Stuart Brisley’s body of work is as diverse as it is extraordinary. He has made a major contribution to performance art, expanding the media it employs and the contexts in which it is engaged. His show at the Freud Museum drew together work he had been developing for several years. Brisley together with Adrian Ward and Geoffrey Cox founded the Virutal UK Museum of Ordure which among other things aims to raise base material to the level of Art as a critique of museum and public art gallery practice.
The exhibition, The Collection of Ordure, resonates with Freud’s dream notion of the ‘Museum of Excrement’. What will become an object of disgust was once a most precious bodily possession.
The Collection of Ordure was curated by Brisley’s alter ego, Rosse Yael Sirb, who is the appointed Curator of the Collection of Ordure, and has ‘collaborated’ with Stuart Brisley since 2000. Brisley described the background to the development of this singular collection: “Generally most collections are comprised of objects which have, or are anticipated to have appropriate values, consequent upon the rare, peculiar, or unique characteristics of the constituents, as art works, or as objects of significant or potentially significant cultural value, e.g. shrunken heads, matchboxes, etc, either individually or in groups. Sigmund Freud’s collection is case in point. The Collector of Ordure is interested in objects, materials and substances which lie beyond the range of commodification; most, if not all, of the items in his Collection are in this category, but the Collection as a whole is subject to the market. The Collection is unique for this reason. I suggest that while the artifacts contained in the collection may or may not be art works, the Collection is an art work.”
Adopting the definitions of the OED we can say that a curator is the custodian of a collection which can be described as a group of things collected together. The lexicographers of the OED also emphasize the systematic nature of such collections. It is probably without any sense of irony the lexicographers also define a collection as ‘an accumulation; a mass or pile (a collection of dust)’. Rosse Yeal Sirb, the curator of the Collection of Ordure, is acutely aware that over the decades and centuries a collection can be systematic but that more often than not it is an accumulation that has been systematized into a collection. Furthermore through his close and lengthy study of collecting he recognized that over time a collection can transform, meaning different things to different people at different times. A collection is almost never static; it accumulates layers of meaning like a pearl. The status of a collection can fluctuate wildly like stock in a bear market according to the prevailing tastes of the age.
Sirb has pursued a single-minded path through the recent decades of rapid change which have overtaken museums everywhere. During a time when curators have been encouraged to transform from being cloistered secluded scholars into becoming the sympathetic purveyors of an easily assimilated and digested culture, Sirb has maintained his singular direction. He has never wavered, and remains devoted to the primacy of objects, and to the care of his collection. Sirb has avoided the blockbuster exhibition, fearing the excess of information that would overwhelm the collection drowning it in footnotes. Similarly he has resisted the onslaught of interactivity; in many ways a simple man, he cannot comprehend how processing buttons transforms or activates any object. He has been sighted only rarely at any even given over to corporate entertaining. In the 1970s, deploying his characteristically acute perception he nervously observed ambitious museum directors describe curators as selfish scholars, waiting to be consigned to the reserve stacks of curatorship, a desiccated husk. His anxiety increased, in the 1980s, as these same directors expressed their fears that their collections would be less seductive to a satiated public than the fairy fantasies of Disneyland. Relieved to have survived these difficult decades relatively unscathed, Sirb confesses to some concern that the wonder of collections must give way to a pervasive social utility or the inculcation of worthy self-improvement.
Sirb has always understood that each lovingly preserved object contains a universe of meaning, a microcosm of history, a gateway of enquiry, a playground for the imagination, a myriad allusions, millions of atoms, electrons, neutrons and quarks. It can be placed in context, removed, transported, transfigured until, like the civilization that spawned it, it will be ground to dust.
We are fortunate that Stuart Brisley, who has worked for many years with Sirb, brought the Collection of Ordure to our attention. Placing this collection in Freud’s house, in juxtaposition to Freud’s own collection of antiquities, opens up new vistas of enquiry and speculation. Freud left us few direct clues to guiding impulses of his collecting; save to say it was an addiction akin to his addiction for cigars. In contrast, in his descriptions of psychoanalysis, his writing is rich with allusion and metaphor. A favourite metaphor compared the psychoanalyst to the archaeologist, uncovering layer after layer of the unconscious as the patient delved through dreams and memories. Freud also demonstrated the impossibility of ever making a complete reconstruction of the past taking the Roman Forum as his example. Here so many layers of the past crowd one upon the other that no one past could be entirely reconstructed. Freud sought to unpick the accretions of experience that adhered to a patient’s unconscious. Sirb takes the accretions of ordure and places them in a context which transforms them from forgotten detritus to revered object.
A few years ago a curator from a vastly over-funded museum described Freud as “not a good collector”, Sirb here challenged the notion of a ‘good’ as compared to bad(?) collecting. His tireless search to uncover the meaning or meanings of objects, of the hidden logic of the collection. His placement of the collection in the context of Freud’s personal museum attaches new meaning, a wider field of inquiry, and who can guess what adhesions will be acquired from this temporary resting place.