“Sorry, no photographs” ushers the gallery employee. In this tech-savvy instagramming world, you’d think the Barbican is losing a social-network advertising opportunity by telling art enthusiasts to keep their phones away. No barrage of #MagnificentObsessions on your twitter feed, because we’re not allowed to share the experience. But perhaps that is the point. Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector is an exhibition showcasing the hoarding of a broad range of artists from across the world. Whether it is Andy Warhol’s ceramic biscuit jars, or Howard Hodgkin’s Indian paintings, this is a secret glimpse into the creative mind of accepted creative pioneers.
You are welcome to walk at your leisure through the space. No specific direction, and indeed the Barbican don’t force you one way or another. The lower deck features work, and collections, owned by Damien Hirst and Hiroshi Sugimoto amongst others. The upper rooms are more separate, housing the collections of Peter Blake, Martin Wong and Danh Vo, Dr Lakra and the aforementioned Hodgkin and Warhol. It’s a different perspective, looking at art (is it art?) in this light. You are not viewing months or years of work (it’s not a retrospective in any sense), yet this gathering of objects have been a part of the artists lives for years. You are not critiquing their output and what they are trying to say – it simply is what it is. This is what has made the artist create what they have – whether you like their work or not.
Warhol, for example, collected thousands of objects and comfortably threw bin bags of items in the corner of his Manhattan town house without even looking at them again. Within a year after his death, it was all auctioned off over the course of four days. In the small space of Magnificent Obsessions we merely see cookie jars styled on animals and strange items. Opposed to the repetitive and mass-produced subject of his Brillo and Campbells iconic screen-prints, these seem unique and rare. A brief walk from his section is Martin Wong and Danh Vo’s collection. Peering in, it seems that the items are random and simply presented neatly. On closer inspection, we see the careful decisions made. Whether it is the vintage Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck merchandise or the creative hamburgers that are recreated to become tins, toys or, in one case, a lamp (who doesn’t need a hamburger-lamp?), this is a considered assortment. Did they select only ten items for each theme? Was it a conscious decision to focus on elephants and/or waving cats? Or is this the decision of the curator – and many more weird and wonderful items lurk in storage elsewhere?
Magnificent Obsessions changes your perception and forces you to reflect on your own possessions. Do you pick up items and store them? Do you hold memory boxes in the corner of your loft? What would your space look like if it was part of an exhibition? This small insight into the mind of artists is intriguing, and though the obvious taxidermied animals in Hirst’s collection is of no surprise, others are quietly revealing. Peter Blake’s bird-headed mammal seems reminiscent of his collages. Hodgkin’s Indian art pieces seem to be the complete opposite to his abstract, bright canvases. Perhaps the decision to limit the pictures taken was not by the Barbican, and was in fact by the artist themselves. Perhaps this small insight into their mind is too revealing and something that should be a limited experience and not something repeated on the internet for eternity. It’s a unique experience and one that confidently sits on that line between artefact and art, with provoking thoughts to take away into the street – but don’t try and capture them on your phone.
Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector runs from 12 February 2015 – 25 May 2015 at the Barbican in London.