Four Bronze Horses Joanne Masding is a magpie.

For Lacquer Moving Lightly at Embassy Gallery in November 2013 she is showing a new presentation of her continually developing collection of shiny objects. This collection includes taxidermy humming birds, opalised wood, taffy, live koi carp, digital sketches and a fish lure. Many of its artefacts are mediated and presented through image or video. Masding’s collection is contemporary both in terms of how she has found and gathered its materials and in terms of how she displays them. Like many historical collections it is a site of learning. Lacquer Moving Lightly connects with threads that run throughout contemporary and historic collections, including value, surface, the original versus the replica, hierarchies and ordering, ownership and authorship.

Collections have always been used as tools for developing and presenting identities, both publicly and privately. Like a classical seventeenth century collection Masding’s is a web of loosely affiliated objects from all over the world that are presented in a non-hierarchical manner. It says a lot about its collectors’ interests. It tells us about her fascination with materials and their surfaces and shows the connections she makes between seemingly disparate artefacts. When something is acquired for a collection it is brought under the control of its collector. Early modern collections were sites for the demonstration of power: the kunstkammer could be seen as an expression of symbolic mastery of the greater world1. When accumulating, the collector acquires power over an object and the way in which it is perceived within a particular context. Collectors re-make objects; they imbue them with new narratives, associations and meanings. In the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, artefacts from all over the world have been taken from their original environment and are displayed as ‘World Art’ alongside a collection of Modern Western art. These things, some of which are decorative arts and some of which are tools and objects with particular cultural uses and significance, are displayed in perspex vitrines as object d’art. Although a small label for each object offers a place of origin and perhaps a date the presentation of these objects does not acknowledge their previous context let alone their maker (many of whom are unknown). This method of display tells the story of how the objects were amassed to inform a collection of modern European art that used ‘World Art’ as source material. It does not, however, allow more than a glimpse of a small aspect of the culture of the people of Papua New Guinea or British Columbia who formed the objects. This collection therefore illuminates the interests of one family and their artist friends (including Epstein, Moore, Modigliani) at a particular moment in European culture.

By the time we see the things on show in Lacquer Moving Lightly they, like all objects in collections, have already gone through a process of selection and mediation. Here the process is perhaps more transparent and the control exerted by their collector more explicit than in other collections. Instead of glass display cases and vitrines Masding presents her artefacts as images printed on aluminium and through videos on projectors and monitors. One piece, All the Objects (ingot, tool, vessel, surface and fish) vaguely mimics a museum display but its ‘plinth’, made of coloured vinyl stuck to the floor in a crystalline outline is more akin to a minimalist sculpture than a traditional museum display mechanism.

Each of Masding’s works frames its objects in certain ways, often literally by putting it into the camera frame. Beyond the technical framework (screen or projector) through which she chooses to display her artefacts Masding uses a range of devices that mediate the pieces. In Hand In Eye for example, an opaque filter fills the screen. A small oval that mimics digital eye-tracking software moves around the plane of the image allowing the viewer a clear view only of a small section of the objects. In another work - Green Lacquer - the pool of moving-image that houses the swimming fish is interrupted by a video of computer generated models. As with many private collections (and many public collections that have not been sanitised through numerous re-hangs) in Lacquer Moving Lightly we see things through the same lens as their collector. The unusual thing about Masding’s collection, though, is that we see many items only through video on a screen. Arguably we generally do not encounter the ‘real’ object in a collection but a mediated version of it; here that process of mediation is apparent. Masding’s mode of presentation reflects the transitory nature of some of the artefacts she collects. The Koi Carp and taffy are collected as moving image, not as static object and it is the moving-image version of the artefact that Masding has a relationship with. There is a theory espoused by Hubert and Mauss that when divorced from their original context and put into collections objects are sacrificed2. This idea represents the paradox that the objects themselves ‘die’ while maintaining the life of their species of object. Masding owns only a handful of the objects in her works; most of them still exist in the context in which they were filmed. Her method of collecting bypasses the process of sacrificing artefacts. By simply borrowing them from their context she allows them to live on in whatever place she found them, whether this is a context for which they were already sacrificed (the hummingbirds from the National Museum of Ireland) or a place where they continue to live (the taffy). She does not take the original artefact out of circulation, but by owning and controlling an image of it sacrifices a version of the object. Masding presents just one of these objects, captured in a particular moment, that comes to represent that group or species more widely.

