If I am found, on the top floor of a Holloway Road mansion block, being eaten by cats, I am deeply concerned about the outside world will think of me. This is because I am a hoarder, magpie, relentless nostalgic and disorganised to boot. My book case alone has an inner tube, a pink ceramic hippo, a painted wooden duck, a tiger babushka doll, two metal giraffes – I stop there for fear that my inventory of worldly possessions reveals my prime passion in life to be miniature animals.
Public immortalisation through my nicknacks is my predominant thought as I peruse the dazzlingly eclectic exhibition Magnificent Obsessions: the Artist as Collector now on at the Barbican. Here, the curator’s intention is to probe into the lives of the artist through their collectables, ranging from the bizarre to the utilitarian. Thank goodness, I think; my ‘I Love London’ salt shakers are far less kitsch than Peter Wong’s.
Throughout this exhibition of post-war and contemporary artists’ personal items, the manic hoarder is in as equal abundance as the connoisseur. Wong and Dahn Vo’s room alone must have over a thousand items, from Mickey Mouse replicas to a large lamp with a hamburger riding an elephant. The range of objects is staggering. I drift into reveries of the madness that occurs at closing time: Damien Hirst’s lion lying down with the seven legged, two bodied Victorian lamb, Arman’s armoured samurai in deep conversation with the ventriloquist’s dummy. Peter Blake’s profoundly sinister rocking chair of dolls makes me snap out of this fantasy quickly.
Amidst this glorious chaos emerges clear themes influencing the artist’s creations — a wall of African masks, a display cabinet of minimalist white ceramics, an obsession with the taxidermical. This exhibition does well in raising the profile of some less well-known British artists. Howard Hodgkin’s painting of vibrant oranges and slapdash swirls are given more depth by his collection of vivid 18th century Indian paintings. Martin Parr’s photographs provide a wonderfully scathing commentary on modern crowd behaviour; his extensive collection of titillating, postcards my highlight of the exhibition. In fact, I prefer the lesser knowns to the artistic monoliths, the Warhols and Hirsts — I’d rather have Wong and Parr at my fictitious celebrity dinner party.
The mania behind the collection itself can be disconcerting; the majority of Andy Warhol’s collections lies in boxes, unopened, a tribute to an artist who was more interested in acquisition than possession. In other collections, the artists’ works and objects are often indistinguishable, provoking pretentious discussions about the meaning of art and identity, how and why artists collect, where the connections to their work lie. I hope no one overhears us. Nevertheless, one cannot deny that the concept of the curator, organising possessions of the artist to display as art, which are often works of art by other artists, is unflinchingly meta.
This exhibition reminds me of an endless rummage through a fantastical antique shop. I pore over Soviet space replica, lose myself in Pae White’s silk scarf cloud of colour, gawp at the lifesize model of a man receiving nasal surgery and am greedy for more. The information provided is limited and there is little analysis of the artists’ motivations or drivers, but this doesn’t matter. My imagination’s having a brilliant time.