown in for good measure. In effect, the MJT showcases the kind of magical, transcendental, mysterious, and truly innovative objects, phenomena, discoveries, and ideas that otherwise go overlooked in contemporary museums and archives throughout the world.
By exhibiting “fact” and highlighting “fiction,” the museum’s innovative exhibition strategy reorients the otherwise complacent viewer’s understanding and acceptance of what we see, what we believe is true. This institution prompts us to question how and why a museum functions and presents an alternative to the dry, pedantic model present in nearly every existing archive of human and natural history.
But it’s not just that the museum contains the strange and unusual. What is important is how each item in the institution’s collection is earnestly displayed in an engaging, thought-provoking context. For example, a haunting portion of the museum connects the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1929 to a rich tradition of folk remedies. One display tells of how good luck can be obtained by the matriarch of a family sprinkling her loved ones with spittle and urine on New Years’ Day. The museum carefully displays this presentation not as a freaky anomaly, but as a contextualized artifact, evidence of a fascinating, complex and indeterminate world.
Athanasius Kircher: The World Is Bound With Secret Knots video
After perusing the museum’s first floor collection of installations, documents and dioramas, and spending a satisfying amount of time in my favorite section- “Athanasius Kircher: The World Is Bound With Secret Knots,” where Kircher’s hypnotizing bell wheel investigates how the structure of the human soul is mirrored by harmonious musical compositions-I ascended the carpeted steps to the museum’s second floor.
A hallway crammed with delicate glass display cases holding what appear to be celestial maps and astrological dioramas led me toward an open room with marble floors and stately windows that let in crystal-clear light, making silhouettes of dynamic flower arrangements perched on each windowsill. This tea room is a relatively new addition to the museum and is a welcome, relaxing contrast to the dark rooms below. I sipped a piping hot cup of tea offered to me by a friendly dreadlocked museum staffer and moved into a parlor just around the corner, lured by the sound of reverent music and a glimpse of…a dog?
After reading the wall text I learned that each of the five portraits in the room depicts a single dog catapulted out of Earth’s atmosphere as part of the nascent 1960s Russian space program. Interestingly enough, the Russians only used female mutts gleaned from the streets of Moscow; these weren’t decadent Purina purists, but dogs appropriated directly from the urban proletarian landscape.
Immediately, my eye was drawn to a painting of Laika, perhaps one of history’s most famous dogs who, as the wall text so eloquently exclaims, was “the first ever Earth-born creature to leave our planet and enter into the cosmic vacuum.” Isolated on its own wall, Laika’s portrait commands the room. Rendered in a painting style reminiscent of portraits of Dutch and Flemish nobility (with a little hint of Renoir thrown in), Laika gazes out of the painting to a distant point just over my left shoulder, at an implied horizon. It’s almost as if she knows what she must do, that her mission is to leave the confines of the painting and of this world, and ascend toward the stars.
Each portrait is surrounded by a thick, dark wooden frame with a small brass plaque displaying the dog’s name in Russian above a date which, one assumes, denotes the day they embarked on their cosmic voyage. But this date also acts as a birthday of sorts, marking the time when these creatures ceased being just street dogs and became national heroes. For example, a wall text informs me that Strelka-whose portrait is particularly adorable despite being incongruously dark in comparison to the others-was quite an eminence. She returned to Russia after orbiting the Earth 17 times, gave birth to puppies, and one of her offspring was presented to Caroline Kennedy by Nikita Khrushchev as a gift of goodwill-perhaps also to rub the success of Russian space exploration in the face of the bourgeois American capitalists.
Almost every dog embodies a heroic pose reminiscent of famous state portraits throughout art history. I can easily compare and contrast, say, Belka’s portrait, with her hair slightly ruffled by an unseen wind, eyes fixed assuredly into the distance, to a portrait of Alexander Hamilton by the late 18th Century American painter John Trumbull. Both paintings present the viewer with idealized visionary images of people-or in this case animals-in control of their inner and outermost worlds. How curious, then, that this style of painting is transferred from human to canine, a transgressive move perhaps meant to critique the very notion of state portraiture. Or could this just be a reaffirmation of the “cult of the hero”?
Perhaps one answer to this question lies in my fascination with a painting of Ugolyok (a Chow/Husky mix?), who seems to resist the heroic spotlight. She recoils slightly, drawing away from the right side of the canvas, hesitant and apprehensive, almost as if she is stuck with having to choose between two basic instincts, fight or (literally) take flight. Ripe with psychological drama, Ugolyok’s portrait bears testimony to the undeniable fear and trauma caused by the uncertainty that these dogs, and perhaps any being destined to leave the Earth’s gravitational and atmospheric security, must face when presented with such an astronomical task as space travel.
I realize that in this instance it’s not fair for me to ask, “Why, in 2006, would anyone paint this sort of portrait of a dog?” because I really don’t know who painted these works or when they were created. Like everything else at the MJT, the information that is left out of this exhibit is just as important, conspicuous and beguiling as the information that’s included. It’s completely possible that these paintings originated in the former Soviet Union, but they could also have been painted in the mobile home behind the museum. I have no clue and there is nary a wall text or an all-knowing docent to whisk away my ignorance. After insistently questioning a museum staff member as to the author of these paintings, I received a very ambiguous answer: “The artist would like to remain anonymous and there is no date attached to the paintings.”
If I were visiting any other museum I might take this stonewalling as an insult. But at the MJT, I find the omission to be a challenge. I place it within the context of a presentation strategy that exists as a welcome change, an invitation to intellectual engagement and unbridled thought. Whereas nearly all natural and national history museums in America attempt to tell you what to think, with overly edifying texts and “authoritative” displays, the MJT exists as a refreshing contrast, a museum that simply asks you to just think for yourself, and in so doing, provides a fresh and insightful model for looking at the world.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is located at 9341 Venice Blvd. in Culver City, and online at www.mjt.org