Art Curated For Martians At The Barbican Art Gallery London

By Katie Alice Fitzgerald | 07 March 2008
a photo of a man sat on a hillside with a group of children who are sitting in the shape of a question mark

Július Koller, Universal Futurological Question Mark (U.F.O.), 1978. Kadist Art Foundation, Paris

Review - The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican Art Gallery until May 18 2008.

‘Imagine anthropologists from Mars coming to our planet to observe human culture. Their aim is to understand an aspect of terrestrial life unfamiliar to Martians: contemporary art.’

From the start there is confusion as to who this exhibition is aimed at. Is it the earth-dwelling humans? Or Martians from space? Or is it the Martian/human hybrid that is human but sees contemporary art as something totally alien?

a photograph of a map of London in which Buckingham Palace has been obliterated by a burn mark

Cornelia Parker, Meteorite Lands on Buckingham Palace, 1998. British Council. Photo Rodney Todd-White & Son

The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art at the Barbican takes us on an anthropological journey which shows contemporary art pieces as artefacts used to explain the human condition. It does this through various chapters or modes of classification: Kinship and Descent, Magic and Belief, and Communication. Each of these categories is subdivided into many smaller topics such as Ancestor Worship, Icons and Exchange and these are represented by the artefacts/artworks on display.

The journey is a long one and fairly overwhelming. Lines of copper map out the space and guide you from category to category, artwork to artwork and despite the sometimes informative placards, there is a tendency to get lost, both physically and mentally.

Whilst it might be difficult for a mere human to come to grips with some of these highly conceptual works - and we all appreciate a helping hand once in a while, there seems to be a different message which all the works adhere to and it smells distinctly like another reference towards how the West views Eastern art and culture.

a pink and black screen print in which the iconic image of Che Guevara has been supplanted by that of Cher

Scott King, Pink Cher, 2002. Courtesy of Herald St, London

There are three ways to approach this exhibition. The first is to view it with a distant eye, in fact the eye of a Martian. The Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art seems to extrapolate the idea of what art is within our culture and to put it on an alternative viewing platform. By approaching the space as if one were entering the Imperial War Museum or the V&A the visitor gains an entirely different experience.

The works are suddenly not so hostile and unapproachable (as much of contemporary art is deemed to be by the general viewing public). They are taken from their metaphorical pedestal of artwork to become simply an object. The pressure that art is under to speak to the viewer or touch them in some way is removed and artworks are forced in to a functional guise as pieces of human representation.

There is a tendency to drift round institutions such as the British Museum looking at exhibits with a certain amount of apathy, only stopping when something really sensational grabs us. Why do we not have the confidence or discernment to do this with art?

a photograph of a man wearing a blonde wig

Douglas Gordon, Self-portrait as Kurt Cobain, as Andy Warhol, as Myra Hindley, as Marilyn Monroe, 1996. Courtesy Douglas Gordon and Yvon Lambert Paris, New York

The second way is to recognise the wry message of Western arrogance. Many of the international historical objects that line some of our biggest institutions have been removed from their original meaning and function. They are a means to our Western understanding of other countries and cultures and therefore have in part been manipulated to suit this purpose, but how much justice does this do to the people who conceived and crafted these objects? The Barbican has translated this into the arena of contemporary art giving it the same museum treatment.

This does initiate questions about cultural language and global difference but these questions have been asked before and by constantly re-addressing them is there not a risk that the viewers will be slightly anaesthetised to such topics?

The third way is to appreciate and gain from each individual piece of art and how they relate to their topic heading. Pieces that stand out are Richard Hamilton’s Polaroid Portraits shown in the group Kinship and Descent: Kinship Diagrams. This is an incredible archive of portraits of the artist taken by a range of the artistic community from 1968 to the present day.

a photograph of a canvas helmet on a stand

Brian Jungen, Prototype for New Understanding #1, 1998. Collection of the artist. Photo Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Many artists and personalities from Yoko Ono to Henri Cartier-Bresson had taken a Polaroid of Hamilton in their own style. Each photograph spoke volumes about the subject, the photographer and the era. These are documents that seemingly would be of genuine interest and value to an alien wanting to understand art and the community from where it came.

Other works such as Piero Manzoni’s Artist’s Shit (1961) or Damien Hirst’s The Apostles (1995) stand out due to their notoriety, yet seen in this context they become less important as pieces of contemporary art and simply become parts of a mass of items which are clubbing together to make a bigger point.

This invitation from the Barbican to question expectations of what post-modern, contemporary art is and who it’s for, is interesting. However there is the potential that this might serve to alienate even more.

There is already a certain amount of suspension of disbelief needed when viewing and comprehending some contemporary art.

The Barbican takes this and forces it onto a whole new level so that not only the art itself seems threateningly cerebral but when considering this alongside placards, catalogue and audio-guide produced by Martians for Martians and other subversive messages of cultural and artistic mis-interpretation, travelling through the exhibition starts to have the effect of quantum physics. There is a point of reality somewhere but trying to find it can cause some serious brain-ache.

Have you been to see this show? Why not let us know what you think?

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