Recently, while in Glasgow I went into the Centre for Contemporary Arts. After going into the exhibition space (which consists of three rooms) and taking in the exhibit, I went out into the café and tweeted:
I wasn’t sure what I had just been looking at. I had read the initial overview on the outside wall and then looked at the names and descriptions of the objects on display. Over a delicious hot chocolate, I read the accompanying booklet and things became clearer.
The project is focused on two individuals: Alfred Maudslay and Eduardo Paolozzi. Maudsley is described in the booklet as “a British explorer who travelled extensively in the Maya region in Mexico and Guatemala between 1880-1920”, who “played a crucial role in the understanding of Maya hieroglyphic writing”. He used plaster casts, took photographs and made moulds made out of papier-mâché, which were later brought back to the British Museum and the V&A in London. Most of these artifacts lie ignored in their collections. The part of the exhibit related to Maudslay consists of paper squeezes/traps (as these papier-mâché sculptures are called), plaster casts, reproduced photographs from Maudslay’s ‘explorations’, prints made based on damaged/degraded photographs, and a wooden reproduction of one of the large Mayan sculptures. In addition, in tribute to Alfred Gell, there is a rolled up fishing net.
The fishing net is one of the first things in the exhibit. As an object it evokes many things, particularly as its label says that it is African, with all the resonance of appropriation and re-positioning that such objects can suggest, especially in the use of ready-made objects. The booklet quotes Gell who sees it as a trap which “communicates an absence”. Not, initially, to me, but I get what he’s saying. The net is there to suggest at this absence and the ghostly presence of the objects that have been trapped by the artist in the other objects on display.
I am always uncomfortable with artwork that does not speak to me in and of itself without having to take time out to read the accompanying literature in detail. Only the third room, consisting of the prints and the wooden sculpture, worked for me without detailed explanation. I am happy to read the material in order to go deeper into its meaning and the artist’s intentions, or to seek out others’ readings of it. But, when it says nothing to me by itself it becomes an exercise, in this case a reflection on something that is intellectual, without the transcendence I want from art and only communicating the message through accompanying words. I recognize that this is a personal preference and do not denigrate those who choose other routes. I also know that I have gaps in my knowledge, so, when I do not understand a work it may be touching on a gap that I have. However, this is a work that touches on an area I am familiar with, so I would have expected it to resonate on some level.
Another discomfort for me lay in is another gap. When an exhibit is an intellectual exercise in considering ghostly traces, especially of ‘exploration’, I would also like these traces to be nuanced by an awareness of the colonizing exercise that Maudslay was implicated in. This cataloguing and appropriation of a trace is an interesting one, because it is leaving the original behind. I wondered why Maudslay did not take objects back. Did he hope for grants in order to return to collect? Did he lack the resources? Was he prevented by the various governments? Or, was there some very particular respectfulness in his intention? I was also aware that the locals only appear as traces in the images. The Maya are a distant group who have no presence nor present. For example, in one photograph a man stands beside a tree looking down at an engraved stone artifact. He is there, it appears, to provide a sense of scale. He is not named. He is merely a worker, or another object in the visual field. Indigenous voices or names are not included in this exhibit. I appreciate the difficulties in doing so, but the exhibition would benefit from some reflection on this.
The inclusion of references to Paolozzi is curious. He was an Edinburgh-born artist who collected thousands of objects and donated these to the National Galleries of Scotland in 1995. He collected artifacts and ephemera not curating them himself, instead hoping that his collection would be converted, through artistic curation by others, into a museum. It is a curious and totalizing approach to his collection that is reminiscent of collectors from the past (I’m thinking here of the Wellcome Trust collection and the Chester Beatty). Again, both are products of privileged Western men able to travel to acquire artifacts from around the world. Paolozzi is referencing this, but also embracing under-valued objects. His inclusion is presumably to reflect on curation and the value placed on objects.
Despite its flaws (or maybe because of them) this exhibit obviously provoked much reflection, so it did not fail. However, I left feeling dissatisfied and a little frustrated. It also made me think about how I engage with artefacts in a gallery, which, I think, was one of its aims. In that it definitely succeeded.