at The Proud Archivist, London, N1
Thursday 21st – Saturday 23rd January 2016
“An immersive exhibition celebrating the lives and loves of some the UK’s greatest collectors. Showcasing some of the most intriguing and unusual collections from across the nation.”
We may think that collecting is a wonderfully eccentric British obsession – nearly seventy one percent of Britons say they are collectors – though it is not solely confined to these shores. This exhibition, however, highlights collecting in a uniquely British historical context where collecting had once been a noble pastime and the practice of adventurers and amateur scholars. Some of the greatest museums in the world owe their existence to the acquisitive instincts of private collectors from the Ashmolean in Oxford to the Wellcome Collection in Euston, London. Henry Wellcome, the pharmacist, collected over a million sharp objects that he felt represented the history of medical science and later opened his museum.
For many people who amass collections, their value is not monetary but emotional. Collections allow people to relive their childhoods, to connect themselves to a period in their history, or to a time they feel strongly about. Their collections may help them to ease insecurity and anxiety about losing a part of themselves, and to keep the past present. Some collect for the thrill of the hunt. Collecting is much like a quest, a lifelong pursuit which can never be complete; an itch which can never be eased. Collecting may provide psychological security by filling a part of the self one feels is missing or is void of meaning. Some people find the act of arranging, organizing and presenting serve to provide a safety zone, a place of refuge where fears are calmed and insecurity is managed.
Psychologists have often taken a Freudian perspective when describing why people collect. They highlight the controlling and impulsive side to collecting, the need for people to have ‘an object of desire’ and hence the innate propensity to collect begins at birth, stemming from unresolved toilet training conflict, say the Freudians. They maintain, therefore, that the collector is trying to gain back control of their bowels as well as their ‘possessions’ which have long since been flushed down the loo.
Jung had a more reasonable theory about why people become collectors. He touted the influence of archetypes on behaviour, embedded in, what he termed, our collective unconscious. Using this logic, collecting and completing sets have as their archetypal antecedents the collecting of nuts and berries, once needed for survival by our early ancestors.
At some point in history, obsessive acquisitiveness began to be seen as something suspect, infantile or just plain strange – stamp collecting became the epitome of suburban small-mindedness – and those inchoate accumulations were completed out of sight. But in the late twentieth century came a second wave of collectors and those supposedly worthless assemblages of ephemera started to make serious money; a piece of chewing gum spat out by Britney Spears at Wembley Arena in 2000 being sold on eBay for $14,000.
Some commerce-motivated collectors hunt for collectables only to turn them into profit soon after – think the TV programme Four Rooms. However, most autograph seekers are emotionally motivated to collect with, apparently, over ninety percent of autograph collectors having no intention to sell their trophies. Happiness is derived from adding a new find or signature to the collection; the excitement of the hunt, and the social camaraderie when sharing a collection with others.
A neurologist who studies hoarding behaviour agrees with Jung that the need to collect stems from a basic drive to collect supplies such as food that goes back to our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and that this drive originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. He has found that many compulsive hoarders had suffered damage to the prefrontal cortex, a region of their brain that regulates cognitive behaviours like decision making, information processing, and organizing behaviour.
So collecting can be many things to many people, different motives are not mutually exclusive and different motives can combine in each collector for a multitude of reasons. A positive and healing occupation; a way of passing the time; a symptom of brain malfunction. Someone, one day, will probably make a collection of collectors, keep them in suspended animation and refer to them as curiosities. I’d pay to see that.
by Alice Anderson
The Wellcome Collection
22 July – 18 October 2015
How do we remember the past and commit moments to memory? This is one of the questions that artist Alice Anderson addresses in her latest exhibition ‘Memory Movement Memory Object’. In this painstaking and slick exhibition our visual sensibilities have been given to a treat.
Anderson has taken ordinary objects from our everyday lives and elevated them to iconic status by wrapping them in copper wire; the process itself becoming an almost religious and physically beautiful ritual. The catalogue states that “beautiful and uncanny sculptures prompt you to rediscover things you thought you already knew”.
