Goshka Macuga’s installations explore the conventions of archiving, exhibition making and museum display. Her sculptural environments often host unlikely displays of other artists’ work and disparate collections of objects – books, souvenirs, scraps, artefacts, and curios – with little regard for historical classification and hierarchies of value. Macuga blurs the boundaries between collector, curator and artist. Her medium is her method of selection; her exhibitions become exhibits in themselves. By re-contextualising material Macuga disrupts conventional readings and, in temporarily appropriating the exhibits and their display as her own, she suggests new possibilities and alternative narratives.
Macuga’s imitation of museum methodology is not an ironic strategy intended to oppose its authority. As she explains: ‘It is an indirect and poetic device that loosens categories and pauses, seeking or fixing meaning’. Her selection of material is utterly subjective with everything considered equal – a natural history specimen juxtaposed with a mannequin, a national masterpiece with a scribbled note. She continues:
It follows a certain personal logic that is interested in the content, the form, and the meaning of an item, rather than its value. Here the concept of the readymade plays an important role. It does not matter if I find the objects to be assembled in my museum in an antique store, a botanical or zoological collection, in the studio of artist friends, a library or the British Museum.
The staging of Macuga’s displays is meticulously orchestrated. Her installations are site-specific, often responding to the physical features of a space, and mimic traditional models of display such as the cabinet of curiosities, library, museum and gallery. Yet the flamboyance and theatricality of her presentations adds a personal and contemporary twist. Macuga breathes life into her eccentric groupings of inanimate objects extending her curiosity beyond formal and material appreciation to an interest in human relationships. People are at the heart of Macuga’s practice.
Indeed, she considers her work a collective endeavour. Her projects forge collaborations with artists, museum professionals or specialists from other fields of interest to explore new territory. She is interested in the stories attached to individuals and in establishing a framework for her own work often pays homage to the creative vision of others. Her interest in the nineteenth-century collector and architect Sir John Soane inspired a recreation of his picture room at Gasworks gallery in 2003 – a series of folding panels on which she hung artwork borrowed from her contemporaries. More recently, her fascination with the founder of the Theosophical Society, Madam Blavatsky and the sets for the Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari 1920 shaped her installation, The Sleep of Ulro at The A Foundation, Liverpool in 2006. For Art Now Macuga has reacquainted herself with the British landscape artist Paul Nash and the group, Unit One, which he formed in 1933. Her enquiry has led to a rediscovery of ‘the adventure, the research, the pursuit in modern life’ sought by Nash and fellow English painters, sculptors and architects to explore ‘the strength of a national art’.1
This multi-disciplinary approach is evident in Macuga’s Art Now exhibition Objects in Relation. All the artists represented in the installation – such as Moore, Hepworth, Agar, Colquhoun – have a connection with Nash or British Surrealism. Yet her display does not aim to investigate this movement as one might expect a museum presentation to. Macuga’s interest lies with a moment in time: a situation when a group of like-minded artists stood united for ‘the expression of a truly contemporary spirit’.2 Macuga adopts the model for Unit One and the idea of the collective as another system to explore new ways in which the work of other artists and thus her own can be displayed and consumed.
Macuga has undertaken an extended period of research at Tate Britain, focusing on the Tate archive and particularly the personal correspondence of her exhibited artists. Tapping into their personal histories, she has become acquainted with personalities behind public personas. This character profiling is a central method in Macuga’s art of selection. Whether dealing with deceased artists or her peers, her approach is consistent: attuning herself to the state of mind of the individual, she aligns herself with their sensibilities or gains their trust in her collaborative experiments. But Macuga’s aim is not to sensationalise. Her materials are chosen sensitively and with respect, to offer a fragmentary narrative that proposes a context for her adopted group situation and, in this instance, suggests a very individual and British characteristic.
Collage is an integral tool in Macuga’s practice and she delights in exploiting the idea of appropriation and the found object in the spirit of the Surrealist artists with whom she works and exhibits. For Macuga, artworks are readymades to be selected and reframed. Material is arranged intuitively and allows her freedom to break her own systems; other layouts suggest themselves through chance finds. Indeed, a note discovered among Ithell Colquhoun’s papers encourages: ‘…arrange how you like on the pages’. Thus archive items – photographs and paper templates, ephemera and ‘in-between’ objects – that sometimes serve to supplement museum displays, but which might never be seen by a general public, are reinvigorated by Macuga into intriguing, temporary assemblages. But imposition of her authorship in place of the original artist is not Macuga’s intent. As she explains: ‘It’s not the attempt to project my identity as much as to find my identity in the process [of creating an artwork]. I’m not living in my own country. I’m not speaking in my mother’s language. The history that I’ve been educated with in Poland is not valid anymore because all the history books have been rewritten, so in a way I’m just creating my own histories, based on objects and artworks and certain experiences’.3
Rocks and trees punctuate the Art Now gallery with dramatic presence and mark a departure in Macuga’s practice, one that has taken her from the archive into nature. A playful experiment with the aesthetic language of the 1930s is evident as she explores the potential for objects to signify meaning beyond their actual form, littering her exhibition with layers of references. But Macuga touches on broader cultural and political issues: visitors are invited to sit next to a deep-sea diver and listen to a soundtrack of lectures. Here she refers to Salvador Dali’s infamous performance in a diving suit at the International Surrealist exhibition held in London in 1936 and draws a comparison between the revolutionary spirit of those working on the continent with the largely romantic preoccupations of British artists.
A tall wooden diving tower, inspired by Nash’s painting The Diving Stage 1928, looms over the gallery and provides a fitting metaphor for the plunge into history and the subconscious. Macuga describes herself as a ‘guest in the past’. Responding emotionally and intellectually to her assembled group of individuals, she has created her own landscape of material culture; abstracted and distorted, it is full of contemporary possibilities. As with all her installations her aims are open-ended and mirror those of her ideal museum, which describes
…the universe, nature and the supernatural, the human being, social behaviour, culture, artefacts and the micro-cosmos all at once and leaves it to the spectator him or herself to open passages, suites of rooms and complete wings to the unknown.