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Cabinets of Curiosities: Using Collections in Visual Studio Practice

Don Bergland
University of Victoria

I collect anything I find visually stimulating, from vintage musical instruments, toy cars, photographs of broken and discarded dolls, to 3D digital models of apocalyptic landscapes and Baroque staircases. I'm not fussy. I'll pick it up off the street, buy it at an auction, order it from eBay, photograph it through dirty glass, scrape it off a dinner plate, or buy it virtually from an online catalogue. If an object excites my imagination, it is conscripted as an active participant in one of my real, photographic, or 3D collections. But the key concept here is "active participant." The objects comprising my collections are not obtained as passive acquisitions. Each object enters the collection with an expectation that it will serve multiple roles in an active studio setting. As in most traditional collections, the object exists to be looked at, admired, examined, and enjoyed. But in my collections, the primary duty of a collected object is to participate in a studio performance as a compositional element, actor, protagonist, or supporting player. Each object exists to be visually studied, analyzed, and to also take part in studio performances leading to public visual exhibitions.

In the past, I have described the style of my constructed artwork as digital technosurrealism (Bergland, 2011). Like much of contemporary and traditional surrealism, this style combines a sensitivity to the subconscious meanings in mundane objects and the dream-like state in classically rendered interiors and landscapes. These artworks are the result of an intense commitment to collecting as part of my studio practice and the use of the imagination in making surreal connections between unrelated objects. Throughout my history as a studio artist, I have moved through many styles and approaches, from landscape painting to pure abstract design. My current practice, however, is focused on the creative use and manipulation of identifiable worldly objects. To service this focus, I possess three types of collection each of which hosts a different kind of object: real, photographic, and 3D objects.


These three different collections are used individually and also in dynamic integrations with each other.

My Real Collection consists of objects which have existence in the physical world and which inhabit our daily lives. These objects can be touched, broken, tasted, and perceived through touch. In my collection, these objects live on shelves in my studio and consists of several hundred objects.


I collect any real object I find visually stimulating and my collection consists of old dolls, cabinets, musical instruments, vintage toys, and other odd ephemera. These objects inhabit my office shelves, where I look at them and contemplate their shapes, history, and meaning. They take up space. When their services are required in the studio, they are picked up and moved to various live locations, where they become actors on a stage and are photographed in various dramatic settings. The results become visual compositions which are exhibited.

The objects in my Photographic Collection are visual representations of real worldly objects. I collect these using a digital camera, so the products in this collection usually remain in digital form. I have several hundred thousand photographic objects in this collection.


This photographic collection consists of images of real objects that are difficult to collect or obtain. I photograph any real object I find entertaining and my collection consists of images of store windows, urban oddities, vintage furniture, and other visual curiosities. These objects are digital, spend their lives inside a virtual environment, and live in folders on a computer hard drive. I look though these files and contemplate the forms and meaning of the images. When their services are required in the studio, they are moved into Photoshop, where they become actors on a stage and are cut out and arranged and processed into dramatic visual compositions.

The objects which comprise my 3D Model Collection are virtual entities and have no existence apart from a computer which houses and activates them. A 3D model is a digital representation of a physical object. In fact, it is a list of mumeric coordinates representing height, width, and depth wrapped in a digital skin allowing me to manipulate it on screen, three-dimensionally. When the 3D model is brought into a 3D software program, it can be rotated, moved around, and viewed just like a real physical object.


Unlike a physical object, however, it can be easily scaled, reshaped, resurfaced, and reconstructed. I collect any 3D model I find visually intriguing and my collection consists of models of people, environments, circus equipment, antiquities, buildings, vintage oddities, and other sideshow effluvia. I have about seven thousand objects in this collection. My 3D Model Collection lives in libraries located on my computer hard drive. Here I can study them until their services are required in the studio. Then, they are brought into specialized 3D programs where they can be manipulated, altered, resurfaced and arranged in designed settings to offer new meaning in compositions which are then photographed inside the 3D environment, processed in Photoshop, and exhibited in worldwide exhibitions.

