Exhibition Review: Trace

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by Rosie Pope

Les Biggs – Trace  

Pitt Rivers Museum, 20th October 2007-29th June 2008

High-street homogeneity and disposable culture are intrinsically hateable, yet, as any Primark-goer will testify, they are also a persistent part of student life. For those who appreciate craft, who believe in looking after things, the Pitt Rivers Museum is the ultimate eye-feast. Even if you have frequented the legendary building tucked behind the Natural History Museum before, there is now the chance to peep at Les Biggs’ installation Trace, and extend that inter-essay musing.

The artist has reacted to the museum’s extensive collection, much of which is not on show to the public, but is kept in storage, carefully labelled and boxed. It is this neat and meticulous system of ordering behind the scenes that was the main inspiration for Trace.

A homage to orderliness, the artwork is comprised of over a hundred ceramic boxes with delicate quotes and fictitious artefacts fired-on underneath their glaze. The little doodleish watercolour images could be taken for actual objects considering the sheer quirky range of things housed in the museum. However,  they are merely products of the artist’s imagination. The quotes beside them are seemingly whimsical but are factual, dictionary definitions of words, quotes and references to cultural eccentricity. The porcelain boxes’ interiors are open to imagination. Their labels are suggestive and at times comic. The installation is almost magnetic as it is presented in a museum-like cabinet, encouraging passers-by to peer in.

Yet passers-by are all who look. Modesty is the name of the game here. Tucked away in a remote corner of the museum and barely advertised (the security guard didn’t know where it was!), the piece tries to, and succeeds in, simultaneously blending into and standing out from the museum’s dense displays. The installation is even more entwined with the collection than meets the eye, as 96 of the boxes are dotted around the rest of the cabinets, sitting next to masks, knives, shrunken heads and voodoo dolls.

Trace is an antidote for those tired of clinical white-box artwork and of factory produce. The close relationship with the thousands of beautiful, curious, unique objects housed within the glass cabinets and labeled boxes is palpable. Biggs has succeeded in creating a self-effacing display which instead turns the viewer back to the curious around him.

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