With a name like ‘The Museum of Everything,’ one’s right to expect a little bit of this, a little bit of that and a little bit of well… EVERYTHING!
In actuality, curator James Brett chooses to emphasise the work of artists that are “untrained, unintentional and undiscovered,” making for a uniquely profound experience of an un-museum like museum. The ‘Exhibit 4′ fun begins with the unconventional use of space since there is no order with which to view the works. Sprawling the many-roomed Selfridges basement, every entrance is adorned with dangling streamers and each room contains an eclectic mix of furniture. The works range from paintings to clay sculptures to letters in cryptic, fictional languages – all coming from studios around the world that house individuals with mental or developmental disabilities. The focus though is on this previously obscure artwork rather than the circumstances of its creators. Through this innovative exhibit, James Brett manages to critique the way viewers and museums define an artwork while displaying works that would ordinarily go unseen. As the exhibition comes to a close, we catch-up with James Brett about what’s then, what’s now and what’s next.
How did this all begin? I was looking at this kind of work and noticed that very few people were showing this material in the UK, so I thought, “that sounds like fun, let’s show a bit of this to the outside world.”
What is your mission? We were surprised by how many people were interested in the work and as a result of that, we carried on the show. We thought we must be doing something right, so we toured it. Seeing how many people turned up seemed to indicate it was the right thing to do. The mission is to carry on while people are coming, to show art by people who aren’t necessarily privileged by the world.
Was there something you found more captivating about art made by artists with disabilities? Disability is not really interesting in terms of segregating people, but it did strike me that it was one type of work that wasn’t being seen by anybody. We weren’t looking at disabilities, we were looking at the studios where the artists work. The studios are set up to help them make the art. That process seemed fascinating. Then to come to Selfridges to show it, you’ve got one of the most visible places in London showing some of the least visible artists in the world. That conflict seemed very good. On top of that Selfridges looks like a museum, so the show is there to challenge the museums and their curatorial practice, which was also part of the entire enterprise.
Do the artists contact you, or do you seek them out? Both.
How do you think making and viewing art affects people? Well, at worst it doesn’t hurt. At best it’s a life-changing experience. If you see a great piece of work that somehow reflects why we exist, then you will have a transcendent moment and that will change your life completely. That’s to do with the creativity in all people since birth, but creative instincts are not really celebrated in the art world. It usually rests upon a sort of formal qualification of art. So, if you bring it back to the idea of fundamental creativity, which exists in childhood, then there’s a stronger chance in my view that you can have that kind of enlightenment.
The exhibits usually take place in unconventional locations, so how does it feel to be beneath Selfridges? I rather like it! The idea was to reach as many people as possible and to reach hundreds of thousands seems like an interesting idea to me.
How does this show compare to the previous ones? Do you think this location had a particular effect on the exhibit? Well, some people decided Selfridges was negative, some people decided it was positive. The truth is it’s about communication so it can only be positive. Selfridges has been amazing in terms of enabling that idea. To be able to have this much surface area, 40,000 square feet across the store, I mean that’s astonishing and very few people would take a risk with that. So, what it means is that Selfridges embraced that cultural idea and embraced the idea that they were a museum for the time we were here. I think it’s only positive because you can always go smaller in life I think it’s quite harder to go bigger.
I love that it’s an unlikely setting… Absolutely. A shopper can still be a museum visitor. To deny them that experience is snobbery. Sometimes the most amazing ideas and comments came from people who really turned up to the shop and accidentally stumbled across the museum. It makes it very democratic.
Where will you take the exhibit next? Not sure. I’m thinking about Russia, The Middle East, America, and maybe a squat on Kingsland Road.
The Museum of Everything, Exhibit 4, is on until the 25th of October at Selfridges.
Text: Lily Avnet