Patrick Pound
The gallery of air 2013 (detail)

What a marvellous invention man is!
He can blow on his hands to warm them up, and blow on his soup to cool it down.
Georges Perec, A Man Asleep (1967)

Idiot wind, blowin’ through the dust upon our shelves.
We’re idiots babe. It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Bob Dylan, Idiot wind’ (1975)

Installed as an artist’s project for Melbourne Now (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 23 October 2013 – 23 March 2014), The gallery of air (fig. 1) was a room filled with hundreds of things, each of which variously held an idea of air: from a draft excluder to an asthma inhaler; from a battery-powered ‘breathing’ dog, to an old bicycle pump; from a Jacobean air stem glass to a Salvador Dalí ashtray made for Air India; from a John Constable cloud study to a Goya print of a farting figure. The gallery of air was a diorama of gallery things and my things.

Ninety-two things from the vast array of objects in the NGV’s collection were mixed with 287 of my things – with all objects selected specifically because they held some idea of air. Here a Wedgwood vase decorated with flute players found itself alongside a record by Curved Air; there a blown glass orb with a single air bubble, the breath of its maker, caught forever inside, found itself next to a blow dryer. I simply wanted to put the collection to work in a different way. By selecting these things according to an apparently arbitrary and poetic category, the way we read them was temporarily reset. I was worried that the Gallery’s things might not be as interesting as mine, but luckily they seemed to hold their own.

After giving a talk to the NGV Women’s Association about the upcoming installation of The gallery of air, I was flattered to be asked to write this article, expanding on that address. Having said this, I must also say that agreeing to do so was a bit like telling someone that you’re a comedian, then immediately being asked if you know any jokes. At the risk of explaining my jokes, here I intend to simply unpack The gallery of air and the ideas running through it as frankly as I can.

Works of art are not made to illustrate theories. They should be just as likely to worry them. Theoretical discourse should not simply explicate artworks: it should evaluate, illuminate and disquiet them. As I’m speaking of my own work here, I will inevitably elide both tasks.

(In) The field

Terry Smith has written of ‘programmatic efforts by curators to reimagine museums’, and how we might ‘write the history of curating; innovate within exhibition formats; extend curating into educational activity; and, in some cases, commit to activist curating in venues beyond the art world’. Smith has it that ‘[t]hese impulses are reshaping modern curatorial thinking. They are crucial to its efforts to become contemporary’.1 Terry Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, Independent Curators International, New York, 2012, p. 22. Smith allies the curatorial turn, which he surveys and interrogates thoroughly, to his ideas of contemporaneity. These ideas remain outside my focus here. See also Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2011; and Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009. Two articles in consecutive issues of Discipline magazine wrestle well with those ideas: Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘Can there be a history of contemporary art? (Terry Smith’s What is Contemporary Art?, 2009, Terry Smith’s Contemporary Art: World Currents, 2011)’, Discipline, no. 2, Autumn 2012, pp. 150–5; and Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary art and contemporaneity: reflections on method, review of reviews (part 1)’, Discipline, no. 3, Winter 2013, pp. 191–200. He writes of ‘giving priority to curatorial praxis, to the revivification of institutions, the proliferation of alternatives, and the creation of open-ended connections’.2 Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, p. 179. Smith’s work in this field positions ‘modern kinds and styles of curatorial practice’ as ‘being reshaped by these ideas and approaches’ (p. 179). He explores this ‘contemporary curatorial discourse’ through his ideas of contemporaneity (p. 178).

The gallery of air and my collection-based works, which assemble collections as works of art (figs 2-4) , are clearly informed by this curatorial turn and function as good-old contemporary artworks.3 My occasional attempts at curating proper are quite different and more conventional. Those curated exhibitions attempt to investigate art and ideas, but they in no way attempt to position themselves as works of art. See The Way Things Are, curated with Blair French, GRANTPIRRIE Gallery, Sydney, 5 Aug. – 6 Sept. 2003; and Robert Rooney: The Box Brownie Years 1956–58, curated with Maggie Finch, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 3 April – 19 May 2013. They owe a debt to a long line of artists who treat the world as if it were a vast series of overlapping lists and who have variously worked at the categories of things; from Eugène Atget, with his photographic documentary records of a disappearing Paris, to Marcel Broodthaers and his Museum: Department of Eagles (Musée d’Art Moderne, Départment des Aigles, Section des Figures), 1972.4 Exhibited at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 16 May – 9 July 1972, Broodthaers’s so-called ‘museum’ variously displayed almost 500 representations of eagles, from slide projections to natural history specimens. See Rachel Haidu, The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964–1976, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010, pp. 163–224. Curatorial artworks, if I can call them that, which are driven by what I have called elsewhere ‘an archive attitude’, are quite a different kettle of fish to curators’ projects, which also have an expressive intent.5 Patrick Pound, ‘The archive attitude’, keynote address, Archive/ Counter Archive Conference, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 10–11 July 2012. The other keynote was delivered by Professor Sven Spieker, author of The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008. What Smith amusingly calls ‘the boomlet in attention to the history of exhibitions’ has made artists and audiences ever more aware of the critical discourse surrounding exhibition making. Artists and curators alike continue to critique and undo the museum paradigm, and try to put it to work for their own ends. Those ends overlap, but it would be a misstep to equate them.

