In July, the New York Times published ‘The Robot Guerrilla Campaign to Recreate the Elgin Marbles’. Using photogrammetry software on iPhones and iPads, researchers at the University of Oxford’s Institute of Digital Archaeology clandestinely scanned some of the Elgin Marbles (or Parthenon Marbles) at the British Museum in London. They wanted to replicate these classical sculptures so the originals could be returned to Greece, leaving the British Museum with life-size facsimiles to be enjoyed by its audience. The article is illustrated with photographs by Francesca Jones showing a machine carving replicas, drawing on the group’s data.
For me, seeing the images opened a revolving door into an alter-museum. Not only do these replicas apprehensively fill in the space left by the originals’ potential return to Greece (don’t hold your breath), to me they suggest the possibility of The Museum of Without. This Museum is without objects, artefacts, or artworks. It is a museum of proxies and gaps; an unhinged museum that presents itself to us in a full state of absenthood, held together by its framing practices that display techniques of enclosure. It asks: What might a museum without artefacts be? What might a collection of losses hold and what might hold it?
Back in October 2019, the New York Times gave a behind-the-scenes peek into the Museum of Modern Art’s curatorial machinations, as it prepared a full collection rehang following a $US450m expansion. The article is illustrated with photographs by Jeenah Moon showing the progress of this rehang. Two of the images show a gallery in which Constantin Brâncusi’s work was to be installed. One shows two installers, wearing nitrile gloves, apparently placing Brâncus, i’s sculpture Endless Column (1918)—except they aren’t. The other, a wide shot of the gallery, pictures three low plinths on which a dozen Brâncus, i works are conventionally placed, MoMA style—except they aren’t. In fact, both images show full-scale cardboard dummies of these works. Besides serving a practical purpose for testing work placement, these thoughtfully made surrogates draw attention to how adaptable we might be to new notions of authenticity and the potential for a museum to be full of things at the same time as it is emptied of them. They remind me that objects can be in constant motion, both literally, away from—and, now more than ever, back to—their points of origin, and metaphorically, through the reappraisal of their contested histories.
My current exhibition Unknown Affinities at Two Rooms, Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, could be considered the first wing of The Museum of Without. It’s a scattered monument of mounts and armatures, each made to scale to grasp every known extinct Aotearoa New Zealand bird species—holotype, fossil, and full skeletal remains alike. Through this apparatus—which underwrites containment, and reveals the museum as a place that presupposes the absence of what it aims to hold, keep, and safeguard—we might imagine the potential in being full of things at the same time as emptied. The show also includes the songs of extinct birds, broadcast on the FM band. You can’t hear them unless you tune in on a radio.
Unknown Affinities is part of an ongoing investigation into two distinct elements: things that contain, such as museums, encyclopaedias, and lists, and that which cannot be contained, such as vapours, spirits, contagions, and, in this instance, transmissions (of extinct birdsong) and eradications (scaffold mounts to grasp what has gone). Occupying the entire gallery floor and the airwaves, Unknown Affinities presents itself to us in a full state of absenthood and reminds us that all things are in constant movement, leaving nothing to grasp.