William L. Hamilton from The New York Times calls it the “museum blockbuster of a different kind.” And he couldn’t have worded it any better when referring to The New Museum’s latest show “The Keeper”, which opened its door to the public just yesterday. Massimiliano Gioni (Star curator and the Artistic Director of the museum) and his team have done it again!!
My only advice is for you to make the time to go see this show ASAP. You really don’t want to be the one to twiddle your thumb when all your artworld friends engage in this talk of the town. #bepartofthecoolcrew
The Keeper challenges to explore the perennial question: Why do people collect? We’ve all done it at least once in our lives; a lot of us participate in this very activity without ever being conscious of it (think Instagram, music playlists, and now Pokémon Go). Motivations for this may stem from mere engagement as a form of a recreational activity to more serious endeavors, but nevertheless we all just love amassing things of personal values, and over time develop long lasting sentimental attachments to these objects. From the old German art historical term kunstkammer (or wunderkammer), the idea of collection and fascination with items of distinct commonalities has been pervasive throughout the human history.
To the artworld-izens, the default mental connection to the term “collection” is one of impressive and monumental ones by wealthy patrons like Leon Black, Peter Brant, or Steven Cohen. But the exhibition strives to do otherwise, break the dogmatic mold with the near-fantastical realm of unusual obsession – characteristic compulsions that are all extraordinarily interesting, and some incredibly grotesque. The truth is, people gather all sorts of seemingly valueless things, from street trash, to abandoned tapestries, and even voices of speakers of lost languages.
For ages, psychologists have tried to take cracks at unpacking these rather mysterious reasons driving people’s collecting impulses and have donned numerous compelling speculations of their own.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder? Manifesting our needs to take control? Innate systematic programming of our gene to accumulate – displaying vestiges of the days when we were hunter-gatherers? Our underlying needs to capture and store the fleeting? A glimpse into our darker desires and fetishes? Who knows.
But one thing is for sure, each collection reveal deeper stories and histories of its owners. Artist Ydessa Hendeles’s Partner (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002), or more colloquially referred to as the #TeddyBearRoom, began with her wishes to amass photographs of strangers posing with teddy bears because she never really owned a family album of her own due to direct turmoil of the Holocaust. Vanda Viera-Schmidt’s collection showcases a pile of 300,000 sketches, which are products of her daily superstitious practice of warding off evil demonic spirits.
Many people would have likely dismissed these collections as weird and insignificant if they were to have encountered them in a different setting. This expected reaction is precisely the reason why The Keeper is so fresh and original, creating a unique context to items that divulge rich and all-too human narratives of individuals. It goes deeper than the mere surface fascination of the quirky human behavior, and into examinations of icons and their associations to archived traumas and historical events.
Header image: Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002. Courtesy of Robert Keziere via Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation, Toronto