I’ve always been quite partial to bric-a-brac, but it’s never been more compelling to me than while I was wandering around the Barbican’s new exhibition Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector yesterday. The show is effectively a paean to the idea that you are the stuff you keep, and as such it’s a hoarder’s dream.
The show takes collections by artists including Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst, Howard Hodgkin, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Sol Lewitt, and puts them in their rightful place alongside the artists’ work itself. It’s a striking juxtaposition, and aptly demonstrates the connections between, say, Damien Hirst’s taxidermy collection and his own artworks, display cabinets full of preserved butterflies and insects, and Howard Hodgkin’s impressive archive of Indian artwork and his own vibrant, rich painting.
Above and beyond that, though, it allows viewers to examine a new dimension to artists who have rarely been judged on the basis of the stuff they surround themselves with. The captions accompanying each room go a long way to enlightening the viewer on this point. Andy Warhol was an avid collector of cookie jars, for example, alongside a wealth of other stuff, but was utterly unconcerned with the preservation or the display of items he bought, instead preferring to purchase objects and then abandon them to hordes of stuff in his home. Similarly, Hirst’s archive of medical memorabilia, skulls, and an enormous taxidermy lion were purchased largely in order for him to “explore the psyche of his collector,” which adds an interesting new aspect to ongoing arguments about his work as being made partly according to how sellable it might be.
"At one point wandering around the upper balcony, I lean over to look at a spectacular and ginormous angel sculpture from above, and set off a piercing alarm with my curiosity."Maisie Skidmore
It also raises questions around value. Hanne Darboven’s spot in the show was built by literally emptying two rooms in her house: her obsession is with trinkets, ornaments, sculptures, objects and paintings, all of which were painstakingly removed and then reassembled on site in the central space in the Barbican. Her collection is one of the most interesting of all, partly for its diversity and partly because removed from the artist who has curated it, the collection is really just a bunch of stuff – albeit very nice stuff – which could likely be reconstructed with a shopping trip to the charity shops on a high street in any suburban town. At one point wandering around the upper balcony, I lean over to look at a spectacular and ginormous angel sculpture from above, and set off a piercing alarm with my curiosity. It’s a funny reminder that, in this context, even junk is elevated to the status of a museum collection.
Elsewhere in the show you’ll find Peter Blake’s enviable archive of dolls, signs, elephants and masks, a portion of Pae White’s 3,000 silk scarves (her obsession is with objects which appear to be of unending supply), seeds of Martin Parr’s fascination with tourism in a beautifully kept collection of vintage postcards, and Jim Shaw’s enormous collection of thrift store paintings – bought because of their “profound undesirability” – which are hideous and brilliant in equal measures (often simultaneously).
In short, Magnificent Obsessions is a fantastic and innovative exhibition which feels something like diving into the secret worlds of the artists featured. It’s also a testament to never throwing anything away, which my fellow hoarders will agree, is always reassuring.