Deep under Corsham Court – an elegant 17th-century pile in Wiltshire – the artist Angela Cockayne has made a remarkable discovery. In its cellars is a long-lost cabinet of curiosities: bones, minerals and fossils potent with the spirit of their 18th- and 19th-century collectors, some still toxic with the arsenic used to preserve them.
Such collections, also known as wunderkammer, reached their peak in the Enlightenment. Idiosyncratic displays of stuffed crocodiles, freaks of nature and even human remains, they were a paradoxical testament to "natural philosophy" and a gothic taste for the sensational. No self-respecting aristocrat could afford to be without one. At Burton Constable Hall, East Yorkshire, it even extended to the skeleton of a sperm whale, articulated on an iron frame, in the grounds – a spectacle famous enough to be satirised in Moby-Dick.
I met Cockayne when she sent me a letter after seeing the BBC2 Arena film I made with Adam Low, The Hunt for Moby-Dick, in 2008. It became clear that she was as obsessed with whales and the sea as I was (our collaboration, Dominion, will be shown in Plymouth next January). Cockayne uses found objects to create provocative assemblies of discarded bottles and gannets' wings, human hair and antique rifles, and lobster-clawed women. Beautiful and disturbing, they concern the natural world and the human predicament.
Inspired by her discovery at Corsham, Cockayne takes the story one step further, opening the doors to a new cabinet of curiosities of her own work and that of other contemporary artists. She has drawn together a starry cast for a symposium at Bath Spa University on 5 October, where guests will be treated to pieces by Mat Collishaw, Melanie Jackson, Jochem Hendricks and Molly Young, among others. Gavin Turk, whose touring House of Fairy Tales is a modern take on the wunderkammer, will be speaking, as will I.
Viktor Wynd, proprietor of the Little Shop of Horrors in London's East End (where he displays such curiosities as skeletal Siamese twins and the penis of a hanged man) will deliver a characteristically surreal lecture, and the event climaxes with a coach trip to Corsham Court and its site-specific installations. Given the participants and the subject matter, it promises to be a day of sublime surprises.
Sion Hill Gallery, Bath and Corsham Court, Wiltshire, 5-27 October. To register email firstname.lastname@example.org. Philip Hoare's 'Leviathan or, The Whale' is published by Fourth EstateReuse content