Wandering Through Wonder

Exploring the Recently Renovated Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C.

Wonder is a place you can go, if you have an afternoon to spare. Wonder is a handful of rooms in the Renwick Gallery of Washington D.C. Wonder is a place where a lake spills across the floor in celadon green marbles. Wonder is a place where an enchanted forest grows indoors. Wonder is a place where a rainbow has been snared in the threads of an ethereal veil.

After two years of extensive renovations, the Renwick Gallery, home to the Smithsonian Museum’s collection of decorative art, has reopened with an inaugural exhibition titled simply “Wonder.” There is no right way to explore “Wonder.” Guests are free to begin in any room opening from the lobby. In the second chamber off the left, a swath of the rainbow has been captured. The installation “Plexus A1” is a room full of light where the artist has woven the rainbow into fine threads that stretch from ceiling to floor, lacing the air with iridescence.

The next room is crowded with what appear to be stalagmites, craggy grey protrusions taller than the visitors who cluster around the edges of the installation. The sculptures are actually amalgamations of hundreds of thousands of plastic index cards. Yet in this room, so full of brightness and sequestered sunbeams, they seem to be the work of natural forces. If only I could touch them—perhaps their hide is horny as an ogre’s. This is the only agony of visiting Renwick: The whimsical art begs to be touched, but the look in the security guard’s eye suggests that this would be a very bad idea.

One installation, however, aggressively crosses this boundary, reaching out to touch me via my sense of smell. This art tickles my nose hairs with intimations of smoke and sulfuric breath even before I turn the corner and see something resembling a draconic skeleton woven from rubber tires. As I walk through the labyrinth of its ribs, the smell catches in my clothes and hair, a bit of the installation that I can’t help but carry out of the museum with me.

That is, if I can ever find my way out. I seem to have wandered into an enchanted forest without leaving the gallery. It sprouts from the wooden floorboards, slender saplings weaving themselves into child-sized nests and hobbit houses. The branches look wind-tossed, still wild even indoors. They scratch the walls and butt up against the ceiling, trying to grow out of the room and into the winter cold. They’re irresistible, these forest-woven homes, and, unlike the other installations, these are designed for interaction. Just large enough for a friend or two to nestle into, the burrows are a haven in the midst of the museum bustle. I slip into one, and when I peer through the twig-framed window, I see a suddenly enchanted world. But small children clutching balloon creatures are desperate for their turn in the forest hideaway, so I step out and weave my way back through the eaves of the forest, where “Wonder” continues ahead of me.

In the installation “Middle Fork,” the enchanted forest grows sideways. A life-size, old-growth hemlock tree has been constructed from jigsaw pieces of cedar, and long cables hold it suspended parallel above the floor. It sways with the air currents that visitors bring with them. By walking into the room, I have become a part of the living artwork.

But more popular than rainbows trapped in thread, or a forest of hobbit houses, is the installation “In the Midnight Garden.” A line snakes from the door all the way around the wall of the adjacent room. Once I make it through the door, I almost turn around and head right back out. It is much too pink in here, oppressively pink, throbbingly pink. The walls bleed bright with cochineal, a red dye produced from the crushed bodies of a South American insect. It’s an eerily familiar red. You’ve eaten it yourself if you’ve ever torn open a package containing “natural red 4,” “carmine,” or “crimson lake.” The insect viscera smeared on the walls are part of us; they’re in our own guts now.

The pink walls blossom with a kaleidoscope of corpses: insects from Malaysia, Thailand, and Papua New Guinea. They’re arranged in rings and starbursts, mandalas of chitin and filmy wings. Beetles sparkle with a green sheen glossier than chrome. There are insects that look like origami masterpieces, others like piles of windblown leaves. Some of the jungle bugs are bigger than hummingbirds; fancy meeting one of these fellows on a sweaty hike. Moths are dressed for a midsummer’s ball, wearing glitter and gauzy wings. Skulls leer above the wainscoting, like massive Día de los Muertos decorations. The skulls too are pieced together from insect bodies. Death is as much an element in this installation as are dye and wings.

After I leave the Renwick Gallery, the rest of the afternoon becomes an unfolding work of art, a work of wonder. Enchantment hovers in the canopy of steam draping my teacup, an installation unfurling. A sunbeam is flung through the window and bounces across the carpet—perhaps it was a shooting star that lost its way and strayed into this work of art, this Saturday afternoon.