Collecting as art

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Gravel Plants

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Gravel Plants

Lately I have become interested in artists for whom collecting is central to their process. Dealing with taxonomies and systems of classification, their work is, at least in part, a critique of the activities of museums and collecting institutions or individuals. Fundamentally, these artists are exploring notions of identity through quantitative assessment. Here, identity is expressed through an ontology—a system of objects, representing a particular and unique perspective. A collection seeks to establish a framework by which to formalize, structure and express its content. Through their work, these artists critique that framework at different levels—relating to individual identity, the role of the institution, or society at large.

It seems that the need to categorize is a basic human trait. We cannot not categorize. The ontologies we create define cultures, as the result of processes by which we shape our lives. Museums fundamentally aim to document culture, and the systems of classification created within the museum context reflect those present within society. Art involved in a critique of these systems is therefore fundamentally also a critique of society at large—a particular society, that is—aiming in an almost scientific way to objectify the outcomes of those processes that manifest themselves in certain predictable or less-predictable forms.

The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, to me, is exemplary of the latter (see above). Their photographic documentation and classification of vernacular industrial architecture seems to be in pursuit of an archetypal form, which—independent of its actual purpose or function—appears to be saying something about the culture it resulted from.

Olafur Eliasson, The Island Series (1997)

Olafur Eliasson, The Island Series (1997)

Olafur Eliasson’s phenomenological photographic work, on the other hand, is apparently more interested in natural processes, rather than human processes. Even the Reykjavik series (2003), documenting recurring architectural building types in the Icelandic capital, seems to regard human activity as a natural phenomenon.

Both bodies of work represent a critique of objectification, as a visual documentation of phenomena which, typically relegated to a single generic category (e.g. “horizons” or “gravel plants”), are shown to not only contain a vast degree of variance, but also reveal countless subcategories of formal similarities that in many cases defy clear designation. Philosophically, they point to a fractal structure of infinitely expanding or contracting intervals of classes, in turn calling into question the notion of the object itself.

Karsten Bott, One of Each (1993)

Karsten Bott, One of Each (1993)

Rather than documenting similar phenomena by representational means, Karsten Bott, Mark Dion and Joseph Cornell all arrange seemingly dissimilar objects into pastiche installations reflecting a particular theme or area of focus, as in Dion’s Tate Thames Dig, or a particular slice of time, as in Bott’s One of Each. Similarly, Joseph Cornell created assemblages of found objects in order to tell a narrative. Unlike the work of the Bechers and Eliasson that deconstructs archetypal categories, these three artists seek to identify and create new categories through collections of objects.

In comparing these two approaches, the former is more analytic, the latter more interpretive. The work of Bott, Dion and Cornell, dealing with the past, aims to tell stories from fragments in order to invoke new interpretations through their juxtaposition, while the Bechers and Eliasson deal with the present, analyzing and questioning existing definitions.

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