Last week my girlfriend and I went to see a new exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery. The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art invites us to step into an exhibition of objects, paintings, photographs and installations assembled by alien curators. Martian hieroglyphs decorate the walls. Copper tracks embedded in the gallery floor direct us to areas with titles like ‘Totems’, ‘Icons’ and ‘Kinship Diagrams’. The Museum’s Director is one “Dr Klaatu” (it’s really Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee).
I must confess I found this concept utterly absorbing. Our imaginary, extraterrestrial curators guide us through the strange detritus of human culture in a kind of quasi-anthropological exercise. What we call ‘art’ becomes a window onto our world-view with all its foolish desires, irrational rituals, foibles and fantastical screw-ups. The cult of the celebrity artist (there are Hirsts and Warhols here) is exploded – the individual genius just another member of the tribe. Futurist-primitivist folk-art.
As someone who has neither the aesthetic/critical vocabulary nor the patience for much of what passes for contemporary art, The Martian Museum gave me a way in. Curation here is not about networking, sycophancy, critical knowledge or money; it’s an act of collection, classification and presentation. A neutral, scientific process. This was the least pretentious gallery experience I’ve had in years.
I’ll say only a little about the objects themselves. Because really the individual artefacts are secondary to the Museum itself, in this case. Plus, it’s quite patchy. There’s some real try-hard stuff, particularly in the first few rooms, and plenty of very knowing intertextuality. Which is fine, if you get the references. Actually, I did get the references, and I didn’t find any good jokes, or, well, anything at all. But there are also some remarkable finds. I loved Cornelia Parker’s work, particularly her series of A to Zs, in which famous London landmarks have been destroyed by the flames of imaginary meteorites, revealing multiple layers of mapping beneath. Also, Jeffrey Vallance’s ‘Santa Claus Family Tree’, commissioned especially for the Museum, and pictured below.
One of our favourite groupings was separated from the main area in a little side gallery. I think it was called the Department of Unidentified Objects (a neat wink to UFOs), and it felt like stepping into a scene from the start of the computer game Half-Life. Many of the most intriguing exhibits were not only deliberately presented as curios; the ‘artworks’ themselves were the products of a painstaking process of collection and classification. Some good examples appeared in the Museum’s ‘Relics’ section. Think scraps of Elvis’s shag-pile or a large and totally absorbing (I kid you not) collection of ties sent to or received from world leaders by artist Jeffrey Vallance. Oh, I’ve mentioned him twice now. He must be good!
Over at the Indy, Charles Darwent concludes his mainly positive review of the Martian Museum by suggesting that the exhibition’s concept is an attempt to pander to some DCMS accessibility agenda, adding:
Which is a shame, because it is quite possible to come out of this exhibition thinking it has all been a bit of a joke, when it is actually deeply serious and rather clever.
I’m no art critic but I can’t help but think that the humour of the Martian Museum – the tongue-in-cheek, slightly silly tone maintained throughout – is intrinsic to its success. And frankly, the thought of something ‘actually deeply serious and rather clever’ doesn’t really appeal to me. Especially not on my birthday.