The man who mistook his art for a Pirogue

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“In tiny crevices and under dusty beds, there lies a secret creativity by the unknowns of society. Unexpected, delicate, profound, this democratic work has inspired the world’s greatest artists and creative minds.”

It’s a grand title – The Museum of Everything – an all-inclusive platform with limitless                 possibilities and no rules – it’s so idealistic, it’s almost quaint, from another century pre-World War 1 and before the nuclear bomb. Aesthetically, its recent incarnation is a little like a travelling circus with its old-fashioned, red and white Punch and Judy stripes. Creating a lovely unbranded backdrop to the art it seeks to uncover, it is not specifically referencing public theatres of a bygone era, but a time before things became so seriously abstract and highly commercial.

With a background in film, the museum’s founder James Brett is quick to point out that his setting of the scene was intentionally simplistic, even ridiculous “many of the naive drawings used for marketing were done by me”. He also has a powerful sense of narrative, and is driven by a need to engage the audience in another, more compelling story of creativity that rejects the increasingly monochrome highway of critical theory.

“When you need layers and layers of commentary before you can begin to aesthetically appreciate something, you are taking away a person’s ability to judge for themselves.” Seeking to step back to a time pre-talkies, his objective was to uncover a parallel history of art, one that documents the full cast in contrast to the big empty spaces and reductionist one man shows of contemporary art.

“What we are really about is this: In the beginning there was a cave and then someone had the bright idea to decorate the wall, and the question of why they did it and what it was for is the same question now. It did not make the cave warmer, but there was something existential about it – something about communicating ‘I exist’. The most fundamental and most moving art is not only that which says ‘I exist’ but one in which you exist too.”

The Museum of Everything is the world’s only travelling museum for “undiscovered, unintentional and untrained artists from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries”. Since its first installation in 2009, over 400,000 people have visited its various incarnations which include the Tate Modern, the Agnelli Museum and Selfridges.

What was unusual about the installation in Selfridges was that it targeted an unsuspecting audience and did not prime them with any literature about the work – if they responded they could venture deeper into the installation where they may or may not discover the pieces were created by people with learning disabilities. What is so compelling about this format is that the outcome is unpredictable, and it’s evolution relies very much on audience participation.

Last summer The Museum of Everything trekked across Russia searching for artists for Exhibition #5, the country’s first and largest survey of contemporary, self-taught, non-traditional art. Beginning in the wonderfully named Yekaterinburg they continued on to Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, St Petersburg and Gorky Park in Moscow. “The purpose of going to Russia was to engage with people who don’t think of themselves as contemporary artists, but who perhaps are, and whose reasons for making things are perhaps closer to the simplicity of the cave man, in the sense that they are making things without any sense of an art market.”

“Touchdown in the land of our forefathers” is not in the literal but more the primordial sense, and while Brett begins by telling me that he had a fantasy of being Russian as a child which was compounded by a trip there with a teacher he was in love with, keeping things slightly Monty Python, his choosing of this country in transition was very purposeful given the democratic ethos of the project.

“If you think about the evolution of art around the world Russia was not necessarily at the forefront. Also the legacy of the Soviet System is that without any formal documentation that you have been trained as an artist, it is believed you cannot be an artist. What we were looking for was something of a parallel history and that represented a good connective shift in my mind. Building a travelling museum seemed to be the best way to create an opportunity to accentuate the positive locally.”

What comes across when watching the videos of the travelling museum is a kind of warm fluffy feeling, the shots are sprinkled with spontaneous and heart-warming smiles. Brett’s team were very respectful throughout the process towards each candidate who was documented and became a part of the expanding archive of this alternative history of art. “In every city we visited, we met artists and curated a local show featuring their artworks. By creating a mobile museum it allowed us to accentuate the positive locally, and not be Moscow-centric.”

But every great story needs someone with the strength and vision to pull it all together and cast a few protagonists, maybe even a hero, for the audience to connect with. So with all this material being collected, how do the few remarkable pieces and undiscovered talents with that artistic X Factor rise to the top? “We were not necessarily looking for a star but to try out a format that can showcase artists whose work resonates with us, and privilege them with exhibitions.” In this sense while there is one event that those who come forward must attend if they want to be considered for the final show, they are all offered the opportunity to be exhibited locally.

The Museum of Everything actively promotes its artists, both as an exhibitor and as an archive. “The final show will be in April 2013 at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Gorky Park, Moscow, and will feature many of our discoveries, plus an outstanding group of historic self-taught Russian artists.”

This retrospective aspect of The Museum of Everything allows Brett to re-present and elevate certain artists that did not get the recognition they deserved first-time around in the official History of Art. Like the two artists, the Italian Carlo Zinelli and African-AmericanWilliam Edmondson, he chose to exhibit in The Gallery of Everything – a new initiative for collections and institutions –  at the Frieze Masters  in 2012. In 1937 when Alfred Barr curated the first exhibition by  an African-American sculptor, William Edmondson, at MOMA, it seems the public were not ready for Edmondson and what he represented so he slipped by the wayside.

All this travelling underlines the ideological aspect of the Museum of Everything; James Brett is very much at the helm of a movement, creating off roads into unchartered territory that will hopefully inspire revolutionary footfall, or at least a response. “It’s the perfect exhibitive format for artists who are somehow not within the context of mainstream art,” Brett expands, “I tend to define that as people who make art for themselves. I prefer that as a unifying factor and find it is much better than the term Outsider Art, for example, which is restrictive by its very nature.”

Context is everything, and by virtue of its mobility the Museum of Everything is attempting to transform our relationship with art by making it more accessible, and less elitist. Because if Brett gets us all thinking about art again, both our owns modes of self expression and what we choose to surround ourselves with, we’re all going to want our narratives heard, and won’t that be a mighty chorus. The question is who is going to be on the panel of judges to decide which ones are told?  “I like to borrow an old expression from the film industry,” says Brett. “‘Nobody knows anything,’ but yes, I suppose, for now, the buck stops with me.”

by Nico Kos Earle

The Museum of Everything’s fifth exhibition will take place at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow in April, 2013.