“Surreal Science: London Collection with Salvatore Arancio”

Italian-born artist Salvatore Arancio has created an unusual one-room exhibition. It combines historic objects from the collection of London-based retired banker and author George Loudon with his own works, integrating the whole into a display akin to the tradition of the cabinet of curiosity. To succeed in full requires that the re-presented selection is of interest in itself, that Arancio’s additions and interventions add to the effect, and that the whole points up issues beyond what would have been raised by presenting the material separately.

Loudon explains that after 25 years building a collection of 700 works by 250 contemporary artists, he had “run out of puff.” He then observed that objects associated with 19th-century science—typically relegated to the storage of museums—often related rather directly to approaches taken by artists now. That led to the underlying theme of a new collection: how the explosion of science in the 19th century meant that scientists looked to craftsmen to make educational material for their students. Arancio’s plot is to display these as wondrous objects rather than functional items.

Installation view, “Surreal Science,” 2018, Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Stephen White. © Whitechapel Gallery. Courtesy Whitechapel Gallery, London.

The scores of historical items are both fascinating and appealing. Some are well known: the glowing and uncanny glass models of sea life by the Czech father-and-son team Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka; the papier-mâché plants by another 19th-century father-and-son team—Robert and Reinhold Brendle—some of which were shown in the recent Liverpool Biennial and have evidently inspired contemporary artists such as Marc Quinn (that comparative familiarity may be part of why Arancio defamiliarizes them by adding psychedelic light effects).

Most were fresh wonders to me. For example, wax models of distorted lemons are bizarre objects away from their purpose of explaining to Italian horticultural students how to recognize and avoid imperfections. A skull ‘exploded’ in order to demonstrate clearly the 20 bones a head contains—quite common in medical teaching establishments, though I hadn’t seen one before—is a striking precursor for Damián Ortega’s disarticulation of a Volkswagen car in Cosmic Thing, 2002. There are models of teeth, slugs and horses’ jaws, an elephant bird egg, a large bezoar—being a ruminant’s gallstone—magic lantern slides depicting extinct animals, etc.

Arancio intervenes through his non-museological method of presentation, and by setting his own films, ceramics, lighting and sound in conversation with Loudon’s collection. Some items are even nestled in Arancio’s forms and it can take two looks to detect where Loudon’s pieces end and Arancio’s begins. This helps dramatize the objects, and also brings out the parallels with art. So, for example, Arancio underlines the importance of an obsidian hand axe (c 6,000 BCE) by making an iridescent ceramic replica, which stands above head height—a monolith that then references colour field painting and how the surrealists played with scale and incongruity. Arancio’s film Reactions in Plants and Animals, 2018, digitally manipulates 1930s documentary footage of flora and fauna responding to their environments. It’s shown with a futuristic soundtrack made in collaboration with musician Julian House in his incarnation as the Focus Group, which gives the whole exhibition a suitably otherworldly atmosphere.

I was particularly drawn to Soul Shapes, a book written in 1890 by Alice Murray Dew-Smith, which applies the classification system of a science to her claim to be able to see images of souls, which she duly reproduces. Dew-Smith provides instruction on how to explore the four main classes —surface, mixed, deep and blue souls—the last being “exceedingly rare,” showing “great purity without egoism” with an iridescence “caused by tendrils of sympathy darting round the edge.” Shades of Susan Hiller, I thought. This poetic nonsense, devoid of any actual pedagogic value, provides the text for Dedicated to the Blue Soul, 2018, a video in which Arancio joins in—or satirizes—the pretence by linking the words voiced to manipulated scientific images.

Salvatore Arancio, It Was Only a Matter of Time Before We Found the Pyramid and Forced It Open, 2017, glazed and unglazed ceramic, epoxy resin. Installation view, 57th Venice Biennale, Giardina Delle Vergini, Venice. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy the artist and Federica Schiavo.

The wider question raised is, what’s the art in all this? Applying the main philosophical views of what defines art, it is clear that a historical conventionalism won’t hold for the Loudon collection: the individual pieces don’t stand in an art-historical relation to some set of earlier artworks. Neither were they created, as institutional convention would require, by an artist in order to be presented to an art-world public. But Arancio’s re-presentation of the objects, as well as his own works, would appear to pass both tests: the collection wasn’t art in previous contexts, but now—temporarily—it is. That fits with how Arancio explained his aims to me: “I wanted the Diorama to act as a starting point because its initial didactic function was a point in common with the original educational purpose of the pieces in the collection. Then I used my sculptures almost like sets, in order to transport these artifacts to a fantastic realm to create juxtapositions that triggered new narratives and readings of these objects.”

A more traditional view of what qualifies as art will refer to its aesthetic qualities, how it deals with such qualities as beauty, ugliness and delicacy. American art philosopher Monroe Beardsley, developing this approach in The Aesthetic Point of View, Selected Essays (Cornell University Press, 1982) characterizes art as yielding “complete, unified, intense experiences of the way things appear to us.” It seems to me that many of Loudon’s objects do provoke such responses in a gallery context, hence the ease with which art parallels can be drawn—even if it is unlikely that, for example, the agricultural students of the early 1900s would have recognized an aesthetic aspect to those distorted lemons. Is it easier for superseded, rather than current, science to be seen as art? Arancio told me, “I am interested in the objects because they represent the first attempts to understand what surrounds us, but at the same time they are in some way inaccurate and mix initial scientific notions with mythologies and popular beliefs. At other times, some of these objects were actually invented and placed next to real objects, blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy. The aesthetics that these hybrids create has always been a strong source of inspiration for me.”

Of course, both types of theory have their critics. How do conventionalists decide what counts as an art institution, or as the historical canon, without falling back on an aesthetically based account? And how do aesthetic theories exclude items—such as cars—which are not intended as art? The conclusion may not be that the Loudon objects are art, but that they illustrate a general problem with aesthetic theories. Incidentally, Loudon himself says, in the catalogue of his collection, that his objection to calling his collection art, “setting aside its craft origins,” is that the artifacts were “made to be picked up, taken apart and looked at very closely.” One might characterize that as the other side of an institutional theory; it is made for educational institutions, not art institutions, so it’s not art.

Whatever the case—and these are deep waters—Arancio has introduced new ways of looking at what we see, and provided a stimulating context for debating the nature of what he presents. So, to return to my starting point, “Surreal Science” passes all three of my tests: the selection is of interest in itself; Arancio’s interventions add to the effect; and the whole points up additional issues. It’s an exceptional show.

“Surreal Science: Loudon Collection with Salvatore Arancio” was exhibited at Whitechapel Gallery, London, from August 25, 2018, to January 6, 2019.

Paul Carey-Kent is a freelance art critic in Southampton, England, whose writings can be found at www.paulsartworld.blogspot.com.