Obsessed with Objects | Terpentin

Obsessed with Objects

Teresa Fankhänel

Arthur Bispo do Rosário died on July 5, 1989 in a mental institution in Rio de Janeiro where he had been an inpatient for five decades. He left behind an enormous number of objects—embroidered tapestries, sculptures and objet trouvés—that he had compiled following the incident that placed him in the sanatorium: Claiming to have had a vision of Jesus Christ on the streets of Rio in the December of 1938, Bispo’s assigned task from then on was to collect things worthy of redemption during the Apocalypse. At the time, his belief in the importance of documenting both the physical world and religious ideals, and his obsession with collecting objects, was regarded as a part of his lifelong schizophrenia. Yet, less than a decade after his death, his estate became appropriated and celebrated by major art shows such as the 1995 Venice Biennale. Since then, his private obsession has become the fascination of many.
Archives like Arthur Bispo’s have enjoyed a remarkable popularity in recent years in museum exhibitions, galleries and international art shows. Drawing from the rich history of European royal collections of oddities and of cabinets of curiosities, from the artifacts and preserved organs in medical or scientific collections, and from the overstuffed interiors of 19th century private art salons, they have influenced the currents of contemporary exhibition making significantly through their object-heavy nature. Archives and collections are messy by default. Often large and unintelligible, they have to be subjected to an external system of order to make them accessible. Few archivists have a complete, unabated oversight over their collections. Museums and other repositories of objects use elaborate ordering systems to catalogue and sort through the mess with the help of databases and keywords that remain ultimately unintelligible in their totality. In order to make such collections more accessible, exhibitions of archives are often compelled to look at installation techniques besides the barren aesthetic of the white cube which can provide a more intuitive approach, imbued with alternative concepts of creating classifications and meaning through a physical arrangement of a collection’s content. The archives currently being favored in these shows, much like Arthur Bispo’s, are often updated versions of the oddities and curiosities of previous centuries. Some could be labelled as outsider art, some as scientific collections, others as artifacts of magical or quasi-religious practices, and, again, others are personal, autobiographical collections. These archives do not predominantly consist of “high art”, and there are many objects that have entered the galleries through their association with non-artistic practices such as anthropology, ethnology and science. Therefore, the objects on show have often served several purposes in their original context before ending up in the art gallery.

One of the best shows of these contemporary cabinets of curiosities I have seen is The Keeper at the New Museum[1]—a venue notorious for exhibiting uncanonized art forms since its foundation in 1977. Curated by Massimiliano Gioni, previously curator of the 2013 Venice Art Biennale, the show assembles a large variety of archives and collections that are strange, highly personal, scientific, documentary, or just outrageously imaginative. Although the exhibition nearly fills the entire museum, it is the attentive individual installation of each collection that draws out a meaning which would not have been accessible by merely looking at an index or inventory. The centerpiece of the show, Ydessa Hendeles’ haunting photo collection of people posing with teddy bears, presents a private, fetishistic obsession with a particular object.

Ydessa Hendeles_The KeeperFig. 1

Using a classic Salon-style hang, the photos cover the entire wall space in a mock-up of a library or ancestral portrait gallery. Display cabinets amass even more images, accompanied by letters and historic specimens of teddy bears. Yet, it is less the individual images that draw attention and make it a remarkable exhibit, than the space created with them, expressing the sheer scope of the collection. In contrast, Vanda Viera-Schmidt’s “Weltrettungsprojekt” condenses her equally enormous production of abstract drawings intended to magically influence the course of current events into neatly stacked up piles. Here, it is the action itself, not the individual works or an expansive spatial installation, that is important. Consequently, except for each image on the top, it is unclear what the drawings look like.
  For these two archives, it is more the excessive amount of material and their spatial arrangements than the individual pieces that leave a lasting impression. In both cases it is the collectors and makers themselves who have contributed significantly to the installation as a more permanent interpretation of their collections. Focusing on the personalities of the “keepers” and their motivations as the key to a wide range of collections is, thus, a logical choice for such an exhibition. In dissecting the various facets of the collector-curator-explorer, Gioni and his team present a myriad of reasons that can potentially lead to the formation a collection: a mandate from Jesus Christ, a personal traumatic experience, a quest for creative expression, fetishism, mental illness as well as scientific curiosity are only a few among the most obvious triggers.
  The New Museum illustrates these different motivations with a spectacular variety of works. There are a number of scholarly collections that one could visualise in a museum of natural history or science, such as Harry Smith’s series of framed string formations collected from cultures across the globe, the beautifully back-lit sections of rocks collected by Roger Caillois, and a few samples of the drawings of butterflies by Vladimir Nabokov who, it turns out, was an accomplished lepidopterist in his spare time. In all these cases, the objects made or captured were originally used to study nature and human practices but have been re-purposed in an aesthetical way to fit into this exhibition. Almost mocking the aesthetics of scientific classifications, an imaginary archive of fictional creatures, carved out of wood during carnivalesque performances where legends about their encounters were told, plays the role of a counterpoint. Equally as subversive is the collection of garbage by the Japanese artist Yuji Agematsu, who arranges trash into small still life objects. Incredibly beautiful from afar, when coming closer, they reveal themselves to contain cigarette buds, hair and dirt, blood and random street trash. In keeping with the idea of waste, the colorful pieces are placed in plastic covers of cigarette packages and mounted on a long and narrow shelf. The complete work, of which only a small number is displayed, consists of one still life per day for the duration of an entire year; each of these objects contains the essence, the remains of the day.

