Haunted House

The Griebel broth­ers’ Mu­seum of Fear and Won­der is a trib­ute to the van­ish­ing world of road­side at­trac­tions—and the en­dur­ing ap­peal of the un­canny

Canadian Art - - Contents - By Eve Thomas

The Mu­seum of Fear and Won­der pays trib­ute to the en­dur­ing ap­peal of the un­canny by Eve Thomas

This is how hor­ror sto­ries start. Two broth­ers buy and ren­o­vate an old build­ing in ru­ral Al­berta, then Þll it with cu­ri­ous col­lectibles: A plaster death mask from 1850s Hol­land. A wooden Ouija board from 1940s Bal­ti­more. Ven­tril­o­quist dum­mies. Vodou dolls. Gar­den gnomes. And not just any gnomesñthese are fam­ily heir­looms, of a sort. It was Jude and Bren­dan Griebelõs ances­tor Philipp Griebel who in­vented the iconic ce­ramic lawn or­na­ments in the 19th cen­tury, whim­si­cal sym­bols of sim­pler times in Ger­many (with an ad­mit­tedly kitschier pedi­gree this side of the At­lantic).

Òone of themõs got a liquor bot­tle; the other is play­ing an ac­cor­dion and has th­ese dis­turbingly sharp teeth,ó says Bren­dan with a gri­mace.

Òtheyõre painted and put to­gether by hand,ó adds Jude. Òart ob­jects, re­ally, even if theyõre mass pro­duced.ó

This fan­tas­ti­cal bi­o­graph­i­cal note is just one of the de­tails that make up the broth­ersõ jour­ney to their lat­est ven­ture: the Mu­seum of Fear and Won­der near Ber­gen, Al­berta. The idea crys­tal­lized while they were vis­it­ing Gua­na­ju­ato, Mex­i­coõs Museo de las Mo­mias, but re­ally, theyõve been pre­par­ing for this project all their livesñand have the stor­age lock­ers to prove it.

Òweõre not hoard­ers; weõre dis­cern­ing col­lec­tors,ó Bren­dan says care­fully. He is an Arc­tic ar­chae­ol­o­gist mainly based in Cam­bridge Bay who re­cently moved to Ot­tawa to work on the ex­hi­bi­tion Òin­uin­nauyugutó at the Cana­dian Mu­seum of Na­ture. Jude is an ac­claimed Brook­lyn­based artist whose resin sculp­turesñin­clud­ing an­thro­po­mor­phized houses and hy­brid bod­iesñ ex­plore themes of waste, na­ture, de­cay and pol­lu­tion, and whose most re­cent ex­hi­bi­tions in­clude Òcraft­ing Ruinó at dc3 Art Projects in Ed­mon­ton and Plas­tic Ghost, an in­stal­la­tion in Jyväskylä, Fin­land. Pre­vi­ously, they worked to­gether on a project at North Caroli­naõs Else­where mu­seum, a se­ries called Yel­low House that had them pho­tograph­ing ob­jects through a rot­ting doll­house.

The broth­ersõ in­ter­est in odd­i­ties was al­most a given con­sid­er­ing their up­bring­ing. Raised by a con­ser­va­tor mother and a neu­ro­sur­geon fa­ther with a thing for med­i­cal an­tiques, they reg­u­larly trav­elled the world as a fam­ily, in­clud­ing a trip in their teens (theyõre now in their 30s) that took them to Europe, Asia and Poly­ne­sia. Yet while many of the ob­jects theyõve col­lected come from far-ßung placesña Namib­ian div­ina­tion bas­ket, a Ti­betan ka­pala (skull­cap)ñthe mu­seum it­self is pure Prairie Gothic. The struc­ture (which Bren­dan is cur­rently Þlling with an­tique dis­play cab­i­nets from shut­tered butch­ers, candy shops and the Hud­sonõs Bay Com­pany) for­merly served as army bar­racks and, at one point, part of a Ger­man in­tern­ment camp.

Òthe tales and fears of the Prairies come from iso­la­tion, harsh win­ters, how light af­fects your dayéó muses Jude, cit­ing the draw­ings of Mar­cel Dzama and Þlms of Guy Maddin when

he re­calls their child­hood. He de­scribes tra­di­tional crafts tai­lored to the sea­sons, games staged in aban­doned houses, pranks played in the cornþelds, and the road trips of their youth, days of driv­ing bro­ken up by small-town at­trac­tions.

