The collector’s shadow
Patrick Pound’s art explores the solitary and social pleasures of collecting. Robert Leonard reports.
We are desiring machines with a deep-seated need to possess and control. It begins early, at our mother’s breasts. With weaning, our needy needs are transferred onto transitional objects: security blankets, teddy bears, dolls. Later still, these feelings are projected onto the other possessions we cling to: cars, homes, partners and, crucially, collections. What we collect can be arbitrary, psychologically less important than the collecting activity itself. While collecting appears to be about connecting with the world, a collection is also a surrogate world, a fortress, a refuge. Collectors indulge in kingly fantasies, exercising sovereignty over their stuff in the face of chaos, calming their fears, quelling their insecurities.
Melbourne artist Patrick Pound’s art exemplifies and explores collections and collecting. It evolved out of his own collecting habit. I’ve been lucky enough to see two of his wondrous ‘museums of things’ projects. The first was his Gallery of Air in Melbourne Now at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in 2013. Pound packed a small, low-ceiling gallery with hundreds of items, drawn both from his quirky personal trove of non-art stuff and from the NGV’s more prestigious art one. At first sight, the salon hang looked disordered, heterogeneous, a jumble. Without the title, you may not have realised that there was a common thread. However, indeed, each and every item had something to do with air – a subject that defies representation – albeit in diverse and oblique ways. As Pound explained, the display went “from a draft excluder to an asthma inhaler; from a battery-powered ‘breathing’ dog to an old bicycle pump; from a Jacobean air stem glass to a Salvador Dalí ashtray made for Air India; from a John Constable cloud study to a Goya print of a farting figure”. It was like a Google search, netting everything you’d expect and more besides.
Pound’s Gallery was a leveller. Masterpieces and lesser items from the NGV collection shared the stage with trivial items worth next to nothing from his own, all vying for attention. From the artist came a fart cushion, a copy of The Wind in the Willows, a CPR-training mannequin, a World War 2 air warden’s tram pass, and an air-stewardess doll. From the NGV came a piece of Italian ‘stitches in the air’ lace, a Victorian painting of a sheep exhaling over a dead lamb, Arthur Streeton’s painting Oncoming Storm, and an open-ended Donald Judd minimalist box that literally frames air. Airy references ricocheted. It was like solving a puzzle. I felt affirmed as I ‘got’ each connection.
High or low, art or non-art, all items were decontextualised, becoming tokens in Pound’s game, grist to his free-associational mill. Differences in cultural standing were beside the point. Pound says this gave the NGV’s objects a ‘sabbatical’ from their institutional mandates – vacation, more like. It also liberated them from their makers’ intentions and purposes. For the NGV’s collection items, it was mostly a comedown; for Pound’s, an elevation – provenance!
As I surveyed the ensemble, determining how each item related to ‘air’, some inclusions seemed obvious, some obscure, some had me stumped. Unassuming items offered surprising twists. Each exhibit’s significance was reduced to its excuse for being there. Once that was observed, there was no reason to waste any more time on it. Other dimensions and qualities – say, those pertaining to art history – faded into irrelevance, and I moved on to the next thing.
Pound’s Gallery was rambling yet reductive. It was a topsy-turvy, carnivalesque museum-within-the-museum, where the NGV’s normal priorities were suspended and satirised. Although I was in the NGV to see ‘the good stuff’, I relished this momentary release from its authority. It was fun, not only for the artist and the viewer, but clearly also for the institution. The NGV must have had a good time too, because, a few years later, Pound was invited back to expand on his idea – massively. In 2017, it mounted an epic Pound solo show, The Great Exhibition.
Filling NGV Australia’s entire ground floor, a total of seven galleries, The Great Exhibition revealed just how far Pound could take his idea. The show borrowed its title from the mother of world’s fairs, The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held in London’s Crystal Palace in 1851. That early, encyclopaedic mega-show was authoritative, presenting the best of the best. However, Pound’s show was all quaintness and contingency, offering its contents as curios, footnotes, digressions. He again scrambled his holdings with the NGV’s. Some 4000 items of his were interspersed with 300-or-so of theirs.
The show kicked off with photos. In a prefatory antechamber Pound sampled his collection of ‘photographers’ shadows’ – snapshots where photographers inadvertently cast their shadows across their subjects, a classic amateur-photographer mistake. Of scant interest individually, these images became amusing and uncanny when presented en masse, as variations on a theme. They set up the whole show, suggesting that, even if the artist was not present in his collections (each item having originated elsewhere), his shadow – his desire – was nevertheless insistently cast upon them, from offscreen.
