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REVIEW

Museum of Native Oak (MONO)

The Manchester Museum, Manchester
19 January - 27 April 2008

Reviewed by: Laura Clarke »

Jacob Cartwright and Nick Jordan, two artists collaborating for the Alchemy fellowship at the Manchester Museum, draw upon both cultural and natural history in their practice, with an emphasis on myth and folklore. The exhibition is part of an ongoing project funded by the University of Manchester, where participating artists integrate artefacts from the museum's collection into their work. However, after a visit to Cartwright and Jordan's Museum of Native Oak, not everything may be quite what it seems. 

Cartwright and Jordan appear to be interested in how museums are used to classify the world around us, and how things are presented in order to generate human interest. The fabricated museum they have created, MONO, involves a large display cabinet housing, we are told, artefacts from the Manchester Museum and findings from a recent excavation by the curators. The somewhat ramshackle collection of objects on show references the conventions of early museums and wunderkammern; there are documents, coins, preserved insects pinned to plaques, taxidermy and bits of bark. this method of display seems to emphasize the fact that as curators, the information and knowledge an audience recieves is up to the museum entirely, which is perhaps the point of the work. However, there is almost too much on show in the cabinet, which muddles the message and the purpose of the work. Is it a celebration of British heritage, or an homage to early museums or wunderkammern? Is it an educational museum display, or an artwork?

The role of Jordan and Cartwright in this exhibition remains unclear; are they artists, or are they curators interested in presenting works of scientific fact and discovery? Therefore are the artefacts real or fabrictaed? Are the blurbs presented next to them truthful and factual, or is the narrative a fabrication? The information presented looks authentic; everything echoes the conventions of the traditional museum, but the nature of the Alchemy project and the fact that they ARE artists suggests that they may be trying to fool the viewer in some way. 

The question of whether the work should be viewed as part of a gallery/art space or part of the museum is an issue here; the context strongly affects the reading of the work. The exhibtion itself is housed in its own purpose-built space and seems to want to exist as a total installation within the Manchester Museum, which prevents the exhibition from blending seamlessly into the rest of the institution; thus the work automatically reveals itself as an artwork. With the knowledge that the exhibit is art-based, the viewer is provoked to search for some sort of artistic intervention within the work. The intervention happens to be almost too obvious and easy to spot; a large stack of spoof newspapers is on the floor accompanying the work, entitled, The Alchemical Times. Edited by Sally O'Reilly, an artist known for subverting the truth and creating fabricated events, the newspaper implies something is not quite right, that the truth has been skewed somehow. The newspaper insinuates that we are being told stories and untruths, but leaves you to make up your own mind about the exhibit. 
I think the achievement here is The Alchemical Times, as it seems to achieve what the work does not; on first impressions, it appears to be just a newspaper concentrating on science and museums, but on reading the articles, the newspaper unravels itself not as a purveyor of fact and truth as initially thought, but as a spoof, and a means to question the authenticity and accuracy of what is presented in MONO. The Alchemical Times manages to disclose the necessary details in order to provoke a viewer to wonder about and question the legitimacy of what they are presented with in MONO and throughout Alchemy, and perhaps the entirety of the Manchester Museum, which is a far greater success that the exhibition itself. 
 

laurahclarkey@hotmail.com

Venue detail:
The Manchester Museum »
, Manchester

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