Another precedent for The gallery of air, with its enormous ‘list’ of things removed from circulation, is Walter Benjamin’s unfinished (unfinishable) Arcades Project, with its all-encompassing convolutes full of quotes and ideas assembled in an attempt to catch the dialectic at a standstill using recently redundant things, which was in turn directly inspired by the life of things in the fast-fading arcades of Louis Aragon’s novel Le Paysan de Paris (1926).6 First published in English as Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, Jonathan Cape, London, 1971. My work also pays heed to those ‘museum as artwork’ precedents, such as the works of Fred Wilson, who turned the museum upside down and managed to get it to take a good hard look at itself with his moving interventions that introduced the hitherto unseen, indeed hidden, African American into their narratives; and David Wilson’s Museum of Jurassic Technology (established in 1988), which amusingly sought to ape and parody the model of the museum at once, or Claes Oldenberg’s Mouse museum, 1965–77, and Ray gun wing, 1969–77 (Museum of Modern Art, New York), which conflated collecting with creating. One might also think back to the marvels of cabinets of curiosity and Wunderkammer. However, these are distant relations with quite specific and different characteristics to The gallery of air.7 Those seeking to theorise works of this ilk might ask how unlikely gatherings of things might figure in Jean Baudrillard’s seminal 1968 book The System of Objects, with its core Model/Series armature of things which, perhaps necessarily, sidelined their intended utility in search for meanings. (The gallery of air effectively questions the utility of the object by highlighting the relation of how that object might function as a vessel for projecting an idea of air as distinct from – or in direct relation to – its original function or reason for being.)

At first blush, Marcel Broodthaers’s Museum: Department of Eagles seems the closest relation. It takes a single subject and gathers the full gamut of things in a typological list run amok which performs as a poetic list, an institutional critique and an artwork all at once, and is a benchmark of its type. Yet, as we will see, the two projects work quite differently. The gallery of air and my other ‘museums’ of things that hold ideas (the central museum, the museum of holes, the space museum etc.), are in debt to all of these precedents.8 Art historians, of course, make their living out of tracing such networks. Some in particular have made the web of visual culture (and material things) their core business. One might ask where the effects of such gatherings of supposedly related things sit in the field of iconological studies; from Erwin Panofsky’s amusing cause and effect essay ‘The ideological antecedents of the Rolls Royce radiator’ (1963), which manages to join the dots from the fakery of nature in the gardens of Capability Brown to the curlicues of the Book of Kells, all the way down to the angel atop the quintessential English luxury vehicle, to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne atlas, 1923–29, with its marvellous cards covered in images which are seen to relate stylistically and meaningfully over time and tide.

The role of things in The gallery of air derives as much from the evolving roll of things to be found in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, from Honoré de Balzac’s novel of collecting La Cousin Pons (1847), or Henry James’s Spoils of Poynton (1897) and The Golden Bowl (1904), Frank Norris’s McTeague (1899), Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925) and Stefan Zweig’s story ‘The Invisible Collection’ (1925), right on down to Georges Perec’s Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965). And then there’s Mark Twain’s five-page list of things in a room in ‘The house beautiful’ chapter of Life on the Mississippi (1883), which ends with the line: ‘Nothing else in the room’.9 Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chatto & Windus, London, 1883, pp. 354–9.

William Carlos Williams’s maxim ‘No ideas but in things’ is a key to The gallery of air. The theorist of things and thingness Bill Brown asks: ‘Can we think about the ideas in things without getting caught up by the idea of them?’ Fellow American modernist poets Ezra Pound, Thomas Ernest Hulme and Ralph Waldo Emerson had it that, as Brown puts it: ‘the poet should recognize things as the necessary condition for ideas’. The point ‘wasn’t that things should replace ideas, but that ideas and things should somehow merge’ and thus erode ‘the ontological distinction between thoughts and things’.10 Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003, p. 3. These ideas bubble up from under The gallery of air like liquefaction. How the project works and what it means owes as much to these ideas as it does to the history of artists’ museums and archiving strategies.

