“Thinking Aloud”

Richard Wentworth sums up “Thinking Aloud,” the traveling show he curated for the Hayward gallery, in characteristically unassuming language: It’s an assembly of items that collectively reveal “how we give meaning to things” and “the way that some things are like other things, and some things are different.” He insists he has “no fixed agenda”; he is not revealing his own train of thought, but drawing together things—thumbnail sketches, cardboard prototypes, diagrams, and so forth—that exemplify the links between artmaking and other problem-solving processes. Accordingly, visitors are left to devise their own systems of classification as they navigate this diverse and undeniably intriguing show. That’s the principle; in practice, Wentworth’s selection is highly idiosyncratic, and while it includes many fascinating objects, it also betrays a number of rather unappealing curatorial subtexts.

Some items in the exhibition (for instance, work by Philip Guston, Lucy Gunning, Andreas Gursky) are readily classifiable as art; others (objects handpicked by Wentworth from historical museums, factories, laboratories, libraries, archives, and other sources) are not. Frank Gehry’s model of the not-yet-built Weatherhead School of Management, a crumpled heap of silver and brown paper, has an underlying architectural coherence that emerges with increasing clarity the longer one looks at it. A World War II–era woman’s outfit, stitched together from maps of India printed on silk, is faded, delicate, and poignant, its buttons and trim touchingly not-quite-matching. The big hit of the show, Fischli & Weiss’s 1987–88 video Der Lauf der Dinge, documents a hilarious, hazardous studio-cum-laboratory chain-reaction: Collapsing planks push over lighted candles, igniting fuses, triggering explosions, flinging projectiles, bursting balloons, and so on.

Wentworth’s disdain for theoretical systems doesn’t mean that “Thinking Aloud” has no sustained underlying agendas. Among the back-of-the-envelope sketches, the Underground maps, the Apollo moon-shot memorabilia, etc., is a scarily large quantity of fake guns, hunting gear, camouflaged objects, and military ephemera (the show has drawn heavily on the Imperial War Museum’s collections). “Poking around” and “rifling through” are phrases Wentworth often uses to describe his creative methods, and this show persistently aligns “having bright ideas” and “firing synapses” with bomb blasts and rocket launches. Close by Gehry’s model is Matt O’Dell’s 1998 cardboard “reconstruction” of the structural damage wrought by the Oklahoma City bombing, which (the piece’s title informs us) “left at least 78 people dead and hundreds injured or missing.” It’s an unhelpful juxtaposition, to put it mildly; it cancels whatever transgressive irony or bitter reflection on the bombers’ “craft skill” and the media’s ghoulishness O’Dell may have intended. Wentworth’s undiscriminating conflation of military and civil inventiveness is problematic: To show an aerial photo of World War I “experimental trenches” next to Joseph Paxton’s sketch plan of the Crystal Palace, for example, is to invite an understanding of warfare as just another instance of good old human ingenuity coming to the fore.

Thinking aloud can be a risky exercise, particularly so in the leafy purlieus of London NW3, the British capital of psychoanalysis. (The results of yet another significant combustion process—Freud’s ashes—repose in a Grecian urn just up the road at Golders Green.) Uncle Sigi would almost certainly have enjoyed Fischli & Weiss’s conscious, carnivalesque satire on anatomical and rational processes, but what might he have made of a showcase that juxtaposes a collection of prosthetic hands with an assortment of garden dibbles? Or one combining a condom mold with a load of yardsticks? Wentworth has apparently worried that “Thinking Aloud” might be “a boy’s show.” Frankly, despite the presence of some women’s work (Rachel Whiteread’s cast door handles, say, or Cornelia Parker’s fake dynamite), in attitude it is—with knobs on.

Rachel Withers