By using mundane objects, it seems that Anderson has ordered the world, promising – by association – a better, more beautiful existence; a Utopian world where there is no rush, or dirt, or noise, or strife. However, it is true that if you put enough things together of the same colour and brilliance and present them beautifully, as she has done, then almost anything would seem impressive. But that is the point, I think.
As you enter the dark, expectant spaces of the Wellcome Collection you are met by a golden Ford Mustang, this iconic car, a pristine and copper-coloured phantom (sans fittings, sans, doors, sans mirrors, sans any defining features at all) seemed to promise exciting things to come.
In the second room (which felt like the ‘main installation’) each black podium disappeared into the similarly black background, making the rose-tinted objects shimmer, even float in a guard-of-honour leading the visitor along and up an ethereal stairway to something mysterious; an implied perfect place perhaps? Whilst in that room I was strongly reminded of a Sacred Inca place of worship, was it all that golden glow or the pyramid-shaped staircase, I cannot be sure?
The objects were protected, glamorised and hidden, producing, what could be described as, ‘silk purses out of a sow’s ear’. The clean, sharpness of the presentation and the precise and important lighting added to the overall effect of being in a sacred space, with a litany of minor deities on their pedestals. But it is a funny kind of religion that doesn’t celebrate the details or the differences.
Nonetheless, I loved this visual treat, the shapes, the setting, the lighting and I think it went some way towards a better appreciation of the commonplace. Anderson has run with Duchamp’s idea of the ready-made and taken it one step further – no mean feat – by showing that anything is capable of change. Thus cleverly combining the spiritual with the conceptual.
My only doubt was with the claims made by the curators that “both the making and display of works interrogate how we create, record and transform the past”, yes I get this, but “how we imagine the future”, is too great a leap of faith for me.
Alice Anderson, whose hair is, coincidentally, the same colour as her copper wire, has produced a stunningly attractive body of work, and it was a joy to walk through it. Surely that is claim enough for me to recommend this to you, my reader, even though I cannot see my ability to imagine the future to be enhanced in any way.
Fifteen years ago, the United Nations decided to mark the new millennium with a series of targets aimed at improving the lives of the world’s poorest people. The Millennium Development Goals focused on eradicating poverty and hunger – improving maternal and child health – and more.
The targets were supposed to have been met this year. But we were told yesterday on BBC2’s Newsnight, that 800 million people are still in extreme poverty and that in Chad one in three children are severely undernourished – a condition which is irreversible. And with one in four of the world’s children stunted this must be the world’s greatest health problems.
With world population doubling every twenty five years and our life expectancy increasing (except in Chad, of course) this planet of ours is heading for more problems and more human tragedy. Help must be given to the poorest and most vulnerable in our society. There are many awful things happening worldwide that need our attention but surely this should be our number one priority?
At school I embraced science and rejected religion. The certainty of science was reassuring. Science meant facts & knowledge. It was immutable, incontrovertible and empirical. Science measured things, tested things, showed how things worked. That knowledge was power. Nothing left to chance, nothing a matter of faith. Religion was passed down to us as a fact, true, but we were expected to accept it at face value. Knowledge imparted through dictum, not experience. Testing God was not on.
Science nowadays seems bossy and smug; a closed egalitarian system for the initiated in-crowd and it too involves interpretation. Richard Dawkins, the spokesperson for the hatred for all things religious and love of the life scientific, had seemed so plausible – of course science should help us find the answers together with experimentation, tests, blind-tests and empirical measurements.
On the other hand, Religion did not seem to have much going for it. Christianity could be held responsible for a lot of bad things, going back through its two thousand year history, the inquisition, nepotism, child abuse, heretical burnings. But in that same time period it had also been the great religious orders – the Cistercians, the Benedictines, the Dominicans – that offered the opportunity for scientific experiments. In those days there were simply no other organisations supporting brilliant minds, just the religious orders. Cut off from society in lonely monastery cells, these religious were radically pushing the frontiers of knowledge forward. The thirteen century Franciscan scientist, Roger Bacon was an intellectual pioneer of the study of nature through empirical methods. In his day there was no such thing as a scientist, it was the monks’ faith that led them to explore the conditions for life, as a God-given mystery, to be understood. The monasteries and convents were the power-house of creativity, education, medicine, hygiene, food, wine and scientific development.
