The Wellcome Collection is probably not the first place you’d expect to see modern art but after the success of their excellence Forensics exhibition earlier in the year which mixed scientific objects with art and installation, the Wellcome has successfully progressed to a full-on art exhibition, albeit one with a link to the nature of human cognition. The way we form and retain memories both as individuals and as a society is a fascinating subject. Often on a personal level the things we remember change over time, becoming distorted, embellished and embedded by frequent retelling, while the things a nation or culture chooses to memorialise are often sanitised, stripped of emotion and form, empty platitudes to some significant event. Anderson’s work speaks to both of these interpretations which makes this exhibition well worth seeing.
Now our memories are increasingly recorded in online forms; websites that hold our pictures, record our thoughts encapsulated as Tweets or Status Updates, or suggest people it thinks we should know. Anderson represents this using the fine copper wire she uses to wrap everyday objects, and by wrap I mean completely encase, mummify and cocoon so they become both unable to be the things they were and something else at the same time.
It opens with the exhibition’s centrepiece a Ford Mustang car which you can help to wrap – book ahead and you can spend an hour helping to shroud the car in gleaming copper. Already heavily covered by my visit it is a strangely fascinating item to look at, recognisably a car still from all but a few angles, particularly the back where it’s begun to lose form. Divested of its natural function, is this still a car or just the memory of one? It’s beautiful but it can no longer do any of things it is supposed to, and you can barely discern its usual features all now moulded into a smooth and glittering shape. When you can’t look beyond the surface, then the surface is all there is, and what a damning insight into our modern culture, a love of shiny surface things that deep down have no purpose.
Next up is a dark room like a museum, filled with items on pedestals that look reverent against the blackness. Strangely the wrapping process seems to change the physical form of the objects making them seem soft and squishy so you want to touch them to check, which obviously you can’t. Shears, glasses, a video camera, iphone plug and mobile phone all recognisable but changed. Some of the most impressive pieces, however, are on a considerably larger scale – a globe that becomes a giant ball of hair, a flat screen TV that has been covered so meticulously with such faultless straight lines that it starts to look like a giant shiny pillow or an electric guitar, all of these things are divested of their purpose, muffled but preserved forever. As a statement on memory it is interesting, each object represents a moment in time frozen and just a fleeting idea of what it once was.
It is the meticulous skills of Anderson’s work however that is so fascinating and the centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant staircase which even up close looks like perfectly created wood grain. The way the wire has been wrapped around each step is in perfectly straight lines which glisten invitingly in the centre of the room. As a symbol it is very striking, an empty staircase leading nowhere seems to be the epitome of Anderson’s other work which while preserving or ‘mummifying’ these objects is simultaneously stripping them of their purpose.
The next room artfully wraps and arranges recognisable items in new ways to create innovative forms, and here you’ll need the accompanying text to tell you what some of these things are. You’ll notice as the exhibition progresses that it becomes harder to distinguish all the things on display as the wrapping process reduces them to mere geometric shapes. Here there are some eye catching pieces including a tower of what could be wastepaper bins stacked to the ceiling, the light dramatically catching the lines of the copper wrapping to draw the eye upwards. Also impressive is a wall of ladders used to create block patterns as different sets of rungs are bound together, so again we see how Anderson’s technique changes something’s function to art. One of the most interesting items is further on, a collection of tall rectangular panels arranged in a circle, each wrapped with a slightly different pattern. There’s something Stone Henge-like about it and you can stand in the centre of the panels or between them as part of the circle. What it means is largely open to interpretation but it perhaps suggests something about the way we ritualise memory-making, like a form of pagan festival.
The final room looks at destruction and picks up again on this theme of removing an items purpose, but this time by using the wrapping process to crush or distort it. We see how the screen of a laptop has buckled, the contortions of a crushed wheelbarrow and some straight planks that have become curls and waves under the strictures of their binding. So this is asking us to consider the pressure memory-making can exert on the remembered moment, squeezing it over time to become useless and changed, which reflects how susceptible our memories are to later distortion.
This is my favourite kind of exhibition, while there is some guidance on the artist’s intentions there is still plenty of scope for the viewer to see whatever they choose. While on the one hand I did see Anderson’s intention to focus on memory formation, you could also argue that she’s commenting on our shallow engagement with the wider world. Arguably we no longer care about depth or the truth of something, preferring to have only superficial engagements with a lot of things, thus Anderson’s perfect shiny surfaces belie what’s underneath and hold a mirror up to the shallow digital world we have created. But that’s only one interpretation and as this show offers no answers, perhaps it doesn’t mean anything at all. The Wellcome has opened its doors to modern art and offers a fascinating exhibition that combines impressive technical skill with wider philosophical debates about the way we preserve and record the world around us.
Alice Anderson: Memory Movement Memory Objects is at the Wellcome Collection until 18 October. Entrance is free.