Text by Regina Papachlimitzou
Arnolfini is celebrating its 50th anniversary with one of its most thought-provoking, genuinely moving, and tantalisingly challenging exhibitions yet. Museum Show sets out to outline the drive in contemporary artistic practice to create museums, ‘semi-fictional institutions’ simultaneously exhibiting and embodying the artist’s work. In this respect Arnolfini serves as a meta-museum, bringing together a host of self-contained mini-museums in an attempt to map previously unchartered territory in the contemporary artworld.
A common thread running through the works in the ground floor gallery is that of failure in its several guises: from The Room of Sublime Wallpaper (one of the rooms to be found in the explicitly named Museum of Failure) made up of aesthetic components spectacularly missing their marks, to the absurdly pointless Museum of Safety Gear for Small Animals, via the microscopic and consequently ineffectual A History of Art in the Arab World, failure is examined as an inevitable feature of human predicament and therefore an element necessarily informing artistic production.
From a distance, Ellen Harvey’s Sublime Wallpaper appears as an enclosure of surrealist landscape, mountainous ridges bearing windows that open behind and beyond them; on closer inspection, the windows turn out to be mirrors, the mysterious landscape is nothing but wallpaper, even worse, it is wallpaper ludicrously complemented by newspaper clippings, any remaining ideas of soaring and flight inspired by the painted images crashing violently into the mundane of discounted electrical equipment adverts and articles on world economy.
Bill Burns’s Safety Gear museum similarly deplores the discrepancy between modern-day aspirations and the reality brought about by our actions: the museum’s safety gear collection, made up of animal-size models of safety gear equipment, points to the unnatural situations humans have created for animals the world over by destroying their habitats in the drive to fuel and maintain humankind’s current lifestyle. The solution proposed by the museum, which is for animals to take up unnatural means of protection in turn (hard hats, lifejackets, gas masks and so on) is obviously not viable, approaching as it does the problematic situation from the anthropocentric viewpoint that created it in the first place.
Walid Raad’s Art in the Arab World consists of a scale-down model of a gallery populated by his Atlas Group project documenting the Lebanese wars shrunk to 1/100th of the original size. The gallery is perfect in every detail down to the individually constructed tiny floorboards; the works themselves are, however, woefully – and pointedly – unexaminable, the lettering on the walls unreadable, the pictures small and blurred. The work leaves you unsatisfied and yet simultaneously, through the poignancy of its theme and its minute detailing, it creates a certain urgency, a yearning for more: more art, more information, more interaction.
In stark contrast to Raad’s realistic representation of gallery space stands Herbert Distel’s The Museum of Drawers in the first floor gallery. Here the museum has metamorphosed into a haberdasher’s thread storage space, miniature artworks neatly laid out each in its own enclosed compartment, reminiscent of classified geological specimens. Here is no question of experiencing the artwork from up close as with Raad’s work, where the only thing preventing the enjoyment of the work was a disproportion between the size of the gallery and that of the audience: The Museum of Drawers is emphatically sealed off, affording only a bird’s eye view to the audience. Populated by artworks of the most famous/notorious artists of the 1960s and 70s collected by Distel, its ostensible status as a catalogue of renowned art practitioners juxtaposed with its hermetically sealed nature invites some difficult questions on the perceived exclusiveness of art. At the same time, the fact that the drawers can be stacked in a cabinet, pulled out, rearranged at will renders their contents at once ridiculous and pitiful, revealing their potential identification as commodities to be enjoyed but ultimately dismissed and locked out of the way.
The usurpation of the role of curator/collector by the artist inhering in the museum artwork is even more evident in Susan Hiller’s After the Freud Museum, an extensive installation consisting of archaeological-type boxes displaying various artefacts belonging to and collected by the artist, in a deliberate echoing of Freud’s own ‘museological’ collection. The lid of each open box carries a written or pictorial description, sometimes closely relating to the object in the box, others only loosely, or even not at all. The objects themselves are as diverse as antique bottles half-full of water collected from the mythological rivers Lethe (Forgetfulness) and Mnemosyne (Remembrance), to commemorative sweets from Charles and Diana’s wedding. These disparate elements come together in a mosaic of collective unconscious, a catalogue-cum-map of how we live, love, and die in the world.
Museum Show Part 1 continues at Arnolfini, Bristol until 19 November. Works from the show are also presented at a number of other locations in Bristol. Marko Lulic’s Museum of Revolution will appear at the M Shed across the harbour from Arnolfini, and the World Agriculture Museum can be found at the former Bridewell Police Station. Museo Aero Solar was presented as a mass-participatory event in Hengrove Park, Bristol on Sunday 9 October. For a map please click here.
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Museum of Revolution
Installation shot, M Shed, Bristol 2011
Photo: Jamie Woodley