At the Martian Museum art's outasight in outer space

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

What would an exhibition of earthly artworks curated by little green men look like? Visitors to the Barbican's Martian Museum are about to find out

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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
'Africa' will be Angelina Jolie's fifth film as a director

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

    Immigration: Obama's final frontier

    The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

    Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

    Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

    You know that headache you’ve got?

    Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

    Scoot commute

    Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
    Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

    The Paul Robeson story

    How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
    10 best satellite navigation systems

    Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

    Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
    Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

    Paul Scholes column

    England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

    Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

    Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
    Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

    Frank Warren column

    Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines