Magnificent Obsessions and Slow Movement At The Barbican Centre

Magnificent Obsessions

I enjoy the occasional afternoon wandering through junk shops and this exhibition was not without interest, in the way that junk shops and museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, stuffed with random objects in miscellaneous cases, are not uninteresting. The human brain likes a good crossword puzzle. But some puzzles are too easy to solve, like Damien Hirst’s collection which is just a steal from his art… or is it the other way around?

The curators of ‘Magnificent Obsession’ had posed a question – why do artists collect?

Well lots of people collect things. I nearly bought a house from a collector. He had a room full of light bulbs and another full of newspapers, piled up and tied with string, and the garden, which sloped down to a basement area, had been levelled off with his amazing collection of wood. 

He wasnt an artist, so it would have cost a serious amount to dispose of his collection, which was not, as you can surmise, very varied. 

Of couse, artists are in the business of looking at things, so you might expect their collections to relate to their art. We all know about Picasso and African Art…the artists in this show liked it too, as well as Japenese armour, fossils and genetic anomalies. As to another question raised by the curators, of how the artists lived and worked with their collections… I would say it came down to money and space as much as artistic interest. Some artists were represented by whole roomfuls of objects taken from their houses.

My daughter used to have an elephant collection just like Peter Blake’s. I overheard other art lovers spotting ‘their’ elephants amongst his collection, which he assembled to stop himself spending on more expensive objects. Andy Warhol on the other hand, knew no limits, he just bought things and didnt even take them out of the bags. The result of a deprived childhood, not enough things around the house? Oh dear!

This is really an exhibition about the artist as celebrity rather than art. The art is attached like an avatar or profile icon alongside each artist’s collection. The exhibition and the App, (a great educational concept) are more concerned to tell you about the artist’s interests and life style than their art. We can relate to the junk shop browsing, so we can identify with the artists and we dont need to think about the art!

However in writing this,  I did need to think about the art. I came to the conclusion that what the exhibition demonstrates is how much of the work of modern artists is concerned with ‘things’, multiples, or with categorization. In a world of billions perhaps these are an artist’s  attempts to keep control, through systemising or through personalising. Take for instance the anatomical drawing or model. It was made for a practical purpose, but with great regard to craft and beauty. Something more  is required for us to categorize it as art.  A good title and a real dissection?

The artists and their collections fell into two broad categories: the eclectic collectors and the focused. Unsurprisingly this characteristic was reflected in their art.  Howard Hodgkin looks for the artistic qualities in Indian painting and his own work is concerned with mood and feeling for place and time rather than a repetition or enumeration of objects. Edmund de Waal’s collection concentrates on netsuke and he makes spare art out of one kind of repeated object.

Most of the others were eclectic collectors. Arman ( one of several artists I had never previously come accross) is apparently best known for his “accumulations”. For art of this sort size tends to matters- apparently one of his works, ‘Long Term Parking ‘, is an 18m high accumulation of 60 cars embedded in over 18,000 kg of concrete. 

Hanne Darboven worked with handwritten patterns of numbers or scripts and made installations consisting of hundreds of identically framed drawings.  What is this all about? Not the true language of mathematics but some kind of parallel universe of controlled creation.

Magnificent Obsessions was paired with an installation in the Curve by Roman Signer ‘Slow Movement’. 

I was sure I had glimpsed somewhere in the Barbican a video of the artist kayaking along an enticing looking stream and I immediately and erroneously imagined some kind of lush kayaking video projected along the walls of the Curve. 

But this is ‘a surreal and playful installation’ dealing with Roman Signers 30 year obsession with kayaks, so there was only the plain white walls of the Curve and a special plywood floor showing scrape marks along the middle and a ceiling rail above. At the far end of the Curve I found a red kayak which was mechanically and ponderously pulled along from one end of the gallery to the other, accompanied by myself and the gallery attendant. She said I couldnt sit in it.

The final obsession: I read that ‘Slow Movement’ is complemented by yet another exhibition showing elsewhere in London, based on the contents of Signer’s extensive and eclectic collection of books and papers. Apparently he is a self- confessed book addict…nothing to do with his art but for his relaxation.

Words:  Andrea Kim Valdez © Artlyst 2015  Photos Courtesy The Barbican 


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