Somewhere in time

A senses-filling visit to the Musée Patamécanique
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  May 18, 2007
INSIDE_MUSSEE
YOUR TOUR GUIDE: The dignified Mr. Neil Salley.

My Dear Percival,
 
Being apprised of the opportunity to slough off the constraining perspective of the 21st-century and to temporarily slip into that of a more comfortable era like a velvet smoking jacket, I gladly accepted an invitation to attend a tour of the Musée Patamécanique in Bristol.
 
Zut alors!
 
Patamechanics refers to tangible manifestations of pataphysics, a term supplied by French writer Alfred Jarry to encompass and exceed the paltry aspirations of metaphysics. Such prescient Dadaist artists as Marcel Duchamp and Tristan Tzara and mechanical engineering genius Rube Goldberg have made significant contributions.
 
The location is not revealed until I accept the invitation and meet a Mr. Neil Salley in front of an imposing mansion. Essential aspects of the movement have been mystery and imagination, both of which are in abundant evidence as the museum’s curator prepares me for a tour of the exhibition artifacts.
 
A dapper gentleman of dignified bearing, he sports a closely cropped Vandyke above a bow tie and wears not a Magritte homburg but rather a black pork pie hat that one might associate with the déclassé or even ruffians. That does, however, enhance the sense of mystery and makes him look not unlike an eccentric, concept-spilling MFA graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design — which, in fact, he recently is.
 
We step around back, passing Greek statuary stored like so many rusting lawnmowers. We enter a hallway which contains numerous framed text clippings and photographs that relate to the museum’s subject. As we sip sherry, Mr. Salley points to a picture of Cinderella’s castle at Disneyland, that glorious patamechanical nexus.
 
The curator explains.
 
“Patamechanics is the method of discovering or manifesting artifacts which” — and Mr. Salley utters the rest of the sentence in a headlong rush, as though tumbling down a rabbit hole — “symbolically attribute their properties described by their virtuality to their lineaments.” He takes a breath. “Patamechanical artifacts are physical objects that indicate the potential physical existence of the realm or entity that exists supplementary to this one, or describe a realm or entity which can be or perhaps should be envisaged in place of a traditional one.”
 
In a few moments I know precisely what he means. We step through a door into a darkened room that is illuminated only by the glow from several bizarre contraptions.
 
A great wheel stroboscopically flashes innumerable blinking eyes at us. In a Petri dish, the standing-wave image of vibrating water is projected across the room as a shuddering mandala. There is a hologram that locks onto one’s gaze as one walks around it. There is a dynamo crank I am enlisted to vigorously and noisily turn in order to power these machines. Several more artifacts are labeled with their Latin name and inventor.
 
Mr. Salley recounts the genesis of today’s natural history museums: how Europeans of the 16th and 17th centuries accumulated exotic cultural artifacts and built Cabinets of Curiosities.
 
We proceed to the Pharus Foetidus Viscera, the “Olfactory Lighthouse” of Miss Maxine Edison, philosopher-cum-scenteur. On a stand, the device sprouts a circle of gooseneck tubes, each emitting an evocative odor, man-made simulacra of pomegranate, honeydew, eucalyptus, and so forth. Under a glass dome, an inverted horn, topped with a turquoise crystalline substance, slowly revolves.
 
As the curator explains: “Maxine has mounted the horn of a unicorn, which is induced with a slow-moving rotation which counters the spiral traces of its growth, thus producing a natural secretion the color of topaz.”
 
The tour goes on. The mind boggles. Afterward, I notice that on the door leading outside is the label: “Laboratory.”
 
Subsequently, Mr. Salley kindly reveals that prior to attending RISD, he spent 10 years in advertising, directing commercials for children, with clients such as Nabisco and General Mills. (At the harmless salutation “Cheerio,” the poor man winces.) With a circularity that has a pataphysical, even Escher-like, symmetry in its own right, what brought him to that career was his presenting what he describes as “funky video installations” at AS220, whereupon it was pointed out to him that he could actually obtain financial remuneration for such skills.
 
He informs me that evening tours of Le Musée Patamécanique may be requested for Tuesday through Thursday and by special arrangement. Admission is by donation, hopefully munificent but allowing for likely pecuniary disadvantages among artist types attracted to such an opportunity. To request an invitation, proceed to www.museepata.org, where photographs and descriptions of the artifacts are to be found by those who, like us, might find solace in our “reality”-bound century when wonder is woefully undervalued.

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