A Cabinet of Curiosities @ Barbican


The new exhibition at the Barbican is called ‘Magnificent Obsessions.’ It is a display of the personal collections of fourteen modern and contemporary artists and all I can say is that the display is magnificent and I am obsessed.

The collections on display allow us to see inside the minds of some of the most famous artists produced by western society in the last century. Each collection is displayed alongside the artist’s work, allowing us to see the direct influence on their art. The work of all the artist’s on show is highly sought after and collected, yet we often neglect the fact that artist’s often collect too. The collections on display at the Barbican allow us to see directly inside the artist’s personal environment. These accumulations of objects are just as insightful, if not more, than a look inside the artist’s studio.

The exhibition begins with the collection of Hiroshi Sugimoto. The artist is most famous for his black and white photographic prints, mostly of nature. I was surprised to see that his collection mainly consisted of medical illustrations, which appear to be mostly red in colour. These crimson images, red with the blood of life are a stark contrast to his dark images, although they too are sinister in their own way. Also on display are historical doctor’s tools as well as a case of glass eyes that glare at the viewer as they examine the collection.

The show flows cohesively into the next section that is devoted to Damien Hirst’s collection of a series of skulls and taxidermy animals. Together the two collections would easily be at home inside the Natural History Museum. Hirst’s objects prove that his formaldehyde animals and glittering diamond skull are his modernised versions of the contents of his historic collections.

Many of the collections following Hirst and Sugimoto present themselves like cabinets of curiosities, stacked full of memorabilia and objects of interest in a seemingly random fashion. Some of these collections are exact replicas of how they were displayed inside the artists’ own personal and domestic environments. These displays have come from the collections of such artists as Hanne Darboven, Dr Lakra, Sol Le Witt, and Peter Blake. Among these are also a series of curious trinkets amassed by Martin Parr that have been decorated by images of dogs. My personal favourite collection is that of Martin Wong. Wong’s wares were mostly collected from China town gift shops; yet appear to be dominated by western Disney cartoons rather than the manga or anime that one might expect. His stockpile includes a series of Donald Duck trinkets and my personal favourite item in the whole exhibition: a lamp formed out of a hamburger sitting atop of an elephant.

Also of note is Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian artwork, which is presented within a carpeted and pale green gallery. Next door to this, the textile idea is repeated in Pat White’s segment of the show. White’s display is a stunning presentation of dozens of pieces of fabric that are hung from the gallery ceiling like multiple rows of clothes lines.

The collection that attracted the most attention at the press view, and probably will do with the general public due to the fame of the artist, was that of Andy Warhol. On display here is a series of brightly coloured cookie jars, which are on display at the Barbican for the first time outside of the United States. The bright colours of the toys and cartoons assembled by Warhol are almost certain to have been of some influence on him and his art.

This exhibition is a fascinating look at the infatuations and passions of some of the world’s most famed artists. It is a show that would insight the curiosity of all: young and old, artistically inclined or not. Simple a must see!

Magnificent Obsessions is on display at Barbican until 25 May 2015

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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