Collecting the act of collecting in Harlan Whittingham’s films

Harlan Whittingham, still from 'Collectioneur' (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

‘There are collectors and collectors, I suppose,’ is the final line in the film ‘Collectors(2019), a recent work by Leeds-based artist Harlan Whittingham. The line highlights the subjectivity of the character of a collector, whose complex identity opens up to important issues of contemporaneity. Together with the video ‘Collectioneur’ (2019), the two films reflect the artist’s processual development of interest in the obsessive quality of people’s relation to objects. Through an impersonation of a fictional character of a collector, Whittingham merges curatorial and archival practice with artistic creation. His recent works demonstrate his phenomenological approach to experiments with performance and role play. Moving from a grotesque caricature of a collector in ‘Collectioneur’ to a genuinely interested collectors’ peer in ‘Collectors,’ he gradually uncovers the evident but unspoken layers of tension inherent in the concepts of ownership, accumulation, amorous attachment and control.

‘Collectioneur combines documentation of a performance with screen footage of the online activity of a fictional character, a member of a BDSM community on FetLife.com. In the act of browsing through images of BDSM accessories, artworks and ordinary objects, the character discloses his sexual desire to have physical contact with art objects and admits his previous violation of the rules in art galleries. Rooted in the Duchampian ready-made, the character creates his own collection of artworks as a series of everyday objects, displayed in an online picture gallery. In this work Whittingham explores a range of complex questions such as the mechanisms of value assignment in the art world and the somewhat impotent and unsatisfactory nature of virtual interactions over social media, which escalate the desire to experience the ‘real’. By using an ultimately fetishistic tool – the PVC vacuum bed – to transform his fictional character into a commodity to be consumed or collected, Whittingham caricatures this perverse aspect of materialism and its potential transgressive outcomes.

Harlan Whittingham, film screening installation view from ‘Collectors’ (2019). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Julian Lister.

The connection between art collecting and sexual fetishism is expanded in the second video ‘Collectors’, in which representatives of each of the two worlds explain their collecting practice. Here, Whittingham’s fictional character moves on to capturing moments of his interaction with the possessions of an art collector and a dominatrix. The work interweaves two narrative lines, combining still views, black screens, and wide-angle explorative movements through the interiors of houses of the two individuals, whose identities as well as questions to which they seem to respond remain undisclosed.

A shot through the entrance of a former Protestant chapel converted into a house and a B&B opens the video. The ambience appears as a traditional colonial interior, with opulent decorations that point to the owner’s collection consisting of chandeliers, extensive woodwork and furnishings, carpets, tapestries, taxidermy, historical garments, artworks, and various peculiarities kept in curiosity cabinets, associated with rulers or aristocrats. The overwhelming material abundance is juxtaposed with another kind of collector-like approach – that of a dominatrix living in a modest terraced house. Her commentary discloses the empowering qualities of seductive garments as well as the intermingling of bondage furniture in daily life.

Several intriguing proposals related to the act of collecting, accumulation, amorous attachment and control are revealed in ‘Collectors’. The art collector, who admits that his passion has destroyed several relationships including his marriage, seems to be aware of the obsessive-compulsive need to expand his possessions. On the other hand, he attempts to demonstrate his absolute control, by repeatedly declaring he could abandon his collection at any given moment. Such inconsistencies reveal the uncanny attachment to the ‘loved objects’ that Baudrillard compares to a harem in which a collector is the sultan[1]. Although, according to Baudrillard, the practice of collecting does not seek to still a desire (as does fetishism), it can bring about a reactive satisfaction that is equally intense. The portrayed collector’s self-identity and ego are reflected and enforced in his collection. They are also, however, destroyed by it as he loses himself in the possessions that he ‘fell in love with’ or whose lives he ‘saved’ but that have also gained the agency to significantly influence his life.

Harlan Whittingham, still from ‘Collectioneur’ (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Expanding on the notion of intimate connection between the collector and his loved objects, Whittingham explores the invasiveness of a tactile action through the iteration of moments in which the hand of his fictional character explores textures and materials of the portrayed collectors’ possessions. Such moments evoke the secrecy and secluded quality of an intimate act as well as concerns about consensual intervention into the private space of the collector’s secret seraglio, the enclosed domain of the objects of desire. Interestingly, the intimate, amorous affect is much more evident in the art collector’s approach, rather than in the supposedly intimate practice of BDSM. Unlike the art collector, the mistress does not seem to have a particularly close relationship with either of her collections and seems to frame her interests as a means to achieve a certain reputation and maintain a social status within the local BDSM community.

In his serial collecting practice and curatorial intentions the art collector embodies what Baudrillard calls ‘an enterprise of abstract mastery whereby the subject seeks to assert himself as an autonomous totality outside the world’[2], which is what gives him the sense of absolute power over his material microcosm. The mistress, on the other hand, uses her collection of props and garments as utilities to assert control outwardly over people as part of erotic play. In this way, she generates a collection of ephemeral phenomena, in her own words, a ‘collection of male orgasms’. She does not want to master an absolute power over a serial accumulation of items divested of their function. Instead, her relation to the collected items is utilitarian and the actual collection exists in an experiential and temporary form.

The artist’s processual approach to the enquiry has so far played with the uncanny aspects of attachment to material possessions that might include sincerely amorous, as well as utilitarian, relations. What if, though, collectibles become divested of their function as well as their material condition? In her recent essay My Collectible Ass[3], McKenzie Wark analyses the possibilities of collecting immaterial, experiential and digital art forms, including those that are not documented. She contemplates contemporary conceptual ways of collecting and speculates, ‘Perhaps the avant-garde of collecting is now a question of interesting ways of collecting the act of collecting itself.’[4] Whittingham’s fictional character of a collector, who documents and collects sensory experiences with material items collected by others is moving in this direction. The course of the artist’s research suggests that he intends to investigate the post-industrial, weightless, information-oriented spheres of collecting, and, more importantly, the transgressive aspects of ownership, attachment and interaction with immaterial phenomena.

Harlan Whittingham, film screening installation view from ‘Collectors’ (2019). Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Julian Lister.

Harlan Whittingham‘s films were screened at The Tetley, Leeds, 31 October 2019, and Humber Street Gallery, Hull, 21 November 2019.

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Jaroslava Tomanova is a writer based in Leeds.

[1] Baudrillard, J. (1997). The Systems of Collecting. In: J. Elsner and R. Cardinal, ed., Cultures of Collecting, 2nd ed. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

[2] Baudrillard, J. (1997). The Systems of Collecting. In: J. Elsner and R. Cardinal, ed., Cultures of Collecting, 2nd ed. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

[3] Wark, M. (2017). My Collectible Ass. e-flux, (85).

[4] Wark, M. (2017). My Collectible Ass. e-flux, (85).

Published 12.01.2020 by Holly Grange in Reviews

1,254 words