Artists and Collections: a working partnership

The notion of the artist working with the museum collection is not new. Historically, artists have drawn inspiration from museums and their diverse collections - archaeological, ethnographic, medical, botanical and zoological- as a basis for academic studies and finished works.

The notion of the artist working with the museum collection is not new. Historically, artists have drawn inspiration from museums and their diverse collections - archaeological, ethnographic, medical, botanical and zoological - as a basis for academic studies and finished works. More recently, however, a growing number of contemporary artists have looked to museum collections for both inspiration and actual source material within their exhibits. A forerunner to these projects, Raid the Icebox 1 with Andy Warhol (1970) saw Pop artist Andy Warhol select an exhibition from objects in storage at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence. The project was initiated by collector and philanthropist Dominique de Menil, who invited Warhol into the collection with the proposal that "what is beautiful to the artist becomes beautiful. What is poetical to the poet, becomes poetical. So let's visit museums with artists and poets". The resulting exhibition, which included a roped-off display of dozens of neatly arranged women's shoes and stacked hat boxes, reflected both the artist's design background and ongoing artistic engagement with consumer culture. Since Raid the Icebox, museum collections have provided a rich visual vocabulary for Australian and international practitioners to work with and respond to artistically. And, for the increasing number of museums who have permitted - or actively invited - artists to make use of their collections, such collaborations have opened up a wealth of new meanings and interpretations for the objects beyond their standard museological presentation.

One recent example of this trend is the exhibition Collected (1997), coordinated by The Photographers Gallery, London, and staged at various sites around the city. As part of the exhibition, English artist Richard Wentworth and American, Fred Wilson, responded to objects in the British Museum's Egyptology collection. Both artists incorporated a range of material within their displays, the former juxtaposing contemporary consumer items alongside their ancient counterparts, and the latter exhibiting peripheral items such as perspex mounts used by museum staff to display objects. Prior to this, Wentworth's participation in the exhibition Artists in the House at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge (1993), involved the artist responding to a collection of ceramic plates upon a piano in the former home of private collector and Tate Gallery curator/trustee Jim Eade. A more recent project by American artist Kiki Smith, undertaken at the invitation of the Carnegie Museum of Art, involved the creation of an installation comprising bird and mammal specimens from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History as well as Smith's own works in response to them (1998). Smith noted of the experience, and the possibilities that it opened up for her as an artist: "In this show, it was important for me to have access to, and to show, source material. I think as an artist the source is often negated, but for me that's a very important part of being an artist and looking at the world....Art is about possibilities, and if I'm in a situation where I can have access to the unseen, I want it".

A number of Australian artists of the Nineties have also responded to museum collections in diverse ways. They include Alex Rizkalla with an installation entitled Ocular/Encyclopedia in the foyer of the former Museum of Victoria, incorporating diverse objects from the museum's collections (1994); Rosslynd Piggott in an installation of glassware and other objects from the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, entitled Double breath (contained) of the sitter (1993-94) ; Narelle Jubelin with an exquisite permanent installation of specimen cabinets at the Museum of Sydney, entitled Collectors Chest (1994); and Louise Weaver and Carolyn Eskdale in their recent exhibition, Eye-dream, which responded to objects within the Grainger Museum at The University of Melbourne (1998). Other artists including Leah King-Smith and Fiona Foley have drawn upon archival and photographic collections as a basis for works which address indigenous issues: King-Smith in her acclaimed body of work, Patterns of Connection (1991), based upon nineteenth century European photographs of Aboriginal people housed in the collections of the State Library of Victoria; and Foley in the installation Lost Badtjala, Severed Hair (1991), which utilised archival images of the Badtjala peoples sourced by the artist from the South Australian Museum .

Several exhibitions at the former Ian Potter Gallery, The University of Melbourne, have likewise incorporated collections-based objects and artefacts. They include Gordon Bennett's installation as artist in residence, Mirrorama (1993), and three exhibitions initiated by Merryn Gates under the curatorial theme of "The Artist and the Museum". The first of these exhibitions, Aleks Danko: Zen Made in Australia (1994), sought to address what catalogue essayist Charles Green identified as "the question of whether installation can ever be more than window dressing" , whilst drawing attention to a further issue raised by the inclusion of objects from The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Green wrote of this phenomenon, "The use of objects from The University's collection (including applied art such as furniture) raises another issue: is installation no more than a covert simulation of curating? This uncertainty disguises the museum's contamination" . Danko's insertion of a nineteenth-century carved emu egg from the Sir Russell and Lady Grimwade Bequest, and furniture designed by Walter Burley Griffin from The University's Newman College Collection, in the exhibition represented a pointed artistic incursion into the realm of museum display. It queried notions of what constitutes 'art' today, while simultaneously problematising the curatorial (or authorial) role of the museum.

