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The objects that make artists tick

Alix Christie at the Barbican’s curious new show

Alix Christie | February 13th 2015

Peering inside 14 different artists’ studios and marvelling at the objects they collect is a fine idea for a show. “Magnificent Obsessions”, at the Barbican in London, appears to promise a satisfying gawk at the cabinets of curiosities assembled by both the world-famous (Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst) and the less well known (Dr Lakra, Jim Shaw). What it turns out to be is its own kind of curiosity. Like any collection, the show contains both gems and duds. It is entrancing in many small ways, but doesn’t always hit the larger goal of illuminating an artist’s work by “spelunking through [their] consciousnesses”, in Shaw's memorable phrase.

Go for the opportunity to see things you'd otherwise never get close to. These include: the hare with amber eyes (pictured), a netsuke made famous by the potter Edmund de Waal's eponymous memoir; Warhol’s kitschy array of ceramic cookie jars; surreal postcards and Soviet space-dog memorabilia assembled by the photographer Martin Parr; and a riot of puppets, masks, freaky creatures and elephant figurines amassed by the self-described “collecting junkie” Peter Blake, best known for designing the album cover for the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

The notoriety, or not, of the chosen artists is part of what makes the show baffling at times. Visitors are given few clues to the kind of work each artist is best known for: one or two paintings, sculptures or photos are juxtaposed with each collection. Those without deep art-historical knowledge are left to guess. The pieces selected to represent heavyweights like Sol Lewitt and Hanne Darboven, for example—dismembered pages from their photographic books—do not help much to link their overall creative activities to the objects they collected. Darboven’s space is a riot of furniture, sculpture and bric-a-brac that looks just like it was pulled from her overstuffed Hamburg house and attic, as it was. Hirst’s taxidermy collection (stuffed owl, lion, vulture, seven-legged lamb), skulls and unusual creatures (a giant pangolin, not unlike an armadillo) are displayed alongside his “Lost Kingdom” (2012), a six-by-six-foot mirrored display of back-lit butterflies and insects. Looking between them, one is hard-pressed to see much difference, except that the contemporary dead creatures are glitzier and more expensive.

Lydia Yee, the curator, says the objective was never to draw clear links or identify specific inspirations for specific works. It was more about showing the things artists compulsively choose and imbue with personal meaning, which then provides a glimpse into their inner worlds. As a curator who visits artists at work, she’d long been struck by how many surround themselves with special things. I would have enjoyed seeing such studio photos too, to place these objects in their living context. There are several of these, and some nice interview snippets, in the free app visitors can download. But to see them all, you have to buy the catalogue.

The brute openness of the Barbican’s main gallery makes a show this intimate a challenge. Head upstairs: the warren of individual rooms is much more fun. Here we get a feeling for the personal passion that drives collecting, and each cell offers a particular pleasure. Several are true connoisseurs who built world-class collections of African masks and Indian painting. Others offer intriguing tasters: Shaw’s surreal paintings with his hideous yard-sale finds; Dr Lakra’s bizarre ink-on-skin drawings and the LP covers that inspire him; a roomful of mid-century scarves by the American graphic artist Vera, collected in their thousands by Pae White. I was most amazed by a collection of kitsch and mementos amassed by the deceased painter Martin Wong that the artist Danh Vo has turned into a piece of installation art in its own right. There's something for everyone in this succession of caves, each as close and personal as the secretive, obsessive act of collecting.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is at the Barbican in London until May 15th

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