To be religious now could mean thinking and speaking from the heart, nebulous thoughts, more fluid connections and ideas, free from the threat of damnation and hell fire. Yes, and even humour is back in fashion in the Vatican, this new Pope can laugh. What a laugh it would be if he were courageous enough to ordain a woman as a Cardinal, in one fell swoop he would steal a march on the Church of England and open up the church to the millions of women who shore up large and tiny parishes, all around the world.
Where are those power-houses now? Is it Silicon Valley, or its counterparts in Russian, China, Korea? The great Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Microsoft empires, where folk still dress in sandals and have long, flowing locks and beards; could they ever be capable of great art, music or writing? Or is their vision concentrated, fixedly on their monitors and banks of screens, searching for answers along the virtual connections, circuitry and silicon chips of their sophisticated machines? Is their future one of co-evolution, of human/machine coupling?
Life, emotions and relationships cannot conform to an algorithm, it is chaotic. But if chaos theory tells us anything, it is that when Chaos is magnified enough times, it becomes order; maybe we just haven’t the ability to see the whole picture yet. According to the big bang model, the universe expanded from an extremely dense and hot state. After the initial expansion, the Universe cooled sufficiently to allow the formation of subatomic particles, and later simple atoms. Giant clouds of these primordial elements later coalesced through gravity to form stars and galaxies. The big bang theory does not provide any explanation for the initial conditions of the Universe, rather it describes and explains the general evolution of the Universe going forward from that point. Why had the conditions that went to make that explosion, existed in the first place? The potential for the beginning. Where did that potential come from?
Why are we designed the way we are? The human genome project illustrates just how marvellous we are, but why are we that way? To find God maybe we need to be even bigger than the memory of a strand of DNA, after all DNA has not been given to us by scientists, scientists have just revealed DNA to us, it comes from….. who knows where? Our brains make connections, our blood flow can be observed, using MRI scans, moving around both sides of our hippocampus – our brain waves are a brain wave, but our inventions only expose the beauty of what we always had, but couldn’t see? Seeing is believing, but the ultimate answers are still a mystery.
The beautiful, brilliant mystery that scientists are beginning to reveal, still does not supply the answer as to why the original pieces, the building blocks that make us who we are, were there in the first place? Potential us, so dependant on chance encounters and conditions allowing for millions of different outcomes.
There are things that can’t be explained or matched up and ticked off. Maturity, life experiences, does it endow us with a newfound tolerance for uncertainty? No answers? Mystery? Daring to say there are some things we just don’t understand? Faith? Have we reached a place where we can accept that open-ended, unsatisfactory realisation?
On Sunday 1st March 2015 a programme called ‘The Great European Disaster Movie’ was broadcast on BBC 4 and followed by a ‘Newsnight Debates’ programme with newly floppy-haired Robert Peston.
Following those programmes, there has been massive wringing of hands, predictably, from UKIP who have complained (unsubstantiated) that the film was EU funded, and schadenfreude from political journalists like Peter Hitchens. Undoubtedly the future looks bleak for the great European dream that began on March 28th 1957 with high hopes and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Rome’. It is worth reminding ourselves, I think, of a little bit of European history which is often overlooked. It is called the ‘Werner Report’ and it illustrates that The British Government was never hood-winked into signing up to a secret idea of Europe that they were unaware of – the only people deceived were the poor British public.
In 1970 British Prime Minister Edward Heath’s government applied to join the Common Market, the same year that Pierre Werner’s confidential report began circulating in Brussels. The Council of Ministers had commissioned the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Pierre Werner, to draw up a plan to move the Common Market forward to full economic and monetary union, possibly also including a common defence policy, and Werner’s recommendation was that this should be achieved quickly, “within a decade”.
