BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 05 JUN 08
Featured in
Issue 116

Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art

Barbican Art Gallery, London, UK

BY Tom Morton in Reviews | 05 JUN 08

Exhibition view, 2008

Curated by Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee, and featuring works by over 100 artists from the 1960s to today, ‘Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art’ turned on the conceit that a band of extraterrestrial anthropologists have travelled to Earth to investigate the phenomenon of ‘contemporary art’ and have subsequently presented their findings to their fellow Martians in the form of an exhibition, to which we earthlings have access through unnamed means. According to Manacorda and Yee’s fictional schema, the civilization of the Red Planet has ‘developed without the domain of art or aesthetics’, leading the curators’ alien avatars to interpret the art works they’ve collected as nothing more than artefacts, which they’ve displayed in one of four categories according to their perceived use value: Ritual, Communication, Kinship and Descent, and Magic and Belief.

Despite the sci-fi sheen provided by the runic font in graphic designer Sara de Bondt’s ‘bi-lingual’ signage, this museum was, with its cabinets of objects grouped by formal similarity, a deliberately High Victorian affair. Throughout the exhibition signal pieces were accompanied by explanatory texts, which combined deliberately point-missing empirical description, mock bewilderment, cod authority and art-historical in-jokes. Thus, the folded tarp that covered Chris Burden as he lay in LA’s La Cienega Boulevard for his performance Deadman (1972) was identified as having ‘protective properties’, although ‘it did not, however, prevent him from being arrested’, and Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961) was described as pointing ‘towards the unaccountably high price of art on Earth today’. Different people will, of course, have different appetites for this kind of material, but for me its repetition did it few favours, transforming something that was at first flush funny into something that felt increasingly forced and even (against, I’m sure, the curator’s wishes) a little self-satisfied. To some degree this is a problem of scale. When Jorge Luis Borges wrote, in 1966, of a fictional Chinese encyclopaedia entitled the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals were divided into 14 categories, including ‘embalmed ones’, ‘mermaids’ and ‘those that tremble as if they were mad’, a paragraph was sufficient for him to make his point about the absurdities inherent in any taxonomic system. By contrast, the blockbusting ‘Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art’ provided the viewer with the whole voluminous encyclopaedia, index and all.

Manacorda and Yee deserve credit for staging a show of such off-beat curatorial ambition in a usually mainstream British venue, as they also do for assembling a group of works that, even outside the framework they imposed on them, provided much for the viewer to be excited about – space constraints do not permit even a cursory snapshot, but some highlights included Jeffrey Vallance’s Cultural Ties (1979), in which the artist mailed neckties to world leaders, Matthew Day Jackson’s nightmare-catching mobile Hung, Drawn & Quartered II (Treeson) (2008) and Nancy Grossman’s gimp-mask-like Head (1968). However, the exhibition remained problematic, not least because the fiction it turned on meant that any given work it contained could conceivably be substituted for another, and because that fiction felt so unsteady on its feet. So close were the ‘Martians’ it evoked to 19th-century ethnographers in the Augustus Pitt Rivers mould that the only thing that felt truly alien about them was that their society, despite having clear analogues of human language, natural and social sciences, architecture and even curatorial practice, somewhat illogically had nothing that might be compared to art – even the most chauvinistic Victorian, after all, admitted some vague commonality between the Western canon and objects and images produced elsewhere. As such, Manacorda and Yee’s aliens failed to convince either as a satire on what are anyway long-discredited anthropological models or as a picture of the truly ‘other’. (A more interesting, or at least more consistent, fiction might have involved, say, an alien curator blasting the ‘barbarism’ of our blue planet on the grounds that we have yet to discover how to make art in four dimensions.)

And yet the exhibition’s most significant cause for concern was the way in which it modelled its public, or publics. A small number of visitors to this big institution may be relied on to get its every arch gag, but what of the others? I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t the curators’ intent to cast them as bug-eyed aliens, goggling dumbly at the material culture of an (art) world they will never understand, but it’s hard to see how the ‘Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art’ did not do this. While contemporary art stands at a distance from many people’s lives, this is a distance measured not in parsecs but (interest in the form notwithstanding) usually by the very earthbound stuff of where you were born, how much money your parents earned and what kind of education you received. As innovative at times as genuinely thought-provoking Manacorda and Yee’s show was, somewhere along the line their control over the analogies they employed ran away with them, and an unbidden conservatism breached the curatorial airlock.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.