To collect is to gather your thoughts through things

Like most artists, I started collecting to inform my work. What seems to have happened is that gradually the collections became the work. Before I started seriously collecting things, I collected other people’s photographs and sorted them into categories. I have collections of bridges and of human bridges, and a huge collection of photos of photographers’ thumbs. I have categories for cars and for pets and for people with pets and cars. There are photographs of people holding a single thing – a fish caught, a gift received or something else worthy of being photographed.

I have hundreds of pictures of photographer’s shadows. I have a collection of images of people listening to music, and another of people in the wind (fig. 5). I like the idea of a photograph of something you can’t see. Then there’s a whole set of photographs of amateur models. There’s no shortage of those. But I only collect ones where you can see the impressions of their socks, or their waistbands, embedded in their skin. Photography is an indexical art. It’s made in the wake of things. There are images that previous owners have marked to show where they are in the picture. I have a collection of photos of people from behind. I also have photos of people relieving themselves. I have a set of photos that have been defaced. I also have a collection of photos of people who look dead but (probably) aren’t.

Each photo offers the possibility of completing a set; as if to photograph is to work at a solution, of a type. It’s as though, if we could only get all the pieces together we could solve the puzzle. This is a condition of collecting. There are, of course, also photographs of people holding cameras. And of people holding photographs: and photographs of photographs. I’ve noticed that when you put things in categories you find categories within those categories: someone reading, listening to music and in the wind; or a photographer’s shadow and their thumb. All of my found photos were found to capture and hold some sort of idea.

Three years ago I began putting together collections of found things that, despite their differences, might be found to hold a single idea. I assemble these collections into little ‘museums’. One of these collections masquerading as an artwork is The museum of falling. The museum of falling is full of things which contain an idea of falling: from a lead toy of a woman fallen from her sleigh to a photo of someone falling off their bike. From a fallen soldier, right on down to the novel Snow Falling on Cedars. From a book titled How to Profit from the Falling Dollar to a studio portrait photograph featuring snow falling – indoors.11 First exhibited as part of Action/Response, curated by Hannah Matthews, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 22–23 March 2012. Also published in Discipline, no. 3, Winter 2013, as ‘Extracts from The museum of falling’, pp. 53–8.

For Melbourne Now, NGV photography curators who were well aware of my found photo collections and categorical collections of things, approached me with the idea of working with the NGV collection. My response was to propose a vast installation full of things from across the entire collection which I might find, one way or another, to hold the idea of air. I would put these things belonging to the Gallery alongside my things that held the same idea. The installation was to be named The gallery of air. I had already collected hundreds of things that variously held an idea of air to make up what I called The museum of air. This collection work had been exhibited at Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, as part of Geraldine Barlow’s marvellous exhibition Liquid Archive.12 Liquid Archive, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 19 July – 22 Sept. 2012. There was also a symposium held in association with the exhibition, initiated by the ‘Archive/Counter Archive’ research group. It already contained everything from a whoopee cushion to an air freshener, from a model aircraft kit to the book Australian Standards for Underwater Air Breathing.

The poetic constraint of ‘air’ functioned as the overarching ordering structure. Working closely with the curators, I began to assemble the Gallery’s things that held the idea alongside my things. One of the most popular paintings in the NGV, August Fredrich Albrecht Schenck’s Anguish, c.1878 (fig. 6), with its sheep exhaling misty air, found itself next to a press photo of a whale spouting air and water; a Jacobean air stem glass (fig. 7) – itself a politically coded vessel – shared the room with a photo of a cloud made by a military plane to obscure a target building; Constable’s cloud study from 1822 (fig. 8) hung alongside a photograph from 1972 of a man capturing air pollution in a plastic bag (fig. 9). There was a huge range of things: from the Gallery’s Eric Thake painting of propellers13 Eric Thake, Salvation from the evils of earthly existence, 1940.(fig. 10) to my found snap of a dress drying in the breeze; from the decal from a Chevrolet Bel Air to an epaulet from an Israeli air force uniform. The way some things held an idea of air was obvious, the way others did was obscure. Buried in the middle of The gallery of air was a nondescript tram ticket apparently used in Sydney during the Second World War by a group of air raid wardens. The more obscure examples pitted visitors in a test of wits against the collection. By being included in this set of things, we knew the ticket must somehow hold an idea of air, but we didn’t know how.

An archiving impulse drove the project. For me, the archive strategy is a search for connections, for patterns of intention and, to rehash Henry James, to find The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896). For me, the archive as a paradigm opens with the charm of recognition, then gives us the opportunity to rethink the givens and to reset our default positions. This is its melancholy joy and its utility.