The second exhibition within the series, entitled Elizabeth Gertsakis: Beyond Missolonghi (1994), similarly incorporated collections material to create a multi-layered display. In her exhibition, Gertsakis drew upon the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, contextualising paintings and drawings from the collections with her own wall-texts and digital colour prints. Works on loan were located in the first room of the gallery and Gertsakis's responses in the second, the shift between image and reproduction crucial to the overall meaning of the exhibition. Loaned works included a suite of little-known drawings of the Balkan war, in addition to British, French and Greek allegorical paintings. Combining political, popular, literary and personal narratives, Gertsakis's project revealed some of the complexities and ambiguities relating to Greek recent history and national identity today.

White Apron - Black Hands (1994), a touring exhibition organised by the Brisbane City Hall Gallery, represented the third and final project in the series. A collaborative project between Lel Black of the women's arts organisation Black Day Dawning, writer Jackie Huggins and artist Leah King-Smith, the exhibition focussed upon Aboriginal women domestics in service and drew upon the archival resources of the State Library of Queensland. In both projects, the use of historical material added a richness and depth to the exhibitions while adding a new interpretative dimension to the material itself.

A subsequent exhibition at the Ian Potter Gallery, computer artist Jon McCormack's Turbulence: an interactive museum of unnatural history (1995), similarly involved the use of collections-based material in its realisation. Turbulence comprised an interactive installation about computer-simulated life forms or 'Artificial Life'. In the work a menagerie of synthetic organisms, stored on laserdisk, was accessed by viewers through a touch-screen computer and displayed via overhead projection onto a gallery wall. Turbulence was located in the first room of the gallery, which was converted into a darkened amphitheatre for the exhibition's duration. In the adjacent gallery space, specimens selected by the artist from the Tieggs Museum, in The University of Melbourne's School of Zoology, proposed a biological counterpart to the synthesised organisms within the interactive. Specimens were displayed on pedestals alongside small, internally-lit jars containing illustrations and text fragments. The juxtaposition of real and synthetic organisms established a visual/metaphoric dialogue within the exhibition, the former representing life "as we know it" and the latter a new aesthetic dimension: in the words of the artist, "life as it could be".

Since the gallery's re-development and launch as The Ian Potter Museum of Art in August 1998, a further project has drawn upon The University's diverse collections in its construction. Viewing the Invisible: an installation by Fred Wilson (1998) represented the culmination of a three-month residency by American museum interventionist Fred Wilson and incorporated collections material from The University of Melbourne Medical History Museum, The University of Melbourne Anatomy Museum, and The University of Melbourne Art Collection. Works were also sourced for display from the collections of three key regional Victorian galleries - Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Bendigo Art Gallery, and Geelong Art Gallery - and from the archival holdings of the State Library of New South Wales.

Inspired by a longstanding fascination with museums and their operations, Wilson is best known for his groundbreaking exhibition Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore (1992). In the exhibition, he drew upon objects within the Society's collections to create a fictitious museum-style display that revealed inherent ideological biases relating to issues of race and representation in the museum. Wilson noted of his methodology: "I looked at every object in the Historical Society collection, which is a vast one. They've been collecting since 1840, and it was a men's club in the early days, so they have some odd things in the collection. But those things aren't on view. And those are many of the things I have put on view, because what they put on view says a lot about the museum, but what they don't put on view says more". In Viewing the Invisible Wilson likewise created a fictitious museum display, introducing subtly disruptive elements that reflected upon dominant Australian historical narratives whilst revealing omissions and counter-histories.

Viewing the Invisible comprised two discrete spaces: a 'colonial' room housing nineteenth century Australian landscape paintings, and an adjacent glass enclosure and sealed door. In the former space, Wilson used infra red analysis as a metaphor for the 'peeling back' of the pictorial surface to reveal prior histories of indigenous land occupation and dispossession following European colonisation. In the second area, he created a fictitious 'greeting gallery' containing everyday and ceremonial objects of diverse cultural significance. In this space visitors to the museum could interact with objects of specific meaning to their cultural background. A third space, visible through two semi-reflective windows at each end of the colonial room, added a further layer to the installation. Housing male portrait busts from the university campus, in addition to scientific instruments and medical apparatus, it made historical reference to The University of Melbourne as a site of academic scholarship underscored by patriarchal ideals. In this sense it reflected more broadly upon the traditional role of the university, as well as the museum, as significant in the formation of dominant ideological positions. A sound recording of men in muffled conversation, their conversation audible amongst themselves only, accompanied the display. The placement of two portrait busts after Benjamin Law, depicting Tasmanian Aborigines Truganini and Woureddy, in front of the windows made pointed comment upon their exclusion from the conversation behind them, while simultaneously giving positional primacy to them within the gallery space.

The notion of the artist working with the museum collection opens up multiple possibilities. It creates opportunities for collaboration between artists and museums, while allowing for new presentations and interpretations of collections material. As part of a growing trend amongst Australian and international practitioners, collections-based projects and museum interventions reflect some of the ways in which individual and historical narratives are revisited and re-appraised by artists today.

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