Impermanent collection

14 September 2012

The idea of an impermanent collection embodies a paradox. We tend to make collections either to preserve some aspect of the historical past, or to preserve some aspect of our own personalities. They act as mirrors, held up to events, or else as mirrors held up to ourselves. However, unlike mirrors, the image they offer is fixed, frozen at a particular moment, while the river of time, with its flotsam of emotions and events, flows inexorably forward to a future none of us, either in our public or our private capacities, can fully discern.

Those of us who collect are uneasily aware of some verses by the Victorian poet Coventry Patmore, which describes how the poet sent his disobedient little son to bed in disgrace, and, visiting him later, found him sound asleep:
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-veined stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach,
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells,
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

Public museums, of course, are allowed no such uprush of personal feeling about the objects they possess, though occasionally, one may suspect, individual curators become sentimental about certain objects in their care. Yet museums, in the modern age, have become, in a strange and perhaps unexpected fashion, repositories of collective emotion, almost displacing the great churches and other sacred spaces that once fulfilled that function.

This witty collection of photographic images and three-dimensional objects made out of deliberately humble materials by Maslen & Mehra is a commentary on the way in which what seems fixed and eternal is in fact always in flux not because it undergoes dramatic material change, but because of the fluidity of our own feelings about the objects that museums offer for our inspection.

The mirrored silhouettes, which are photographed in various outdoor locations, pick up the shapes, colours and other forms that surround them. Each photograph brings us the record of a single, unrepeatable moment.

The three-dimensional items are always a commentary on, not just a representation of, a particular object you might encounter in a museum. The representations of high fashion boots and shoes are particularly thought-provoking, since the essence of fashion is that it belongs to a particular moment. I suspect that Maslen & Mehra chose footwear for this segment of their exhibition because contemporary fashion so often fetishizes shoes. more so than any other item of costume. The Alexander McQueen Armadillo shoe translated here is a good example of the extremes to which shoe design has recently been pushed. One might guess that it could be pushed no further, until one encounters it in its new form. The Maslen & Mehra version of McQueens creation a tribute that is also a satire - asks a lot of questions that we are not yet ready to answer about posteritys possible reactions to this aspect of our society.

One of the weaknesses of contemporary, supposedly avant-garde art in recent years has been its fondness for rather crude jejune social commentary. Fashionable avant-garde artists too many to count have smugly treated us to statements of the obvious. That is not the case here these are playful, subtle images that can be interpreted in a number of different ways, according to the inclinations of the viewer. Yet they also have an underlying seriousness. They ask questions, not only about our relationship to museums, in their new role as shrines, containing relic that range from the trivial to the sublime, but about our relationship to time itself.

©Edward Lucie-Smith