Faking It: Real Stuff, Fictitious Collectors
I had just finished making my way slowly more or less chronologically through the galleries of Roman, Greek, Egyptian, and medieval European art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City when I turned a corner into a tiny gallery that appeared to be an exact recreation of someone’s study. Judging by the evidence, the time was more or less a century ago and the occupant had clearly been a world traveler, an obsessive collector, and something of an eccentric. The clock in the corner was ticking and it appeared that someone had only moments before slid the chair back from the desk with its ancient typewriter and had walked out into the museum. The introductory panel told me I was looking at “The Magnificent Collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove.”
This installation showcases the collection of Gilbert G. Hargrove and the Hargrove family. Gilbert was born in the sleepy town of Pike Pepper, Ohio in 1870. From an early age, Gilbert was an avid reader, spending hours at the local library pouring over books on history, geography, anthropology and art.
At the age of 16, he left home in search of adventure. His travels led him to Kansas City where he landed a job writing obituaries for The Kansas City Times. Suffering from a chronic case of wanderlust, he soon grew restless and headed west. He traveled as far as San Francisco, fell in love and married the daughter of a Chinese railroad worker. Several months later, the newlyweds moved to Shanghai, getting caught in the Boxer Rebellion. He continued his travels becoming a renowned explorer and adventurer.
Eventually, Hargrove returned to Kansas City where one afternoon a mysterious, bespectacled gentleman appeared on his doorstep, informing him of his family’s long-lost collection of art and antiquities dating back to the early 1800s. Soon thereafter, Gilbert met a tragic end when he was run over by a streetcar.
In this installation, we have re-created the den of the curious, nomadic Mr. Hargrove and showcased his own, as well as his ancestors’ and descendants’, eclectic collection.
But as I squinted down to the bottom of the panel I saw some small print in italics.
Gilbert G. Hargrove, his story, and his family are fictional and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is purely coincidental. The objects in this installation are taken from the collections of Scott Hefley and the Nelson-Atkins.
Needless to say, the exhibition was immense fun. The organizer(s) had been given an all-access pass to cut across the departmental boundaries of the great museum (boundaries that traditionally were inhospitable to cross), and they had been allowed to pick and chose the whimsical, the curious and the truly bizarre and, furthermore, to juxtapose them with utter disregard for chronology, geography, or any other known methodology for subdividing human knowledge. It’s hard to know what the typical museum-goer might think upon wandering into a room essentially devoid of labels, explanations, or certainty of any kind. People don’t normally go to museums in search of ambiguity; they expect to be told artist’s names, dates, schools, isms, and other snippets of presumed truth. But welcome to the new museum, where the aim is often to generate questions rather than answers.
The Hargrove exhibition is accompanied by a small 44-page “family history”, called The Hargrove Family History, written by “Tara Hargrove.” (It’s actually the work of Tara Varney and Bryan Colley, who are both Kansas City playwrights, among other creative endeavors.) The book is a lighthearted spoof on the stereotype of the eccentric collector, beginning with Perry Hargrove, born, rather suspiciously, on July 4, 1776, and whose collection included “such rarities as George Washington’s wig, John Adams’ spade, or his prized possession, the quill pen used by Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence.” Later generations of the family include Mortimer, a janitor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and his son Patrick, who forged Impressionist paintings, ending with his grandson, Roger, a Berkeley campus radical and drug addict who thought of museums as places “where art goes to die.”
Increasingly, museums are rediscovering the usefulness of their quirky origins as cabinets of curiosities. In fact, another wonderfully-selected exhibition currently at the Nelson-Atkins is entitled “Cabinet of Curiosities: Photography & Specimens”). My guess is this trend got a bit of a push from the 1988 founding of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, surely one of oddest collection of curiosities in the world. The MJT has a habit of taking all manner of ridiculous things very seriously and, in doing so, converting the overly-serious occasion of a museum visit into an outing that is comedic, theatrical, and provocative. When the work of artists and curators makes reference to the cabinet of curiosities it is usually calling several notions into play; it’s a strategy that temporarily erases the distinctions between art and kitsch and utilitarian objects and that invokes a lost sense of awe and wonder as visitors encounter objects. Few gestures could be more antithetical to the longstanding image of museums than to throw out criteria such as authenticity and aesthetic judgment, but seems to be one way to encourage looking for its own sake.
The Hargrove Family History is cousin to books like William Boyd’s hoax biography from 1998 of the non-existent abstract expressionist painter Nat Tate, An American Artist: 1928-1960 and Leanne Shapton’s 2009 book Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelry, which purports to tell the story of a failed marriage through the items sent to auction after the divorce. A PDF version of The Hargrove Family History can be downloaded for free from the special website created for the exhibition. The fictional family biography contains a number of uncredited portrait photographs, most of which appear to have either been manipulated or posed, along with photographs of various objects attributed to the family collection.
This is actually the second time in recent months I’ve encountered an exhibition of genuine (or mostly genuine) objects built around the concept of fictitious collectors. Last fall, the London organization Artangel organized the exhibition “Nowhere Less Now,” in which artist Lindsay Seers accumulated a fantastic number of objects into an old sea cadets home in London called the Tin Tabernacle. Every visitor to the exhibition was given a book by the same name, which is a marvelous, heavily illustrated fictional text about memory, codes, shipping, and much more, includes many photographs from private collections and public archives. A digital version can be downloaded for free (iPads only) here.