The impulse to preserve and save objects and artefacts, which is fundamental to the whole enterprise of museums, galleries and other collections, comes under scrutiny in the New Museum’s latest major multi-floor exhibition. It reflects on the passions which inspire the undertaking of collecting and curating, and the function of the museum itself and the multiple “economies of desire” which underlie it, as well as the whole idea of assigning value to a particular object or image.
The Keeper brings together a variety of imaginary museums, personal collections, and unusual assemblages, revealing the devotion with which artists, collectors, scholars, and hoarders have created sanctuaries for endangered images and artefacts. The centrepiece of this exhibition opts to explore these themes though the comforting figure of a universal favourite childhood toy.
Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002), is a vast display conceived by Ydessa Hendeles. Featuring more than 3,000 family snaps of people posing with teddy bears, as well as vitrines containing antique teddy bears, the project establishes the teddy bear as a metaphor for the consolatory power of artworks and images, and underscores the symbiotic relationship that ties people to their objects of affection.
The collections featured, with all their diverse motivations, reveal stories of protecting heritage from violent conflict, of lost languages and cultures, and secret histories of repressed identities. Through a series of studies and portraits that spans the 20th century, The Keeper tells the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to safeguard, whether considered great or seemingly mundane.
It includes, for example, Hilma af Klint’s suite of abstract paintings from 1907, which she instructed be kept hidden for decades after her death, venturing that they would be better appreciated beyond her own time. In a ceremonious personal custom, Ye Jinglu, by contrast, had a studio portrait taken every year for decades. These photos represent collecting as a mode of auto-ethnography that inadvertently also traces social and political changes over time.
Meanwhile, Henrik Olesen’s Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists Relevant to Homo-Social Culture(2007) mounts a provocative counter-narrative to the art historical canon by highlighting artists’ censored biographies as well as homoerotic depictions from the 14th to the 19th centuries. Susan Hiller’s video The Last Silent Movie (2007) collects the voices of speakers of 25 dying or lost languages to offer a meditation on the conditions that have led to their extinction. And a selection of ancient artefacts from the National Museum of Beirut, melted together by shellfire during the Lebanese Civil War, speaks to the preservation of objects whose profound transformations have only made them even more powerful.
The Keeper, 20 July-25 September, New Museum, 235 Bowery New York, NY 10002.
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