Magnificent Collections

ole worms cabinet

I went to see the ‘Magnificent Obsessions’ exhibition at the Barbican. This is a series of rooms filled with the collections of 14 artists living and dead. On the quest as ever for something unusual to draw, I was pleased to find plenty of curious and odd objects to satisfy that need, but perusing the collections of each artist in turn got me thinking about the act of ‘collecting’ itself.

What does it mean to collect something? Is it the grouping together of near identical objects? Or It might be the differences of objects which allows you to bring them together; you like the way this jug looks when placed next to these silver handcuffs and this cactus. Or maybe you’re more categorical, bringing together stuffed animals like Damien Hirst, or grouping flora and fauna in a more general way.

The Victorians were big on collecting, and having a Cabinet of Curiosities (also known as a Kunstkammer, or Wonder Room) was quite a big status symbol, something to show your power and worldliness. Apparently even earlier in 1587, Christian the 1st of Saxony was advised that one needed 3 types of item in order to have a proper Kunstkammer:

1. Sculptures and paintings
2. Curious items from home and abroad

3. Antlers, horns, claws, feathers and other things belonging to strange and curious animals

For Andy Warhol and his collection of gaudy cookie jars the satisfaction may have come from the act of obtaining the jars rather than displaying or admiring them. It is said that after purchasing a jar, it could end up sitting unwrapped and unobserved in his studio. Not put out on display or organised in any pleasing fashion as they have been at the Barbican. It’s more about the buzz, the thrill of suddenly spotting that unusual object you crave, almost obscured beneath a pile of junk in a dingy back room at a flea market. Knowing that you had to have it and make it yours.

Not all collections have to be beautiful and pleasing. You might choose to collect something that disgusts or provokes. Peter Blake’s collection of creepy dolls and outlandish masks definitely give a different vibe than that of the beautiful intricate ‘Netsuke’ collected by British ceramic artist Edmuund De Waal. Netsuke being carved, button like toggles worn on Japanese Kimonos. He has tiny carved mice, hares and turtles sometimes made from ivory (eek) and sometimes bamboo amongst other outlandish materials.
 
deer netsuke
 
The line between ‘STUFF’ and ‘A Collection’ is quite thin I feel. In one of the larger rooms at The Barbican’s exhib, German artist Hanne Darboven’s objects are on show.

A life size plastic horse, a miniature theatre, a lamp in the shape of a cobra, to me this definitely falls more into the STUFF pile. If you collect stuff, is it a collection? Or just a group of things that you like? Are you just a hoarder rather than an intrepid devoted collector? Not that it matters.

I wondered if my higgledy piggeldy ‘house decorations’ qualify as a collection? These are things that I like to have around me, usually on a shelf in whichever place i’m renting, because they are pleasing and inspiring to my eye. I have dried roses from a friend’s funeral, vintage teacups, kitsch shiny angels, half a barbie that has been painted as a Mexican day of the dead Katrina (A small selection pictured below). I suppose the common element here is that I have lots of owls, ceramic owls, wooden owls, metal owls, big ones, small ones, cute ones, serious ones. Some are ugly, but that no longer matters when they are brought into the parliament with the others because their oddness makes them interesting.
 
alices stuff_small
 

Are creative people more likely to cultivate a collection? As it is something which may feed back into their work and inspire it or even become an extension of their work. Barbican featured American artist Pae White describes her collection of textiles as a visual library that she can refer to when working. My visual library is now largely online thanks to the internet and apps like pinterest which allow you to have a HUGE collection, without any of the financial commitment or risk of alienating loved ones by filling every available space and surface with seashells.

I suppose it really comes down to an individual’s personality and what sparks their interest as to whether or not they will have a collection. If they do have a collection, what do you think it says about them?

‘Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as a Collector’
Is at The Barbican until the 25th of May, £12
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