Last month I went to see an exhibition at the Barbican Centre called, “Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector”. Each room was filled with bits and pieces, all so strange looking within the blank spaces. I felt as though I’d walked into a locked away part of each artist’s brain, the odd details of their worlds floating aimlessly in front of me.
As I let my eye’s dart from the dusty old witch puppet to vintage pinball machine to large horse statue in Hanne Darboven’s collection, it made my heart sore. I felt like if I could just stare at each object for long enough, I might understand all the mysteries behind it: Where had it come from? What era? What was it about that old Turkish shoe that Peter Blake loved? Would Andy Warhol and I have been friends because of our similar taste in cookie jars?
…Then you’re brought back to reality. It’s just a thing. There’s no answers or connections to be found within the ceramic structures of a mouse figurine, or the fragile wooden frame of an old chair. It’s breakable. Disposable. Nothing, right?
But I can’t follow that argument through, because I too collect things. When I was younger it was car models and limited edition chocolate bars, while nowadays it’s patterned jumpers, Babycham merchandise and vintage figurines. These are more than just things to me. They’re the narratives people have given them, and will continue to give them. They’re the still portals to different minds and different times. They’re something to focus on in the midst of worry, stress and sadness, enabling you to curate and organise your own little microcosmic worlds.
When I think about collecting, I also think of one of my favourite films, Ghost World, in which there is a character called Seymour. Struggling to make connections with other people, he’s turned to collecting objects from the past as a way to connect with life instead. In his case, he’s not happy. It’s something that’s completely taken over his life, creating even more of a barrier between him and others.
One of the most interesting things I read at the Barbican's exhibition was that Andy Warhol's cookie jars had been mostly found in the bags he'd bought them in, sitting in the corners of his apartment untouched. This made me think about the negative side to it too; about the ways we all try to fill our lives with meaning through stuff, and how when that stuff becomes destructive to your life it's a trait that has to go.
And so maybe I'm romanticising collections when they're just clutter, or a distraction from facing life, but I can't give up the argument completely. Because whenever someone laughs at the ridiculous amount of ornaments I have or looks despondent and weirded out by it all, I do get a little concerned, but then snap myself out of it. Because you have to be confident in your choices and trust yourself. And because everyone needs to find the things that make them happy and different, and for me that's holding still these fragments of life that intrigue me.
I like to think the things I own aren't all just things, but will rather one day be a way for others to understand a little part of me, as distant and abstract as they may seem in the larger scheme of things.