There are people sighing in the Mouse Museum. They are moaning, clucking, and cooing, too.(1) There’s no telling which objects elicit which murmured reaction, since part of Mouse Museum’s potency derives from affinities between things, and the repetition and variation among them. For those who haven’t seen it, Claes Oldenburg’s “Museum” is as it sounds: an exhibition space shaped in Mickey Mouse’s image (well, a geometric distillation of his iconic head, to be precise). Inside, an illuminated vitrine—filled with souvenirs, gadgets, and studies for sculptures—encircles the space. Heavy with faux food (pizza, hot dogs, ice cream sundaes), this display gives the impression of an aquarium made for a spoiled animal, a back-alley palace for a hungry mouse.But to scurry through the Museum would be to miss out on many of the subtleties within its densely ganged configurations. Indeed, the insights and pleasures on offer are different, and more gritty, than those of street food, nostalgia, or finger-pointing cultural critique. For me, it initially offered up a sensation similar to what I feel when I pack a lunch for my young cousins—a Tetris board of sandwich, granola bar, string cheese, goldfish crackers. Maybe even pudding. Placed just so, these industrially processed foods align in florid combinations of signification and absurdity. So too in the Mouse Museum: one gets the sense of a deliberate human—one exercising a brilliant eye for color and for the particularities of form—creating a civilization of things.
Certain tableaux amount to practical jokes and visual puns: plastic bananas next to dildos, two ruddy pig masks ogling a half-eaten plastic Oreo keychain, a stack of bread made of sponge. Other combinations encourage more nuanced readings. Take the two porcelain stamp-moisteners glistening behind a wax hamburger. These moisteners were made to replace tongues as the workplace means for wetting the glue on the back of a postage stamp. In this case, they seem to be salivating at the greasy provocation of the burger/candle. They thus accentuate the very qualities of a tongue (bodily, carnal, erotic) that they were presumably manufactured to avoid. In the same square foot of space sits a pair of pears, a pack of cigarettes, and strange little booties. In the foreground rests a hunk of something rose-colored and meaty. Juxtaposed with this lump, the burger becomes baroque. It suddenly seems just as likely that the stamp-moisteners are licking their lips at the fleshier object.Here and throughout the Mouse Museum, what’s so challenging to summarize, and what’s responsible for so much pleasure, is this torqued and sustained cleavage between function and form. The objects seem willfully tangled between categories. In this way, the installation stays connected—in an intensified form—to certain familiar delights: figurative candy (Coke bottles, Swedish Fish); wearing a stem of cherries as a dangly earring; honey bears. Over time, these things have a tendency to get neutralized, their forms so taken for granted that they slip back into the realm of function. In contrast, the Mouse Museum’s objects do not settle down. This is Oldenburg’s currency: where expert play with form, scale, color, culture, incongruity, and category mistake makes room for new visibilities—for an expanded and fluctuating syntax.
(1) By and large, these utterances are whispered, audible only if you stand quite close (which, mind you, isn’t too difficult to pull off given the popularity of the compact display). The looped soundtrack of the artist washing rubber toys seems to play in harmony.