Tim Etchells & Vlatka Horvat: What Can Be Seen

Millennium Gallery
- , 2017

Tickets: Free

A playful, intriguing and inquisitive trawl through the city's collections. Our review...

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Tim Etchells, artistic director of experimental performance company Forced Entertainment, has long been interested in the process of creating; the process of threading a narrative on a stage, the process of building a set; the process of performing live. What Can Be Seen is a continuation of this series of investigations, but this time Etchells is working with artist Vlatka Horvat to explore the process of curating an art show. The artistic duo trawled Museums Sheffield’s archives to produce an exhibition that is at once playful, intriguing and inquisitive.

On the one hand, What Can Be Seen is an unusually vague title for a display of art. Indeed, every single exhibition on the planet could fit under the same title. After all, what is an exhibition if not a presentation of a bunch of objects that a curator has deemed suitable for the public to see? On the other hand, it is also incredibly direct. The phrase tells the viewer up-front that they are looking at something someone decided could “be seen.” And this title interacts playfully with the presentation of works where items “not meant to be seen” appear on display – like product packaging, archival notes or sketchbook guides. 

At first glance, What Can Be Seen appears to be a straightforward collection of interesting items. The walls are white and curious objects are arranged side by side. On entering the exhibition, the viewer finds beautiful drawings, clocks and slides placed neatly together in glass display cases. However, on closer inspection Etchell’s and Horvat’s curatorial hands start to appear – there are slides missing from the geometric layout and a clock box sits empty with a note that reads “no objects found in this box.”

These archival edits become the central point of a new series of photographs the duo prepared for the show. Rather than shooting photographs of the “art” in Museums Sheffield’s storerooms, the artists paid attention to the card index and storage facilities. Their findings pull back the veneer usually present in exhibitions to highlight where the works came from. The notes are also humorous; one card reads “card missing” while another box reads “nothing on top”.

The real highlight of What Can Be Seen, though, is the huge display of objects that runs the width of the gallery space. The presentation includes everything from taxidermy to teddy bears, cameras, bottles and toast holders. Not only endlessly fascinating, the display – merely entitled Objects, artefacts and specimens drawn from all Museums Sheffield departments – is carefully arranged to create unique connections between otherwise disparate objects. Items are grouped by shape rather than use; for example, a collection of long items draws associations between a rolling pin, a taxidermy platypus and various knives.

It is this juxtaposition of apparent randomness and surprise specificity that makes What Can Be Seen so brilliant. It reveals the power of careful curation and the narratives that can be created when someone steps into an art gallery and starts seeing “art” rather than “objects”. Although “what can be seen” is a statement, by the end of the show it becomes “what can be seen?” What qualifies anemograph charts, an aerial survey of the M1 or empty frames to be counted as art in a gallery? But this is Etchell’s and Horvat’s magic; they push back the boundaries and alter expectations – so much so, almost anything becomes art and “could be seen.” This confusing situation left me accidentally mistaking an exhibition catalogue for a piece of art – but, then again, perhaps it was.

Written by Hannah Clugston; February 28, 2017