'Underground'

Exploring of what goes on beneath the surface – of our bodies, of society, of the cities in which we live, of the very planet itself

Arts Review

'Underground'

Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata, 1808 Singleton, 320-0566, www.mnae.org

Through Nov. 30

You know of the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata, right? It's a small, well-documented collection of cultural and scientific oddities, curated by (and encompassed within the wunderkammer home of) Scott Webel and Jen Hirt on Austin's Eastside. The venue's main exhibitions change a little more frequently than once a year. It's part of the local cultural underground, you might say; which is appropriate, because the current exhibition is "Underground," an exploration of what goes on beneath the surface – the surface of our bodies, the surface of society, the surface of the cities in which we live, the surface of the very planet itself.

A show at the MNAE is always a mixture of quirkiest whimsy and most curious fact, and this "Underground" collection is nothing less. Knock at the front door between the hours of 4 and 7pm on Thursdays or 1 and 4pm on Saturdays and you'll be greeted by the curators, who will make sure that you've already caught a glimpse of the gnome garden and ant-lion display outside. Once you're inside the museum, Webel or Hirt will signal their "hidden gnome assistants" to cast some illumination on the surrounding darkness, the lights will come on, and a variety of objects and images – framed or encased, lovingly arranged – will reveal themselves on the nearby walls and shelves.

Tokens of different subway systems from around the world, early 20th century photographs of tourists enjoying the splendors of a Russian salt mine, the antique headlamps (from candle to gas to minifluorescent) used by miners throughout history, the corpse of a tailless whip scorpion, a thick stalagmite ripped (possibly illegally) from deep within the caverns in an Eastern state, a photograph of Sigmund Freud (who did so much spelunking of the human conscious' underground) and his two chow dogs: all of these things and more, lovingly described by Webel and/or Hirt while you shuffle – one-third awed, one-third puzzled, one-third amused – after them in the small room.

Did we mention there's an entire "Crystal Cavern" display, a sort of diorama boasting several beautiful specimens of crystals and other subterranean rock forms? Did we fail to note the collection, hanging from one section of the ceiling, of things the curators have dug up in their own backyard over the years? The Civil War bits, the Underground Railroad pieces, the creature dwelling within a large furry pod in one corner of the room? And all of it documented in a Webel-designed, limited-edition catalog with a cover silkscreened in purple and shimmering silver?

Perhaps the charming curatorial duo's gnome assistants are to blame for our clumsiness here: Perhaps they've clouded our mind with earthy magicks, their geomancy having warned them of precisely when we would enter their glittery demesne within the Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata. Because, well, we stole a garden gnome, once, years ago; and some grudges, like lost objects accidentally preserved for posterity, can last a long time underground.

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