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Art Review: The Object is Alive at Nottingham Castle

16 February 17 words: Laura-Jade Vaughan

We got down to Nottingham Castle to check out the latest exhibition...

Twelve curious concrete sculptures fill Nottingham Castle’s temporary exhibition spaces, each one representing  a bemusing assortment of things - human figures, a vegetable, a four-legged animal, a foot and even a baseball cap. Contemplating the sculptures’ apparent diversity in subject, one begins to wonder: why do these objects belong together? Artist Matthew Darbyshire’s exhibition, The Object is Alive, replicates an assortment of beloved artifacts housed in Nottingham Castle’s collection, asking visitors to rethink our relationships to a range of objects.

When first entering The Object is Alive, I was struck by the irony of the exhibition title, as I was surrounded by objects which appeared ‘dead’ – the gallery felt like a mausoleum. Soulless grey concrete forms, which at first appear to be hand-crafted using a coil pottery technique, are actually created by an automated 3D printing machine. They are neither tactile nor mysterious. Yet, through these apparently ‘dead’ objects, Darbyshire’s exhibition playfully led me on a journey far and wide through Nottingham Castle’s collection, driven to explore the question: what makes an object ‘alive’?

Nestled on the top floor of Nottingham Castle, in order to reach The Object is Alive one must walk through a series of adjoining rooms that house many treasures, all belonging to diverse cultures. As a regular visitor to Nottingham Castle and other museums, I buy into the way a museum speaks to its visitors, unquestioningly accepting our shared values surrounding historic relics. Theatrically lit objects each fight for attention in their cabinets and vitrines. Text panels vividly set scenes, transporting us to the moment the object was born, bought, used or rediscovered. An object offers a moment of authenticity – a portal to somewhere else – and a ‘one-of-a-kind’ object is the secret key. It is a stark contrast to Darbyshire’s mass-produced contemporary replicas.

Looking through the displays, I search for the objects in The Castle’s collection which Darbyshire recreated. Darbyshire’s twelve sculptures are identical in mass and material, making the hunt for the originals extra hard – it requires a keen eye and open mind. I recognise a few in a cabinet curated according to the tastes of people living in Nottingham. On one shelf sits an eighteenth-century bear jug, prized by a resident who loves bears and is proud of its Nottingham heritage. Another artifact is a nineteenth-century Native American animal, selected for its ability to stimulate the beholder’s imagination. A fertility doll from Ghana was chosen for its reassuring facial expression that conveys calmness and hope, and its history of its ritualistic use that summons mystical properties. All the artifacts, while very different, are all wondrous and are perceived as meaningful for a variety of reasons. It considers, what makes an object special? And what values do museums celebrate through their collection?

On my search through Nottingham Castle’s collection, it became clear that Darbyshire had selected objects with a sense of humour. I was tickled upon finding a nineteenth-century baby-feeding bottle resembling a gherkin. It is quirky, kitsch, and a reminder of a time before plastic, but also strangely contemporary, like an expensive novelty item you’d find in Harrods. I had also been surprised to find a Nike baseball cap amongst the Ancient Greece exhibits. “The person on this old coin was called Nee-kay” says the accompanying text panel. The baseball cap was not the only mass-produced object. After scouring the museum for what appeared to be a grand statue of a knight or a full-size coat of arms, I eventually find the pocket-sized original – a cheap toy in the gift shop.

I encounter a large mother and child sculpture carved from oak. Its value is evident through the fine material, the craftsmanship of its creation, and of course the biblical symbolism. Yet in Darbyshire’s sculptural interpretation, the mother is fashioning a sixties mini-skirt and heels. Rather than timeless values, it instead belongs to the everyday. The sixties reference was a reminder of this object-oriented world we live in. Rather than pop art celebrating the novelty of mass-production, Darbyshire’s art seems more critical. While I enjoyed the dry humour of moments such as the Nike hat or gift shop knight, it is laced with a cynicism about a society where shallow consumer objects are on an equal level as spiritual items. In Darbyshire’s reproductions, he removes the ‘specialness’, the ‘aura’, we see in objects, and asks us to reflect through viewing the museum discerningly. What is it that makes objects special anyway? Is it the context, the material, symbolic imagery, being a one-off, or something else intangible? Is it just because a text panel says so?

Before leaving Nottingham Castle, I returned to The Object is Alive for a final reflection. Darbyshire’s sculptures aren’t as dead as they first appear. In fact, they motivated my day of self-reflective discovery. Do I believe that objects have a soul? I do. Objects speak to us, whether it addresses our desire for knowledge, an urge to experience authenticity, or just the shallow pleasure we gain from consumption. In our existence, surrounded by an abundance of things, objects, it was a refreshing opportunity for reflection.

The Object is Alive runs at Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery until Sunday 14 May.

Nottingham Castle website

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