Sunday, 14 August 2016

Foundlings and Finds

Cornelia Parker curated an exhibition for the Foundling Museum in Coram Fields by inviting [and presumably paying, thanks to the Arts Council and other donors] sixty fellow artists to contribute a work of modest size loosely on the theme of ‘found’, and distributing the objects and videos through the rooms of the Museum, which are decorated and furnished to evoke the eighteenth century Foundling Hospital on the site, which was supported by several contemporary artists including William Hogarth.

Alison Wilding Cellar Frog 
Most artists are magpies, it seems, amassing studios full of found objects that may or may not relate to art works. So some of the contributors have unearthed such finds, like a collection of dirty playing cards picked up in streets over many years, or bottle tops from more recent gutters.  Others have submitted old pieces.  Others have made or displayed new/old objects, bought from flea markets.  Some have created wholly new works.  Alison Wilding shows the petrified corpse of a flattened frog found in her cellar, 

Anthony Gormley, Iron Baby
The result is an eclectic mix held together only by the theme and the fact that most are small  – which must have been quite hard for some contributors, accustomed to working on an outsize scale.  Many are necessarily solipsistic: ‘my’ objet trouvĂ© from the beach, this reminds me of my grandmother, I made this a long time ago, etc.  For once, Anthony Gormley has not offered an ‘everyman’ version of his own body, but a touching cast of one of his own babies, aged six weeks, apparently asleep on the cold floor of an empty side room, as if somehow forgotten.

Elsewhere there is an uncomfortable, unspoken equivalence between the long-ago children who were ‘given’ to Captain Coram’s charity by mothers who could not support them, and discarded pieces of flotsam haphazardly found in the street or seashore.   Despite the title, the Hospital infants were not ‘found’ like Mike Nelson’s battered roadsign or Ron Arad’s string of unredeemed pawn tickets.  In some respects, there is too much rubbish on view.

Foundling tokens
Nonetheless, there are resonances even in these bits of detritus.  The roadsign is to a now-abandoned village, the pawn tickets are for never-claimed items, most frequently wedding rings. And the majority share a loss of identity that mirrors the anonymity of the foundlings who, once admitted, were re-baptised with new names, to recover their own only if their mothers came to reclaim them.  To this end each infant was identified by a maternal token, many surviving in the Museum’s collection, poignant mementoes of children who never knew their parentage.

The most eloquent art works reflect this anonymity and erasure, like Parker’s own contribution, an unfinished painting attributed to Alfred Munnings, of two well-off girls who lack features, maybe because the parents refused to pay the requested fee?  Or had not the means to support such an expensive portrait, in a symbolic echo of the foundlings' mothers.   This is also an 'orphan' work in art historical terms - a painting that has lost all identity, as there is no proof it is by Munnings, and like their faces the sitters' names will never be known,
Attributed to Sir Alfred Munnings

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