Collecting and the archive

Artists with an archive attitude position the world as the archive of archives, from the Camberwell Market to Soane’s Museum, from national parks to vacant lots, from lost property bins to refugee boats, from the NGV to Bunnings Warehouse. The archive, like the collection, positions the world as a puzzle. If only we could assemble all the pieces together we could solve the puzzle and the world might come together in the form of a legible picture or a coherent and liveable system.

Archives are collection systems and collecting is a function of order. For the individual, collection is also consumption lived. The collection transforms history into property, and for the state, it is perhaps as much a matter of pride and expectation. Collecting is the maintenance of desire. With each successive find, the collector’s satiation is short-lived. It’s the next thing, and the hunt that keeps the collector elevated. For public and private collectors alike, collecting tends to relieve selected things of their use value. The meaning of an object seems to be tethered to what it is, or was, used for. When a public collection selects something as a worthy entry to its confines, removing that thing from circulation, it inevitably siphons off some of the thing’s original reason for being. The museum situation frames and fixes the object as a museum piece. The role of that thing is then changed, at least in part, to stand in for itself. That is, the thing is ascribed a new role. It is given over to being a representation or a sign of itself. So, the Mona Lisa no longer functions as a portrait of a young woman, but becomes an exemplar of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, of Renaissance Italy, Humanist thought, the history of the domestic-scale easel painting, the influence of one school on another (prior and post), regional and national differences, facial types, national class differentiations, fashion, taste, the art market (then and now), and so on.

If you buy two brown vases, that’s decorating. If a hay fever sufferer buys twenty brown vases, that’s collecting. If the archiving artist as collector buys twenty-six brown vases, that’s an exhibition. The art historian Werner Muensterberger, in his book on the psychology of collecting, posits that the collector is trying to replace a personal sense of lack.14 Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994. Collecting fills the void. He also points out that collectors often have the experience in common of an early one that got away. Paradoxically, for problem gamblers it is common to have had an early success, a big win. Muensterberger’s theory of collecting has it that it is essentially ourselves that we collect. But collection isn’t just a manifestation of autobiography. Artists, like museums, tend to have other agendas. From Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies to Walker Evans’s subway portraits, artist-collectors copy the world in microcosm. Artists who work at the categories of things also tend to deliberately shun the look of art, and its mannerisms, in favour of the uninflected document.

Artists of the archive impulse, however, are wont to rearrange those pieces to their own expressive ends: to cast doubt over master narratives, over the givens, and to make artwork. Many artists also make their own archives to work with. Some let their collections speak for themselves; others tamper with the index. While Peter Piller simply arranges his collections in categories, Annette Messager doctors hers into a new narrative order.

The gallery of air: a collection run amok

The project had its own room. On the four walls of the gallery space, and on a 21-metre long, 4-metre deep plinth, every object on display had been found to hold an idea of air (fig. 11). It may have been an Old Master painting depicting the effect of the wind; it may have been an exquisite painted fan. Together they pressed us into rethinking objects in the Gallery’s collection, and complicated the very idea of collection. I wanted to give things a sabbatical from their agreed meaning. Visitors were drawn into a game of rethinking these things and how these objects might activate a single idea. I hoped visitors might then reconceptualise the things which fill their houses. Indeed, we might start to consider a house as not only a personalised shelter, but also as a big box full of things with a roof for a lid.

Within this constraint, surprising combinations emerged. Goya’s Blow (Sopla), 1799 (fig 12), an etching of air trumpeting from a person’s backside, ended up beside a suburban draft excluder and a figurine from Gone with the Wind. The gallery of air also had a day-long soundtrack of hugely varied music and sound effects, all of which referenced an idea of air.15 The soundtrack ranged from cinema sound effects to classical music. It included everything from Charles Manson’s ranting ‘Air is the king’ to Talking Heads’ ‘Air’; Bernard Hermann’s ‘The airplane’ to Lalo Schifrin’s ‘The breeze and I’; Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ to Duke Ellington’s ‘Harlem air shaft’.

When I first discussed the idea with the curators, I heard myself saying out loud that I was a little worried that their things might not be as interesting as mine. What I really meant was that I was concerned that the museum objects, originally acquired for anything other than the fact that they held some idea of air, might all be found to simply illustrate the idea. I thought I might only find paintings of people in the wind, a photo of a ship in full sail, and so on, whereby effects of air are simply depicted.

This installation didn’t rely on the importance of the Gallery’s objects. In fact, to some extent it was dependent on them being treated as equal to each and every other thing in the room. The main task of every object included was to hold an idea of air in an interesting way. This was not an attempt to equate the two collections, but rather to treat them equally. It emerged that there were not only many different things which hold an idea of air, but also, importantly, that these things hold the idea quite differently. I knew that the things would present other categories (other constraints), but hadn’t thought that the way in which the things hold the idea might also be able to categorised.

