Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art
6 March—18 May 2008, Barbican, London
This exhibition, Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art, is that rarest of things: a pub dare executed with sober diligence in the cold light of day. Partly inspired by the opening passages of Thierry de Duve’s book Kant After Duchamp, in which an alien visitor to Earth tries to understand the category ‘art’—which he finds so elastic as to have ‘no other generality than to signify that meaning is possible’—curators Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee present a ‘large collection of contemporary art objects under the fictional rubric of a museum conceived by, and for, extra-terrestrials’.
Two hundred works are divided into five anthropological categories: Magic and Belief, Kinship and Descent, Communication, Ritual and Unclassified Objects, each category having five sub-sections. For example, Chris Burden’s ‘Relic from “Deadman”’, 1972, appears in the Relics and Spirits section of Magic and Belief, with the caption—‘This tarpaulin seems to have protective properties. It was used to cover and shield the artist from traffic as he lay in the street in Los Angeles. It did not, however, prevent him from being arrested.’ Martin Boyce’s ‘Now I’ve Got a Real Worry’, 1998-99, appears in the Masks section of Ritual. ‘Comprising a mask and ceremonial staff,’ says our Martian ethnographer, ‘this work is in fact made from disparate elements of furniture and medical equipment designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The conversion of 20th century design deemed to be exclusive into objects of ritual and ceremony is in itself an act of disguise.’
The museum commentary strives manfully to exercise its fictional prerogative, but there is something wrong with the voice. The alien ethnographer is a transparent author-surrogate whose Martian suppositions are given scholastic credence by his Earthling ventriloquists. In other words, fiction is countermanded by art history. I’d have thought the most convincing way to handle this fictional conceit would have been to regard the assembled artworks as mere artefacts made by a species, rather than as the canonical achievements of individual specimens. I’m not sure our Martian would be so obsessed with who made what. And the attribution of authorship here follows the same pattern as conventional shows. The curators purport to wield an unusual mandate, but galleries and collectors seem to have insisted on the usual protocols. ‘Courtesy of Maureen Paley…’ etc was a particularly annoying institutional refrain—reminding us that the art world will tolerate only so many liberties.
In their meticulous catalogue essays, the curators contextualise the project within the history of Modernism’s appropriation of ethnographic objects, a history that encompasses Alfred Stieglitz’s Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art (at 291 Gallery in 1914), Negro Primitive Art (at the Brooklyn Museum in 1923) and Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern (at MoMA in 1984), all of which minted cultural currency from perceived affinities between the products of Modernism and those of anonymous tribesmen—the latter artefacts often reduced to entirely aesthetic consideration. As Yee and Manacorda remind us, such shows tended to purify ethnic ‘curiosities’ of both ‘their makers and users’, promoting artefacts to the level of artworks, but denying them the authorship that is central to our appreciation of the western canon. I wish they’d done the same here—not to ‘correct’ past colonialist indiscretions, but to lay bare the Occidental ethnicity of Warhol, Beuys et al.
Modernism, it is said, appropriated the myth of the ethnic Other in order to humanise its canon; Manacorda and Yee suggest it’s possible to conduct the reverse procedure: to see the ‘civilised’ Occidental artwork as a ‘primitivist’ artefact. Such a reversal would, in reality, involve Nicholas Serota inviting a delegation of tribesmen to take Western artworks back to their respective homelands, where they would be incorporated into such rituals as have survived globalisation and civil war. In the absence of such a delegation—of an ethnographer of the Occident—there is no option but to outsource the job to a Martian ethnographer.
The problem with the Martian perspective is that it’s such a hackneyed way of revealing the strangeness of the ‘human condition’. Nevertheless, projects like this demonstrate that the appetite for the Other as a discursive modality has not waned in our postcolonial times. It may be that, while we are glad to see the back of the stereotypical debates of colonialist discourse—of ‘primitive’ versus ‘civilised’ culture—something in us still craves the epistemological dynamic of its conflict. This show may even be an inadvertent allegory for a repressed nostalgia for that conflict.
Sean Ashton is a writer living in London