BY David Barrett in Reviews | 10 SEP 97
Featured in
Issue 36

Photographer's Gallery

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 10 SEP 97

It is perhaps hardly surprising that a show entitled 'Collected' should generate so much stuff. By the time you complete the trek around the various sites, you'll find your Photographer's Gallery plastic carrier bag ­ a desirable object in itself ­ stretching under the weight of the press releases, leaflets, brochures and books that surround this exhibition.

At the Gallery itself, artists such as Lea Andrews, Christian Boltanski, Ming de Nasty, Mo Wilson, Louise Lawler and Jim Sillavan exhibited interesting works, and a special edition of their journal was published by Inventory. But 'Collected' was really about the site-specific projects that worked from within some of London's large collections.

Spread across the capital, the exhibition had components in Habitat, Selfridges, the British Museum, Sir John Soane's Museum, the Wallace Collection and the Hunterian Museum at The Royal College of Surgeons. We were also invited to examine a window display at Paul Smith where some items of his personal collection were on show, and designer Richard Lowe threw open his flat, making his collection of Egyptian items available to the public for the first time. As you can imagine, much time was spent travelling, and less actually looking at work. But this is not a complaint because the curating of this ambitious exhibition was inclusive, which is to say that it put its audience into such a specific frame of mind that the ephemera encountered on the journey was perceived from within the context of the exhibition. In a sense the show was endless: the subject expanded beyond the confines of deliberate curating and out into the public domain. The exhibition grew just as much as we allowed our point of view to be affected by it, collecting everything and including it in its thesis.

Alfie West, who made line drawings from split hairs, died in some obscurity, despite inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records for splitting a hair lengthways 18 times. Susan Hiller presented this and other works amongst the pickled babies et al. that make up the Hunterian Museum's collection. West's work seemed quite at home there ­ he shared the museum's fascination with the slicing up and preservation of biological matter. Although for West precision was an end in itself and his work was about possibility rather than instruction.

At the Wallace Collection, bequeathed to the nation in 1897 by Lady Wallace, Andrea Fraser charted the transformation of a private home into a museum. Printing lists in the style of museum information panels derived from an inventory of the house's contents of the 1890s, she marked those items that had been kept within the display, thus highlighting those considered too trivial to merit a place in the museum. Many of the lists, situated within the rooms to which they refer, are so long that they stretch to the high ceilings. At such distance they are impossible to read, but give a sense of the quantity of objects that were not included.

Guillaume Bijl began to make the connection between collections and commerce with an installation in the chic furniture store Habitat. The installation consisted of several chairs displayed within glass cases and marked with the names of historical celebrities, as if they were their personal chairs. But the real joy of this piece is walking through Habitat with an art audience; they cannot help themselves from stopping to admire the beautiful products. The urge to shop, to possess, bubbles unbidden to the surface. And the nature of the exhibition ensures that this desire becomes utterly self-conscious, which is its intention after all.

The most elegant work was contributed by the project's curator, Neil Cummings, in partnership with Marysia Lewandowska. Browse (1997) consisted simply of a small leaflet that was distributed around the capital. It detailed 18 things that you could collect from Selfridges and 12 that are collected in the British Museum. This was just a piece of ephemera, a commercial leaflet, but its method of bringing the themes of the exhibition uninhibitedly into the consumer zone, ensured that it sailed close to the wind. The fact that it looked and felt like the kind of leaflet that Selfridges would ordinarily produce, made it accessible to its potentially huge audience. It became a piece of undercover public art, all the more interesting for its blatant populism. Though such a small, simple thing, it managed to conceptually colonise the whole store.

Deep within the Egyptian Rooms at The British Museum were works by Richard Wentworth and Fred Wilson. Wilson presented a display of display systems, intriguingly charting their history: gone are the days when the name and catalogue number of the specimen all but obliterated the artefact itself, for today's museum attempts to hide behind itself in an effort to become transparent. Wentworth also made an obvious, but effective, piece. Alongside a collection of Egyptian drinking vessels he displayed their contemporary equivalents, retrieved from the streets around the museum. A straightforward idea, but powerful simply because the similarities between the vessels were too strong to ignore. This brought the problem of collecting into focus: when Panda Cola ceases to produce its bottles, the vessels will become extinct. So do we throw them away or keep them?

And this is the crux of the project: what shouldn't be collected? Why should some objects be preserved while others are discarded? The 19th-century idea of museums was that everything would be collected. Museums would be repositories where, eventually, all of mankind's knowledge would be stored as an exhaustive encyclopaedia. Of course, the dream was impossible ­ this is why we find such editing, such specific collecting. And this is where the politics of museology creeps in. Our heritage is now the sum of a failed ideal. But then our cultural progress is a kind of continued failure ­ as grand narratives become increasingly contingent, we no longer consider progress to consist of clarification and unification, but problematisation and fragmentation. And so we find that 'Collected' was a powerful demonstration of current thinking ­ not to mention a fair bit of fun.