It seemed that these things fell into four distinct but interwoven categories of how they hold an idea of air:

  1. Metaphorically or allegorically: for example, a Zephyr, Zephyr being a Greek god of the West wind; or a type of lacework named Punto in Aria which Paola di Trocchio, Curator, Fashion and Textiles, NGV, suggested, as it translates: ‘To point or to stitch in air’.
  2. Physically: for example, an air stem glass.
  3. As a visual representation: for example, a photograph of a man in the wind.
  4. By practical utility: for example, an asthma inhaler. This group of things have the ability to physically transform air. The ancient Japanese flute turns air into sound; so too the whoopee cushion. Many of these things might also be said to ‘perform’ the idea physically (the battery-powered ‘breathing’ dog, for instance, actively performs the idea).

I also found a few things that hold an idea of air in more than one way. For example, the air filter from a Zephyr motorbike. A Zephyr being a light wind or the Greek God of the west wind. The filter is an abstract vessel quietly holding an idea, or two. In my collection, this object is the equivalent of the NGV’s Untitled, 1969–71, by Donald Judd (fig. 13).

The treasures of the NGV are historic. They’ve been deliberately set aside as exemplary objects. They’ve been taken out of circulation. They are replete with well-established meanings of their own. Their utility has been exchanged for that of being a sign of themselves. But they are not set in aspic. The gallery of air did not, of course, put all these things back to their original task or confirm their original reason for being. They were simply set a singular, and sometimes alien, task. While it was clear that some of these things were originally made to hold an idea of air (a porcelain rendering of a flautist on a Wedgwood vase), to represent it (Herman van Swanevelt’s Thunderstorm painting of 1649, depicting figures struggling against the wind), or perform it (a whoopee cushion), others were made for completely different reasons.

While claiming that no Gallery object would be harmed by the process, there were several works that put that claim to the test (if not the sword). In fact, The gallery of air very occasionally suspended, but never ignored, the original intentions of the artist or maker of the selected works or things: the limit case being Judd’s sculpture. In The gallery of air it sat on an enormous plinth, surrounded by numerous other, seemingly unrelated, things from all walks of art and life. The ‘sleeping’ and ‘breathing’ battery-powered dog lay right next to it. So too a partially completed paint-by-numbers aircraft carrier, a Wedgwood snuff box and a miniature MacBook Air. An exquisite, polished, blue calf leather–bound first edition of John Ruskin’s Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884) echoes the blue depths of the interior linings of the air-filled void of the giant Judd, which in turn physically reflects Joseph Wright of Derby’s The Synnot children, 1781, whose subjects release a caged bird to the free (painted) air above. So, unasked, the Judd enters an air-filled relay of (otherwise unrelated) things. This crowd of things is saturated with associations and meanings foreign to the Judd alone, and certainly to his intentions and, indeed, his instructions for his exquisitely rigid works. Yet the effect this crowd of things has is not to unravel the way his work performs but, by contrast, to remind us of Judd’s wishes. His ideas, captured in his monumentally minimal object, rise up through all these other things. The Judd not only holds its own, but also calmly commands our attention. Its very thingness is also highlighted. It holds fort with its cool aluminium exterior and lusciously reflective molten-blue synthetic polymer core.

Museums are arbiters and gatekeepers of the company that things are supposed to keep. Objects are displayed together because they stand up to a measurable relation to one another. This has been one of the constraints most contravened by artists given permission to act as quasi curators within museums. The gallery of air continues the tradition of breaking with this convention of ‘like with like’, with historical, consequential and subsequential curatorial thinking and the implications and inferences which, understandably, motivate and underpin conventional museum assemblies of related things. Typically, public galleries and museums are authoritative and definitive. The museum is drawn to tell stories through things. (Needless to say: the things do not get a say in this.)

In The gallery of air, several of the NGV’s objects were seen from a different point of view than they, or we, are accustomed to. Along with the Judd, many sat on the giant plinth that filled half the room. The rest either hung or were placed on shelves mounted to the walls of the lozenge-shaped room. All of the NGV photographs and works were famed in the standard Tasmanian Boxwood used by the Gallery. Those on the plinth were tipped up for the viewer’s convenience (fig. 14). The idea behind showing the objects in this manner was to re-present them in a way closer to that in which they might have been made to be seen originally. The prints, drawings and photographs are thus seen as things, not as works aspiring to the domestic display conditions of paintings. It is likely that many of these things were expected to appear as parts of portfolios, such as Jacques Callot’s The Betrayal (Jesus est livre aux Juifs), c.1624; catalogue files, such as Eugene Atget’s Basket merchant, railway stall #3243 (Marchand de paniers de til de fer #3243), c.1899, printed 1978; magazines, such as Eugène Delacroix’s Mephistopheles in the air (Mephistopheles dans les airs), 1828; or handheld things. The way an object is displayed has consequences for its very ‘nature’. For example, a photograph in the hand reads as a document, whereas a photograph placed on the floor, or leaning against a wall, is more of a sculptural thing. A photograph in a frame on the wall becomes more of a picture.

