LONDON — The Museum of Everything, a twee traveling carnival of outsider art, seems to have appeared just about everywhere since its founding in 2009, from the Chalet Society in Paris to Selfridges department store in London.
Taken alone, The Museum of Everything’s zany aesthetic — down to their omnipresent curlicued cursive — might in and of itself bring a passably charming whimsy to the sometimes ponderous arena of art exhibitions, with the added benefit of presenting a public platform for neglected outsider artists. But at the Hayward Gallery, the organization’s one-man show by Nek Chand Saini, occupying the exhibition space above the ticketing hall, was part of a broader effort by the institution. Their concurrent 23-artist Alternative Guide to the Universe show dedicated itself to the output of myriad creative and scientific “outsiders.”
Upon ascending into the exhibition space, visitors are greeted with a wall containing several lines of text explaining the impetus for the Nek Chand Saini show. We learn, most critically, that this is “a celebration of a very visionary, very persistent, very creative, very alternative man.” It’s an astonishing daisy-chain of adjectives, a praise-song delivered in flat tones of condescension. The relatively small installation, pictured below, is reasonably laid out, with a small screening room off to the side and extensive Museum of Everything literature (mostly catalogues from previous shows) piled on side tables in an attached sun-room. From the informally scrolled wall text we learn that Nek Chand Saini was the first artist exhibited by the Museum of Everything in 2009.
But what does it exactly mean for them to call him a “very alternative man”? Nothing, really — there is no endogenous difference between Nek Chand Saini and the 23 artists in the Hayward show proper who received the full official sanction of explanatory wall text, labels, exhibition catalogues — the regalia of institutional art. “Outsider art,” of course, exists simultaneously as itself and as a fetish of art’s consummate insiders. For the Museum of Everything, those who shrank away from the vertiginous terror of the institutional art world are not “ordinary” people to be accorded the due process of artistic lionization in a museum, they are aberrations to be collected and exhibited, with all the postured fussiness of a Baroque gentleman’s cabinet of curiosities.
But this all dodges the fact that Nek Chand himself acceded to the show, and that his Nek Chand Foundation continues to attract and receive donations of time and money thanks to the exposure his work has received worldwide. We learn about this in a video, which is projected in the exhibition’s second and final room, where a brief documentary narrated by a Western volunteer shows the work around the Rock Garden compound in Chandigarh. It never shows the nearly-nonagenarian man himself, at one point mentioning that he has requested from his foundation the funds to purchase a golf cart so he can regain his mobility around his sculpture compound.
The video allegorically demonstrates the problem with the Museum of Everything, which leads us into a subjective world apart while short circuiting the artist’s ability to speak.
The Museum of Everything’s The Kingdom of Gods and Goddesses by Nek Chand (Sri Nek Chand Saini) ran as part of The Alternative Guide to the Universe at Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London) through August 26.