ONLY COLLECT Six futile attempts to avoid a permanent collection By Nick Barley This may sound hubristic, but it is true that I ½VWXFIGEQITEWWMSREXIEFSYXHIWMKR[LIR- was three. I fell in love with a deep metallic blue Lotus Europa, an impossibly low-slung, mid-engined coupé that was launched into the world in 1966, the year that I was born. My FPYI0SXYWLETTIRIHXSFIXLI½VWX1EXGLFS\ car I owned, and in my eyes nothing else could ever hope to better it; not even the fabulous pink Reliant Scimitar model that I was given shortly afterwards. Many years later, I had some dealings with Tom Karen, the man who styled the Scimitar, and I realised that his car was much better designed, much more desirable as a vehicle for grown-ups than the silly underpowered Lotus could ever hope to be. Nevertheless, that Europa, with a total production run of just 600 cars, kicked off an obsession with prototypes, kit cars and limited production motor vehicles which formed the bedrock of my interest in design. During my teens, I became a proper collector of kit car trivia. What a bundle of laughs I must have been. My bedroom walls were plastered with photographs of unique Citroën DSs QSHM½IHF]PIKIRHEV] French coachbuilders; futuristic 1970s concept sports cars by Pininfarina and Guigiaro; and FYPFSYWWM\[LIIPIV½FVIKPEWWIJJSVXWFEWIH on the chassis of a Mini. I could proudly name a different oddball car manufacturer for every letter of the alphabet (Arista … Bond … Cord … Dutton … Elva …), and it didn’t matter to me that these vehicles might be wingnut judderbuckets: I was excited about the idea of people who could take the chassis of a mediocre mass-produced car, whose greatest feature was probably the slightly satisfying thunk of the door, and turn it into something entirely other:
a mysterious temple to idiosyncrasy. I simply needed to know about them, idolise them, and understand how recent history had thrown them together. As time went on, things took on a different perspective. In my 20s I put my kit car memorabilia in a trunk and began to celebrate what was happening in the here and now. Who needs a collection when the most interesting things are being created in front of your eyes? I began glibly to dismiss archives and archivists as stick-in-the-mud historicists, plumbing the arcane and dreary details of history because they couldn’t keep pace with the cutting edge. In the hubbub of 90s London I was running so fast to keep up with the hip crowd that I didn’t stop to wonder whether their output was really as important as I and my journalist friends were claiming. And little did I know that soon enough the wealthy acquisitive collectors would turn their attention to the work of my friends and peers, mulching it into yet another historical stratum. If only I could have expressed the complicated urges of the collector as beautifully as Luis Aragon in his book Paris Paysan. Imagining the thoughts of a bronze statue in a Parisian park, Aragon speaks ironic volumes about the eccentricity, the banality and the mild repulsiveness I then felt about collectors: ‘The blessings of [God] will rain down upon all the owners of statues, the Italian vendors of plaster casts, the proprietors of wax museums, the executors of memorial monuments, the subscribers to patriotic mausoleums, the schoolboy modellers SJJYRR]½KYVIWXLIORIEHIVWSJFVIEHGVYQFW the New Zealanders who create with clusters of little pebbles huge fantastic birds that cover EQSYRXEMR´WFEVI¾EROXLIWX]PMXIETSWXPIW
the monarchs who immure whole armies, the collectors of skeletons, the window dressers in department stores, the heroes who instigate IJ½KMIWSJXLIQWIPZIWXLIXS[RGSYRGMPPSVW infatuated with a theatrical, lifeless art, the fetishists of the public highway and those unfortunates who are in love with Egyptian mummies.’ Today, I have responsibility for The Lighthouse, Scotland’s national centre for architecture, design and the city, an organisation which has been set up without its own collection. Sometimes I wish that we had a reassuringly vast underground store, full of exquisite competition models by art nouveau architects and one-off wooden furniture pieces by Glasgow School artists. But usually I’m ambivalent: what would a collection really mean, in a city which struggles to value the full-scale Thomson buildings that lie rotting in its midst? What follows is an attempt to justify the organisation’s lack of a collection, through the lens of a few artists who in my view have tried impressively hard to resist the 19th-century model of acquisition and display. 1. DESTROY YOUR WORK For his Auto-Destructive Art demonstration on the terrace of London’s South Bank Centre in 1960, Gustav Metzger sprays hydrochloric acid on to nylon stretched on to a scaffolding frame so that the plastic ‘canvases’ are almost completely eaten away. He states that it is ‘an attack on art dealers and collectors who QERMTYPEXIQSHIVREVXJSVTVS½X´*SVX]JSYV years later Metzger stages an installation at 8EXI&VMXEMRIRXMXPIH³6IGVIEXMSRSJ½VWXTYFPMG demonstration of auto-destructive art’, consisting of an almost-empty scaffolding frame bearing the traces of an acid-eaten piece of nylon, plus a transparent rubbish bag full of the detritus from the event. During the course of the display at Tate Britain, a cleaner inadvertently throws part of the installation – the rubbish bag – into the vast Tate rubbish mincer. All of the quality British newspapers run stories on the mistake, including the Times, which declares: ‘Cleaner thought Tate exhibit was a load of rubbish.’ Metzger provides a replacement bag. Later, Metzger makes a gift of his installation to Tate Britain. It is valued in that
year’s Tate Annual Accounts at £20,000, while Metzger is ranked on artfacts.net as the 840th QSWXMR¾YIRXMEPEVXMWXMRXLI[SVPH 3YXGSQI%VX[MXLWMKRM½GERXZEPYIGSPPIGXIHF] national organisation and easy to display, with highly newsworthy results. 2. SEEK OBLIVION Few artists have ever matched the pathos which drips from the work of Bas Jan Ader. Some of his art has a slapstick quality redolent of early silent movies, and perhaps his best known project MWE½PQSJXLIEVXMWXG]GPMRKEPSRKXLIVSEH next to an Amsterdam canal, holding a bunch SJ¾S[IVWMRLMWLERH8LIFMOI[SFFPIWERH Ader suddenly swerves over the edge into the [EXIVSJXLIGEREP%RSXLIVOI][SVOMWE½PQSJ the artist falling off the roof of a twostorey house. Ader’s personal history is well documented: his father, a Calvinist minister, provides a refuge for Jews ¾IIMRKXLI2E^MW during World War II, thus saving their lives. When Ader is just two years old, his father is taken away by the Nazis and executed in the woods. Much of Ader’s work can be read as a response to this trauma. In 1975 Ader sets off in a bid to cross the Atlantic in a 12-foot sailing boat. It is part of a project entitled ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ and he claims it will take him 60 days to cross the ocean, or 90 if he chooses not to use the sail. Six months after his departure, the boat is found off the coast of Ireland, but Ader has vanished. No documentation of the project exists. Today, Ader’s estate, owned by his widow Mary Sue Ader-Andersen, is represented by private art dealers in London and California and his work is in international collections including the Boijmans van Beuningen. Ader is ranked on artfacts.net as the 545thQSWXMR¾YIRXMEPEVXMWXMR the world. Outcome: After his premature death, the artist becomes an international hot ticket and his work is acquired by several major international collections. 3. MAKE PERMANENCE IMPOSSIBLE In 2003 I publish a book of writing and drawings by the architect Cedric Price. During the preparation of the book he speaks with the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, and makes the following observation about museums and
galleries: ‘I think that the notion of the classic museum still has limited viability. At three o’clock every afternoon, I get very tired. I am no use in XLISJ½GIWS-KSXSXLMW[SRHIVJYPHMWXSVXIV of time and place called the British Museum. It distorts the climate, because the building has a roof over it; it distorts my laziness, because I do not have to go to Egypt to see the pyramids; and it distorts time, because I can see someone wearing an Elizabethan dress. This automatic distortion, whether of time or of place, when you visit a museum is a good thing. If you visit the same museum on two consecutive wet days, it will be different on both occasions.’ Price claims not to be interested in the collection or cataloguing of his work, and only agrees to participate in the book project with me on condition that his book should have a very large Sell By date printed on the cover. The front cover reads: ‘Best Before June 2006, after which time the architect may have changed his mind.’ In fact, Price dies two days before copies are received back from the printer, and his own infuriating impermanence makes me weep. As for his buildings, Price strongly feels that his most famous construction, the aviary at London Zoo, should be demolished because, in his opinion, it is no longer useful to humans or birds. Towards the end of his life, Price is struggling to pay the rent in his central 0SRHSRSJ½GIERHHIGMHIWXSWIPPXLIZEWX majority of his archive of drawings and models to the Canadian collector Phyllis Lambert, the daughter of an American property tycoon and founder director of the Centre Canadian d’Architecture in Montreal. Price is ranked on artfacts.net as the 9,409thQSWXMR¾YIRXMEPEVXMWX in the world. 3YXGSQI(IWTMXIFYMPHMRKZIV]PMXXPISJWMKRM½GERGI the architect is increasingly highly regarded and his drawings are owned by world’s most voracious architecture collector. 4. DEFY CATEGORISATION Not only does she turn art exhibitions into one great, exuberant car boot sale, but Martha Rosler also resists the male-dominated normative art system by evading classic notions of authorship. Many of her works take place outside the realm of the gallery, while her best-known gallery project is a Monumental Garage Sale (1973) in which a huge variety of artefacts are
sold. Her work is founded on radical feminist ideas. Surprisingly, at the end of 1998 Martha 6SWPIVEKVIIWXSWXEKILIV½VWXIZIVGEVIIV retrospective, at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, thus confounding some friends who see the retrospective as a means for reinforcing bourgeois male mythologies of the self. But critic Nancy Roth describes Rosler’s work as ‘a way SJHSMRKLMWXSV]VEXLIVXLERWTIGM½GEPP][VMXMRK it’, and in an interview in the New York Times Rosler herself implies that her attitude to the gallery setting has changed: ‘So much of my work involved the Vietnam War that it would have been obscene to show it in a gallery. But now, it’s different; it’s important to remember and to enable the young to discover what to some of us is still so present.’ Rosler is ranked on artfacts. net as the 154th QSWXMR¾YIRXMEP artist in the world. Outcome: Radical artist begins to deploy the gallery setting as a means for producing new critical meanings and reaching new audiences. 5. ATTACK THE ESTABLISHMENT Much of Hans Haacke’s work consists of cogent attacks on the machinery of multinational capitalism, including some trenchant criticism of the links between art and big business. In preparation for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1971, Haacke undertakes a study of ownership of slums in Manhattan. A resulting work, entitled ‘Shapolsky, et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971’, consists of 142 photographs of tenement facades, each picture accompanied by highly detailed documents revealing the details of their ownership. Culled from public records, these details reveal the owner of all 142 properties to be a certain Harry Shapolsky, despite the fact that each house is registered under a different company name. The project is deemed to be ‘inappropriate’ by the management of the Guggenheim and Haacke’s exhibition is cancelled. Edward Fry, the curator responsible for commissioning the show, defends the [SVOERHMW½VIH(IWTMXIXLMWMGSRSGPEWXMG approach, in 1990 an edition of the piece is purchased by the Centre Georges Pompidou for the sum of 1,271,250 French Francs. When challenged by the French artist Fred Forest about the apparent ‘hypocrisy’ of selling the
work, Haacke is reported to have replied: ‘An artist must earn a living and pay his assistants; and in any case we are all bathing in impurity.’ ‘Shapolsky et al.’ is exhibited as part of a major retrospective of Haacke’s work at the Pompidou, and subsequently at Documenta in Germany in 1997, and again in an exhibition at Tate Modern in 2005. Haacke is ranked on artfacts.net as the 275thQSWXMR¾YIRXMEPEVXMWXMRXLI[SVPH Outcome: Artist’s work owned and regularly displayed by leading international collections. 6. PROPOSE THE IMPOSSIBLE For an exhibition mounted by the United Nations in 1993, the New York-based Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang proposes a project ‘for the meeting of the millennia’ entitled ‘Placid Earth’. ‘Observed from space,’ he explains, ‘the Earth at night is ablaze with lights. During the last second SJXLMWGIRXYV]ERHXLI½VWXWIGSRHSJXLIRI\X century – the two seconds when the millennia meet – all inhabitants of the Earth should turn off their lights, letting the Earth “eclipse into obscurity”. One could use man-made satellites for a live broadcast, enabling people to see on the TV screens this instant when the Earth is pitch dark.’ Unsurprisingly, the United Nations chooses not to take up Qiang’s proposal, but the project is nevertheless published as part of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s celebrated project ‘Unbuilt Roads, 107 Unrealized Projects’, which MWI\LMFMXIHEXXLIMR¾YIRXMEP Münster Sculpture Projects in 1997. It is one of a series of projects which marks Qiang as possibly the most important artist to emerge from China in the late 20th-century. Qiang is ranked on artfacts.net as the 365thQSWXMR¾YIRXMEPEVXMWXMR the world. 3YXGSQI%VXMWXMRGPYHIHMRQER]LMKLTVS½PI exhibitions, and regularly commissioned by several major cities to provide major ‘spectacles’. There are plenty of other artists and designers who attempt to subvert or undermine or avoid the gallery system.Victor Papanek tried to design all commercial value out of his objects by making them from recycled tin cans and old bits of wire; Robert Smithson and Gordon Matta 'PEVOQEHIZEWXWMXIWTIGM½GEVX[LSWITS[IV could not be harnessed by galleries or collectors; Tord Boontje made instructions for a chair you can build for yourself out of cheap lengths of
2x2, some blankets and some packing tape. But MRIEGLGEWIXLIRSVQEXMZIMR¾YIRGISJXLI public/private gallery and collector system found ways – always with the best of intentions – to appropriate and adapt their ideas for easy gallery consumption. RESISTANCE IS FUTILE It may be in response to the hegemony of the collector system, but one of the enduring preoccupations for artists throughout the course of the 20th-century has been the status of the object. The resulting revolution – from Duchamp’s objet trouvé through Breton’s surrealist object to Nauman’s subject-as-object – ought to have had profound implications for the organisations which have made it their business to house and display art and architecture. At the very least, these galleries have tended to be charactised less as the depositories for objects, and more as – in the words of one gallery director – ‘meeting places, sites for chatter, the exchange of ideas, debate and argument; noisy messy places.’ While much museological effort in the 19th-century was devoted to the collection ERHGPEWWM½GEXMSRSJSFNIGXWMXMWQSVIGSQQSR today to regard the museum as a medium for ideas, only some of which are carried through objects. But then along comes Damien Hirst with his emphatic celebration of the object-as-fetish, underlining 50 million times the truth that the old commercial order remains dominant. Somehow, despite a concerted attack from many sides, the traditional notion of a collection remains resilient. Collectors of art and architectural work GSRXMRYIXS½RH[E]WXSEGUYMVI it, display it and to add value to it in the process, even when the artists themselves have gone out of their way to resist. In a period characterised by extremes of wealth and poverty, a new breed of international über-collector has sprung up in New York, Moscow, London, Beijing and beyond. These collectors are continuing in a long tradition of pushing up the prices of certain artists, and when they eventually donate them to national public collections (in return for their own name on the gallery door), the system will be reinforced once again. For The Lighthouse, I want operating without a collection to feel like a radical contemporary
position. This is particularly important since we STIVEXIMRXLIÂ˝IPHRSXSJEVXFYXEVGLMXIGXYVI and design, in which so many objects are either mass produced (and therefore should rightfully be owned by the public, not hoarded by a gallery) or take the form of large buildings which can not be collected and stored in any meaningful way.Yet despite these worthy intentions, the grim inevitability of history seems to suggest that the organisation will eventually succumb to the pressure to have its own collection. If anyone wants to offer us a garage full of oddball kit cars and eccentric prototypes, it QMKLXQEOIERMVVIWMWXMFPIÂ˝VWXWXIT Nick Barley is the director of The Lighthouse.
Former director of the Lighthouse and director of Edinburgh Book Festival Nick Barley reflects on the collector's impulse. From issue 26, Wi...