How we think about art in a gallery is very much determined by how objects are displayed. If ways of showing get disrupted or turned on their head, everything changes. Objects go back to being nothing more than objects. Art works, by the very fact of being described as such, are venerable, raised up, set apart. Objects, on the other hand, are just things. This argument defines the territory staked out by the London-based artist Steven Claydon in an intriguing new show that he has curated at the Camden Arts Centre in north London called, appropriately enough, Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring.
These things feel a little strange from the word go. When I walk into the gallery, the young male attendant, hands thrust deep into his pockets, is, for want of anything better to do, standing and staring at the wall opposite, on which an art work a text piece has been hung. We both read the following, bizarre words, written by the artist Jenny Holzer, and printed in red as if to alert us to the alarming nature of their message: "PEOPLE LIKE TO BREED ANIMALS. DEVELOPING AND THEN REPLICATING NEW TRAITS IS VERY PLEASING. THE FEAR, AND THE ATTRACTION IS THAT THE PROCESS IS UNCONTROLLABLE."
The process is uncontrollable. Now that's something we don't generally think when we enter exhibitions. The process of creating a show is usually very much about control, and we feel happy about that. The curator picks a theme, and then illustrates it. Or he chooses a particular artist, and then demonstrates, through a careful selection of works, how he or she has moved through their career, developing from one kind of creative being into another. Assembling an exhibition is like telling a story, with a beginning, a middle and an end. And the way the works are displayed contributes significantly to that story, but usually fairly unobtrusively.
We hold certain unspoken assumptions about the kinds of things they will be, the shapes and sizes of the spaces that the works will occupy, the way they will relate to each other, how they will be shown, and the numbers of works that will look happy just jostling along together, side by side. The works are set apart from each other. And set apart from us, too.
They are usually hung, fairly reverentially, on their white walls. And it is in part by the way they are displayed squared up to the wall, framed, raised up on plinths, separated from each other by certain fixed distances, for example that we know that they are works of art, and not something else. A strew of kitchen utensils, for example.
Now, this show tries to do something a little different from all that. It endeavours to focus our minds on the nature of display, and what a particular kind of display does to our thinking about objects themselves. Does something become an art work merely because it is displayed in a certain way? This exhibition suggests that that may be true.
Traditionally, we have become accustomed to thinking that there are art works on the one hand, and then there are other kinds of objects. What are the things that are not usually classified as art works, and yet which seem to belong to the same family, generically speaking? Well, there is the object that some archaeologist may have wrested from a heap of wet mud in some field the fragment of an axe head, for example or the object that may more usually be described as a piece of craft (such as some of the ceramic vessels by Hans Coper that we can see in this show; or the anthropological object of the kind that gets displayed in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford).
Now walk into the largest of the galleries here. In front of you, a large table of a fairly rough-and-ready kind bisects the room at an uncomfortably jagged angle. It's as if you are being encouraged to blunder against it rather than approach it with awkward reverence. On this surface there is a huge, wayward clutter of whole things and fragments of things in the making bits of models and maquettes of sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi, for example (I spot a small plaster maquette for his giant sculpture of Newton that stands in the forecourt of the British Library).
All this stuff is crammed together, and displayed at waist height. We stand, and we loom over it. It doesn't really feel like art at all. And yet the fact that it is displayed at this height feels crucial to its success (or failure) as a display of objects. The display itself removes from our heads, at a stroke, the idea that it is necessarily art, and that art, what is more, is a special thing. It reminds us of the kitchen, and of how we deal with the everyday objects we encounter there, day in, day out. The entire display feels workaday and undifferentiated, more a rummage sale of objects, or a moment of excitement from some half-remembered flea market.
Next door there is a space called The Studio. A lot is going on in here. Bells are clanging insistently. On a video screen, a tiny cat is being lured by a giant finger. A wind machine is blowing and blowing long strands of what looks like black plastic hair. A young artist called Craig Kao is standing in the middle of the room, trying on a cardboard elephant head. Well, why not? He takes it off when I speak to him. Kao is standing beside some young women who are seated cross-legged on the floor. One of them is wearing a Peruvian hat. They are both doing something with balloons. I can't quite see what the outcome is going to be. Maybe they feel that, too.
Elsewhere in the room, a guitar is hanging from a clamp. I ask Kao what's happening in here. He tells me that he is one of three artists who have been invited to make work throughout the show, alongside it, breathing in its spirit, if you like. He tosses out certain key phrases that help me to encapsulate that spirit. Playfulness. Interventions in space. A lack of over-seriousness. Place something, try something out then see what the outcome will be. Nothing predetermined. Nothing over-determined.
A kind of relaxed, joyous anarchy reigns. Sir John Soane, that manic accumulator of objects, objects, objects, who turned his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields into a museum of serendipitous clutter, would have understood some of the impulses driving this show.
Strange Events Permit Themselves the Luxury of Occurring, Camden Arts Centre, London NW3 (020-7472 5500), to 10 FebruaryReuse content