An artist’s obsessions

The Barbican Centre, that gargantuan, sprawling labyrinth of brutalism, has been an intriguing space ever since it opened its doors to the public in 1982. Not only does its location in the heart of the City create a stark juxtaposition between its muted, Orwellian concrete and the polished sheen of the surrounding glass skyscrapers, the Centre itself has played host to an array of noteworthy events – being as comfortable with offering both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the New York Philharmonic residency as it is with putting on the largest Bauhaus exhibition in the UK.

The Centre’s Art Gallery is currently inhabited by an exploration of the personal collections of a number of post-war and contemporary artists – the first major UK exhibition to take this focus. The variety of movements and time periods covered by the exhibition’s range of featured artists is impressive, yet is not quite reflected in the collections themselves. At times the gallery can seem somewhat bare, and, with only a small part of each artist’s collections featured, one cannot help thinking that the Barbican could (and should) have included more objects. Nonetheless, there is still enough here to provide interesting insights into each artist’s taste. Interestingly, certain types of objects crop up repeatedly: rare taxidermy, pop culture kitsch, and eldritch dolls being particularly ubiquitous.

But this needn’t be a criticism of Magnificent Obsessions. There are plenty of other objects on show to ensure that the exhibition never becomes tedious or dull. Pae White’s exquisitely hung collection of Vera silk scarves, as well as Martin Parr’s wacky assortment of Soviet space dog memorabilia, are particular highlights. The layout also ensures that the whole experience never becomes monotonous. Upon entering the gallery, staff immediately inform visitors that there is no defined route to explore the exhibition, leaving one to wander through the different rooms freely. The fact that, rather than grouping the more organised collections together, the exhibition intersperses the organised with the more chaotic and hoard-like, ensures that visitors are kept on their toes as they pick their path through the gallery.

Moreover, the objects that do recur highlight a shared interest of artists who, by working with different mediums and within different movements, share little else. There seems to be something particularly attractive about stuffed six-legged goats and garish mainstream collectables. But Magnificent Obsessions never attempts to articulate exactly what this attraction is, instead preferring to leave interpretation of these collections largely up to the viewer. Apart from a brief outline of each artist’s life, major work, and their collecting habits, the exhibition offers little explicit information – the collections themselves take centre-stage. To some, the enigmatic exhibition that results will be highly enjoyable. To others, it may grow infuriating. One must be able to suspend our common desire to achieve full comprehension of our experiences – must be able to just bathe purely in the spectacle – to really enjoy Magnificent Obsessions.


Originally published in the Cherwell newspaper, 2 April 2015.

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