Some objects in The gallery of air were seen at eye level for the first time in decades. The enormous Schenck painting was hung dead centre on the wall.16 August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck’s painting Anguish (Angoisse), c.1878, measures 151 x 251.2 cm. Francis Tattegrain’s marvellous and sentimental painting The convalescent (Convalescente), 1884, was also lowered from its elevated position in the traditional Salon hang to meet our eye directly. Just out of reach of the painted patient, an asthma inhaler was mounted to the wall. Things behave differently when put in different places. We were drawn to the deftly painted Delft tiles in the painting, and to the abstract details of the curling, painted vines. We also looked directly into the window like a voyeur, or the painter, or a God coming to relieve the patient of her suffering.

The gallery of air also deliberately played with the scale of things, from the miniature to the gigantic. From the huge Schenk painting dominating the room, viewers were gradually drawn to ever smaller things – the smallest being a tiny model of a woman on a chair, blowing bubble gum. I think it was Francis Bacon who observed that we draw fleas larger, and elephants smaller. Ontological shifts in register came to the fore. Schenck’s painted crows found an accomplice in the stuffed 1:1 model crow that stalked a life-sized, prone resuscitation doll and was echoed by the black scale-model stealth bomber on a nearby shelf.

Good old contemporaneity

Almost no examples of art that are immediately and clearly contemporary were included. I wanted the things selected to be relatively fixed in the ways we have come to read them, with a few exceptions left for the viewer to discover. Once identified, these exceptions drew our attention to the prejudices and expectations of contemporaneity. To Eurocentric, Western eyes these works are (albeit respectfully) veiled and distanced in what appear to be the traditional art forms of Indigenous communities. I suspect that this leaves such work all too often syphoned off, even quietly removed, from contemporary consciousness; interpreted as really not being meant for us at all. Even as such works are celebrated and given great status, they are all too often removed from the contemporary as they hover in the realm of the ‘exotic other’.17 I realised long after the installation of The gallery of air that there were two exceptions to my exclusion of contemporary works. One was by an Indigenous Australian (Samuel Namunjdja, Wind dreaming, 2003), the other by a ‘new Australian’ (Kim Hoa Tram, Delusion, 2002).

There was also an exception from my own collection: the 1997 photograph of a human skull with black kites penned atop by the Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco. Orozco’s work performs well within the expectations of contemporary art. It was a very late inclusion, after the NGV’s image Biarritz, 1905, printed 1970s, by Jacques Henri Lartigue, was brought to my attention – a photograph of the artist’s box kite. It was only then that the kite summoned up the Orozco. Until then I had thought more of the black shapes covering the skull as abstract diamond shapes, despite the work’s title, Black kites. One image shed light on another and reminded me of its actual, intended meanings.

Much of the game playing and thematic constraints (in this case, air) which determine all of my collection work derives from literature: specifically from the work of Georges Perec and the ‘Oulipo’ group.18‘Oulipo’ is an abbreviation of ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’, which translates loosely as the ‘Workshop for potential literature’. Perec provides the most famous example with his novel The Disappearance (1969), a giant lipogram written without the letter E, but his novel Things: A Story of the Sixties (1965) is also a major influence. Its two protagonists are upwardly mobile market researchers who constantly measure themselves in relation to things. The Oulipo also were fond of the idea of the clinamen – the exception hidden within the constraint. The Orozco, being so clearly a contemporary work, was the exception that proved the rule. The clue to the exception was its frame – the only one that did not match the Gallery’s house style.

The artist John Baldessari (whose works have long since made trouble for systematic typologies, as if on a dare) provocatively claimed that categories are meaningless. In The gallery of air categories weren’t so much broken down as ignored: paintings sat alongside tea towels, ceramics with snapshots. Subject categories and artists’ intentions were shuffled. In The gallery of air the idea (ideas of air found in things) became the category.

Not all that long ago, many people believed that things held physical clues to what their God intended them to be used for. The walnut, looking like a brain, was meant to cure headaches. Luckily, with time and thought, ideas change. But to what extent did the things in The gallery of air ‘naturally’ hold ideas (perhaps as a result of their adopted or assigned roles in the world from which they were plucked)? Conversely, to what extent did the objects act merely as vessels and armatures for our projections?

