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 Ydessa Hendeles. The piece is a jaw-dropping two-story installation, consisting of some 3,000 amateur photographs united by the shared presence of a teddy bear in each. The images, which date to the early 20th century but were assembled recently by the artist using eBay, stretch from floor to ceiling. Teddy bears, aged examples of which sit in hardwood display cases in the center of the installation, became a childhood fixture after their incarnation sometime between 1902 and 1904, and their presence in the images provides a strange wormhole to the past. It is a connection that, gazing at the images with hindsight, pointedly accentuates undercurrents of loss. Hendeles, the child of two Holocaust survivors, includes an image of a Nazi holding the stuffed animal.

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. Susan Hiller mined archives from numerous sources to find audio clips of languages either lost or in danger of disappearing for The Last Silent Movie (2007-08,) a film tucked into a corner on the show’s top floor. Mediated by white English subtitles projected onto a pitch dark background, sounds and stories in languages including Comanche and K’ora, are relayed by invisible speakers. “Today you will get to know me through my tounge,” says the speaker of K’ora. It’s a strange paradox, spoken by the last person to know the language: We come to hear a voice right at the moment it is silenced.

  • 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.

Henrik Olesen takes on the narratives of the past head on, queering them through an installation of homosexual and homosocial photographs, watercolors, texts, prints, and other historical material attached to boards and arranged in categories like “effeminate son,” “sex in America,” and “lesbian visibility.” There are lots of ways to enter and move through and around the work, titled Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870 (2007). Historical descriptions of violent crackdowns on gay and lesbian individuals throughout history are placed next to images of work by gay artists; images of nude Greek statues are placed next to a photo of a nude man with his hands tied behind his back. Olesen is keenly aware that how things are interpreted is in large part due to how they are arranged, and who is doing the arranging.

A slightly more abstract interpretation of a similar idea comes from the collection of rocks amassed by Roger Caillois, who believed that stones are keepers of a cosmic history, the colorful patterns contained by the geodes works of art painted by geology and time. Though Caillois believed these rocks told stories of a history shared with humans, history for a rock and the history of human beings are very different, told in different scales and keys. “The very stone that one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare,” as Mr. Ramsay thinks in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Strangely, however, the wall text doesn’t mention Caillois’s racism and affinity for ideas of “primitivism.” Not all conceptions of history are liberating.

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. Nan Goldin once remarked that, as time passes, photographs stop conjuring a moment. Instead, we begin to form memories of the photograph itself. “The Keeper” is a fantastically rich show primarily because the layers of memory and meaning twist and blend. It is a testament to the fact that collections, archives, and memory are all related, swirling together to hold onto moments in a way akin to a metronome. That is, collections make and lose time even as they endeavor to keep it.


—Isaac Kaplan

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