Òany­where with the Biggest Any­thing,ó sum­ma­rizes Bren­dan. Òplaces that would lure you in.ó

Òtheyõre the last pock­ets of folk mythol­ogy left over from an old world,ó says Jude. Òand some­times they say more about a place than any for­mal govern­ment ar­chives.ó

Ac­cord­ing to the Al­berta Mu­se­ums Project, the prov­ince is home to more than 300 mu­se­ums, most of them in ru­ral ar­eas. Add to them road­side at­trac­tions, and a lo­cal road trip could hit ev­ery­thing from Glen­donõs Giant Per­ogy to St. Paulõs UFO Land­ing Pad to the Tor­ring­ton Go­pher Hole Mu­seum, where taxi­dermy ro­dents are dressed up and posed in bu­colic scenes: play­ing hockey, slow danc­ing, build­ing snow­men.

In 2017, niche mu­se­ums are re­mark­able for their con­tin­ued ex­is­tence as much as their ac­tual col­lec­tions, and this long-faded glory is ap­par­ent in the Griebelsõ most re­cent ac­qui­si­tion: a gang of fa­mous villains from a de­funct wax mu­seum in Ni­a­gara Falls. Jude and Bren­dan list off the Þgures they nabbed (Lizzie Bor­den, Ted Bundy)ñòwe chose them based on no­to­ri­ety and qual­ity,ó ex­plains Judeñand kick them­selves over the ones they missed (Charles Man­son, John Wayne Gacy). They speak with the glee of kids swap­ping base­ball cards, and yet, itõs in this dis­cus­sion that they out them­selves as any­thing but ex­ploita­tive show­men or ironic gore hounds. De­spite the quirky, even grue­some, sub­ject mat­ter theyõve taken on, they are tact­ful, even sen­si­tive, when it comes to this project.

Òthe guy who sold them to us knew how much they meant to kids, grow­ing up. He did­nõt want to just get rid of them all on ebay,ó says Jude, be­fore point­ing out that most of the wax Þgures were made in the 1960s, by real crafts­peo­ple, be­fore Ni­a­gara achieved full tourist-trap sta­tus. He ex­plains how the art form arose from the need for med­i­cal mod­els dur­ing the En­light­en­ment, when real ca­dav­ers got too ex­pen­sive, weav­ing in the tale of Louis Au­zoux, a med­i­cal doc­tor who rev­o­lu­tion­ized the Þeld again with pa­pier mâchéñan­tecedents of the clas­sic Òdis­sectibleó anatom­i­cal mod­els still pop­u­lar to­day. Au­zoux learned his craft from mak­ers of chil­drenõs dolls in 19th-cen­tury Paris. Òyou see the same tech­nique used with two rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent emo­tional un­der­stand­ings of the hu­man body,ó says Jude. (Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Mu­seum of Fear and Won­der show­cases many baby dolls and chil­drenõs toys wor­thy of Mex­i­coõs in­fa­mous Isla de las Muñe­cas, or Is­land of the Dolls.)

When it comes to the wax Þgures theyõve bought, the broth­ers are adamant about one thing: Òthe point is not to make a nov­elty mu­seum,ó says Jude. And so the villains wonõt be dis­played in blood-spat­tered dio­ra­mas, but in­stead have been stripped of their cos­tumes, down to their carved limbs and stuffed tor­sos. In short, says Jude, Òweõve re­moved the dra­mat­ics.ó

