Interview With the 'Oddities' Star Evan Michelson
A lot of the items in Obscura have religious or spiritual significance. How has the spiritual, religious and historical experience of death been part of your own experience?
I spent a lot of time in Europe as a kid in a military family. There's a lot more history there. I'd explore cathedrals, churches and crypts as a little kid. You couldn't get me out of the crypts!
I was utterly fascinated with the veneration of human remains. There are all these objects that are actually history; the Christian, Roman church took all these little bits of bones and decorated them and turned them into relics.
I'm a pagan. I'm fascinated with the way mankind venerates and decorates death, trying to understand death through systems like the church. The development of relics actually shaped the Western world. And through all these perverse treatments, death became incorporated in natural philosophy (which is what science was called before it was science). There's an Einstein quote about how mystery is at the heart of science, art, and religion. And the mystery of death became so compelling to me, aesthetically …
My performance art was all about cycles of destruction. I collected Victorian mourning art. I was fascinated with the strange, uniquely human desire to mediate the reality of our own mortality.
Can you talk more about how paganism informs your experience as an artist and a collector?
To try to make it simple: I am a pagan, transcendentalist, Emersonian believer that the beauty of all things lies in their natural state of grace. When things fall out of the natural system - things like taxidermy or medical speciments - these things cease to live and become objects that we decorate with. That's so perverse, and so uniquely human. Only humans do that.
I believe that grace is the natural state; perversion is when we take things out of the natural world, and kill them, pick at them, fetishize them, and stuff them. They become objects then, with a static beauty. [At Obscura] there is not a division between a spiritual and an intellectual approach to this. In addition to the spiritual aspects, there's a "Barnamism" to the shop: "Step right up!" And then there's the intellectual aspect: understanding the history of the displays, and the history of science. And then there's the spiritual transcendentalism of the whole "culture of curiosity" and the history of collecting cabinets.
With the collecting cabinets… that's mainly an aesthetic approach. It's at Obscura, at museums, and in collections and curiosity cabinets all over the world. Within that culture of curiosity, there is a spiritual and intellectual engagement with the past and the history of it all.
The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavour in art and science. - Albert Einstein
Where would you send someone who wants to learn about this stuff?
Actually, I did a lecture about this at the Morbid Anatomy Library.
My friend Joanna is the locus for the culture of curiosity. If anyone wants to know anything at all about the culture of curiosity, she's - worldwide - the person to go to. She has a consulting library in Brooklyn; that should be one of the first stops you make. Then, visit the Natural History Museum and the Mütter Museum.
Tell us about your history with the punk rock scene.
Well, our shop is in the East Village. I was a performance artist and I was in a museum fetish band. I was performing in the East Village, with my husband, for years, back when it was still kind of a frontier and a bit dangerous.
The music was quite violent, if anyone remembers Killer Weasel. We have tapes; we never released our record. I have some embarassing videos we made … maybe someday I'll share them. We were very into the Cramps; we were industrial. My most famous instrument is a washing machine shell. I'd put cute goth boys inside it and give them metal sticks. They'd play the inside of the washing machine, and I'd hit the outside of it with a baseball bat. I apologize to any forty-somethings walking around with a hearing impairment!
It was fun while it lasted. It was all about fire … firecrackers in the audience. A rumor started that several people died in the pandemonium. It wasn't at all true, but it was the beginning of the band being known.
If there was any punk rock show in history that you'd want to see, what would it be?
Can they have an opening band? In the 80s, I missed The Sisters of Mercy, touring on "First and Last and Always." I missed The Sisters of Mercy. That was my "great punk rock moment" … that I missed. That's my rock and roll true desire!
What bands would you recommend today?
Rammstein. One of my favorite bands of all time. They're touring for the first time in ten years. They are the ultimate expression of German industrial angst. They're here now. They may never come back! Killing Joke is another one of the greatest old-school industrial bands.
How did you make the transition from punk star to business person? Have you always had a practical side?
At a certain point, I found I needed to evaluate what to do with my life. I wanted to go back to school for art restoration; I had restored antique jewelry for years. But I didn't have the advanced math and chemistry background that I needed for school. So … I went in the back door: I apprenticed for an antiques dealer. And I realized, Hey! This is the life for me. With my past interests and aesthetic tastes and expressions, it was a logical progression. Now, we sell things we like. So we're kind of curating our existence.
How does your family feel about the business you are in? Has the show changed anything?
My husband was not sold on the show at first. He's very proud now, though. It's a true subculture. The show is about stuff that most people would run a mile from! My father is in his mid 80s, and I've been kind of a morbid kid since I was 11 or 12. For years he said, "It's a phase." By the time the show came along, he said, "Well, I guess it's not a phase." My dad is the ultimate down-to-earth, wonderful, sweet guy, and he finally gets it. I feel really good about that - finally, my dad has accepted it. He says, "I see what you are getting at now."
You've talked a lot about how your childhood and early interests have formed your experiences. What would you like to say to the kids who watch your show now?
Kids love the show. We have a large fan base under the age of 12. They make their parents watch! People come in to the shop and tell us that their kids made them watch, and now they love it. Kids have a real fascination with natural history.
I'm particularly happy that the nerd girls are getting some face time. Even though we've come a long way, nerd girls still have a hard time in school. In high school, I was the nerd girl with glasses. I could never get a date. I was really good at math, and I wanted to be an astrophysicist. [Other kids], they pick on you. I really love all kids, but when I see girls who feel confident and interested in science..it's great.
When I was growing up, in the Ice Age (without social networking), at a small high school in central New Jersey, I was the underground. I was a punk rocker, and my friend was the lesbian. That was the entire counterculture.
Now, you're not alone. A lot of people watch the show and say, "I thought I was alone. I thought I was the only person who collected skulls." And you're not!
Right now, as far as nerd culture -- we're post-Silicon Valley, Obama is the president -- it's a good time to be a nerd, to be part of the culture of empiricism and science.... Especially for girls. You know, there's America's Next Top Model, for role models (not to knock it). But now, you know … smart people are now sexy too. Being intelligent is fun. There is still a bit of anti-intellectual culture in the U.S., but that's not it anymore.
You know, the hippies used to say, "Fly your freak flag high." It's OK!