Arnolfini, 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol BS1 4QA

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Museum Show: Part I review by Melanie Pocock
Arnolfini’s Museum Show: Part I brought together over twenty museums conceived by artists. Part of the gallery’s fiftieth anniversary programme ‘Apparatus’ which seeks to evaluate ‘the conditions of the art world today’ 1 , the exhibition covered a broad range of the genre, from conceptual critique (Robert Filliou Galerie Légitime) and postcolonial projects (Meshac Gaba, Museum of Contemporary African Art) to the downright zany (Bill Burns, Safety Gear for Small Animals!!)
That Museum Show is offered in two parts, with the second opening in December 2011, seems less to do with current trends in sequential exhibition-making and more with the sheer number of artist’s museums that exist. Given the prominence of institutional critique in artistic practice since the 1960s, it is surprising that such a show hasn’t been done before. A likely reason is the paradox of displaying these works, often acerbically critical of the ‘institution,’ within art institutions. The Arnolfini, like Forrest Myar’s Moon Museum, thus went where no gallery has gone before and served up the first survey of ‘this curious trend in contemporary art.’ 2
In this regard, curator Nav Haq’s decision to renounce chronological or thematic ordering for spatial gymnastics was wise. Albeit cacophonic, this organisational mode freed artist’s museums from institutional discourse and emphasised greater appreciation of works on their own merits. Contemplating my fragmented reflection amidst the landscape of Ellen Harvey’s Museum of Sublime Failure, it was easy to imagine the museum as nothing more than a cathartic canvas onto which we paint idealised worldviews. Upstairs, Susan Hiller’s From the Freud Museum was absorbing in its intricacy. Her playful take on object-based free association skipped across continents, centuries and ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, partnering archaic trinkets and contemporary paraphernalia with an obsessive sense of purpose. Abounding with museums within museums (not missing the pun in the exhibition’s title) Museum Show: Part I read like a Russian doll constantly revealing itself.
The eclectic mix of museums on show belied what was a careful selection, revealing subtle connections and parallels throughout. Entering Galleries I and II, I was struck by (an engineered) sense of déjà vu, with Robert Filliou’s Galerie Légitime and Francois Curlet’s Intuitive Galerie respectively. Substituting bowler for top hat, and the notional gallery of the mind for its literal equivalent, Curlet’s pun on Filliou’s original demonstrated how institutional critique gave birth to a critique entirely of its own. Cross-pollination between museums, such as Tom Marioni and James Lee Byars’ creations for Herbert Distel’s Museum of Drawers, evoked the kinship between like-minded artists and an important moment in the history of conceptual art.
Yet the exhibition’s foregrounding of the artist’s museum as object meant that more expansive, project-based works suffered. Removed from their original contexts and hung in unimaginative series, the signage, door panels, and photographs from Department des Aigles failed to convey the zeal and complexity behind Marcel Broodthaers’ enterprise. Expecting a romp through underbelly culture, I was disappointed by the Museum of Ordure, whose installation ceded far too easily to museum display etiquette. In the context of ‘the art world today,’ Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Nasubi Gallery - a series of multiple white milk-boxes housing commissioned site-specific works - made one wonder how long we can milk the ‘White Cube’ for all the irony that it’s worth.
The most engaging works were less inside than outside the gallery. Inscribed in the social and cultural fabric of everyday life, they demonstrated the wider implications of institutionalisation beyond the privileged realm of art. Tucked away in Bristol’s former police station, Ascunción Molinos’ World Agriculture Museum plunged viewers into an immersive display of samples and diagrams that exposed the injustices of global food distribution in the colonial period and the present day. From malfunctioning light fittings to cabinets smeared with finger marks and dust, every detail was calculated to create a perverse wunderkammer installation. Modelled on the once glorious and now dilapidated Agricultural Museum in Cairo, World Agriculture Museum pertinently criticised the use of museums by governments as instruments of cultural, social and political power. Indeed, in a world dominated by organised systems of knowledge and spectatorship, one could ask where the ‘museum’ and the ‘show’ really end. Marko Lulic’s Museum of Revolution supplied a foreboding response to this question, its spectral presence opposite the Arnolfini’s entrance seeming to ponder whether there would be a museum or a show in another fifty years to come.

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