Collections of any type can be assembled for many different reasons and used in many different ways. As a studio artist, I have a specific way of assembling and using my collections which has grown out of studio practice and directly affects the products which come out of my studio. My methods are also used in my instructional practice in the courses I teach at the university. The key components in the use of my collections can be represented in a schematic which features two main concepts: Assembly of the Collection (consisting of Discovered Assembly and Planned Assembly) and the Use of the Collection (consisting of Viewing Use and Construction Use). All of this conceptual activity results in a finished Composition.


Assembly (Discovered, Planned)

The first step in having a collection is to assemble one. My collections exist as individual and unique entities. I access them for different reasons and purposes. As one type of object is acquired, it is filed and stored in its designated inventory, whether shelves or digital folders. There are basically two different ways I assemble my collections. I see something interesting and I collect it for future use (Discovered), or I know what I want and I go out to find and acquire it (Planned). It is difficult to separate these two Assembly modes in practice. As I go out looking for objects, my intention probably contains both approaches, i.e., I go out looking for something specific and also collect things that I have no immediate use for, or I wander around looking for interesting things and then see something that I remember I need for a composition. A part of my life as an artist is set aside for visual discovery. I make sure that I simply go out "looking" and collecting. A simple formula results. I look. If I like, I acquire. If I acquire, it enters the collection. If it enters the collection, it is available for creative composition.

Each of the collections is assembled in different ways, whether through exploratory or planned expeditions. In terms of assembling my Real Collection, I frequent antique stores and auction houses either looking for something specific or hoping to find something of visual value for future use. When I acquire an object, it is brought back to my office or home and is stored on a collection shelf designated for that purpose.

For the Photographic Collection, I use the same expeditions as for the Real Collection, using the camera to collect images of objects I cannot acquire. As mentioned, the photographic collection consists of images of real objects that are difficult to collect or obtain. When I frequent new locations, antique stores and auction houses where desired objects are not attainable, a photograph is collected. For the Photographic Collection, I also visit the Internet on a regular basis, collecting and downloading images of objects that interest me. These objects are collected digitally and stored in folders that reside on my computer.

For the 3D Model Collection, I regularly visit a number of online businesses that deal in the sale (or giveaway) of 3D models for use in modeling programs. Venues such as Turbosquid (, Renderosity (, Content Paradise (, and ShareCG ( provide access to thousands of modeled objects in every possible category. I look through their catalogues, make selections and purchase and download the models. Again, I do this as a discovery and explorative process or as part of a planned endeavour seeking specific objects that I need for compositions.

The objects in my assembled collections are not organized according to any specified taxonomy. The organization is probably much more in line with the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities approach. "A Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Curiosities was an encyclopedic collection in Renaissance Europe of types of objects whose categorical boundaries were yet to be defined" (Wikipedia, 2013). The Cabinet of Curiosities was a massive collection of objects assembled and presented as a worldly theatre. The assembly of my three collections participate in this kind of uncurated adventure and exploit the advantages most fully the mental and practical use of the collected objects.

Use (Viewing, Construction)

But for me, a mere assembled collection has no functional studio purpose. A collection has to give something back if it is to be useful. As mentioned previously, every conscript within my three collections is required to provide multiple duties within the studio. The use expected from each object is that it act as a stimulant in visual thinking (Viewing) as well as participate in the act of composition (Construction).

