This week I went to visit the exhibition ‘Finding The Value’, at York St Mary’s, a deconsecrated medieval church which opened as a contemporary art space in 2004 and operates alongside York Art Gallery to commission works by contemporary artists.
Finding The Value
The exhibition ‘Finding The Value’ is the the result of one such commission, which came about due to a bequest by Peter Madsen and his sister Karen, of a large collection of art, including paintings, books, prints, small sculptures and ethnographic objects. As the catalogue describes: “Finding The Value is an exhibition in which commissioned artists respond to items from the collection and open up questions of the inheritance of cultural values. Peter Madsen left all of his collection to York Art Gallery, giving the gallery the option to sell any pieces not accessioned into the collection. Of course some works immediately suggested themselves on a basis of historical importance and artistic quality as desirable additions to the permanent collection… Other works could be readily assigned a market value, sold at auction and so happily passed to the care of other collectors and a financial benefit gained”.
“What remained was a relatively large number of lesser value items. However, these may well have been objects of high value in terms of personal meaning or affection. How can the curator respond to these human values as opposed to straightforward calculations of financial worth?”
Commissioning the artists
It was decided that the gallery would commission five artists to respond the reduced collection of ‘lesser value’ items, in order to produce new work based on the individual items as well as the bequest as a whole. As there was no restriction placed on the use of the collection, the artists were invited to work directly on, or with the items. Seeing this in practice felt quite subversive and contributed to the overall questioning of how history is preserved and which items are deemed valuable for future generations.
The artists approached the work using a range of methods and techniques. Through formal and material research and historical background information, they produced creative responses to the collection, in an effort to “investigate and develop the values and cultural meaning of the original work.” However, as individual bodies of work, each interpretation was unique in form and concept, allowing the artists’ practices to be highlighted, and affording consideration to the different possibilities and methods of viewing a collection.
The gallery space
Positioned first in the space was Yvette Hawkins’ work ‘Casing In’. Utilising her skills as a paper artist, she chose the Japanese books and prints to work with. On noticing the perforations in the paper which had been made by insects, she decided to work directly with silkworms to introduce an element of non-human craft. The installation included three small floor-based vitrines with kneeler cushions supplied to view the work. The impact of viewing the work in this way created the additional effect of highlighting the theological surroundings as well as reflecting perceived reverence to art and museums. The poignancy of the silkworms being required to die before the results of their labour could be harvested was also a fitting metaphor for the surroundings.
From the quiet contemplation of the silkworm cocoons, the next exhibit, required more physical interaction. Created by Simon Venus, the three vitrines of kinetic sculpture entitled ‘Passed On’ were suggestive of a religious triptych, and included various small sculptures and images from the collection which had been mechanised to respond when the visitor pressed a button.
Next came Alison Erika Forde’s contribution, which reflected on how Madsen might have displayed his collection in his own home, whereas Andrew Bracey’s ‘Reconfigure Paintings’ attempted to create an equivalence between disparate prints and images by applying the artist’s own systematic approach to erasing the figures with colourfully painted geometric shapes.
The work that interested me the most in terms of this project however, was Susie Macmurray’s piece, ‘Legacy’. The selected objects wrapped in gold wire and stacked together in the suitcase seemed to reflect both the religious setting of the work, and the nature of the [art] gift, its value, and our perception of it. I have previously discussed concepts of the gift and would be interested to see more of Macmurray’s work in relation to this.
Macmurray stated: “After visiting the collection I began to think about gifts and the cultural rituals around them. My immediate response to the collection had been an intense sense of poignancy: these things, amassed through a lifetime, must have had a personal significance and had many stories and private memories attached to them, none of which are now available to us… It touches all sorts of areas, from trust and responsibility to subjective perceptions of value and worth.”