Humans have for centuries accused magpies of being irresistibly drawn to the bijou of the bins, the chi-chi of the street and the bling of the gutter, unable to refuse the attraction of any old shiny button or merest piece of foil, but recently on the Radio you heard certain authorities refuting this as myth and saying there was insufficient scientific evidence.

Anything can be precious, desirable, collectible, in fact Freud saw collecting as a kind of pathology associated with faeces, and its true you have met some quite odd people who were just a little too keen to show you their entire collection of this or that. But bourgeois acquisition, display, and scientific taxonomy all, together, play a large part in forming our society, and thus, every bookshelf, mantle-piece, desk and draw can be surveyed as a mini-museum, a tiny parade of cultural values.


Isabelle Cornaro works with this immanent phenomenon to reflect and respond both to grandiose museology and domestic bric-a-brac. Entering the grand, well proportioned main space of the noble Victorian philanthropic bequest known as The South London Gallery you find a series of imposing black stained birch wood plinths, organized meticulously, with a kind of majestic elegance that seems to reference the incomparably controlled ordering of space you might find in an academic painting of the highest rank (in fact Poussin is referred to in the work’s title, Paysage Avec Poussin.)

Some of the plinths have one surface coated in reflective polished brass, and most, not all of them, support an intriguing object. Often the object is tiny in relation to the grand plinths, which loom like the monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, or the glorious minimalist sculptures of John McCracken. But the plinths, and the found objects they support, here transmit a slightly morbid, decadent air, the black quietly funeral, the brass subtly invoking the nameplate on a coffin. Fine velvet carpets, plucked from another age and carefully chosen for their subtle colours are crisply rolled to lie as horizontal compositional devices, or are carefully folded and draped over plinths.

You can stand back and enjoy various views of the work, allowing geometric forms to align in various ways, revealing, hiding or reflecting the odd arrangement of objects that they support. But you can also enter among them, examining the objects in detail (most of which retain their secretive identity) while feeling yourself moving, like a visitor to a cenotaph or graveyard, with a strange reverence for these slightly morbid forms and the slightly dour historical objets d’art they proffer.


Upstairs, two of The South London Gallery’s smaller spaces present short, looped films by the same artist. These extrude the same themes in a more homely direction. In Figures (2011) what seems to be a hastily assembled table top, perhaps covered in light grey felt, supports an array of buttons and coins and ‘bits and bobs’, all ordered quite neatly, not unlike their presentation on a flea market stall. For some strange reason it is hard to scientifically explain why humans like these orders, these little groupings and gestalts that make things thus assembled seem more valuable and desirable.

Perhaps this mystery is what interests Isabelle Cornaro? At one point in the film this fragile set-up is rocked by an unseen hand as if to remind us of the contingency, the contrivance and the ephemerality of any such order, any such structure, any such foundation to our values and thus to our society.

Isabelle Cornaro, Figures, 2011, 16mm film (digitalized), color, no sound, 2'27

Isabelle Cornaro, Figures, 2011, 16mm film (digitalized), color, no sound, 2’27

We might wonder why we should look at this film for any longer than we would at our own little collections or at rickety tables in our local Sunday market. Then we remember that this is film, this is art, this is a gallery, and that, as the camera subtly moves, mediating the edited image as it is suddenly cut, we notice that the artist has also used lighting to carefully eliminate shadows, and in one of the films the lighting changes in flashes, as if to remind us of its own contribution in exacerbating our interest in relative banal things. Of course, this is a subtle reference to, and a mini-invocation of, the entire consumerist spectacle that has most of us in its grip for most of the time. Every department store, shop or online ordering service needs its lighting, or backlighting, its luminous, light-saturated, brightly coloured High Definition photographs of things that make this particular world go around.

Strangely, and slightly eerily then, this artist, using strategies of displacement and choice (a la Marcel Duchamp, Haim Steinback, Susan Hiller etc.); and illustrating theories of order we might find in Michel Foucault (‘The Order of Things), Jean Baudrillard (‘The System of Objects’, Neil Cummings (‘The Value of Things), Gustave Flaubert (‘Bouvard & Pecuchet’) or Georges Perec (‘Things’); as well as theories of desire we might find in Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan or Susan Stewart (‘On Longing’); seems to ‘put her finger on’ something crucial concerning who or what we are.


Our society, however secularized, never completely loses hold of an ancient, mythical, hieratic and auratic fascination, and so our museums retain a slightly church-like atmosphere while the strategies of display used therein (objects raised on a dais as if the ground itself were unholy; objects kept behind glass, illuminated and ordered into patterns) are not dissimilar, and are indeed echoed and reciprocated by, the most crass examples of consumerism.

Perhaps it was wrong after all to project our own strange susceptibilities onto the relatively innocent and oblivious magpie. It is surely we who, given any hint of a shining surface, any object upraised and exalted, even by a mere meter of painted wood, geometrically formed into a stand; or some objects grouped in a row or a circle, are immediately distracted, diverted and transported, subject to base and childlike desires that a magpie, living its animal life of constant, constructive, desperate foraging merely to survive, might in fact find incomprehensible.


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