A few of my favourite things: Cataloguing art that’s bigger on the inside

The NGV has collected what we broadly describe as ‘multimedia art’ since the 1970s. Over the years, devices for storing and presenting this art have changed. While analogue formats like video cassette once dominated, digital betacam and DVD are now more usual.

When we acquire a multimedia work, the original version provided by the artist becomes sacrosanct and our task is to document, preserve and protect the disc or cassette as we would a painting, photograph, sculpture or drawing. For this reason, when cataloguing a multimedia acquisition, popping the original master copy into a player is not an option.

Meeting any work of art in storage is a very different experience to meeting the same work in a gallery or exhibition context. In the case of multimedia works, my job can be a particularly peculiar experience as it often involves cataloguing the piece without being able to see the art. Most multimedia works are recorded on hardware that is indistinguishable from what we might buy ourselves for use at work or home. Often the only outward sign that these cassettes or discs retain art is the presence of the artist’s signature on a label and aside from such inscriptions there is usually little ‘information’ to record. It’s very odd to be so close to and yet so far from an artwork – to know that what lives within is so much bigger than the exterior suggests. Occasionally, however, an artist does something special – they treat the outside as a creative act too.

If you type Yinka Shonibare into the Google Images search engine you will be struck by his distinctive textile designs. Vibrant, colourful, steeped in history and tradition, they mark his work out as his own just as clearly as any signature could. In 2008 the NGV acquired A masked ball (Un ballo in maschera), 2004. It’s an arresting work; dramatic, beautiful, unsettling and graceful. There are all sorts of confrontations and echoes in the setting, choreography and costumes. The dancers in the film are clothed in Shonibare’s textile designs…, and although you’re unlikely to ever see it on display, so is the box the work came in.

I think my favourite multimedia cataloguing experience remains Going places sitting down, 2004, by Hiraki Sawa. This three channel video projection is very appealing. It portrays a world that is sometimes magical, sometimes bizarre but always engaging – whether your fascination be with the how, the why or the way it invites you to simply enjoy. The NGV acquired Going places sitting down in December 2006, however, prior to this it was included in the exhibition Six good reasons to stay at home. In consequence I saw the work in full before encountering it in storage. Given this foreknowledge it shouldn’t have surprised me to find, that in a delightful act of continuity, Hiraki Sawa provided a customised box to house his creation. It’s a simple box – a lot like the boxes we are taught to make at school, shallow with a sliding lid – and it is adorned with an image of the rocking horse that appears repeatedly in the films. Inside I discovered a certificate of authenticity, three DVDs and video cassettes all neatly packed away…, along with a bag of marbles and a packet of ‘vivid’ coloured chalk sticks. Like his films, the packaging is a bit magical, a little bizarre, it’s engaging and something to enjoy…, in fact the invitation to hopscotch was almost irresistible.

Links: works by Yinka Shonibare in Collection Online

Yinka Shonibare’s A masked ball (Un ballo in maschera) is on display at NGV International, St Kilda Road until late September 2012