by Travis Jeppesen on April 23, 2008
The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art
Barbican Art Gallery, London
Through May 18th, 2008
The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art is a hilarious piss-take on the anthropological impulse that tends to taint so much contemporary curatorial practice – not to mention contemporary art.
It all started off with curators Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee being asked to organize a survey of current trends in sculpture, and somehow morphed into something otherworldly along the way.
The launching pad seems to be the first chapter of Thierry de Duve’s Kant After Duchamp, which attempts to understand art through the eyes of a Martian anthropologist visiting Earth. In his quest to understand this human phenomenon called art, he gathers as many specimens as he sees fit to bring back to his planet, divides them into representative categories meant to represent Earthling art in the context of Earthling culture, and voilà.
The exhibition begins with Sherrie Levine’s bronze tribute to Duchamp’s urinal – an image also reproduced in the beginning of Duve’s book; Tacita Dean’s documentation of her search for Spiral Jetty; and Maurizio Cattelan’s portrait of Picasso as a Lichtenstein, among others. This is the “Kinship and Descent” section of the museum, in which the terrestrials pay homage to their artistic gods. The Martians are presumably unable to see the irony in pieces like Douglas Gordon’s Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe (reproduced above.) All the more fun for us, then.
Mike Kelley’s Frankenstein is presented under the “Totems” section; Warhol’s Mao and Scott King’s Cher enliven the “Icons”; Bruce Nauman’s My Name as Though It Were Written on the Surface of the Moon is an instance of “Interplanetary Communication”; Jimmie Durham and Jason Rhoades contribute to the “Unclassified Objects.” Etcetera, etcetera.
The assumption behind all of this – Duve and the curators alike – is that art must somehow be totally unique to humanity, completely outside Martian consciousness. What if it’s not, though? What if, for instance, the extraterrestrials know nothing outside of art? Or, what if our art happens to be infinitely more sophisticated than theirs? “No, it could never be” – this seems to be the common assumption. But why?
Had the curators dug a bit further into the mind boggling field of ufology, they might have managed to probe questions of a deeper philosophical, rather than anthropological, nature – which would have resulted in a much more serious exhibition. (Anyway, why do Manacorda and Yee’s Martians have anthropologists but not artists? Is this a question the curators ever stopped to ask themselves?) At the same time, it would have also taken a lot of the fun away. This is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in a long time, and the organizers should be commended for bringing laughter back into the gallery space. Why must art be so stuffy all the time, anyway?
All in all, the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art shows an interesting means of reverting to a zero degree standpoint, wherein we may attempt to forget everything we know about art and try to see these objects in a new light. This is something of a challenge, as the work that the curators have chosen is so densely saturated in cultural meaning, we cannot but trip over extra-sensory overload wherever we turn. I’m talking about the focus on work that refutes the sort of self-containment and self-referentiality of Modernism; the “contemporary” as defined by the Duchamp canon. Perhaps this tells us a little bit more than we’d like to acknowledge about what art has become. But only by seeing the limitations of the “contemporary” in all their nudity can we begin to surpass them. And you don’t need an anthropologist to tell you that.