Artists inspired by collections


A tray of fake eyes that look like gruesome marbles. Two headed creatures suspended in time forever. Prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai. Salt and Pepper shakers. Soviet space dogs. Scarves and scarves and scarves and scarves.

The full spectrum of material culture is here: disposable, covetable, high, low, and kitsch. The personal collections of fourteen artists have been transposed to the Barbican’s elegant mid-century modernist exhibition spaces and presented alongside one example of each artists’ work. The curatorial objective is clearly to make links between the collections and their owner’s output. However, other questions bubble to the surface. Why as a species do we need to own so many things, often multiple versions of the same things? Does the act of collecting items imbue them all with the same status, whether they started life as valuable or insignificant? Is collecting a response to times of poverty? Is it a practise that is going out of fashion in the digital age? Will it endure amongst artists?

Damien Hirst has made a career out of presenting collections or multiples of objects, or otherwise inverting our assumptions about animal and mineral items. One wonders how many butterflies have passed through his studios? Flown to their sticky, painterly graves. Here some of his own items of taxidermy and medical artefacts (his interest in the medical theme is shared by art dealer and photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the owner of the glass eyes) are presented alongside the piece Last Kingdom, 2012, vertical rows of entomological specimens: a collection in itself.

Elsewhere, Peter Blake and Martin Parr also demonstrate a very strong connection between their work and the act of collecting. Blake surrounds himself in his studio with dolls, figurines, ventriliquists dummys and signage. His collages are collections of illustrations, clippings, packaging and photographs, somehow absorbed into his own distinctive aesthetic. Whereas Parr’s anthropological investigations are like unscientific studies, using his photographs and collections of postcards and ephemera as evidence for unspoken theories (the Soviet space dogs are his). Both artists whether consciously or unconsciously have explored ‘Britishness,’ which they characterise as stoic, eccentric and led by grass roots activities and folkloric practises.

The Japanese prints belong to Sol LeWitt. The thread between these works and his brand of minimalism and instructional art is not so direct. But yet we expect to see successful artists collecting art, indulging their desire for culture; the prints he has chosen are stunning and timeless. His wife Carol, speaking on the app that accompanies the exhibition says, “collecting is an addition. One [LeWitt] had… he always used to quote Gertrude Stein who said that artworks are priceless and worthless.” Perhaps this reveals an inner battle between collecting and not collecting, or a shade of insecurity about his profession.

The ages of the artists are interesting. The oldest are Arman, Le Witt and Andy Warhol, all born in 1928, and the youngest is Dr Lakra, the Mexican muralist and tattoo artist at only 42. Most were born in the 50s and 60s – their parents, whether British or American, would have survived the Second World War. Might these memories of rationing and going without, as well as the following surge in popular culture, have triggered the collecting impulse? And growing up in a world pre-internet, is it natural that artists would gather a physical and visual memory bank of references? Only the future, when the emerging artists of today reach half a century old, can tell us the answer.

Hanne Darboven’s collections are presented as a ‘total artwork’ – a gesamtkunstwerk. She appears to have no barriers to her field of collecting, no search terms; it only qualifying as a collection as she is at the centre acquiring it or inheriting it. Tiffany lamps, a cheeky monkey, objects from her ‘tower room’ and writing desk.

Curatorially, some strange decisions have been made. There are rugs to symbolise the home, and pallets and crates to represent the exhibition coming together. Yet the desire to reveal the artists’ influences links back to their studios – which aren’t referenced at all. The exhibition fetishizes the glass showcase – a hallmark of ‘the museum’.

However, not everything is cased and protected. Brushing my face like laundry on a line is a selection of Pae White’s collection of Vera Neumann scarves. They have been used as though they are a material in one of White’s installations, possessing the same playful and tactile qualities as other examples of her work. Neumann’s textiles all share her bold use of colour, a motif like fruits or flowers, her distinctive draftmanship and her signature as part of the design. Far from being unsettled when confronted by her 1000 Neumann scarves, Pae White confessed that being involved in the exhibition made her consider acquiring more…

Like White, Dahn Vo’s presentation is intimately bound with another artist. Martin Wong’s collection of thousands of disparate objects, posthumously acquired and now preserved by Vo, has in the transition of ownership been transposed into a ‘readymade’ artwork as well as an archive. The room in the exhibition that contains some of the 4000 objects divides opinion amongst visitors: there are those who are fascinated and intrigued, and those who are horrified by this scene of clutter. It is a magnet for dust, the collection has no focus, it is hard to find the artist among it.

Magnificent Obsessions believes that we will be fascinated and delighted to be shown a part of the artistic process often left behind when the artists’ work transitions from studio to gallery. But it does not begin to approach to bigger questions of human beings and their relationship to the material. Artist Jim Shaw, whose collection of paintings he found in ‘thift stores’ and ‘yard sales’ compares these places, and the act of combing through them to find weird things, to palaeontology or archaeology. Maybe this reflects a certain kind of art-making… post-Pop there have been many artists exploring not only the popular culture of their time, but finding trends and revelations in the recent past. Maybe this kind of art making will be left behind in the 20th century.