By Dessislava Dimova
Collecting is the most intimate relationship we can have to objects, Walter Benjamin famously claimed. A collector liberates objects from circulation, use, and exchange—from their life as commodities—in order to free her- or himself. However, a collection is also a value-producing mechanism. Just like art it is pure excess, it renders objects useless and superfluous.
Many artistic practices take the form of collecting and organizing objects and information. What kind of collectors are artists then? Amateurs, hoarders, creators of cabinets of curiosity, gatherers of things and forms of organization that are hard to label, systematize, use, exchange? What kind of logic circles art as collecting as opposed to collecting art or to collecting in general?
The exhibition Individual Stories. Collecting as Portrait and Methodology at Kunsthalle Wien offers various possible answers to these questions. The premises set out by the three curators—Luca Lo Pinto, Nicolaus Schafhausen, and Anne-Claire Schmitz—seem, at first glance, to be very broad. Twenty artists present different approaches to collecting—some are integral to their artistic practices and end up as artworks, others are part of research, or private or anecdotal obsessions.
One thing that can be said about artists as collectors is that they tend to displace the fetishism of their objects, often using them as primary materials instead. Even the ultimate fetish—Hans-Peter Feldmann’s collection of brightly colored women’s shoes—is arranged so simply that the significance of the individual object gives way to the accumulation of repetitive shape and color. In contrast, the value of Saâdane Afif’s torn pages (The Fountain Archive, 2008–ongoing) showing images of Duchamp’s urinal depend precisely on the fetishization of the object that has been reproduced. The fetishism of Afif’s interventions, as the original Fountain reminds us, can come only later, with their transformation into works of art, a point at which the gesture of the artist is more valuable than the collected material itself. However, this is precisely what Individual Stories does—it turns these collections into artworks, whether the artists declare them as such or not. The way the collections are exhibited, it is impossible to distinguish which are incomplete and which have as yet undecided statuses as artworks. Are we being presented with an object ‘before’ or ‘after’ it becomes an artwork, or is it the very process of becoming an artwork that we are witnessing?
The tension between a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in the life of artworks or objects in general plays out consistently throughout the exhibition. Indeed, a collection is about, or rather runs against, time. Museums have been likened to the sepulchers of art and their collections associated with decay. Death is the elephant in the room of every collection. However, the artist collection does not simply reintroduce life into collecting, in the logic of the opposition between the artist’s studio-as-life and the museum-as-death. If the collection is the afterlife of objects and artworks alike, artists’ collections, being both studio (research) and exhibition (forms of display), often create a breach in temporality.
In Disjecta Membra Populi (2013), G.T. Pellizzi casts found plastic objects in the more ‘noble’ material of porcelain. Painted in primary colors and arranged carefully onto shelves, they become signs rather than material objects bearing the traces of time. In yet another work of this series, Disjecta Membra Archeologica (2013), the artist performs the opposite move by filling a vitrine with a pile of unearthed plastic trinkets—a layer of the Anthropocene, already in decay, despite the virtual indestructibility of the material.
A further act of temporal disruption unfolds in an intervention by Marie Angeletti, who was invited to produce work in response to the exhibition. Her filming of locations in close proximity to the kunsthalle introduces a temporal displacement by insisting on a ‘now’, which is always already in the past—the images seem to be entering the art space in real time, but were actually recorded just prior to the opening of the exhibition.
A collection is a panorama of the past and, for all interruptions and time warps, a persistent reference to history is present in many of the works. Again, history here is manifested not as a preference for things past but rather as an attempt to address the notion of collecting as a historical category in itself.
Collecting is not a modern invention, yet it became particularly relevant in the Western world during the nineteenth century, with the immense accumulation of commodities on the one hand, and the establishment of the institution of the museum on the other. Private collections were worlds in themselves, where, like in early museums and cabinets of curiosity, a fascination for the strange and the magical were intertwined with scientific curiosity. Their indeterminateness challenged the rationale of both the capitalist objects subjected to exchange, and the organization of museum artifacts that increasingly reflected a rationalist, positivist, and colonialist view of the world.
Such an interest in the history of collecting is at play in the installation by Yann Sérandour. Several works follow the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries’ obsession with cacti and the way the associated, specific botanical field became a popular form of scientific knowledge and an amateur practice, supported by expert literature and international exhibitions. In the kunsthalle the artist shows various books about cacti growing published around the world, posed on vintage plant stands, their sculptural arrangement reflecting the sculptural form of the plant.
Pierre Leguillon’s collections address aspects of popularization and representation, too. They deal with objects and images as fluxes of cultural production based on reproduction and dissemination. For example, Walker Evans (Spritzdekor) (2014), one of Leguillon’s works in the exhibition, shows portraits of businessmen taken by the renowned American photographer Walker Evans for Fortune magazine. They are arranged together with cake plates, whose decoration alludes to various styles of abstract modern art. Evans’s documentary journalism (best known for depicting poverty-stricken America during the Depression era) subsequently entered the museum, while the cake plates were residue of high art’s popular reception. In Leguillon’s display both series appear to reflect on the uses of art in the ‘real’ world of exchange, use, and monetary value creation.
Camille Henrot’s series of collages, Collection Préhistorique (2009), focuses on history and its representations, particularly the notion of prehistory as a collective psychological space for cultural projections. Images of mainly utilitarian objects and tools are put together with erotic photographs, a combination that sets prehistory as a time of imaginary freedom and non-separation between humans and nature, technology and desire.
Henrot collects many of her objects on eBay, where things from various origins and intended for diverse uses are readily available through one interface. The flatness of nonhierarchical information together with the massive accessibility of reproduction techniques are parts of a new condition within which collecting operates today. It is very different from the historical notion of collecting as the quest for rare objects, a quest that resisted mass-produced commodities.
The work that most obviously challenges and updates the relationship of collecting to the world of commodities is Jacques André’s Arter – Achats à Répétition Tentative d’Epuisement et de Reconstitution des Stocks (2002–15). Arter is a collection of multiple copies of books and records that the artist bought over a ten-year period. The goal was not to complete the collection but to exhaust its possible sources. André’s collection not only defies the premise of the collector’s search for a rarefied object (all of the items are epitomes of culture’s mass distribution—books and records, all of them present in multiple copies), he also takes a proactive, although bound-to-fail, approach: to rarefy the object through its accumulation.
More importantly, André’s buying and collecting is a form of existence related entirely to his unemployment, it is an activity that fills the lack of socially useful work. In its uselessness and excess it is equivalent to artistic practice and thus questions what makes art socially acceptable as labor and as an occupation (as defined by employment). Do it! Neu!, I want more, Lust for Life, The Sexual Revolution, Qu’est-ce que la propriété ?—the titles of the items reveal the post-1968 cultural imperatives weighing upon André’s generation as well as the pressure for constant activity and change as the only socially sanctioned mode of being in the world.
It is notable that on the whole Individual Stories presents a Western critique toward Western notions of collecting, exhibiting, and circulating objects, but these are also the limits of the very conditions for what we define as contemporary art. As André points out, his collection is only possible as and through the social abstraction of his own existence as an artist.
The exhibition might be about individual stories of and by artists, but it also speaks to the contemporary conditions shaping our relationship to images, objects, information, and value. In fact, through a lens of individuality it is possible to reveal our common condition of existing in a globalized world of supposed unfettered accessibility and infinite possibilities—a world which becomes meaningful only by shattering and rearranging it into small personal universes.
 Christoph Asendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, trans. Don Reneau (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 50.