Creating the Dumb Things Gallery Guide by Sandy Jones

Mark Leckey's Felix the Cat at De La Warr Pavilion

What do a ten metre high inflatable Felix the cat, William Blake’s ‘Ghost of a flea’, a replica Sputnik satellite and a singing gargoyle have in common? They are all part of ‘The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things’, an exhibition at Bexhill’s De la War Pavilion curated by Turner prize-winning artist Mark Leckey. The exhibition is part of the Hayward Touring programme that brings exhibitions to over 100 museums and publicly funded venues in Britain every year. his summer, I was fortunate to work with the DLWP on the gallery guide for this thought provoking
exhibition.

The De La Warr Pavilion is a contemporary art gallery and live performance venue situated on the seafront at Bexhill. Designed in 1935 by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, the Grade One listed historical building remains an icon of Modernist architecture and a celebration of the International Style. Described by Mendelsohn as a ‘horizontal skyscraper’, the building was restored and redeveloped between 2003-2005 with funding from the Arts Council Lottery Fund. Rather than house a permanent collection, the DLWP flexes its spaces to support a dynamic programme of art and performance, showcasing experimental and inter-disciplinary works from emerging artists and big names like Andy Warhol and Antony Gormley.

The gallery guide project came about after I wrote to the DLWP to ask whether they had any volunteering opportunities over the summer. They wrote back saying they needed some support with the guide and as I’d worked in design before, they thought my experience would be helpful. Before I met their curator, David, I carried out some research and discovered that the exhibition was inspired by the concept of techno-animism, ‘the idea that everything that is in (and of) this earth is being animated from within’. It is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where nonliving things are brought to life. Paradoxically, these advances in technology reconnect us with our ancient past where objects and environments were thought to possess magical and divine powers. This was quite a concept to get my head around and it took a fair bit of reading to ‘get it’.

The method of curation was also alternative, approached as an aggregation of ‘things’, a ‘network of objects’, rather than a display of personal taste. Using the internet as a digital archive to research and select works over a period of two years, Leckey meticulously sourced and filed words, images, sounds and video into a conceptual matrix of humans, animals and machines to create a hybrid, an exhibition where the objects are ‘in the physical realm but came from the digital realm’. His concept for the show can be seen on You Tube, in his trailer-like film, Proposal for a Show, watch it and think about the challenge that faced the curator, finding all those things for what has been called a ‘post modern cabinet of curiosities’.

Leckey is often described as a ‘pop cultural anthropologist’ and I can see why, he samples across cultures, eras and media. Fortunately, David and Chelsea (the curator from the South Bank) brought clarity to my task by advising on the most important themes, we agreed that I would research and write about 12 selected works and that the design would be simple because the subject matter was so complex. David also suggested that I join the team on a visit to the Nottingham Contemporary (great gallery btw) to see the exhibition before it arrived at Bexhill, this helped enormously, although when it came to writing the copy it was challenging because there was so much I wanted to say, but no space for it.

I visited the DLWP during the installation process and observed the curators as they worked with the artist to agree where and how the works would be displayed. One highlight was watching as the courier responsible for an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpacked and examined each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and tested the environmental conditions. Another highlight was watching the team inflate Felix’s giant head and position it within the stairwell at the front of the building. For a team that last summer had rigged a bus, Italian Job stylee, to be half-on-half-off the roof, this was a breeze. The team at the DLWP were extremely generous with their time and great to work with, I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can, it’s on until 20th October 2013.

Sandy Jones is a second year student in Museum and Heritage Studies (BA), Brighton University.

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