All of the things in my collection are recently redundant. In the main I choose things that have little cultural purchase or agency anymore. My things are neither cool, nor kitsch. I want them to be neutral – to have no real cultural value or purchase. I buy most of them on eBay, from all around the world. Perhaps this is the last breath of these things. Together they make up a constellation. They’re found to converse. Meaning can be found in the accumulation of details.

I want to upset the false need for things to be fixed in their meaning. I want them to behave more like words – to give them more flexibility and put them back to work. I think of these things as being like those illustrations Jonathan Swift used in Gulliver’s Travels (1726), where he substituted a picture for a word; for example, a broom for a revolution.19 Jonathan Swift, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, Haywood and Moore, London, 1840 edn, pp. 316–22. Things act like magnets to words.

All of the things in The gallery of air remained unlabelled, as if to rub out their default positions. Instead of labels, there was simply a list of all the things in the room. Most people chose to ignore the list and seemed to take simple (unadulterated?) pleasure in the amusing array of things cast before them. There were symmetries and puzzles hidden within the logic of the display. At one end there was an ancient pipe, at the other an ancient flute, which at first looked ‘much the same’. Beneath the flute was an old bicycle pump that physically echoed the shape of the flute, as if it were pulled from the same mould. On the wall there was an August Sander photograph of two artists smoking.20 August Sander, Gottfried Brockman and Willi Bongard, Cologne, 1924. On the plinth below sat an ashtray Salvador Dalí made for Air India in 1967. At one end of the gallery was a snap of a woman holding a hat in the breeze, taken in 1957; at the other end a snap of the same woman and the same hat, taken in 1962 – the year that I was born. The collection became a memory machine, a thinking machine and a picture puzzle. All of this begs the question: What are the relations between sorting and thinking – between sorts and thoughts?21 I borrow this line of questioning from Georges Perec, Thoughts of Sorts, trans. David Bellos, David R. Godine, Boston, 2009, pp. 120–1.

Perhaps thinking ‘refers ultimately to the unthinking underneath it, and that what’s really filed away in well-sorted files’ or collections. ‘What they serve to mask, ferociously, is the unsortable, the unnameable, and the unsayable.’22ibid., p. 121. However, there’s pleasure in recognising and making patterns, if not in solving the puzzle exactly. There’s adventure, even a dollop of poetry, to be had in our failures. And there’s satisfaction to be had sorting the pieces. I vaguely recall Raymond Chandler’s detective, Marlow, saying somewhere that while he hadn’t solved the puzzle, at least all the pieces were beginning to look like they belonged to the same puzzle. Coherence is comforting.

Like all collectors: ‘In the name of completion we would like to believe that a single order exists’, and ‘in the name of the ungraspable we wish to believe that order and disorder are two identical terms signifying chance’. However, ‘like the librarians in Borges’ Babel looking for the book which holds the key to all the others, we waver between the illusion of completion and the abyss of the ungraspable’.23 ibid., p. 29. The art gallery bureaucratises aesthetics: the archiving artist aestheticises bureaucracy. Thankfully, in the bureaucracy of things nothing is ever complete.24 See Spieker, The Big Archive. Artists substitute the problem of life with the problem of art. We substitute the routines of life for the routines of art – not to make a living out of it, but to make it a way of living. Like the museum, art is, after all, just another way of sorting one’s thoughts.

Patrick Pound, visual artist and Senior Lecturer in Photography at Deakin University, Melbourne (in 2014)

Notes

I would like to thank all NGV staff members who facilitated and contributed to I would like to thank all NGV staff members who facilitated and contributed to The gallery of air, especially the following for their unstinting support: Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography; Maggie Finch, Curator of Photography; Katherine Horseman, Exhibition Designer; Rob Cirelli, Technical Coordinator, Exhibitions and Collections; and Paul Spencer, Exhibitions and Collections Technician. I would also like to acknowledge the support of NGV Women’s Association. I am grateful to Geraldine Barlow, Senior Curator and Collection Manager, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, for her thorough engagement with, and encouragement of, the first iteration of this project, The museum of air, 2012.

1          Terry Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, Independent Curators International, New York, 2012, p. 22. Smith allies the curatorial turn, which he surveys and interrogates thoroughly, to his ideas of contemporaneity. These ideas remain outside my focus here. See also Terry Smith, Contemporary Art: World Currents, Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2011; and Terry Smith, What is Contemporary Art?, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009. Two articles in consecutive issues of Discipline magazine wrestle well with those ideas: Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘Can there be a History of Contemporary Art? (Terry Smith’s What is Contemporary Art?, 2009, Terry Smith’s Contemporary Art: World Currents, 2011)’, Discipline, no. 2, Autumn 2012, pp. 150–5; and Terry Smith, ‘Contemporary art and contemporaneity: reflections on method, review of reviews (part 1)’, Discipline, no. 3, Winter 2013, pp. 191–200.

