Nick Bantock,
The Museum at Purgatory:
A Wondrous Strange Tale

(Harper Perennial, 2001)

Nick Bantock, a British expatriate now residing in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., is a writer/artist who has had a successful career creating books combining inventive collages, surreal graphics and eccentric sculptural constructs (in photographs), with lightweight if witty and sweet metaphysical fables. Bantock's most famous and best-selling work was the epistolary fantasy, the Griffin and Sabine trilogy.

In The Museum at Purgatory, his best book since the well-known trio, Bantock follows a weirder course but keeps to his own unmistakable, instantly recognizable style. The tale is narrated by Non, the curator of the museum in Purgatory which is a city (according to Non's explanation) that is constantly in flux, with its buildings, its trees, its light and colors ceaselessly shifting shape. In this place of ambiguity, souls come to reassess their lives.

Bantock's fascinating concept here is that human minds are basically conduits for information which gets "deposited" via dreams into the collective unconscious and every soul must, before they depart, answer whether they have "contributed enough to the greater consciousness" to progress further on to a Utopian State or, failing that, resign themselves to a Dystopia. Those souls that belong to collectors fall under Non's purview for he looks after them and their treasures in his museum.

After Non's introduction, there follows a catalogue of some of the museum's most interesting holdings, and here Bantock's imagination and cleverness run rampant. Along with brief texts that offer biographical profiles of a handful of collectors, there are full-color graphic images and equally colorful photographs of created objects that purport to be the obsessive/compulsive fruits of these imaginary folks' hoarding propensities. There are 10 "galleries" (out of the myriad warrens of the uncanny institution) that Non has selected for this erstwhile catalogue -- the contents chosen for their outstanding eccentricity and fascination, for the personalities and predicaments of their owners are expressed and reflected in the accumulated things which are displayed.

Thus, there are several pages each devoted to obscure (and unique) objects; magic carpets; shrines and navigational boxes; entomological amalgams; lost posts; games; spinning tops; sfumatoglyphics (a neologism meaning calligraphic, petroglyphic and heiroglyphic markings on stone, wood, paper and animal skin which illustrate writing's relationship to dream images); miniature mummies; and angels and demons (or rather artifacts supposedly offering proof of sightings of such supernatural beings in the tangible world).

In the concluding chapter, Non at last tells his personal bittersweet tale for, it turns out, his own post-death journey as Curator, gathering together artists and collectors, sifting and analyzing their lives, served as his desperate attempt to break the mysterious amnesia that prevented him from embarking on his passage to Heaven or Hell.

Tremendous ingenuity and a great deal of wit and playfulness are evident in The Museum at Purgatory. Bantock obviously put a great deal of time, thought and effort into creating the images and objects that illustrate these pages and embody the stories he wrote to go with them.

This book once again displays Bantock's extraordinary gift for combining words and stunning images to create a weird and compelling tale which, if somewhat detached and academic in its prose style, nevertheless rivets the reader and the beholder with the startling genius of the juxtapositions that give meaning to the artistry of the illustrations. Here is a volume that anyone who appreciates genuine artistic vision enhanced by sly wit and subtle humor will treasure, wanting to gaze at the lavishly colorful pictorial delights therein over and over again.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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