My collections are neatly stored in places I can find them. In this state, all my collections are available for the first of the useful duties, being viewed. Viewing here, is really an act of mental composition. One looks at things with the intention of mentally combining, reconstructing, and arranging ideas into compositions. The Viewing process here, carries over many of the techniques that the style of the Wunderkammer allows. The assembly of objects without organized taxonomy or categories encourages comparison, finding analogies and parallels, and favors a dynamic over a static world view (Bredekamp, 1995). There is no sense of organization which is imposed on the collections. The organization is imposed at the moment of Viewing, the moment of composition, when some sort of connection, or alliance is sought between objects. The Viewer is left free to fortuitously place objects together according to chance, memory, or simple and immediate associative affinity. It has been argued that the concept of the Wunderkammer "opens up alternative, playful curatorial strategies (of placing and misplacing, joining and dis-joining, relating and separating objects from each other), systematic bewilderments” in Max Ernst’s terms, which draw heavily on notions of childhood play and playfulness" (Carson et al, 2011).

There are a number of strategies connected with this that allow the viewer to look at single and multiple objects and mentally create new visual ideas. For example, in my Real Collection, I may view a vintage doll head. A little later, I may see a small rubber chicken. I mentally place these together and perceive that there might be some image potential here.


I’m not sure there is any reason other than immediate connection and affinity that prompts this arrangement. I may view an old cabinet and make a connection with a hand mirror viewed a few minutes before. I mentally bring these into combination, juxtapose them, and determine whether there is any creative potential in continuing the relationship.

In my Photographic Collection, I can easily look through sequences of photographs. As I look at each one, I examine details associated with object, color, and texture. Interesting observations from one photograph are carried forward as I view subsequent photographs. For example, I may view a photograph of a vintage doll. A little later I view a photograph of an auction house and note the interesting red curtain in the background.


I make a connection and think that the photograph of the doll might be enhanced by using the red curtain as a background.


I can also note interesting textures or backgrounds, which I may later carry over into my 3D model work.

My 3D Model Collection is supported by a large visual catalogue I have constructed which provides an image for every model in the collection.


This Catalogue is a very valuable thinking tool. It is almost a Wunderkammer in itself. It allows me to easily and quickly examine all the 3D models in my collection. It also allows me to pursue the Viewing process with efficiency. I can easily look at models, noting their function, features, visual appearances, and potential meaning. I can make connections and juxtapositions between models easily. For example, I may see a 3D model of a Circus Stand. Then, I see a model of a Bumper Car that fascinates me. A little later, I may see a 3D model of a Cupcake.


If I am alert, I may make an interesting and unique connection between these three objects that results in a strange but intriguing idea for a composition.


The approach of the Wunderkammer opens up a productive visual game, where one begins when one wishes and stops when one wants. “This approach disrupts linear narratives and fixities of definitions, immanent in Western ideology and conventional curatorial strategies seeking genealogy, unfolding the meaning of the displayed objects and their relations as unfixed, rhizomic, shifting, spreading, wandering” (Carson et al, 2011).

It is interesting to note that this Viewing activity integrates itself between all three collections. I may mentally view some interesting combinations in the Real Collection, and then decide to construct 3D models to represent the combination. I may mentally view some textures from the Photographic Collection that I decide to apply to the surface of some models in the 3D Collection. Some creative relationships viewed between several 3D models may lead to my construction of a set employing objects from the Real Collection.

Viewing for the purpose of mental composition is a valuable studio activity. But it is in the actual studio construction and composition process that the objects within the collections see their most valuable service. It is this phase that sees the artist accessing the actual collection and pulling items into play. This phase may involve ideas generated during the Viewing process, compositions which have been previously planned, or may proceed in an entirely improvisational way.

If I am using my Real Collection, I set up a table and lighting for photography. I drag both willing and protesting objects off the shelves and off to the stage sets I have constructed for them. Here, under the spotlights, I either arrange them into preconstructed compositions, or allow them to improvisationally act out postures until a composition appears.


The results are digitally photographed and then examined inside Photoshop.


They may be either held for further work, or turned into finished compositions which are exhibited.

When engaged with my Photographic Collection, I bring selected photographs into Photoshop and begin cutting out pieces, objects, and other selections to manipulate in various ways within the settings allowed by the images. I treat the composition process much in the same manner as my other collections. I find actors, sets, and ambiences and allow them to begin relating an interesting visual narrative.


