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Collecting a Human Experience at The Keeper

Holocaust memorabilia, rock crystals, antique vessels, and trash found on the streets of New York City: these are some of the objects in The New Museum’s current exhibition, The Keeper. Discarded pieces of gum and cellophane wrappers are shown side-by-side with photographs documenting the structure of snowflakes. Among the exhibited artifacts are quilts from Alabama and architectural models of an imaginary European city.

What brings these strange and precious objects together is a not a show of any particular artist, theme, or historical period. The Keeper is a meta-exhibition dedicated to the act of collecting itself.

Keeping artifacts and weaving stories around them is something that humans of all cultures do. In modern, just as in prehistoric times, we invest objects with a magical power and preserve them as safeguards of our identity. Starting from this anthropological observation, the exhibition brings together twenty-nine artists, makers, and collectors on four floors of the museum’s high-rise building in Manhattan’s Bowery District. A visitor to the show quickly realizes that “The Keeper” is not a certain artist or patron. It is an allegory for the deeply personal, and at the same time universal act of collecting; it is each one of us and requires no formal education to execute.

“The Keeper,” 2016. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

“The Keeper,” 2016. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

The Origins of the Keeper

The figure of “the keeper” relates back to the early-twentieth-century German writer, critic, and visionary Walter Benjamin, who chief curator Massimiliano Gioni often quotes in his statement in the exhibition catalog. Benjamin was an obsessive collector himself: he is best-known for the Arcades Project, an attempt to preserve the informal culture of Paris’s nineteenth-century covered streets (a precursor to today’s shopping malls). Benjamin recorded elaborate descriptions of these sites, along with advertisements, ticket stubs, and other debris. In the Arcades Project, he created the characters of the collector and the flaneur: while one wanders aimlessly through the streets, drifting through the chaos of modern life, the other aims to make sense of it by preserving meaningful objects, by cultivating his memory and striving for order.

The collector and the flaneur represented two different ways of coping with a fast-changing world. A century ago, Benjamin was concerned that our memory was endangered: modernity had brought so much stimulation in the form of street noise, advertising, radio, and cinema, that the human senses were struggling to cope. In contrast to his concerns, curator Massimiliano Gioni harbors a deep optimism about human nature. Regardless of the fast pace of modern life, consumer culture, and even digitization—a change greater and more rapid than those in Benjamin’s lifetime—Gioni believes that we are all still essentially collectors. The ambitious New Museum show is his defense of this argument. It is a sincere appeal for art’s enduring importance: in an environment of media saturation and information overflow, it is all the more important to dig deeper into personal memory and to hold on to the images and objects that remind us who we are. These ideas testify to a utopian streak in the show, which ultimately offers a radical proposal for what art and the museum, institutional as well as personal, could mean today.

“The Keeper,” 2016. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

“The Keeper,” 2016. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

The exhibition, then, is informed by a set of philosophical ideas going back to the early twentieth century. Besides Benjamin, Gioni cites other literary inspirations, such as novelist Orhan Pamuk, who has written a manifesto for small personal museums as a form of storytelling, or poet Charles Baudelaire—another drifter and connoisseur of the trivial and the bizarre in turn-of-the-century Paris. In his writings about the exhibition, Gioni is assembling a collection of literary documents that becomes an invisible part of the show itself.

Is that too much of a theoretical burden for one exhibition to carry? There are many dangers inherent in the show’s premise, from imposing a fixed narrative onto the artwork and not letting it speak for itself, to evoking the randomness of a flea market, where the objects do not appear to belong together. The project is so vast in its scope that it threatens to unravel into disorder. After all, Benjamin’s Arcades Project remained unfinished, and its author realized that it was an inherently impossible undertaking.

Gioni acknowledges these dangers, noting in his catalog essay that “every passion borders on the chaotic.” The Keeper is an experiment that questions to what extent we can preserve our shared passions in a museum that works for everyone, and at what point communication breaks down into absurdity. For every visitor to this fantastical exhibition, there will be moments of connection and incomprehension. So long as the first predominate, the experiment has been successful. For us, it worked: we were surprised and moved by the objects, many of which are invested with pain and hope that are palpable for the visitor.

The Pieces of the Keeper

Among the objects that we see on the first floor is the extraordinary Sketchbook from Auschwitz, signed by “MM”–an inmate who has never been identified. These pencil drawings on yellowed paper carry an astounding historical significance, which can awe and humble the visitor. In the face of unimaginable adversity, MM painstakingly recorded daily life at the extermination camp in a numbered series of illustrations, which he then hid near a barrack’s foundations as a message for posterity. Camp policies specifically forbid the making of images that would reveal to outsiders the atrocities committed there. The overarching goal behind the Holocaust was the erasure of the victims’ voices and memories, and thus of their humanity. Nevertheless, MM’s sketchbook survived, and is now exhibited as a triumph of remembrance.

MM, "Sketchbook from Auschwitz."

MM, “Sketchbook from Auschwitz.”

