One of the first things I learned about my girlfriend is that she owns a mermaid skeleton.
It used to sit on her shelf on a vintage scale, far too small to be what one would expect a mermaid to look like, in all its feigned wonder and crypto-zoological glory. This small curio would not be found in just any home, but somehow it has now landed in the house we share together....sitting…waiting…
When I heard about the Bizarre Bazaar at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, I was intrigued. As soon as the word “curiosities” was brought up in the description, the mermaid is what I envisioned. That haggard, dried out mermaid in its small box, hands outstretched and mouth agape, waiting to be pondered in horrific glory by every onlooker—I realized I had to attend this event.
In the same description that mentioned "curiosities," were other interests that I ignored, interests including “limited edition works by Shepard Fairey.” I had my interest instead invested in certain artistic relics of a bygone era. I knew I would at least be satisfied in this vein, as the sale touted, “Original artwork, prints, posters, books, fragments of larger works, curiosities, and other objects of interest collected over thirty years of producing exhibitions" that would be available for purchase. There would also be live music all day long, and artist Karen Ann Myers screen-printing T-shirts on site.
I spent the morning of the event tossing and turning in bed. Groaning at my DEFCON 1 alarm as it blared every 5 minutes or so—snoozing is a practice I have mastered because I’m not a morning person. When I finally got out of bed, I pursued my usual daily routine, downed some coffee and walked out the door. I took my normal path into downtown Charleston and went into one of the normal parking garages I frequent in that section of town. I walked down familiar blocks and finally stepped into the Halsey Institute. Many had anticipated this event apparently, and so much had already been sold in the short time since the event began. There was a line outside before the doors even opened, and I started to realize many things as my daily routine mode started evaporating into the ether.
As I stepped in, I saw screen prints on the wall in front of me of a different decade, burnt paintings lining the room, small sculptures made with care and talent, photographic works of a lost time and an amalgamation of different pieces of art that may be described as "eclectic," for lack of a better word. I scanned the busy room as Nic Jenkins’ drum resonated from the high ceilings and gave everything a kind of presence or aura, as if I had walked into some haunted art house. As people enthusiastically wrapped their purchases outside, and others perused books of photos, I stepped forward to eye what remained on the table in the center of the main room.
And there they were.
Two display cases lay there, one with a glass top, filled with tiny porcelain limbs resting serenely on slightly tarnished stuffing. On the paper above them was written, “Excavated Old Baby Doll Arms and Legs!”
Doll limbs. Several of them, lined up neatly and arranged by type into each case—one for arms and one for legs. The arm case was lucky enough to have a glass top, but the legs were very precisely placed in two rows giving way to a more inviting look. I originally opted for the legs but a text to my girlfriend with a picture of the arms was replied to with an enthusiastic and simple “YES,” followed by “ITS SO CREEPY I LOVE IT,” foregoing punctuation due to sheer joy. I had found it, the exact thing I came for without knowing it.
Like some haunted relic from a low-budget modern horror movie, they sat there untouched in all their weird glory, just waiting for me. I half expected to hear the spectral laughs of children when I touched them. I was also given their short history—they were excavated in Amsterdam in the 19th century – historically creepy! I’ll tell you later if they turn out to be cursed.
As I moved through the rest of the gallery, Mr. Jenkins passed the torch to the upbeat, folky sounds of Amazing Mittens. Despite a big selling day, the party still went on and patrons continued to pour in.
I had found what I came for, but for the sake of it, I perused some of the other goods and the high quality digital prints of F.W. Glasier, featured in Wild, Weird, and Wonderful: The American Circus 1901-1926 by Mark Sloan. The prints were only $10 and were hard to pass up and also served to help out those who got there a little later. The title of Sloan’s book, which had come from one of Glasier’s photographs, began to sum up some of this event. Upon checking out with my goods, I learned that the Halsey Institute had posted small peaks of some of the items on their Instagram and that maybe that mystery is what drummed up the crowd.
The aptly named Bizarre Bazaar was much like Glasier’s photos: a weirdness that begged to be explored. The diverse pieces of art that surrounded visitors acted like a sideshow from ages hence, inviting patrons to purchase their tickets to the wondrous worlds created from thirty years of exhibition and beyond.
The Halsey took it one step further though and patrons were able to walk out the door with art that was once reserved for the hallowed gallery halls. I imagine many of those people who lined up out the door had their imaginations darting to the potentially perfect find. Like a flea market designed for the discerning customer (especially with the Halsey Institute encouraging people to haggle) there’s a beauty in seeking obscurity there, and exploring every piece before you find the one that “fits.” That mystery is maybe what we all need every once in a while, to break those daily routines in a positive way—and a little retail therapy is always fun.