Much of Pound’s collecting focuses on photos, vernacular non-art photos, including snapshots, news and publicity photos, and postcards. In the first room, such images were presented in frames and display cases and grouped by categories, including collectors, readers, photography and air, people listening to music, absent mothers, photos of photos, people holding photos, and miracles of photography (surreal double exposures and the like). Alongside selections from Pound’s collections were single pictures from the NGV collection exemplifying the same theme. For instance, six frames containing 100-plus photos of ‘readers’ from Pound’s collection were accompanied by the NGV’s Honoré Daumier painting of Don Quixote enjoying a book.
The Great Exhibition wowed with sheer volume. There was so much material in the first room, some visitors assumed it was the entire show and were surprised to walk into the next space and realise they had only scratched the surface. In the second gallery, Pound presented his Museum of There/Not There, in which every exhibit pointed to an absence – not unlike those photographers’ shadows. Where the previous room had been almost entirely photos, this one included all manner of stuff: a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s book Being and Nothingness, a ventriloquist’s dummy, a bustle, a picture of a man in a see-through skirt, a sole without a shoe, a blown egg, a perforated pianola roll. There was even a soundtrack, including Tom Petty’s ‘Refugee’ and Aretha Franklin’s ‘I Wonder (Where You Are Tonight)’.
Subsequent galleries housed collections of images of holes, of pairs, of reflections, of people sleeping, of people who could be dead, of people with their backs turned, of people with arms outstretched. There were collections of wooden knife blocks, tiny plastic toy guns, name tags, tangles of wire and rope. There were dad-joke collections-about-collecting: stacks of different editions of John Fowles’ novel The Collector, different format and language editions of the movie Things Change, and a collection of French things bearing the French word for things – ‘choses’. To keep it lively, Pound presented the collections in different ways. Pictures were hung in clusters and sequences (some intersecting, crossword-puzzle style); objects were stacked, arrayed and heaped on plinths, or presented in cases.
Pound’s collecting and arranging added something to his exhibits that wasn’t there before, making us look at them differently. They also took stuff away. As a curator, I observed how the show addressed the tricks of my trade. I felt pangs of recognition and shame as Pound exposed the ways my colleagues and I place things into contrived contexts, fetishising some properties, while forcing others to take a back seat. How many times have I arranged things to create a conceptual through-line of my own, acting as though I was simply discovering something essential and latent in the works themselves? How often have I perpetuated such mischief upon the work of artists, artists like Pound?
In Gallery of Air and The Great Exhibition, Pound played on the difference between institutional and personal collecting. Institutional collections are authoritative (they represent the Big Other), while personal collections are spaces of individual reverie (offering escapist counter-narratives). Pound’s table-turning projects momentarily absorb the collection of the Big Other, but, while he takes control, the institution also lets him, giving him the keys to the car and coming along for the ride.
The Great Exhibition was a major opportunity for Pound, who has flown under the radar for much of his career. Ever since, he’s been fielding offers. Earlier this year, he presented The Point of Everything in the Adelaide Biennial, Divided Worlds, combining works from his collection and the Art Gallery of South Australia’s, to probe the theme of pointing. And, in August, at City Gallery Wellington, he opens On Reflection, which centres on themes of reflection, mirrors and doubles.
As City Gallery doesn’t have a collection, Pound will shuffle his holdings with items from Te Papa. Since opening in 1998, Te Papa has been controversial for interweaving populism and biculturalism to serve a new national story. Pound’s show liberates collection items from this obligation. We will see things Te Papa has had little cause to show alongside a few trusty standards, albeit presented on perverse pretexts.
Not only will the show address reflection through its individual exhibits, the design of each side of the show will mirror the other, making it a giant visual palindrome or Rorschach blot. It’s a sly joke. Our interpretation of Rorschach blots supposedly reveals more about ourselves, a consequence of the mental collections, the baggage, the mind ‘sets’, we bring to them. But, here, I suspect, Pound will remain in full control, as we make connections along the lines he has preordained, joining his numbered dots, following his breadcrumbs. Artist as curator; curator as artist.
Patrick Pound: On Reflection is at City Callery Wellington Te Whare Toi from 11 August to 4 November.