Compulsion and Creation – The Keeper at the New Museum
Anna reviews The Keeper, a voluminous show about the obsessive impulse to make and collect art. – Artblog Editor

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“The Keeper,” the recently closed multi-floor exhibition at New York City’s New Museum, seeks to unravel the mystery of compulsive artistic creation and collection. The show comprises a wide range of media, including sculpture, paintings, illustrations, and photographs. It also includes a smattering of non-art objects, such as clothes, rocks, and found objects. According to an estimate by Artnet, the exhibition showcases over half a million objects by 30 artists and collectors.

“A Mechanical Solution to a Spiritual Problem” by Carol Bove sits in the foreground of this sculptural assemblage, featuring works by Bove and architect Carlo Scarpa. This collection of sculpture and architectural elements, configured by Bove, illuminates the underlying transience of all creation, organic or manmade. Image courtesy of the New Museum.
“A Mechanical Solution to a Spiritual Problem” by Carol Bove sits in the foreground of this sculptural assemblage, featuring works by Bove and architect Carlo Scarpa. This collection of sculpture and architectural elements, configured by Bove, illuminates the underlying transience of all creation, organic or manmade. Image courtesy of the New Museum.
“Estrela de São João” by Arthur Bispo de Rosário, a self-proclaimed prophet who lived most of his life in an asylum. His works catalogued those items which God should preserve on the Day of Judgement.
“Estrela de São João” by Arthur Bispo de Rosário, a self-proclaimed prophet who lived most of his life in an asylum. His works catalogued those items which God should preserve on the Day of Judgement. Image courtesy of the New Museum.

A handful of recurring motivations and phenomena punctuate the exhibition, demonstrating a continuity of spirit shared among the disparate archives.

Madness and making

The specter of insanity is one such reason for what Curator Massimiliano Gioni calls the “unreasonable acts” of creation and preservation. This reason may be the most tantalizingly voyeuristic for the viewer. In both Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s “Weltrettungsprojekt [World Rescue Project]” and the collected works of Arthur Bispo do Rosário, the viewer gets a glimpse into disordered minds.

Vanda Vieira-Schmidt’s “Weltrettungsprojekt [World Rescue Project]. Image courtesy of the New Museum.
New York-based artists Yuji Agematsu collects detritus during his day to day life in the city and creates mini-found art sculptures from it, demonstrating a fixation on decay.
Vieira-Schmidt’s “Weltrettungspojekt” is an ongoing project comprised of over 300,000 drawings intended to defend humankind against demonic forces armed with uranium and electrocution equipment. Bispo do Rosário’s work is a collection of tapestries and found object sculpture meant to represent those things he was tasked by God to document as worth saving for the Day of Judgement. Both of these artists live or lived a majority of their adult lives in psychiatric institutions. It is not new to consider work by the mentally ill as art (Yayoi Kusama and Max Ernst are brilliant examples); there’s even a term for it–“outsider art.” These artists are often self-taught.

A collection of stones gathered by Roger Caillois. Caillois found beauty and art within these rocks and was reacting against Surrealism’s rejection of empirical investigation of natural phenomena. Image courtesy of the New Museum.
Artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, which were preserved by Director General of Antiquities Maurice Chehab during the Lebanese Civil War. Chehab would encase these objects in concrete and stash them in hidden places within the museum to prevent their destruction.

In a post-Duchampian world, where any individual object can be considered art, collections can fit into that flexible definition as well.

Wonder and grief

I would guess that most people’s collections are less the product of high-minded musing than of emotion. Two collections in “The Keeper” engage with the emotional worlds of both the preservers and the viewers, calling forth conflicted feelings of wonder and grief. I will discuss one of them.

Antique teddy bears featured in the Ydessa Hendeles’ “Partners." Image courtesy of the New Museum.
Antique teddy bears featured in the Ydessa Hendeles’ “Partners.” Image courtesy of the New Museum.

Ydessa Hendeles’ “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” aims to demonstrate how the power of art can heal, or hope to heal, a historical trauma. Hendeles’ “Partners” is a two-story installation of 3,000 photographs, all of which feature a teddy bear. The photos are mainly black and white and come from countless family archives. Although she does not consciously insert autobiographic details into her work, Hendeles is a child of two Auschwitz survivors and channels a feeling of unknowable woe into “Partners.” The installation’s almost saccharine fixation on the teddy bear as a symbol of innocence counterintuitively serves to bring the horrific violence and loss of the 20th century to forefront of the mind. Simultaneously, the purity of these images cannot help but make the viewer smile. It is that blend of wistfulness and sweetness that may be able to heal the trauma of the past for some.

A final point to make about “The Keeper” is its physical location. The New Museum focuses on contemporary art and so is a non-collecting institution. The irony of showcasing an exhibition totally dedicated to the act of preservation in a non-collecting institution initially strikes me as humorous. But it also carries a feeling of nihilism to it, as if to say: Nothing lasts; the art that was preserved by people guided by an unexplainable ferocity will ultimately disappear from this space, as well.

Tags

Arthur Bispo de Rosário, Carol Bove, Massimiliano Gioni, new museum, new york city, NYC, philadelphia, Roger Caillois, Vanda Vieira-Schmidt, Ydessa Hendeles

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