The Magnificent Obsessions exhibition at the Barbican is a curious selection of objects which superficially appear to have nothing in common. Old Japanese woodcuts are in the same room as a giant novelty horse statue whilst other rooms contain silk scarves, taxidermy and cookie jars. However, one similarity that the exhibition focuses on is their status as collectibles by demonstrating how artists have carefully chosen the objects to be part of a larger grouping. Every object has a certain value to its collector and visitors are challenged to see them in the same light.There is no set path around the exhibits and so the narrative of collecting is interestingly uncertain. Damian Hirst collects to ‘remind himself of the brevity of life’ while others curated objects in their lives to celebrate the everyday. I particularly enjoyed the selection of Russian space dog memorabilia by Martin Parr as they seemed so bizarre but also conventional as all the dogs looked proudly out towards space. Apparently at the height of the Space Race these dogs were treated as national heroes, which included branded merchandise, as their sacrifices were said to help further Russia’s scientific efforts. The memorabilia also felt at odds with his other collection of vintage postcards from towns across Britain but these two very separate halves of his collection clearly both appealed to Parr. The urge to collect as presented in the exhibition defies easy explanation, even from artists who present their collections so deliberately.
One of the main reasons that I particularly wanted to see this exhibition was because a selection of Edmund de Waal’s Japanese netsuke is on show. Several years ago I read his book The Hare with the Amber Eyes and I have often thought about it since. It tells the tale of how his family inheritance of tiny carved curiosities survived when his relatives lost everything else due to the anti-Semitic persecution across Europe during the 1930s and 1940s. The amber eyed hare itself was placed centre stage and I was fascinated at how detailed it was, with one paw hesitantly lifted as if about to turn and scamper off after seeing a human. The other netsuke also had this suggestion of movement and individual characteristics, as they reach and turn continuously, making me feel like I was looking at a miniature and fantastical population in the glass cabinet.
I’ve only mentioned a small selection of the objects which can be seen, as the exhibition is so eclectic it is impossible to summarise! There is something to surprise everyone, such as Andy Warhol’s collection of cookie jars, and it will make you re-examine household objects which you have never previously given a second glance. The exhibition ends on 25th May and if you sign up as a Young Barbican member the tickets are half price!