BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 05 MAY 00
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Issue 52

Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow

BY Dale McFarland in Reviews | 05 MAY 00

The 18th-century architect Sir John Soane's legacy to England's heritage is a few quietly bizarre buildings, most of which have been demolished or exist only as plans. Those that remain (the largely re-modelled Bank of England among them) are curiously underwhelming, highly admired by architects, but until recently almost ignored by the general public. Soane's London house, filled with his huge collection of antiquities, fakes, curiosities, Greek busts, ancient sarcophagi, skeletons, architectural models and Old Master paintings became a museum in 1833, a few years before his death. This Wunderkammer may no longer be one of London's best kept secrets, but it is still captivating, an esoteric mixture of superstition and reason; a place of strange dimensions where rooms fold in on themselves and delicate stained glass windows afford views over never-to-be-entered Gothic courtyards. It is a rare and old-fashioned museum that expresses no apparent desire to explain itself or its collection. It is an achingly ripe venue for contemporary art and Hans-Ulrich Obrist is an achingly ripe curator to do it.

On entering the Museum, the visitor was given a map of the house with numbers corresponding to the placement of the works, which created an atmosphere not unlike a treasure hunt. In an ante-room, placed on a high shelf among small plaster casts was an acid-yellow Madonna by Katharina Fritsch, Madonna (1989). Douglas Gordon's cast of his own hand Fragile hands collapse under pressure (study for a self-portrait) (1999) seemed almost invisible amongst the bric-a-brac in the crypt. A discreetly placed box proffered information leaflets about Los Angeles' Museum of Jurassic Technology. Next to it was a tiny, blurred photograph, Nano Museum (1995). Cerith Wyn Evans' intervention, Modified Threshold (1999), was to change the pitch of the tiny bells attached to a rope that bars entry into the private part of the house.

The work ranged from the easily overlooked to the incongruous and theatrical. A photographic portrait of Gilbert and George on an easel in the dining room, Lincoln's Inn Fields - Fournier Street (1999), shows the artists taking tea in the Museum, perhaps a fey allusion to the their own antique lifestyle and penchant for Majolica ware. Beside this, Koo Jeong-A's clear plastic beaker and syringe, About Inundation (1999), evoked an 18th-century aesthete, spending long afternoons slumped in an opium-induced stupor. In a hallway, a side table was covered with daily newspapers upon which rested a half-drunk cup of coffee, an artistic conceit from Richard Wentworth which I found hard to take seriously.

Two Anish Kapoor works, Parabolic Waters II and Vortex (both 1999) are variations on spinning vessels of water, the speed of rotation forcing the liquid into an inverse parabola or miniature whirlpool. Like Soane's own architectural models, Kapoor's work seems to be a maquette for a grandiose scheme and bought to mind Joseph Wright of Derby's painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768), an early representation of modern science attempting to unravel the mysteries of the physical world.

A visit to Soane's Museum is a luxurious experience in passive viewing - you can end up drifting through it enjoying the delicate ambience lent by the accretion of objects often more so that the individual objects. The Museum's set piece is the Picture Room, where Obrist placed Richard Hamilton's print The Passage of the Bride (1998-99) alongside Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1735). But it wasn't the Hamilton or indeed the Hogarth that made the room especially interesting, it was when the guard opened the walls which concertina out, to magically reveal more paintings and allowing a view onto other rooms.

If the Museum allows little breathing space for art, it is perhaps apt that the most engaging work was shown in the empty basement kitchen, which is usually off limits to the visitor. Tom Gidley's Soane's Bones (1999) is a short film made in the Museum. To a soundtrack of incessantly ticking clocks, the camera lingers over the architecture, the collection and the green-coated guards who stand motionless in doorways. The final sequence is set in the crypt where the stone busts and statues are lit up by the headlights of imaginary passing cars. The comforting sound of engines fading into the distance momentarily connects this now dark and silent place with the world outside. The film's graceful reflection of aspects of the Museum seemed much more truly 'site specific' than almost anything else.

The joy of Soane's Museum is its seemingly indiscriminate yet exquisite hoarding. It is a place to revisit again and again - the sheer wealth of its collection means there is always something new to discover. Like Soane, Obrist has put together a collection of the celebrated and the obscure: Herzog & De Meuron, Isaac Julien, Rosemarie Trockel, Rem Koolhaas and Liisa Roberts among others. The artists often responded well to this difficult and prescribed environment, but there was an almost unbridgeable gulf between Soane's scholarly eccentricity and Obrist's curatorial project. Ultimately, the charisma of Soane's Museum devoured it.