‘The Artist in a Collected World’: Symposium at Chelsea College of Arts, London SW1

The talks in this symposium reflected the impact of artists creating work in response to a museum collection, from the point of view of artists, curators, funders and programme managers. There were no easy answers but the examples discussed illustrated pitfalls as well as successes.

Mark Fairnington, reader in painting at Wimbledon and convener of the event, talked about his work in the taxidermy stores of the Natural History Museum. The Museum has over 7 million items in its collection, so inevitably only a tiny fraction is ever on display. Mark’s work, which was itself displayed in the Museum, could not only reveal some of the hidden objects but also comment on how our view of the natural world has changed, from a time which he saw as ‘full of optimism about the world and its abundance’ to one of greater awareness of its fragility.

James Peto from the Wellcome Collection, explained the origins of the collection in the interests of Sir Henry Wellcome. He made his money from pharmaceuticals but was interested in health, medicine and well-being more widely; and he was a hoarder, leaving over a million items to the eponymous trust. The exhibitions the Collection mount are not intended to teach visitors about science but more to stimulate their understanding of and curiosity about what it means to be human. This interpretation of their mission allows space for the role of artists to explore what objects might tell us from a human perspective. Peto spoke specifically about

valuing the uncertainty and ambiguity

which artists bring to looking at the objects and what they might mean.

George Shaw, lately Associate Artist at the National Gallery, was in conversation with Colin Wiggins, Special Projects Curator at the Gallery. We met Colin earlier this year when we went to the Gallery for a workshop so we already knew that he was both immensely knowledgeable and entertaining. The conversation roamed around two key topics: what it is like for an artist to work in the shadow of The Masters; and what it is like for art historians, who ‘prefer their artists dead’, to work with one still alive and producing new work. The broad answer to the first is that it is challenging and even the most renowned feel insecure, many Associate Artists finding themselves unable to finish anything for at least the first year of their Associateship. Colin emphasised the importance of a long enough time frame to allow these reversals of confidence to be overcome; George later suggested that he would now consider anything less than 6 months as a ridiculously short time for a residency. You would get only ‘knee jerk’ work in response.

They both talked about the shift in curatorial culture, with younger art historians being more open to making links with contemporary work. Some older ones, having seen some of George’s work, suggested that  residencies were turning into

‘Carry on Up the National Gallery’

Colin pointed out that all art comes from past art, so both links backwards and paths into the future are inevitable. Interestingly, he said that Constable was opposed to the establishment of the National Gallery because he feared it would encourage younger artists to do pastiche work rather than make their own explorations.

The next 3 talks were all about examples of programmes designed to encourage museums to work with artists. One was the Arts Council’s ongoing New Expressions programme and the other the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award for Museums, which has now ended. The Arts Council seemed to approach this issue from the point of view of wanting to encourage regional museums to take more risks in working with artists, while the Contemporary Art Society wanted both to support emerging artists and to help museums add to their collection. Both were concerned with how new work could relate to and fit into an existing collection. It was less clear how successful the programmes were in terms, for example, of new work bringing more or new visitors into museums. It seemed to me that there was quite a high risk that the process was worthwhile and enjoyable for those immediately involved but didn’t go any further.

One particular example, supported by the Contemporary Art Society and described at some length, seemed quite problematical to me. Elizabeth Price produced a work for the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford called A Restoration. She used the collections and archives of both the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers museums and focussed on Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the Minoan site of the palace of Knossos on Crete.

We saw the closing minutes of the 2-screen digital video installation: a fiction, set to melody and percussion, which is narrated by a ‘chorus’ of museum administrators who are organising the records of Arthur Evans’s excavation. They use his documents and photographs to figuratively reconstruct the Knossos Labyrinth within the museum’s computer server. They then imagine its involuted space as a virtual chamber through which museum objects digitally flow, clatter and cascade.

I’ll admit: I just didn’t get this at all. I thought the aesthetic of the video was clunky, with text boxes on screen and a computerised voiceover with a faintly American accent. This seems quite at odds with the aesthetic of the objects and frescoes shown; Minoan culture was notably sophisticated and its iconography delicate and subtle. And the closing moments which show an engraved wine glass tumbling down the screen and out of shot were just baffling as the Minoans didn’t have glassware. The technology wasn’t available (at least in Europe) for many hundreds of years. So what was that about? It raises a serious question about what lasting benefit this project delivered. My background may make me sensitive about things like the glass, but it also makes me receptive to a fresh look at these objects, particularly to make connections with other worlds, other culture, other ways of thinking, given that the Minoan world is still so mysterious.

Finally, the painter Andrew Grassie was in conversation with Ben Tufnell, a curator who had worked with Andrew when he was at Tate Britain. We had a lecture from Andrew about his practice earlier this year, but it was interesting to hear about the role of the Art Now programme at Tate Britain in keeping the collection up to date. I also grasped more about how Grassie had created the paintings in the New Hang show; interestingly it took about 18 months to create all the setups for him to photograph and then paint, another relatively long timeframe. Although the paintings were not all bought by Tate – they have 3 out of 13 – so there isn’t that kind of legacy, the making of the exhibition created something new from the existing collection and demonstrated a form of renewal and revival. That idea lives on.

Jo Melvin, a reader at Chelsea, ended with some reflections from which I noted down in particular the idea that what could be valuable in all this is

the process of looking and engaging with existing work without expectation.

That’s something we can do without needing to be involved in a formal project.