When secret papers released under the 30-year rule, from the time Mr. Edward Heath was the British Prime Minister, the most striking of these documents were those reflecting the Heath Government’s reaction to that report. Apparently, what alarmed the Foreign Office was not the contents of the Werner Report. On the contrary, Mr Heath and his ministers did not throw up their hands in horror and say “good heavens, we had no idea this was what the Common Market is about. We could not possibly accept such a thing”. In fact, when Geoffrey Rippon, the minister in charge of our negotiations, went to see M. Werner on October 27, the minutes of their discussion show that Rippon went out of his way to congratulate him on his report, which he said “well stated our common objectives”.
Privately, Her Majesty’s Government had no objection to the political union Werner was proposing. The only real concern of Mr Heath and his colleagues was that this plan should not be talked about too openly in public, because this might so inflame public opinion that it would be much harder to persuade Parliament and the British people that it was in their interests to join what they were being assured was no more than a ‘common market’, intended to boost trade.
When these documents were released in 2001, these details were confirmed by a retired Foreign Office official Sir Crispin Tickell, who had played an intimate part in Britain’s Common Market negotiations as Geoffrey Rippon’s private secretary and was present at the meeting with Werner. In a BBC interview Tickell frankly admitted that, although worries over Britain’s loss of sovereignty had been “very much present in the mind of the negotiators”, the line had been “the less they came out in the open the better”.
Here was chapter and verse showing how politicians and civil servants had been party to a quite deliberate attempt to hide from the British people what Britain’s entry into the Common Market was letting them in for. From the very beginning, the British government’s involvement with the “European project” introduced an element of deliberate deceit into the politics of this country. To anyone who follows such matters in detail, nothing is more striking than the way, again and again, we see supporters of Britain’s participation in this project apparently having to resort to obfuscation and subterfuge, both to disguise what the project is really about and to hide what they themselves are up to. And the fundamental reason for this culture of concealment is that there have always been two quite different perceptions as to the nature of this European project.
For 40 years British politicians have consistently tried to portray it to their fellow-citizens as little more than an economic arrangement: a kind of free-trading area primarily concerned with creating jobs and prosperity, which incidentally can help preserve the peace. This is the lie, founded on deceit, that is now pedalled by such decent and upright people as Nigel Farage (who by the way has no scruples in taking EU money himself) and Peter Hitchens whose fantasy world of a perfect Britain standing alone, out of Europe – proud and independent, is only a product of his fevered brain.
But ultimately this culture of concealment derives from that same basic act of deception, the pretence that the nature of the ‘European project’ is something different from what it is. Is it too much to ask for honesty now in British politics and political journalism?
What does Britain want from membership of the European Union now?
Most other EU countries are committed to the union, and are prepared to work for that dream of closer harmony. If Britain isn’t, then they should leave and go it alone. But I personally fear for what will happen to the United Kingdom if that is what they decide to do.
I don’t suppose anyone who reads my words will examine them with as much attention to detail as I write them. I would be very happy if that were not the case, if a whole range of people did spend hours poring over my words, but reality tells me that is probably not happening.
So it may come as a surprise that I am worried about my so-called valorisation of women pioneers of the highly sophisticated calculating machines and their spin-offs. I am concerned about the unexpected consequences of a handful of women, many years ago, who helped develop nuclear and atom bombs? By this I mean that Jean Jennings et al, and Grace Hopper did help develop those weapons of mass destruction with their work at ENIAC. Why should I hold women up to closer scrutiny than the many men involved in computer technology. I know there are many people out there now involved in designing new, remote ways to kill our enemies. It is unfair surely?
Is it because there are so few women in that world and they just stand out more, or is it that women are, perhaps, too equal to men? It has become clear to me today that women should be, better. More humane, compassionate and considered. That is what I expect. When I found they had feet of clay, my heart sank and I was forced to accept that we humans are, at heart, all fallible. When the Nazi guards explained that they were only obeying orders, we dismissed this as merely an excuse, we can’t hold those American women up to a lesser scrutiny than the other small cogs in rotten machines who let bad things happen, can we? We are all capable of making the wrong decision and therefore we must always be careful of the consequences of our actions, espousing the next new things, following orders blindly, before actually thinking them through.