Coined in 1987 by novelist K.W. Jeter, the term "steampunk" is a literary subgenre of sci-fi and pulp stories, a retro melding of Jules Verne, the Industrial Revolution, H.G. Wells and assorted Victoriana. The books led to more books, clothing, video games, comics, even music and movies: Think pith helmets, British accents, Bioshock, ray guns, dirigibles or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Muzeo's new "Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination" exhibition, curated by Peter Overstreet of Aeronaut Productions LLC, is a modest collection of art, props and costumes inspired by the movement. Aside from the requisite leather, goggles and corsets, there are several notable pieces. First is Bibliophile Hat, graphic novelist Linda Medley's stovepipe chapeau with a hatband covered in text and a crown decorated to look like books on a shelf. Beautifully designed, the top of the hat flips open at an angle to become a stand for a small book! Robert J. Overstreet's War Elephant puppet is also a magical thing: Giant leather ears are attached to a stunning configured faceplate with moveable eyes, two carved wooden tusks stabbing out from either side of a segmented brass trunk. It really cries out for a puppeteer or, at the very least, a video of it in action. I also liked Ilana Murray's The Gear Thief, a dried, painted, framed Chalcosoma caucasus beetle, wings outstretched, flying off with a piece of clockwork in its tiny scarab-y claws. There's an endearingly obsessive quality to Conrad Wright Jr.'s finely crafted performance-art contraptions for his theatrical troupe, the League of STEAM (whose stupid/cool videos you can look up on YouTube). Made from repurposed junk, his Vampire Hunting War Pack is an apparatus you wear on your back that contains a flamethrower, vials of garlic and holy water, and a sawed-off shotgun that fires stakes. Wright's Creative Ensnarement Device—a leather and wire-wrapped gripping tool to fend off zombies—is equal parts funny and cool. [Editor's note: A sentence in this paragraph was corrected. See the end of the story for details.]
The second part of the exhibit attempts to trace steampunk's early influences, but it does so without adequate analysis or insight. Just a bare-bones paragraph about each individual, the result is an unimpressive gallery of cheaply Xeroxed pictures of famous people (Da Vinci, Mary Shelly and Nikola Tesla, among others) designed to look like they've browned from age. Unless you know enough about literature and science and medicine and history to fill in the blanks, how each personality ties in with the movement will likely be fuzzy and vague. Is Cyrano de Bergerac's writing well-enough known for him to really be considered steampunk, or is this just a kind of pretentious name-dropping? How is Freud tied in with the movement? The only connection I could see, aside from his having lived during the time of Queen Victoria, is that he's a character in the novel (and movie) The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. Nicholas Meyer's book is a postmodern Sherlock Holmes story with historical and adventure elements common to steampunk, but sci-fi is not an influence. If anything, that connection is stronger if you've seen Meyer's rip-roaring time-travel movie Time After Time, about H.G. Wells using a time machine to track down and capture Jack the Ripper in modern-day San Francisco. There's a poster of the movie in the gallery, but it's thrown in amid George Pal memorabilia—a time-machine replica and a poster or two—with Meyer himself otherwise ignored.
"Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination" at Muzeo, www.muzeo.org. Open Wed.-Sun., 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Jan. 9, 2012. $9-$13; children 3 and under, free.
He's not the only one gone missing: Where's Alan Moore, whose graphic novels are pure manifestations of steampunk? Why barely a mention of the aforementioned Jeter, Tim Powers or James Blaylock, the triumvirate of Orange County writers that kicked the whole thing into gear? Part of the problem is financial: The exhibit was created on a lean budget that's clearly too tight for its rich subject. Because there are so few items on display, the exhibit feels sparse, spread out over too big an area that leaves it dwarfed—especially in the downstairs gallery—by the space. The issue of limited vision and educational value is because fans created the exhibition, not scholars who'd likely have better access to more artifacts.
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Last, but not least, there's a conflict of interest that bleeds over into the collection: Overstreet runs an acting troupe called La Legion Fantastique, devoted to theater productions in the style of Jules Verne. While I admire the rare theater artist who actually makes money in his craft, having a vested interest in showcasing yourself (or the work of your friends) with already-limited funds narrows the scope of your production and hurts the end product. When dealing with the fantastique, we should be transported, but here, we're just distracted—and that's just not good enough.
CORRECTION, Nov. 17, 2011: The original version of this story referred to the Legion of STEAM, not the League of STEAM. The Weekly regrets the error.
This review appeared in print as "The Difference Exhibit: 'Steampunk: History Beyond Imagination' suffers from a conflicted vision."