I think of a collection as being like a map of a person’s life, like the flotsam and jetsam washed up on the beach of somebody’s existence. A collection is deeply personal, and says so much about who the collector is, and what they believe in or are afraid of, but I think it also inevitably ends up speaking of many fundamental and universal truths.
I’ve always collected things. When I was a kid it was rocks and minerals, which I used to display in boxes. I love how different forms of display affect what the eye sees. It’s bound up in my interest in the Victorian obsession with nature, or really the dominance of man over the natural world. Those Victorian natural history displays are so stupidly self-confident, it’s nature seen through the eyes of man, beautifully ordered according to aesthetics. They’re meant to be about the natural world but they’re more like zoos – fake places or facades of reality. It’s an idea that I’ve thought about and used in my ‘Natural History’ series, the animals in formaldehyde, and also the ‘Entomology’ cabinets I’ve made more recently.
After the rocks, I got into collecting books about art and pathology, which I used to steal when I was growing up in Leeds. The pathology books were unbelievably gruesome and, for me, they harked back to those incredibly visceral Catholic images of flayed bodies that I’d been fascinated with as a child. It was the pathology images themselves that I was interested in, that strange opulence of the colours and its contrast with the horrific subject matter.
The collecting process has been important to me since the beginning. When I first moved to London in the mid 1980s, I lived next door to a hoarder called Mr Barnes. When he disappeared I got into his house and it was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen. It was sixty years of existence in one room, piled all the way up to the ceiling: collecting gone mad. I started using his belongings to make collages. It’s something I still think about when acquiring new objects and curiosities, like the skulls and models in this exhibition; ultimately they all bear the imprint of someone else’s desire to immortalise them, just like Mr Barnes did with every detail of his life. I think the collector is always part of a bigger story.
Everything in my Murderme collection is a reflection on life. These particular pieces are all attempting to say something about the world in practical, objective ways, but I feel like they often end up saying more about the people, like me, who’ve decided to collect them, rather than factual or scientific realities. They’re testament to some of my most enduring interests: the relationship between science and art, natural history, mortality and our attempts to comprehend death. I started collecting skulls when I was at school. I love their repetition in my collection, it’s just the same question asked again and again and again in slightly different ways. It’s life’s ultimate questions: why, where, what, how? They transcend time and space and location. They can be celebratory, or macabre and nasty, or comical; like the alligator skull, which makes you think of a cartoon, grinning at death. I love the contrast between the marble and bronze human skulls, which have a sense of immortal grandeur, and the real ones, which you just can’t fight with. Even though they are death, there’s something invigorating about them.
For me, the anatomical models are a reminder that the demarcation between science and art is a relatively recent development. Some of them look like toys and others like art and there’s a grisly morbidity to others. That eerie model of how to remove nasal polyps is amazing – I love the hair and the collar and the blue eyes. It’s a reminder of how incompatible the rigours of science actually are, next to the fragility of the flesh. There’s another anatomical model in the show from around the 19th century, which is unbelievable. It’s so vivid and wrought, it could almost be a Michelangelo, or a sculpture of Saint Bartholomew, the flayed apostle, but it’s just a teaching tool for medical students. I love that.
I think of this part of my collection as being like a Wunderkammer. All these objects sit in that strange area of intersection between atavistic myth, science and belief, which is what a lot of my own work is about. I love the freakish, malformed animals and the pangolins, which I’ve always collected, partly because the foundry I work with in Gloucestershire is named after them. They look like they come from a time and place we don’t understand. The Victorian taxidermy’s interesting too. It’s an attempt to replicate life in death, but where it’s damaged by age, or done badly, there’s something really sad about it; it reminds of the failure of having to kill something in order to look at it.
Like the original Wunderkammer, I acquire these objects from all over the place: auction, swaps, gifts, eBay. I believe that collectors have a responsibility not to let their works gather dust in some forgotten warehouse. It’s something that’s always weighed heavily on me. From 2015, I’ll be able to show a lot more of it to the public as I’m building a museum in London specifically to house exhibitions of work from the collection. I hate having them boxed up in storage and when they’re not on loan, I live with a lot of these pieces at home. They’re meant to be lived with, they’re reminders of what life is, and what it might be or will end up being, and I love being confronted with that on a daily basis. I feel very lucky.
'Wunderkammer' was originally published in 'Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector' (exh. cat.) (Barbican, London, 2015) to coincide with the exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London (12th February - 25th May 2015).
Featured artists: Arman; Peter Blake; Hanne Darboven; Edmund de Waal; Damien Hirst; Howard Hodgkin; Dr Lakra; Sol LeWitt; Martin Parr; Jim Shaw; Hiroshi Sugimoto; Andy Warhol; Pae White and Martin Wong/Danh Vo.