Saturday, November 05, 2011

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Muzeo Exhibit

This season in Anaheim, California, they're conducting a exceptional exhibit on Steampunk and Victorian era art and cultural objects at the new Muzeo museum. It's well worth attending for $13.

Muzeo frames the exhibit by stating that "Steampunk" is considered by many to be a growing modern reaction to man’s conquering of scientific boundaries. As technology and science took us beneath the sea, to the Earth’s interior and even to the moon, humanity began to wonder if its reach had, indeed, exceeded his grasp. Writers, artists and craftsmen began to entertain the notion of what life would have been like had circumstances pushed these innovations just a little bit further. We might have had computers before gas combustion engines, the Internet before the microchip, or warships in the air before the Wright Brothers ever flew. This spawned a whole new sub-genre of science fiction - Steampunk. With this new sub-genre came a whole fresh aesthetic...a Neo-Victorian examination of clothing, gadgets, art, music and literature."

Most of the items on display from the steampunk exhibit are domestic but there's a good range including a number of original art pieces from Phil Foglio, the mind behind Girl Genius, easily one of my favorite steampunk comic strips. 

They also displayed concept art for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and extensive overviews of the work of Robert Louis Stevenson, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A discussion of Charles Babbage and his difference engine was of course included with the proposal that had he been successful we might have had home computers before the Wright Brothers perfected flight.

H.G. Wells' Time Machine was supposed to be on exhibit but apparently got lost in time on the way.

There was a strong presence of the influence of steampunk on Disney and Disney's role in inspiring the steampunk aesthetic. Atlantis: The Lost Empire and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea are featured, for example, as well as Disney's Mechanical Kingdom:


The strangest element of the exhibit was the notable absence of discussion regarding the Japanese influence on Steampunk aesthetics, or really, other cultural responses from around the globe, such as South America or Russia.

Steampunk has a habit of mixing with many other pop culture concepts, and this exhibit demonstrated this with several examples, notably Steampunk Batgirl who's running around with a real bat.

One of the pieces I'd been looking forward to as a Lao artist was the steampunk elephant, which was an impressive brass puppet. I would have loved to have seen in action but even behind glass, it is more than enough to stir the imagination of what is possible. 

I was impressed by the aesthetics and humor behind the steampunk vampire hunting kit. I wondered what an equivalent would look like for use in Southeast Asia against phi and nyak:

By far, my favorite was the practical accessory, the Bibliophile Hat. It would allow you to store a book and or writing kit in it, and included a bookstand with a page holder in the lid that was perfect for taking tea with. If I was stuck in the retrofuture, this would be my hat of choice.

What really makes this exhibit outstanding, however, is the historical Victorian exhibit in the other gallery of the Muzeo. When you see the history that happened so closely juxtaposed to the history 'that could have happened' it's really quite amazing. 

The exhibit doesn't flinch from opening with a note on the social conditions of the time that concerned people living in the empire, such as child labor. They also drew attention to a near constant state of war. They exhibit points out there was a military clash every year somewhere in the Empire throughout the entirety of Queen Victoria's reign, notably the Crimean War. 

We see the British Empire's art and literature flourished tremendously during this century, along with technological advances. As artists and human beings we must ask: Does great conflict produce great advances? It's the Harry Lime question from the Third Man, I suppose.

There was an amazing range of walking canes on display that showed a dizzying array of personalization in materials, decor and utility. Professional canes stored anything from scalpels for a surgeon to easels, brushes and paints for an artist, or bottles of perfume and fans for ladies. They also demonstrated the wide variety of match safes, cheroot cases and coin purses that demonstrated status and uncommon personality.

I can see to a degree why many would be nostalgic for this era compared to today's mass production. The variety of ways for self-expression, if one had the means, was extraordinary. 

The exhibit explored the rise of Orientalism and the demand for goods and objects from the East that were considered exotic, and how Indian artists, among others, worked to create art about different cultures to build even greater demand for such objects. The notable example to me being an intricate Indian sculpture of exotic Chinese mythological figures for export to England.

There's a lot I've walked away with from this. Some interesting possibilities for alternate history, but also many concerns that writers ought to engage with, especially those of us from post-colonial communities. But that's a topic for another post. See this exhibit if you can. 

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