I capture that narrative, process it, and then exhibit the final construction.


It is when I use my 3D Model Collection and its associated software tools, that the process becomes most creative and efficient. I launch my 3D software, and inside the program build a set. I access my Collection and install selected 3D models. I have an inventory of thousands of willing and unwilling objects to pull into service. I can easily install models of my choice to the stage sets I have constructed for them. Here, under a full spectrum of flexible digital spotlights, I can either arrange them into planned compositions, or improvise with poses and postures until a composition appears.


I can move the cameras around in this environment, snap a photograph (rendering) of a selected composition, process the finished work in Photoshop.


The result is then exhibited in juried exhibitions.

Although it may appear as if all three collections function as separate entities, it is worthwhile noting how they integrate with each other. For example, in one integrated project, I used a doll head from my Real Collection, a photo of the interior of a cabinet from my Photographic collection, and a wing model and composed rat models from my 3D Collection.


I set up each event in its regular setting, photographed the appropriate pose, and then assembled the results in Photoshop.


The finished work (Solemn Heresy) has been successfully exhibited in a number of international juried exhibitions.

This model of the Collection as a tool for thinking and creative construction services my own needs as a studio artist in a very effective and expansive way. But because this model is so effective for my own use in the studio, I also use it in my classroom and courses at the university. All the art courses I currently teach are digital in content, but this doesn’t prevent me from using analogue resources as well. I bring all my collections into the classroom, show students how I use them, and challenge them to view the objects, mentally combine them, and then actually create finished products from the results. They then start building and using their own Real, Photographic, and 3D Model Collections for their own image construction purposes. 

As a professional artist whose studio practice is consciously and constantly evolving, I have journeyed through the world of collected objects in an organized and functional fashion. I use Real, Photographic, and 3D Model Collections as active agents within my studio. Over the years, however, I have gradually transformed my own studio practice from analogue media to digital processes and production. My main studio tools are now all digital. As a result, I rely less on the Real collection and concentrate more fully on the digital 3D Model Collection. The flexibility of this collection allows me more freedom in visual thinking and composition than the other collections. The constructed visual catalogue, almost a Wunderkammer in itself, highlights the ability of this collection to collect a model of almost anything that exists or has existed on the earth. It has the potential to become a massive collection. My method of uncurated playful association used in the viewing and composition processe is already being employed in a multimedia approach called the 3D Wunderkammer system (Matkovic et al, 2003).

But this doesn't mean that my use and reliance on the Real and Photographic collections is non-existent. Although my studio practice is primarily 3D in nature, dealing almost exclusively with 3D models and environments, I have designed studio systems to bring Real and Photographic objects into this dimension in productive ways. As always, I maintain that the authentic artist makes no real distinction between the digital and the analogue, but rather treats all objects as agents of creative meaning in the studio journey. It is this understanding that allows me to continue my journey through the real and virtual worlds as a collector of anything that fascinates me, allowing me to collect both the dusty vintage mandolin and the clean digital 3D model of a deco hotel with the feeling that both can find their transformation in the visual studio.


Bergland, D. (2011). Digital New Surrealism. The Canadian Art Teacher. 9(2) insert.
Bredekamp, H. (1995). The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunsterkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art, and Technology. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers.
Carson, J., Miller, R., & Allmer, P. (2011).

Playing in the Wunderkammer. In Modern/Contemporary Art and the Curiosity Cabinet, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. Retrieved June 15, 2013 from

Matkovic, K., Siglaer, J, Kompast, M., Psik, T., Wagner, I. (2003).

The 3D Wunderkammer: An Indexing by Placing Approach to the Image Storage and Retrieval. Theory and Practice of Computer Graphics, IEEE Conference Proceedings, 2003, pp. 34-41.

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