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Eric Schmitt

Wünderkammer Redefined: The Work of Sculptor and Ceramicist Hanako O‘Leary

Cabinets of curiosities, or wünderkammer, originated during the Renaissance period in Europe. Displayed in the wünderkammer was a penchant for discovery and an attempt to master the world. The earliest examples were entire rooms dedicated to holding foreign, admired treasures. Originally they were constructed only by those of the highest social class, but over time the wünderkammer gained popularity and members of the merchant class began creating their own. The latter functioned in the same manner as the rooms of the wealthy, but they were of a smaller size, literally becoming cabinets or boxes. By the seventeenth century, published catalogs of developed cabinets were circulated, standardizing their contents. A typical wünderkammer housed encyclopedic collections of unique and unknown objects which were difficult to classify or categorize. The collections included preserved species of animals, tusks, shells, skeletons, unknown minerals, and rare or fascinating man-made objects. Ethnographic specimens from exotic locations were often part of the collections, making them readily available for observation and classification. Collectors attempted to capture the far corners of the Earth through these trophies of exploration and colonialism. In fact, wünderkammer were once perceived as microcosms of the world.

In her work, sculptor and ceramicist Hanako O‘Leary creates a modernized, yet dark, version of these cabinets of curiosity. She alters the wünderkammer‘s concept of displaying unfamiliar objects as treasures to be studied and admired, and applies it to memories of a collective past which cannot be physically recaptured in their original state. Corrupted by time, these memories display a “longing for the youth and innocence … once possessed” which becomes increasingly unattainable as we age. Like the objects within the cabinets of curiosity, these aspects of our past are foreign, yet alluring specimens. We are able to see and experience them, but do not understand their now-forgotten identity. One‘s childhood memories are commonplace, their nostalgia as standardized as the contents of a wünderkammer.

Hanako O‘Leary offers up for contemplation multiple tableaux of discarded found objects combined with pieces of handmade craft. These items include broken dolls, dirty porcelain figurines, and cast marbles embedded with human hair. Many of the objects in her pieces are ordinary, re-contextualizing the rare and mysterious nature of the wünderkammer. Through this, O‘Leary forces us to confront the discarded and forgotten in order to admire the past which they represent. Divorced from original context, her pieces function as a disfigured, broken sentiment which emerge from the depths of nostalgia for childhood memory. In O‘Leary's work, ugly, even frightful, objects are showcased and become sentimental. They are in dialogue with “aesthetics from fairy tales, nursery rhymes, … dreams and imaginary friends” the artist has been distanced from, manifesting as “cast shadows” of her youth. Even through maturity, the treasures of childhood “linger in the recesses” of the self. Through a recollection of prior attachments to the original form one has previously encountered, foreign assemblages of discarded commodities are familiar. Much like the cabinets of curiosity of past centuries, Hanako O‘Leary creates a microcosm, but rather one of human nature and its struggle with time passage, loss, and memory.

  • Paul Grinke, From Wünderkammer to Museum (London: Bernard Quaritch Ld, 2006), 13-15.
  • Hanako O‘Leary, Artist Statement, 22 February 2010
  • Interview by Dana Szafranski with Hanako O‘Leary, 10 February 2010
  • O‘Leary, Artist Statement