2          Smith, Thinking Contemporary Curating, p. 179. Smith’s work in this field positions ‘modern kinds and styles of curatorial practice’ as ‘being reshaped by these ideas and approaches’ (p. 179). He explores this ‘contemporary curatorial discourse’ through his ideas of contemporaneity (p. 178).

3          My occasional attempts at curating proper are quite different and more conventional. Those curated exhibitions attempt to investigate art and ideas, but they in no way attempt to position themselves as works of art. See The Way Things Are, curated with Blair French, GRANTPIRRIE Gallery, Sydney, 5 August – 6 September 2003; and Robert Rooney: The Box Brownie Years 1956–58, curated with Maggie Finch, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, 3 April – 19 May 2013.

4          Exhibited at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 16 May – 9 July  1972, Broodthaers’s so-called ‘museum’ variously displayed almost 500 representations of eagles, from slide projections to natural history specimens. See Rachel Haidu, The Absence of Work: Marcel Broodthaers, 1964–1976, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010, pp. 163–224.

5          Patrick Pound, ‘The archive attitude’, keynote address, Archive / Counter Archive Conference, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 10–11 July 2012. The other keynote was delivered by Professor Sven Spieker, author of The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.

6          First published in English as Paris Peasant, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, Jonathan Cape, London, 1971.

7          Those seeking to theorise works of this ilk might ask how unlikely gatherings of things might figure in Jean Baudrillard’s seminal 1968 book The System of Objects, with its core Model/Series armature of things which, perhaps necessarily, sidelined their intended utility in search for meanings. (The gallery of air effectively questions the utility of the object by highlighting the relation of how that object might function as a vessel for projecting an idea of air as distinct from – or in direct relation to – its original function or reason for being.)

8          Art historians, of course, make their living out of tracing such networks. Some in particular have made the web of visual culture (and material things) their core business. One might ask where the effects of such gatherings of supposedly related things sit in the good old field of iconological studies; from Erwin Panofsky’s amusing cause and effect essaying of ‘The ideological antecedents of the Rolls Royce radiator’ (1963), which manages to join the dots from the fakery of nature in the gardens of Capability Brown to the curlicues of the Book of Kells, all the way down to the angel atop the quintessential English luxury vehicle, to Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne atlas, 1923–29, with its marvellous cards covered in images which are seen to relate stylistically and meaningfully over time and tide.

9          Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, Chatto & Windus, London, 1883, pp. 354–9.

10        Bill Brown, A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2003, p. 3.

11        First exhibited as part of Action/Response, curated by Hannah Matthews, Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne, 22–23 March 2012. Also published in Discipline, no. 3, Winter 2013, as ‘Extracts from The museum of falling’, pp. 53–8.

12        Liquid Archive, Monash University Museum of Art, Melbourne, 19 July – 22 September 2012. There was also a symposium held in association with the exhibition, initiated by the ‘Archive/Counter Archive’ research group.

13        Eric Thake, Salvation from the evils of earthly existence, 1940.

14        Werner Muensterberger, Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1994.

15        The soundtrack ranged from cinema sound effects to classical music. It included  everything from Charles Manson’s ranting ‘Air is the king’ to Talking Heads’ ‘Air; Bernard Hermann’s ‘The airplane’ to Lalo Schifrin’s ‘The breeze and I’; Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung’ to Duke Ellington’s ‘Harlem air shaft’.

16        August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck’s painting Anguish (Angoisse), c.1878, measures 151 x 251.2 cm.

17        I realised long after the installation of The gallery of air that there were two exceptions to my exclusion of contemporary works. One was by an Indigenous Australian (Samuel Namunjdja, Wind dreaming, 2003), the other by a ‘new Australian’ (Kim Hoa Tram, Delusion, 2002).

18        ‘Oulipo’ is an abbreviation of ‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’, which translates loosely as the ‘Workshop for potential literature’.

19        Jonathan Swift, Travels Into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships, Haywood and Moore, London, 1840 edition, pp. 316–22. 20 August Sander, Gottfried Brockman and Willi Bongard, Cologne, 1924.

21        I borrow this line of questioning from Georges Perec, Thoughts of Sorts, trans. David Bellos, David R. Godine, Boston, 2009, pp. 120-1.

22        ibid., p. 121.

23        ibid., p. 29.

24        See Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2008.