Visual Arts: Hide and seek for the big players

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The Independent Culture
Retrace Your Steps

Sir John Soane Museum, London

Funny things, Wunderkammers. On the one hand, they are about the objects they contain: relics of conquest or grand tour, thrown together with careful incongruousness to make us look at them afresh. On the other, cabinets of curiosities are not really about objects at all. They are about the people who put them together: public advertisements of a taste which is diverse, informed and, needless to say, good.

Thus the ambiguity of the possessive "s" in Sir John Soane's Museum. The museum is housed in Soane's Georgian house and was saved for the nation, at the architect's own prompting, by Act of Parliament. It contains the extraordinary range of goodies collected by Soane during his long life, from Hogarth's Rake's Progress to the tomb of Pharoah Seti I. The Soane Museum is thus two things: a museum that was founded by Sir John Soane (1753-1837), and a museum that is about him.

This duality may go some way towards explaining why the house in Lincoln's Inn Fields has become a mecca for contemporary artists in the past few years. Soane was unquestionably the greatest British architect of his day, producing buildings of huge drama with a ruthless eye for geometry. It is easy enough to see why this should have endeared him to a generation raised on abstraction and weaned on minimalism. Even so, his recent rediscovery by the arbiters of fashion seems phenomenal. And one explanation for that phenomenon is the identification of those arbiters with Soane's ego: an ego made manifest in his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

All of which makes the latest wonder in Soane' s Wunderkammer both apt and dangerous. Hans Ulrich Obrist, a young Swiss curator, was introduced to the Soane Museum by the artist Cerith Wyn Evans, and decided that it was ripe for a little contemporary intervention. Obrist is one of that curious new breed, the celebrity curator. Just as chefs have suddenly turned restaurateurs, so curators have become artists. Obrist's exhibitions may involve many things, but the one person whose work they always promote is Hans Ulrich Obrist.

You can see why Soane appealed to him. Obrist has commissioned 14 artists to produce works which respond to Soane, and to place them among Soane's own slightly crazed collection. Interpretations of this brief have varied wildly. Gilbert and George, masters of the ego, establish a ghostly presence by having themselves photographed in Soane's parlour, sipping tea out of his teacups. The effect, curious to relate, is oddly powerful. Seeing the grey-suited ones in what is all too clearly their perfect milieu suggests the Country Life genteelisation to which history has subjected Soanean architecture. Viewed next to the real thing, there is a sinking sense of the fall of the mighty. Steve McQueen picks up on that binary quality in Soane's work - dark/ light, stasis/ movement - that can seem tinged with madness. A Georgian side-table stands on a mirror, creating a Whitereadish inversion of itself. As is the way with things dual, this is open to two interpretations. Either McQueen is paying homage to Soane's talents as a solid geometer or he is suggesting a gimcrack underside: Georgian tables are not at their best when viewed from below.

A similar ambiguity lies at the heart of Anish Kapoor's dual offering, Parabolic Waters ii and Vortex. The first of these - a round dish of brushed steel, filled with dark liquid and spinning silently on a cubic base - stands in an ante-room on the ground floor. The connections between geometric form and elemental force are clear, as are the forensic associations of the centrifuge: Parabolic Waters ii is a faintly chilling portrait of Soane the eternal genius. Vortex seems to be about the same kinds of thing, but - being relegated to the basement - offers a more seditious view. The geometric forms and steel are still there, but nothing spins and we see, behind the scenes, an unfinished area of Styrofoam and sticky tape. The skull which Kapoor puts next to this non-centrifugal centrifuge suggests a less than immortal Soane.

If there are elements of architect-bashing in all of this, they are as nothing compared with the treatment meted out to Soane the museologist. Lucius Burckhardt's The Follies of John Soane puts a cod-academic treatise on the architect's garden buildings in a vitrine: Soane the collector becoming (oh, irony) Soane the collected. Douglas Gordon's wax cast of his own hand is also consigned to a glass cube, Soanean geometry and museology seen as mutually imprisoning. The difficulty with all of this is knowing how to look at it. I mean this both literally and figuratively. Exhibition literature suggests that the intention - or at least an intention - of "" is to make us reconsider Soane in the light of contemporary art. In fact, truffling out the new works - Richard Hamilton's Passage of the Bride is hidden behind a folding panel, for example - is so very difficult that Soane's own collection becomes something of an annoyance.

The show is like a highbrow version of Where's Wally? The only possible way that you can find the answer is by ignoring everything around it. Behind this perversity is an agenda as hidden as the works themselves. "" isn't really about contemporary artistic responses to Soane; it isn't, in fact, about Soane at all. What it is about is curatorship. Obrist has hijacked Soane's Gesamtkunstwerk and made it his own: the show is a giant clash of egos, an unfair contest in which Soane (being conveniently dead) was bound to come off worse. This does not make "" a bad show: indeed, its cleverness is all the more obvious for being hidden. But you can't help noticing a distant whiff of sulphur as you stumble through Sir John' s darkened rooms.

`: Remember Tomorrow': Sir John Soane Museum, WC2 (0171-430 0175), to 25 March

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