“Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow”

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sir John Soane’s regular guests share a deep affection for their long-dead host and become protective, even proprietary, about his remarkable home. Architectural historian William J.R. Curtis writes of each return visit as a measure of “what point one has reached, as if re-consulting an old friend.” The Soane Museum is a Wunderkammer, a labyrinthine treasure chest stuffed full of cast-plaster gargoyles and goddesses, crockets, cornices, and Corinthian capitals; trick walls that open and shut; built-in mirrors producing virtual vistas to infinity; tombs, sarcophagi—oh, and yes, a “monk’s parlor” complete with human skull. Like Victor Hugo’s Guernsey house or the Freud Museum, Hampstead, it’s not just one of the all-time great idiosyncratic interiors, but a living cultural laboratory where mental batteries may constantly be recharged.

On that basis, the Soane cries out for some form of contemporary-art intervention. (One suspects its administrators are past masters at writing polite “no thank you” letters to interested artists and curators.) The risks are also clear: A poorly planned intrusion might ruin visitors’ experiences and dismay the Soanean faithful; equally, the museum’s embarrassment of visual riches might simply swamp whatever contemporary work is added. Having been introduced to the place by UK artist Cerith Wyn Evans, international curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist (probably best known here for his work on “Cities on the Move,” shown last year at the Hayward Gallery) is the brains behind the Soane’s first contemporary art experiment. Featuring twenty-seven responses to the museum by assorted high-profile artists and architects and one designer (Bruce Mau), Obrist’s project avoids the first pitfall, but succumbs to the second: It’s a neutral experience, neither a great enhancement nor a major distraction. In one of the basement rooms, for instance, Obrist has opted to screen Tom Gidley’s specially commissioned film Soane’s Bones, 1999, a meditation on mortality and passing time, recording the fleeting effects of light and shadow on Soane’s treasures to a sound track of the museum’s clocks’ ticks and chimes. It’s a thoughtful study, but sited in the museum it becomes a tautology, duplicating the visual, aural, tactile, and metaphorical associations that visitors can make for themselves, on site. Nearby (in the crypt), Christina Mackie’s two-screen video work Misrecognition, 1999—an image of a ruined city, maybe Dresden, facing a shot of a nondescript Midwestern commercial building—is bunged onto some shelves with a job-lot of Roman tombs, in an almost desultory fashion. Overall, the technical presentation of the show’s film and video pieces (including Isaac Julien’s) is disappointingly unimaginative.

There are some happy moments. Richard Hamilton’s reconstruction of Duchamp’s Oculist Witnesses, 1968, its four enigmatic ellipses reproduced in mirror silver on glass, stands in front of a gigantic classical tragic mask. Subtly lit, the silvery rings seem to issue forth from its downturned mouth: an incomprehensible oracular utterance from the distant, or not-so-distant, past. Richard Wentworth has casually left a half-finished cup of coffee and a newspaper on a table: Its pages report the 1995 Kobe earthquake. One almost expects the cup to start rattling on its saucer; above one’s head, a massive chunk of Roman cornice looms alarmingly, and a photo of a collapsed building in Japan becomes a contemporary vanitas symbol. Anish Kapoor’s Parabolic Waters ii, 1999, a rotating bowl of fluid that forms a concave reflecting surface, quietly complements the mass of convex mirrors articulating Soane’s glorious breakfast parlor. Such pieces hint at the potential for a really remarkable contemporary display at the museum. But one feels it might only be achieved by a mind or minds as passionately, intimately obsessed with Soane’s world as the great collector himself.

Rachel Withers