The personality of the keeper is the key to many of the collections. But what if the keeper is no longer alive or left no record of their wishes for the display of the archive? The exhibition illustrates a few such cases where the absence of the maker has spurred not just a spatial re-interpretation of the archive but the need for a narrative that extends beyond the objects. Peter Fritz’s “Sondermodelle” that document an obsession with architectural miniatures, remained invisible until after his death in 1992. To this day, his personality and life story are elusive. What makes the objects worthwhile in the context of this show is the story of their discovery in a junk sale and their rescue by the artist Oliver Croy and the curator Oliver Elser (aside, of course, from the whimsical architectural follies with which Fritz created his own interpretation of southern German architecture). In quite a different case of delayed visibility, the display completely alters our historical perception through the sheer existence of the archive: A daunting record of Auschwitz was made in the sketch book of an unknown artist, relaying the horrors of the death camp through comic-like but razor-sharp scenes from daily life that are hung in a sequence like a storyboard. Like opening an unknown treasure trove, their display reveals one of the darkest parts of our recent history that would have otherwise been hidden from contemporary eyes. As in Peter Fritz’s case, part of the fascination with these objects and images is the idea of the unknown artist or collector clandestinely amassing their work for us to excavate in the future. It is the communication between us in the present and them in the past. Quite similarly, Henrik Olesen’s reproductions of historic paintings that are labelled according to their homosexual content is a strong re-assessment of art in line with our current interests in gender equality and the multiplicity of lifestyles and sexual orientations. Working with an organizational structure comparable to that of the online image database Pinterest, but using a more antiquated form of displaying copies on large black boards in reference to Aby Warburg’s famous classification of visual topoi, Olesen is outmaneuvering classical art history with its own methods—a strong statement against the normative powers of categorization, and, hence, of collections themselves.

Looking at these widely diverse collections, one cannot help but wonder whether there are, currently, any archives that are totally worthless? Even when destroyed, as the objects from the National Museum of Beirut that are on display at the New Museum, they still retain a meaning that is worth showing—in this case, the archive’s failure to save the objects it was meant to protect. Rather, it seems, what we are currently after is an understanding of why some people maniacally collect things; becoming ourselves equally as obsessed with the idea of the archive.

A new understanding of such collections is not easily achieved through the physical presence of the objects alone, objects that often resist the traditional, and more easily digestible label of “art.” More complex in nature, the objects on show at the New Museum act as the teaser for larger stories. One of the most impressive examples of storytelling through objects that I have seen in recent times was a show called Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City that retold the story of the sinking of the Titanic through a display of objects recovered from the bottom of the sea. Here, the objects were treated as the only evidence for the verity of a story that has been narrated to the point where it is more folktale than historic event. At the New Museum, the archives are also dependent on longer, written narratives, marking a grand re-entrance of the well-crafted wall text into the art gallery (after it had been kicked out of the white cube in previous decades). Recently, there have been many re-installations of historic exhibitions where the original artworks are shown within the context of a larger historic commentary—think of such shows as at the 2013 re-installation of the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, originally at Kunsthalle Bern in 1969, at the Prada Foundation in Venice, or MoMA PS1’s current display of works from its inaugural exhibitions in the 1970s. In all such cases, it is not just artworks or objects we are looking at but the stories behind their existence and the people who made and displayed them. Taking this approach to the extreme, the New York-based gallery Mmuseumm currently defines their curatorial concept as looking “at humanity through objects” as Alex Kalman, one of the founders of the gallery, explained to the New York Times in 2015. Located in a back alley, one block off Broadway, a small walk-in space and an adjacent shop window present collections of objects relating to such idiosyncratic topics as Donald Trump, items mistaken for bombs, a typology of the shapes of cornflakes and the last text messages received from someone before they died. As at the New Museum, not all the objects are necessarily interesting in themselves but are made relevant by the stories that are told with them: What kind of mind obsesses about the shape of cornflakes?

I wonder what Arthur Bispo would have made out of the multiplicity of archives that we are currently facing. I doubt he would have seen a value in them, because, after all, he was seeking to condense the essence of the world into only one collection. Yet, in the wake of the shattered dreams of a grand narrative, our current obsession with objects and their spatial interpretation seems to derive from exactly the profusion of individual as well as collective pasts and presents for which we desperately need the narratives to provide us with an interpretation. On a grander scale, these displays might have a more fundamental effect, as they are slowly changing they way we exhibit both mundane objects and art, infusing the gallery space with new modes of storytelling. Yet, in looking at the many beautiful cabinets, blackboards and pedestals on show at the New Museum and elsewhere one cannot help but wonder whether there are other, more contemporary modes of display. Where are the digital archives and virtual realities? Are we not too infatuated with the aesthetics of the antique?

[1] The Keeper, July 20 to October 2, 2016, at the New Museum, 235 Bowery New York, NY 10002, www.newmuseum.org.

Fig. 1
Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)2002 
Photo: Robert Keziere/New Museum

Teresa Fankhänel is a writer, exhibition maker and researcher. She recently finished her PhD about the postwar boom in architectural models in the United States.