The Universal Addressability of Dumb Things: Writing the gallery guide

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Second year BA (hons) Museum and Heritage Studies student, Sandy Jones, explains the process by which she came to assist on a show described as a ‘mash-up menagerie’.

Installation view of the Universal Addressability of Dumb Things. 2013. Photography courtesy of the 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 Warr 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. This 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 Rhodes, 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. The show is an exploration of how technology is changing our relationship with everyday objects and is creating an ambient environment around us where non-living 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 understand it. The method of curation was also alternative, approached by Leckey as ‘an aggregation of things’ and ‘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 – as he describes it – ‘in the physical realm but come 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 critic Erik Davies has described as ‘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 (the DLWP curator) and Chelsea Pettit (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 (another great gallery, by the way) 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 the courier, responsible for transporting an ancient Egyptian canopic jar and mummified cat, unpack and examine each one closely with a torch, checking that they conformed to their condition report and testing 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 gallery that last summer had rigged a bus to be half on and half off the roof, in homage to the closing scene in cult film, The Italian Job, this was a breeze.

The team at DLWP were extremely generous with their time and were great to work with; I enjoyed every minute. Catch the exhibition if you can: it’s on until 20 October 2013. www.dlwp.com

Felix the Cat at the De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill. Personal photograph by Sandy Jones. 13 July 2013.