Theyõre also not plan­ning on any bold, P. T. Bar­numðstyle ad cam­paigns or ßash­ing ar­rows to coax Cal­gar­i­ans to un­der­take the 90-minute drive to the mu­seum. In fact, most of the broth­ersõ sales tac­tics would make the hum­bug-happy show­man roll in his grave. They only plan to open for three months in the sum­mer (with an artist- or writer-in-res­i­dence act­ing as a di­dact), wonõt be charg­ing ad­mis­sion and have no plans for a gift shop. And while the mu­seum does have a web­site and In­sta­gram ac­count, they only of­fer a few pic­tures of se­lect ob­jects shot against plain back­groundsñ an Inuit shaman belt, two mat­ing ßies trapped in am­berñand glimpses of the space it­self. ÒWE donõt want that many peo­ple to come,ó Jude ad­mits, with a laugh. Itõs not that theyõre be­ing difþcult, but that theyõve dis­cov­ered some­thing im­por­tant af­ter years of go­ing off the beaten path to mu­se­ums in peo­pleõs homes and pri­vate spa­ces, from a hu­man hair col­lec­tion in Turkey to an erot­ica mu­seum in St. Peters­burg, Rus­sia, that was also a work­ing VD clinic: the jour­ney it­self is part of the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Òtime is the biggest in­vest­ment you can make now, and mov­ing through that phys­i­cal space,ó says Bren­dan. ÒIF peo­ple are in­ter­ested enough to come and see it, if itõs re­mote, thatõs al­ready part of it.ó

Jude cites the Mu­seum of Juras­sic Tech­nol­ogy as an in­ßuence in its ap­proach to mar­ket­ing as much as con­tent, in that most of its pop­u­lar­ity has been or­ganic, and its con­verted Cul­ver City store­fron­tñshow­cas­ing mi­cro­minia­tures and por­traits of Soviet space dogsñis avail­able to both those whoõve made the pil­grim­age and cu­ri­ous passersby. ÒIT was in­tended for ran­dom strangers to step into,ó he says.

Jude also re­cently met about 40 kin­dred spir­its at a niche col­lec­torsõ con­fer­ence in New York, at­ten­dees with the sorts of in­ter­ests that make med­i­cal dum­mies look main­stream: a woman who gath­ers and mounts the minis­cule tires from toy trac­tors; a cou­ple thatõs built a trib­ute to Tonya Hard­ing and Nancy Ker­ri­gan in their Brook­lyn apart­ment; and Mar­ion Duck­worth, a sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian whose col­lec­tions live along­side herñ­play­bills, skele­ton keys, Snow White Þguri­nesñin a 1600s Dutch farm­house, the old­est in­hab­ited home in the city, com­plete with a grave­yard. When asked where his in­ter­ests lie on a spec­trum of strange­ness, in­stead of an­swer­ing, he chal­lenges the ques­tion: ÒI donõt like the word strange, itõs bor­ing. Or the word creepy. I pre­fer to call the ob­jects we col­lect emo­tion­ally com­pli­cated. Or un­com­fort­able. There are bet­ter words than strange to ex­plain the grey area.ó

It would be too easy to paint the Broth­ers Griebel as mous­tache-twirling ec­centrics, but again, where there could be a gotcha thereõs sim­ply ap­pre­ci­a­tion. And de­spite what could be called a resur­gence of so­cially (or so­cial-me­dia) ac­cept­able in­ter­est in the oc­cultñthe Twin Peaks re­vival, cy­ber­pa­gan­ism, pod­casts like My Fa­vorite Mur­der, the #try­popho­bia tag, Òcreep­y­pas­taó on­line ur­ban leg­end­sñtheyõre not set on rid­ing that wave.

Òwhat­ev­erõs hap­pen­ing with this resur­gence of the su­per­nat­u­ral, this In­ter­net gothic, we donõt want any part of that,ó states Jude. Itõs not that he is to­tally averse to hor­ror as a genre (he ad­mits to a fond­ness for vis­ceral, pre-cgi spe­cial ef­fects in movies like C.H.U.D. and The Dark Crys­tal), itõs that they are pre­sent­ing ob­jects in what he calls a Òpost-ma­te­rial world.ó And that is, he says, the biggest dif­fer­ence be­tween his per­sonal work and this project: the for­mer is about cre­ation, the lat­ter about con­sid­er­a­tion. Òweõre try­ing to high­light ob­jects in the right way. Itõs only when theyõre looked at as gim­micky that youõre dis­miss­ing peo­pleõs be­liefs. Itõs about re­spect­ing them and giv­ing them the right space.ó Itõs this ap­proach that has Bren­dan and Jude con­vinced they can trans­form vis­i­torsõ fear into care­ful reßec­tion. Or even, if they get it right, awe. ■

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