Elephant Atlas / Reviewed by Madeleine Shanks / 12.04.18
Elephant Atlas at the Upper Galleries of the London College of Communication marks, through the works of 15 artists and writers, an important moment for the Cuming Museum Collection, its place in the public eye and the cultural fabric of the Borough of Southwark. Curated by Judy Aitken and Sophy Rickett, Elephant Atlas considers innovative ways of connecting the local community with this collection of social and historical importance.
Objecthood, the condition of being an object, necessitates interaction either in terms of function or beauty, both of which cease to exist if a thing is wrapped in tissue paper and bubble wrap, given a number and closed in a box. The life stories of the curios held by the collection underwent this drastic metamorphosis after a fire gutted their permanent home at the Newington Public Library in 2014. Bequeathed to the people of Southwark by Henry Syer Cuming in 1902, the collection is an original 19th century Cabinet of Curiosities, a vast assemblage of curios from our colonial past, as well as a fascinating collection of artefacts deeply rooted in the history of the local areas of Camberwell, Peckham and Southwark. Over the past 100 years, curators have sought to redefine public engagement with the rare artefacts – seeking new approaches through categorisation and digitalisation, which in turn has led to the inception of Elephant Atlas.
Exploring the exhibition, one sees the materials contained within the archive given new life – a delicate ceramic plate is shown off with gestural flourishes characteristic of a shopping channel host in Object Actions Choreography by Harold Offeh, contemporary viewing practices jarring against the refined glaze. In Cuming: A Natural Selection, a delicate 18th century ivory figurine of St Anne, the patron saint of lost objects and those who search for them, has been duplicated many times over in dental wax by Janetka Platun, the original object having been lost in the fire. Contemplating the universality of loss, Platun held participatory workshops, inviting members of the local community to express their perceptions and experiences of loss – the record of which is individually carved into the back of each figurine.
Photographs of large whalebone fragments and delicate human ear bones hang, accompanied by fragmented text in Sophy Rickett’s Animal Vegetable Mineral. Rickett’s series recalls a period in the recent history of the Cuming Museum Collection where traditional categorisation, by historical, geographical or social contexts, was replaced by the objects’ material physicality. Here, the sheer unlikelihood of these objects coming to rest next to one another is clear – as in Pamela Abad Vega’s Magic in Modern London, where the mythologies of Victorian London are bound to the traditional superstitions of the artist’s home in Tarqui, Ecuador, through the artefacts and writings of folklorist Edward Lovett.
The objects held in the Cuming Museum Collection exist together by virtue of one family’s obsessive desire to collect the peculiar ephemera of natural and human history, without which much of our understanding of our predecessors wouldn’t exist. In Compulsion, Marcus Boyle explores this notion of obsession, alongside the ethics of exploitation and consent through participatory workshops, questioning both the mechanics of art-making and the challenging, and perhaps even troubling, behaviours of our ancestors.
The 15 artists and writers, invited into the temporary archival storage space in Bermondsey, and who comprise Elephant Atlas have created something that speaks to universal facets of the human character; the capacity for empathy, the experience of loss and the desire to accumulate, celebrating and ruminating on this vast civic suspension.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Madeleine Shanks
London College of Communication
Elephant and Castle, London SE1 6SB
Friday 16 March - Wednesday 4 April
11am-7pm Monday - Friday
Closed Sundays (Please note we will be closed Easter weekend Friday 30 March - Monday 2 April)
Free and open to all.