A New Exhibition Shows How What We Keep Becomes Who We Are
We are all collectors, to some degree, obsessively keeping and arranging the objects of our past and present. Letters, images, and trinkets pile up, in an effort to capture certain memories and realities. Our personal archives may be sparser today now that communications are digital and lives are recorded online, but the impulse to hold on is still there.
The desire to collect and organize, to remember and resurface, is at the heart of the New Museum’s stunning exhibition “The Keeper.” A dazzling array of objects put together by various artists, authors, historians, and hoarders (once again, distinctions by a matter of degree) have themselves been assembled by curator Massimiliano Gioni and his team. Densely packed across three floors and the lobby, the exhibition of over 4,000 things—the most in the museum’s history—tells “the stories of various individuals through the objects they chose to safeguard,” as Gioni writes in the catalogue. But objects are uncertain narrators, and the stories they tell multiply and shift.
Why do we keep some objects and discard others? Unlike an archive—which seeks to be an undiscerning vacuum of content—the collections in “The Keeper” are wholly determined by their makers. The Brazilian artist-collector Arthur Bispo do Rosário began to accumulate pieces after having visions of angels who asked him to assemble objects worthy of redemption on judgement day. In response, the former ensign weaved material into model ships, scrawled prophesies across fabric, and neatly created arrangements of found objects like spoons and plastic dolls—all while in the mental asylum to which he was committed in 1938.
Ydessa Hendeles, Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002. Image courtesy of the New Museum.
A very different set of criteria governs Partners (The Teddy Bear Project) (2002) by
What the photographs depict is not reality, but a reality these individuals espoused for themselves, mediated by societal norms and personal beliefs. “The collection is a reflection of the values of society at the time the photographs were taken,” Hendeles writes. “It is notable not only for what it includes but for what is absent. Only one photograph of a child with Down Syndrome was discovered, and only one portrait of a child with a cleft palate.” As times change, so too do the stories people want to tell: The artist also had trouble finding images of fathers in Nazi uniforms, though before the war they were plentiful, a source of pride. There is no reason to think our memories today are any less selective.
Indeed, the personal is always political, and family photographs are no exception. To ask why individuals keep some objects and discard others is also to ask why society tells some stories and causes others to vanish.
Installation view of “The Keeper,” 2016. Photo by Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio. Photo courtesy of the New Museum.
The exhibition is intentionally non-hierarchical, eschewing traditional organizational methods preferred by museums like artist, time period, and geography. Even different works that share historical connections are spaced apart. Hendeles’s installation has connections to the Holocaust, but Korbinian Aigner’s gentle drawings of the fruits he cultivated—some after being confined to a German labor camp by the Nazi regime—are an entire floor below. In “The Keeper,” time and history do not flow in a straight line. Rather, the show seems to argue that—even as there are shared connections between groups—time flows differently for different people, that our histories are connected but distinct.
A slightly more abstract interpretation of a similar idea comes from the collection of rocks amassed by
Other works on view are testament to how objects find ways to endure beyond their original lifespans. Three quilts that originated from Gee’s Bend, Alabama, hang on the museum’s third floor, woven together by African Americans who have almost exclusively inhabited the region. Adorned abstract color, the quilts, which were not decorative, were often woven in communal get togethers. Living with limited resources, the quilters employed discarded or used fabrics—clothing worn while working in the fields, for example—to craft the pieces. When is a shirt not a shirt? When it becomes a quilt. And yet the personal significance of the materials used to craft the piece endure in some way, adding a kind of memorial quality to the objects.
What is the difference between a series of objects held in stasis and an accumulation of things that together speak of something else? Between an archive and at an atlas? Between a collection and a set of coordinates? In “The Keeper,” the answer is quite little, if anything at all. Though the title is singular, it is not exclusive. We all could be “the” keeper—of what is up to us. Family photographs bound in an album, the stone from a beach we visited, the letter from a loved one—these all point to a reality that is present through the objects, yet inaccessible and constantly changing.
Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.