Other exhibits are not as painful and raw, but are just as emotionally charged. Peter Fritz’s architectural models, on the same floor, remind us that art can arise from any circumstance, even the mundane. Fritz was an Austrian insurance clerk; not much is known about him, and his life story could have been entirely unremarkable. He is known today for his collection of three hundred eighty-seven architectural models, which he crafted from everyday materials such as cardboard and magazine cutouts. Not only is their facture incredibly precise, but they testify to an extraordinary imagination. Though they look like copies of actual buildings, Fritz invented each one: the sports hall and village pharmacy, the pension hotel, department store, textile factory, the small huts and complex mansions. The level of detail—down to the awnings, signage, and personalized gardens—makes us believe in the reality of the inhabitants who have given each structure its character. Fritz was a self-taught architect who created a delightfully perfect version of the world around him. He saw ‘ordinary’ structures with a sense of wonder most of us only had as children.

Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916 –1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993–2008 (detail). Selection of 126 mixed-medium models, dimensions variable. © Wien Museum and Peter Cox

Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser, The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916 –1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, 1993–2008 (detail). Selection of 126 mixed-medium models, dimensions variable. © Wien Museum and Peter Cox.

The passion of the ordinary continues on the next floor, where four quilts, made from the 1940s to the 1970s, exemplify the beauty of everyday objects. The quilts represent a local Alabama tradition dating back to the times of slavery. Cloth scraps are reworked into stark abstract patterns, such as concentric squares, that recall mid-century abstract art. But it is not just the aesthetic qualities of these objects that move us. It is the memories that are woven into them: the clothing of loved ones was included as a token of remembrance. Looking closely, one sees loose and worn patches of fabric, perhaps where a knee or elbow has nestled during the day’s work.

The Keeper

Howard Fried, “Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe.” “The Keeper,” 2016. New Museum, New York. Photo: Maris Hutchinson / EPW Studio

In a vitrine nearby, Howard Fried’s installation “The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe” strikes a similar key. The deceased mother’s clothing is arranged on racks, with shoes and handbags on the floor below. The installation creates not so much a sense of tragic loss as a feeling of familiarity, comfort, and a loved one’s presence. The canvas sneakers, low heels, and neon-colored sweaters could be found in the closet of anyone who lived through the 1970s and 80s. As Fried has preserved his mother’s wardrobe, so each of us is the keeper of her own family history, whose pain and joy are no less real.

Artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, damaged during the Lebanese Civil War, Preserved by Maurice Chehab Maurice, Bronze, Glass, Iron, Stone, and Terra-Cotta, Dimensions Variable. Courtesy the Ministry of Culture and Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon.

Artifacts from the National Museum of Beirut, damaged during the Lebanese Civil War, Preserved by Maurice Chehab Maurice, Bronze, Glass, Iron, Stone, and Terra-Cotta, Dimensions Variable. Courtesy the Ministry of Culture and Directorate General of Antiquities, Lebanon.

The other floors hold many more obscure treasures, such as ancient bronze figurines from the National Museum of Beirut that were melted by fire in wartime and bent into new shapes; or pages from Vladimir Nabokov’s scrapbooks with his exquisite drawings of butterfly wings (one forgets that, in addition to being a cult writer, he had a second identity as an entomologist). A video installation on the top floor presents a collection of endangered and lost languages. The artist, Susan Hiller, has assembled fragments from oral histories, anthropological studies, lectures, and interviews into an aural archive. Against a black screen, disembodied voices tell anecdotes or fairy tales, sing songs, or speak out directly against the destruction of their heritage. Some languages are strikingly different from the ones we usually hear today: one consists entirely of whistling sounds. At one moment, the screen says, “translation unavailable,” alerting us to the fact that some collections and memories will remain forever inaccessible to us.

What to keep?

The question, ultimately, is whether The Keeper has succeeded in presenting in a meaningful way the breathtaking complexity of human memory. Is this a quixotic undertaking like Arcades Project, bound to break down at the end? Does it overwhelm us with too much information and leave us jaded—like Benjamin’s flaneur? The strength of the exhibition is that it constructs a very organized presentation of chaos, with a limited number of artifacts carefully laid out so that we can see and appreciate each one. An entire room could have been decked out with quilts, but the curators chose four. Six pages of Nabokov’s butterflies suffice as a sign of his lifelong obsession. The aural installation of rare languages is highly edited, too. At twenty minutes long, it can be heard in its entirety—the artist has avoided impressing her audience with the work’s sheer scope. For the most part, the exhibition is remarkable in its range and yet judiciously limited in the number of specific examples that it uses.

The one point at which we felt weary and numb was The Teddy Bear Project, which was meant as the show’s centerpiece. In the giant hall filled from floor to ceiling with innumerable photos of teddy bears, it was impossible to try and empathize with each individual story. While personal memory is a universal value, our capacities for compassion are limited; perhaps that is one of the show’s lessons. In any case, The Keeper has pushed the boundaries of what an art exhibition can do, of the range of emotions and values that it can represent. The bar has been raised for other contemporary art museums to match the experience.