Come on, admit it. Who hasn't, on visiting a white-walled temple of modern art and discovering that the highlight of the exhibition is, say, a satsuma on a bed in a darkened room (yes, really) wondered what planet the artist is on? Now London's Barbican is playing on the all-too familiar gallery-induced emotions of bafflement, incomprehension and mockery with a new exhibition, Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art. Its mission? "To interpret and understand contemporary art."
To achieve this noble aim, the show's curators, Francesco Manacorda and Lydia Yee, have taken the unusual step of drawing on the mindset of little green men. From next week, the Barbican's gallery will become a fictional space for modern art, curated by and designed for aliens, in which 175 works by such celebrated earthly artists as Joseph Beuys, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst will be subjected to the curious – and frequently wrong-footed – scrutiny and analysis of imagined extraterrestrials.
The curators took their cue from the opening chapter of Kant after Duchamp, a 1996 work by the Belgian art historian Thierry de Duve, in which an anthropologist from outer space attempts to explain the importance of Fountain, Marcel Duchamp's famous urinal.
"We wanted to make an anthropological museum of our own culture as though we knew nothing about it," explains Manacorda.
The curators have used as their model the outmoded, Western-centric anthropological categories employed by some museums of ethnographical curios. The exhibition is thus divided into four broad areas – Kinship and Descent; Magic and Belief – in which Andy Warhol's endlessly reproduced print of Chairman Mao is taken to be a religious icon; Communication and, lastly, Ritual – in which Damien Hirst's cabinet of stuffed fish is interpreted as a talisman forsuccessful hunting.
Since the aliens appreciate and appropriate the artworks without the burden of art historical knowledge, the exhibition encourages its earthly visitors to look again through their fresh eyes. "But we never completely betray the works", says Manacorda. "We never look at a painting upside down or anything like that."
Rather, the often humorous captions, written from an alien standpoint, take titles at face value, treat artworks as artefacts and impose a function – practical or symbolic, on the objects. "The idea is to make people feel a bit more free. If you disregard the elitist aura of contemporary art and just look at the object and its title, you can actually get a sense of what it means. We're trying to empower public interpretation."
The final room of the exhibition is devoted to "recently acquired" artistic oddities which the Martians have as yet been unable to classify and understand. "Ongoing study is integral to the Museum's mission," reads the wall text. "And will, it is hoped, lead to a greater understanding of all that is called art by humans on planet Earth." May the force be with them.
6 March to 18 May, Barbican, London EC2 (0845 121 6826; www.barbican.org.uk)
'Icon' – Barbara Hepworth (1957)
A classic biomorphic, abstract sculpture by the doyenne of the form is treated to one of the more fanciful interpretations dreamt up by the alien curators. "This wood carving closely resembles the distinct facial features of inhabitants of the Cassiopeian Delta. This may not be entirely coincidental, as a Cassiopeian agent was conducting fieldwork in the Mediterranean region around the time that the sculptor visited Greece in the 1950s."
'Untitled' – Dr Lakra (2006)
This macabre doll by Dr Lakra, a tattoo artist from Mexico City, is one of six works found in the mocked-up storage room for recent acquisitions, which have so far proven too "difficult to classify" for the Martians. Richard Wentworth's 2004 work
Time and Place – a 1945 Italian-German dictionary with three Swiss watches nestling between its pages – is another "strange thing" found lurking in there, awaiting explanation.
'Pink Cher' – Scott King (2002)
This splicing of a revered Communist icon with a much-loved gay icon is displayed alongside other endlessly reproduced images, including Warhol's Mao. "You wouldn't call them icons in the orthodox sense, but the way they work in contemporary art is very similar," says Manacorda. "Humans find it difficult to distinguish between the visual representation and the sacred deity," explain our Martian friends. "Frequently, the two are believed to be one and the same."
'The family tree' – Jay Heikes (2003)
The American artist's sculpture is classified as a totem – "a guardian spirit of a particular clan or social group among humans which may take the form of a plant, animal, machine or even a material associated with a mythical ancestor". Here, sports jackets, the US equivalent of the football shirt, show affiliation to a particular "family".
'Shag carpet relic from Elvis presley's jungle room, graceland' – Jeffrey Vallance(2006)
This fragment of lurid carpet stolen from the Graceland mansion and placed in an ornate reliquary is Vallance's tongue-in-cheek elevation of Elvis to saintly status. Once again, though, the Martians take it literally, placing it in their Relics and Spirits section. "Relics are venerated by the faithful and serve as tangible memorials," they tell us.
'My Name as Though It Were written on the surface of the moon' – Bruce Nauman (1986)
An example of the Martians taking the title of an artwork at face value, this neon flight of fancy is seen as an example of "inter-planetary communication" – Nauman's egotistical attempt to get his work noticed by extra-terrestrials, by writing his name in lights in the night sky.