Seeing what the archives say
Linking the unearthed to Peabody Essex’s city
SALEM — Artist Marianne Mueller spent hours and hours in the Peabody Essex Museum’s storage areas, where she chose nearly 300 of the collection’s scruffier and more ignored objects for her contemporary art installation “Any House Is a Home.’’
The installation is the second FreePort project at the museum, which invites contemporary artists to engage with the 212-year-old collection. Visitors associate that collection with exquisite pieces, such as Queen Victoria’s embroidered Chinese shawl, 16th-century Hindu devotional objects, or a portrait by John Singleton Copley. It’s the valuable objects, and the stories they tell, that the public comes to see. The curators layer in context and theme.
“Walk through the building, and a lot of things are combined in ways that you might not see together in one place, but there’s a label, a knowledge transfer, one object that represents a particular time or trend,’’ says Mueller, who takes a more democratic and intuitive approach. “I tried to set up a different narrative.’’
Mueller set up shop in PEM’s oldest gallery, which houses the American Decorative Arts Collection. There’s a grand staircase to a broad balcony surrounding the space, where the museum mounts its photography shows.
Downstairs, the decorative arts displays have been rearranged to accommodate a twisting ziggurat reaching up to the second floor, which Mueller, a Swiss conceptual artist and photographer, designed in collaboration with the Los Angeles architectural firm Johnston Marklee. Mueller has covered it with photos from PEM’s collection and from a wide-ranging archive of her own photos. Upstairs, large prints of her photographs, many taken locally, play visual tag with objects from the museum’s collection that rarely see daylight.
These arrangements often correspond to the decorative arts objects downstairs. There, you will find a small collection of spangled pumps and high-buttoned shoes from the 19th and 20th centuries. Upstairs, Mueller has arrayed dozens of more bedraggled shoes, also belonging to the museum, including a pair of 1990s-era sneakers, the curious gift of Joan Parks Whitlow. Above them hang several photos of legs from the artist’s archive — a logical yet cheeky juxtaposition.
Mueller’s photographic archive embodies her non-hierarchical impulses. “If you take pictures, you have to make order,’’ she allows. “So I have envelopes, and each has a number. But I don’t have groupings in themes. It is really chronological. I work with images out of the archive, and a lot is about combining and setting up context.’’
That archive is what prompted PEM’s curator of photography, Phillip Prodger, to invite Mueller to create a FreePort installation. He points out that the museum’s photography collection numbers close to 850,000 images. “If I reserve 10 seconds to every image, I wouldn’t see it all by the time I died,’’ says Prodger.
“When I came on staff, people kept asking me about the archive. The word was used so often, I wondered what an archive was,’’ says Prodger, who has been at PEM for three years. “Marianne makes this idea of an archive central to her work. She was the perfect artist to tackle the issue.’’
Mueller dived into the collection and began to explore Salem, photographing architectural elements and videotaping locals. The videotapes, which echo painted portraits in the downstairs gallery, feature women standing quietly or reading. But while the paintings present important people who had their portraits commissioned, the videos are, again, more democratic.
In one, the daughter of the proprietor of the local bed-and-breakfast where Mueller stayed stands uncomfortably in front of the columns of the museum’s Phillips Library, “where all the history is stored,’’ Mueller points out. Another portrays a PEM security guard standing placidly, watching, as guards do. These provide a human presence — although not always an easy one — among all the artifacts.
Images of local folks and bits of architecture and even roadwork also break down the elitism of the institution. “Everyone likes the museum so much,’’ Mueller says of the Salem community. The artist, who is in her mid-40s, is flinty but warm, and made a lot of friends here. “I wanted them to be more involved in the gallery. When people come in, they will recognize their city and their life in this melting pot.’’
Although Mueller’s approach is associative, linking objects and images across time and culture, “Any House Is a Home’’ also displays her keen formal sense. Furniture lines and photographic elements propel the viewer through the installation. In the photos along the ziggurat, which feature fences, banisters, sumo wrestlers, and a stovepipe from a hotel room where Mueller stayed once in Azerbaijan, lines segue from one image to the next.
At the top of the stairs, two museum objects that Mueller unearthed, “Elastic’’ chairs made by Samuel Gragg around 1808, stand back to back. The slatted backs of the wooden chairs scoop out, up, and back, like the frames of sleigh beds, making them barely functional but creating a sweet, undulating line from one chair to the next. Mueller placed them inside an antique display case.
“A chair you cannot sit in,’’ Mueller points out. “If you used it, it would break. The shape gave me the impulse to think about the chair. What is its story?’’ She doesn’t offer an explanation, and there’s no wall label. “Do you want to know they’re designed by this designer, or do you let them talk?’’ she asks. Her photo of the two chairs, this time facing each other, hangs on the opposite wall.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.