How often do we go through the day using the word “wonder” without ever really pausing to reflect on what exactly it means? We throw the word around casually, saying, “I wonder what’s for dinner tonight” or “I was wondering what you’re doing later.” But what does it really mean to experience wonder? This year the History of Art Fall Symposium attempts to answer that question.
Though the bill for the program notes that “the experience of wonder eludes words,” four scholars will meet in Rackham Auditorium this Saturday to discuss this seemingly paradoxical word. Certainly, these distinguished professors cannot take the stage and remain silent for an hour; they must find a way to articulate the inexplicable, which perhaps may be a wonder in itself. “ The Experience and Use of Wonder,” will compare how this moment of wonder is and has been represented across time and through different cultures.
“Wonder takes us out of the ordinary, and we don’t know when it will happen,” said art history Prof. David Doris, the organizer of the symposium.
Doris explained that there are many objects and events in our modern society that are used to induce wonder. Fireworks, for example, leave the viewer suspended in an “ooing and aahing” state. Disney World is a whole place designed, catered and marketed on this sense of wonder. The stars invoke wonder in many people and might later prompt scientific or theological curiosity. Psychedelics artificially produce a sense of wonder by altering the brain and its perception of the world.
This may be why Rackham will be welcoming its guests with a liquid light show as they walk in. Swirling and pulsing colors set to the ambient sounds of underwater music may make visitors feel more like they are at a Jefferson Airplane concert than a History of Art symposium.
“Wonder” has appeared in various forms and places. Though that moment can’t last forever, relics of that moment take their place in history. Each scholar will emphasize this with their diverse examples and research of how and where this feeling has been produced and transformed into art and artifact throughout time.
Z.S. Strother, a professor of African art at Columbia University, will talk about the role that traditional African masks have in evoking certain feelings that take the audience away from their immediate, tangible world.
“Masks are just one part of performances that unfold in time and space. It is their movement that draws the audience into movement – not just into dancing, an interior movement as well, into the movement of thought and spirit,” Doris said of the masks Strother will discuss.
Also set to speak is Robert Farris Thompson of Yale University and Glenn Adamson of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Thompson will be speaking about a particular tradition of the Yoruba tribe in which small twin figures are carved out of wood in memory of the deceased and are said to hold the spirit of that person and bring healing powers to the family in mourning. Adamson exemplifies his version of wonder with the “un-pickable” lock that was crafted in 1784 with a sign above it reading “the artist who can make an instrument that will pick or open this lock shall receive 200 guineas the moment it is produced.”
Over six decades later, a locksmith opened the lock in front of an audience at the Great Exhibition of 1851 after 16 days at his trade.
Norman Klein, a professor at the California Institute of the Arts, will be conducting an interactive, multimedia slideshow at the symposium. Users will be invited to use one of three stations where they will choose from 2,200 Twentieth Century images including cartoons, photographs, film and ephemera. The project demonstrates how different objects come to hold not only individual but collective wonder and eventually move from that state into a phase of history.
“Philosophy begins in wonder,” Doris said. “But it’s not just philosophy that begins there. Science, inquiry, academics and all things that grab hold of us begin in wonder.”