In a traditional natural history collection specimens are preserved in complex ways and displayed as dead things. The taxidermy humming birds from Dublin’s Museum consist of the feathers from the live bird, polystyrene and chemicals. In showing the living Koi Karp Masding evades all of these problems: we see the tone and texture their living skin and how they move in water. Part of Masding’s fascination with collections is the way that things are acquired. Her working process is an exploration of acquisition; she searches, hunts down and lures objects to her. Perhaps her use of the hologram-surfaced fish-lure is a playful hint at this process. Many of her artefacts are represented through videos that belong to others; she has simply hijacked or lifted them. She also makes new objects that are added to her accumulations and her mixing of objects from various sources raises questions about authenticity and ownership. Museum collections have been, and still are, formed through processes of accumulation that involve finding, digging, taking, exchanging and buying. It is 43 years since the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property3 and 35 since the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation4. Despite this, public national collections are still full of objects with contested ownership. Some of the most infamous cases of repatriation involve human remains. The British Museum holds hundreds of artefacts that incorporate human bones and skin and in 2005 they issued a Human Remains Policy5. In 2011 20 skulls were repatriated to Namibia after spending 100 years in what is now the Charité at Berlin’s university hospital. These were the skulls of Namibian people who had died in colonial concentration camps between 1904 and 1908 and as such they represent a cruel colonial history both in terms of how they were acquired and in how they were used within an anatomical collection as part of a toolkit for researching white superiority6. This is a shocking but by no means isolated case. The acquisition process behind many of the largest private and public collections in the West has historically taken place between parties who hold unequal power. Many artefacts in Western collections therefore represent a shady past, whether this is because they were acquired through a process of financial or political coercion or whether they were simply taken by those who ‘owned’ a country through Empire or assumed the role of ambassador from an ‘advanced civilisation’ that could collect and preserve. Even in cases where artefacts were ‘legitimately’ acquired the international political climate at the time of purchase may not have been conducive to a fair deal and sometimes those who sold the artefacts may not now be considered their rightful owners. The Elgin Marbles, held by the British Museum, have become a lynch pin of sorts in an international conversation on repatriation. In this highly contentious case the British Museum are loathe to give up these treasures which are not only amongst their most beautiful and valuable possessions but also represent a potent link to the seat of Western civilisation.

Lacquer Moving Lightly is full of treasures. In Masding’s Schatzkammer we find a mixture of rare, precious things and quotidian items. Many of her treasures are taken from the contemporary collection of YouTube. The digital objects that she finds and creates are elevated to the status of art works. By using Google and YouTube as sites for acquisition Masding raises questions about open source information and copyrighting. She is like a one-person acquisitions team that sweeps the internet for desirable imagery and objects. The Staffordshire Hoard is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found7. When it was discovered in 2009 it brought the 1996 Treasure Act to the attention of the British public. Under the Treasure Act any gold or silver objects found that are more than 300 years old are classed as Treasure, along with any objects found with them. All Treasure belongs to the Crown but can be purchased from the landowner and finder. When the Treasure Valuation Committee valued the Hoard at £3.285 million a huge fundraising campaign was launched to ‘save’ the Hoard for the nation8. Much of Masding’s work uses alluring, shiny surfaces as veneers. All the Objects (ingot, tool, vessel, surface and fish) is formed from plastescine and faux gold leaf. It is a stand-in, an imitation, a fake. Collections, both public and private are full of replicas that sit alongside priceless rarities. The whole of the city of Venice is a collection of sorts and some of the most iconic objects it holds are the four bronze horses that stand halfway up the façade of the Basilica di San Marco. These, as the myth goes, arrived in Venice in the early thirteenth century after the sack of Constantinople (now Istanbul but once a seat of Christian power). They lived happily there until they were taken to Paris in 1797 by Napoleon where they reportedly adorned the Arc de Triomphe until 1805 when they made their way back to Venice9. After hundreds of years of being moved around and fought over these potent ponies retired from their hot spot on the exterior of the Basillica and were moved inside where they can now be seen in the dim theatrical lights of the museum. Their replacement replicas are identical to the untrained eye but perhaps they have become more precious and rarefied as a result of being moved inside. In their life time the textile artists Barron and Larcher accumulated a large collection of fabrics from all over the world, from antique French lace to woven cloths from Western Africa still stiff with Indigo dye10. These fabrics were not sacred things housed in vitrines but were used as a research tool by the artists in order that they might better understand their own processes. Masding’s collection is a place of knowledge and learning. Within the early modern Wunderkammers of the late seventeenth century materials were seen as a form of evidence and collecting them was part of a process of analysis. Pearce notes that in these collections ‘material [was] observed and arranged in order to yield up its inherent knowledge, and important material [was] preserved in order to continue to demonstrate the truths that [were] asserted’11. Masding’s collection is used by the artist as a way of understanding things – materials, surfaces and hierarchies – better. It is not as a way of demonstrating knowledge. In this sense it is akin to Umberto Eco’s ‘anti library12’, which is to say that it is a space for potential learning and knowledge. Her collections are not finite or static but always changing and growing. They are working collections and the artefacts and materials that they comprise of are used, amended and adapted. Elinor Morgan

Susan M Pearce, On Collecting (London, 1999) p.112 Ibid., pg. 24 3 http://portal.unesco.org/en/ev.php-URL_ID=13039&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html 4 http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-URL_ID=35283&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html 5 https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Human%20Remains%206%20Oct%202006.pdf 6 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-15127992 7 http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk 8 http://www.bmag.org.uk/collections/staffordshire-hoard 9 Giandomenico Romanelli (ed.) Venice: Art & Architecture (London, 1997) p.92 10 Feminising the Public: British Women Designers in the 1920s and 1930s, Presentation by Dr. Fiona Hackney at Enid Marx and Her Contemporaries Conference at Compton Verney, 13 September 2013 11 Pearce, op.cit., p. 111 12 Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (London, 2008), part 1.
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