Blame late capitalism for America’s longstanding obsession with clutter. If not too long ago people gathered around their TV sets to gawk at episodes of Hoarders, these days they’re going glassy-eyed for Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Trash and treasure, by all accounts, are always in the eye of the beholder, and with “The Keeper,” the New Museum weaves a rich and ambitious exhibition of a wide array of creators practiced in the art of collecting and preserving the odds and ends of the world. At its core, the show is also a meditation on what can propel a creative process and what determines an artwork’s essential value — its magic.
There are those artists moved by visions they need to heed. Arthur Bispo do Rosário believed that God wanted him to decide what and who should be redeemed on Judgment Day. He spent years in an asylum fabricating tapestries, clothes, and installations, believing himself the gatekeeper of what in the world could be saved. Vanda Vieira-Schmidt believes that she can save the earth from evil by drawing talismans of her own invention, sometimes making as many as five hundred a day. Begun in 1995, her project to date comprises over half a million drawings. Hilma af Klint, who considered herself a medium, made occult paintings so mesmerizing, one might think she was very right about her channeling powers.
Preservation is a motivation too. The tiny terrarium-like sculptures of Yuji Agematsu are made of bits and pieces of refuse he collects on his daily walks around New York City — dropped toys, a slice of lemon, hair, insects, lint, papers — and displays inside the plastic wrapping taken from a cigarette pack. (Each artwork equals a single day’s worth of detritus.) Shinro Ohtake preserves found materials, too, in bulging Technicolor scrapbooks into which he pastes and paints over
magazine clippings, stamps, wrappers, comic strips, and more. The compositions explode off the page, and each book looks as though it will burst at the seams, spilling his visions of the world into ours.
There is also art that springs from trauma. Hannelore Baron’s family escaped Nazi Germany, but not before having their business and personal possessions stolen. Her somber assemblages are animated by the question of what survives such trials, and how, and how legibly. Emir Maurice Chehab rescued as many of the antiquities from the National Museum of Beirut as he could when the front lines of the Lebanese Civil War were drawn outside its front door. These objects — here displayed as slides — may have been saved from extinction, but most were marred by the violence: melted, burned, misshapen, transformed into war memorials of a different kind.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the monumental installation Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002) by Ydessa Hendeles, an object-essay on the creature comforts we manufacture and embrace to soothe childhood fears and ward off the inevitable passing of time. Inside of rooms built to resemble a two-story library, the artist has hung more than three thousand photographs of people and their teddy bears alongside antique versions of the ever-popular stuffed animals. The installation is so dense and dizzying — the eye struggles to land inside the space — that any feelings of nostalgia or solace are replaced by vertigo.
When the exhibition falls flat — when a work lacks the uncommon aura we’ve come to want and expect — it’s invariably around a contemporary artist. Why? Walking through the museum’s galleries, one feels the distinct difference between an artist who has a belief and one who has a concept — whether a creator-collector is guided by obsession, compulsion, or passion, or by a certain professionalism. In the parlance of our era, the low-frequency question of authenticity, that greasy, double-edged standard of aesthetic value, hums around some of the art on view. (Again, blame late capitalism.) Although “The Keeper” does well to point to the many registers of creative production, it also winds the mind around the poles at either end of the “great art vs. successful art” debate.
Take Aurélien Froment’s video Pocket Theater (2007), in which a magician procures and prestidigitates an encyclopedic array of images of objects onscreen, arranging and rearranging them in midair. The work is a delight, a visual confection about the ways in which jpegs fuel (and fake out) the eye, giving us an illusion of presence, of possession. An astute point, for sure, yet when compared to the well-worn pages of Vladimir Nabokov’s notes on butterfly wing patterns, or the sparkling mysteries of theorist Roger Caillois’s collection of stones, or the proposed universality of composer Harry Smith’s stockpile of string games (selections of all of which are installed directly across from Froment’s video), his feels didactic, lacking the tender propeller of personal pleasure.
Or Ed Atkins’s video The Trick Brain (2013), a visual essay on André Breton’s apartment, which the Surrealist meticulously stuffed floor to ceiling with his massive collections of art, books, and other objets. (Collecting will be compulsive, or will not be at all!) Atkins’s video is mostly composed of shots of Breton’s apartment appropriated from footage by French filmmaker Fabrice Maze, who’s uncredited for his material. (The exhibition’s catalog and wall text refer to it only as “archival footage.”) Over these images, Atkins adds a monologue he wrote on the subject of collection-as-corpse in prose so punishingly “poetic” it gives one the distinctly unpleasant feeling of having been waterboarded by a thesaurus. (“Slimed, as if freshly birthed through a gaping trepanation bordered with amniotic marmalade.”) One can argue that these moves all support Atkins’s concept, but in the context of this show, his piece feels lifeless and arch.
And yet these artists are authentic signs of our times, reflecting a relationship to collection and creation that’s disconnected from rawer impulses, now made strategic, self-conscious, or, more dispiritingly, market-ready. (Not to mention feeding the darkest side of collecting: the advent of art as an investment commodity, to be flipped, or put into long-term storage, until deemed ready for the auction block.) The most invigorating moments of “The Keeper” immerse us in expressions and gestures born of urgency, of an unfettered mind freed to follow its bliss or its dread and compose the world as it sees fit. If feeling overwhelmed as you wander the galleries, take Kondo’s advice: Keep only what sparks joy.
The New Museum
Through September 25