Collecting museums

The door opens and you find yourselves visiting an exhibition that encapsulates fifty museums, inviting you not just for one visit, but for multiple visits to your own, imaginary museum. All you have to do is follow the path that Yiannis Hadjiaslanis created, first as an actively engaged viewer and then through the sensitivity of his visual language. All you need to do is show the same curiosity that he showed and focus on associations in the images. His associations, first, and your own associations then – conceptual, formal, historical, personal ones.

Utilising a simple camera, acting like a flâneur, he wanders around the 50 museums he visited, reassembling their display order, from the basement to the upper floors, accumulating records of the wide array of wonders in these worlds, finally contributing his own gesture and sharing, through his images, the cards of another kind of Atlas.* In this way, their representation is not intended for his own or his family’s enjoyment only, but is open to all, since it is now presented through an act of inversion, whereby objects are no longer just parts of collections, heirlooms or historical fragments, but opportunities for reflection. Accordingly, he creates his own museum.

Each association of images and their titles leads to a new object, open to a new reading. The traditional notion of the archive is called into question, and so are the concepts of the exhibit and of the museum itself. At the same time, however, in their reflection, they are reinforced. This is because what is brought to our attention is not so much what we look at but how we see it and what associations emerge. Looking through the exhibit displays and resulting fractals, Hadjiaslanis points towards the future and invites us to his own interpretation – involving the expanded museum, in which the viewer is also the creator. As he himself has been.

In the digital age, with the ongoing debate on the role of museums, on how they can continue to appeal to the public and offer a multilayered aesthetic experience, competing with the effects of the technological worlds, Hadjiaslanis hits the target with his photographic bow. He draws our attention to an essential truth – that looking is never a sensory act. Our mind itself is a museum: of experiences, memories, images, sounds, words, emotions. The key word is associations.

In Visitations, Hadjiaslanis seems to have entered a second phase in a broader pattern of investigation that runs through his work. In Flotsam & Jetsam (2007)** the photographed objects recovered by Dimitris Karaiskos from the seabed or washed up from the sea, objects whose interest lay in their being outside of a conceptual context. This four-year project revolved around the same axis: the object stripped off of its semantic context. In Visitations, however, Hadjiaslanis does not depend on the sea to have this sea-change effect on his practice: He strips them bare by himself, just as meticulously and diligently. And he collects. With each visit, he reshapes what he sees, what he wants
to see, and himself.

With a bold and subversive yet unpretentious gaze, he shows that museums are alive, not only because of the cognitive imprint left behind by each visit. They are alive because, if we choose to actively engage with them, rather than be passive consumers of information, they can offer us a glimpse into how this wealth of exhibits on display (and the reading here is horizontal, without distinguishing the nature of each museum) were selected, preserved and went on public view to tell a story. Not the story. They may often succeed in telling most of it, but never all of it. They satisfy our curiosity – which is as infinite as our imagination.

This is therefore an exhibition that, beyond its artistic aspects, can serve as a critical guide to the way we build and present our museum repositories; also, as political commentary on the importance of critical thinking during a period when information reigns supreme. Yet the king is naked. Information acquires value from the way it is managed, evaluated, combined, fragmented, named.
By this process, exhibits – selected, framed, staged, either by form or meaning – achieve the fascinating status of potential subjects that, ultimately, in the dark of night or in the light of day, speak to us. Not only about themselves, but about us, as well.

* Aby Warburg (1866–1929), Mnemosyne Atlas.
** Dimitris Karaiskos - Yiannis Hadjiaslanis, Flotsam & Jetsam, essays by Dimitris Arvanitis, Euphrosyne Doxiadis, Dimitris Karaiskos, Ian Jeffrey, Gema, 2007.