First academic essay, this is it

Posted: January 30, 2014 in writing

Referencing the past to talk of the future: The collections of John Soane and Adrián Villar Rojas


When I was a child I saw many collections in large houses that I visited with my mother: glass fronted cabinets, glass topped cases filled with objects d’art, even groups of curios laid out on tabletops. These collections were a remnant of the British colonial past and the conquerors’ preoccupation with the cultures they subdued. Since then I have had a fascination with collections of objects, both as a collector and an artist. I share this passion for collecting with many contemporary artists, for instance Rosemarie Trockel,[1] Leonardo Drew [2] and Mark Dion’s Tate Dig.
By reflecting on collections put together by two very different men in different times, circumstances and societies, I intend to show that both colonial collectors and contemporary artists using collections of objects are referencing the past to speak about the future.
To this end, I will compare and contrast Adrián Villar Rojas’ ‘Today we Reboot the Planet’ installation at the Serpentine Sackler gallery (2013) and the Sir John Soane’s Museum  London, (1823) namely the collections housed in the Monument Court and Monk’s Yard spaces.


Sir John Soane and Adrián Villar Rojas: An Architect and an Artist

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a collector of many objects. A London architect known for building the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery, he remodelled 3 adjacent houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields square to house his collection.
He lived in an age that has been described by some historians as Britain’s imperial century (Parsons 1999. p1), a time when collecting was of great interest to many in the arts and members of the ruling classes:
“Collecting was considered a fit occupation for a gentleman, drawing on the habits of European royalty and the erudite tradition of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities which had emerged among the wealthy during the renaissance. The custom for collecting was inextricably linked to power, prestige and riches (…).” (Yallop 2011, p.27)
Soane amassed a large collection including many architectural archaeological finds which are displayed in the remodelled houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. So concerned was he with the preservation of his collections for the future education of further generations of architects that he decreed through an Act of Parliament that his house and collection be settled and preserved “for the benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture.” (Sir John Soane’s Museum 2012) Thereby leaving a legacy that was intended to influence the future.

Adrián Villar Rojas (b. 1980) is an Argentinian artist who has despite his youth exhibited internationally and has won many prestigious art awards. As a major influence on this installation, Villar Rojas cites the Anthropocene. According to Schimel, Asner & Moorcroft, this is “a new geologic period, defined by humanity’s massive impact on the planet – the Earth’s rapidly changing environment is putting critical ecosystem services at risk” (2013, p.129). Walking into the Old Armoury which is the new Sackler Serpentine gallery the viewer is confronted with Villar Rojas’ visual cornucopia of an imagined archaeological dig display. The collection is arranged as if on show for the first time since being extracted from the ground. The contents seem to be from the past but on closer inspection they resemble things from today made to look ancient. Serpentine Gallery Curator Sophie O’Brien describes it as
“a forest, a jungle, an archive of life data, the remnants of an ancient culture we recognise as our own, a world of nameless shadows, a memory of a life struggle a metaphor of a silent existence, materialisations of originals and copies of versions – all from the primordial swamp of human consciousness and from the archaeological layers beneath our feet.” (O’Brien 2013, p.39)
Despite its archaeological appearance this is an exhibition that intends to predict a future.
Villars Rojas and Soanes collected in different capacities, for different purposes and audiences: one as an artist, the other as a classic collector. In his comprehensive account on artistic and museum’s displays of objects, Putnam (2009) elaborates on these different modes of collection: “Whereas classic collectors are primarily attached to the rare and the valuable, artists tend to gather trivial and worthless items, which they can then transform into works of art (…)“ (p. 66).

Collecting and Fabricating

To put together his collection, Soane relied on dealers to find objects and bring them to the London auction houses or explorers who travelled the Empire bringing him their finds, in both cases he bought the pieces that make up his collection. These people Soane does not mention.
In contrast, Villar Rojas works together with a crew of collaborators. In a video interview published on The Guardian website, he says of them that “they are a huge and super important part of my work (…) we all work together and we all interfere with the work of the other.” (Jones J. & Robertson C. 2013)
Soane’s collection is made up of actual relics and authentic pieces from antiquity and the past, from the sarcophagus of Seti I to Greek and Roman architectural fragments and decorative art such as bronzes and friezes.
Villar Rojas and his team fabricate all the objects within the installation. By using an unfired mixture of clay and cement they create new objects that echo those dug up after centuries under the earth. The fabrication of the objects on show is one of the key points of the installation. Some everyday objects are just coated with the clay/cement mix, while others are made wholly from it. All these objects take on a life of their own when the mix starts to crack and flake with time. Villar Rojas says “There is no fiction in what the material does (…) This is time being read by the piece in a totally disproportionate way (…) This is a gift, the material.” (Jones J. & Robertson C. 2013) While Soane’s pieces are presented as if static and frozen in time, Villar Rojas’ objects will morph into different pieces as time moves forward.
As an architect Soane gave lectures at the Royal Academy, he would allow students to visit his house “the day before and the day after each of his lectures”. (Sir John Soane’s Museum 2012) He was thinking of how his collection would influence the future designs his students might produce. In this way he used past relics to influence the future.
Villar Rojas as an artist is reflecting on a planet under threat of ecological disaster. He says in the Guardian video “There is so much being said nowadays about the end of the world, to these last moments what will be our remains? Lets think what’s going to come after” (Jones J. & Robertson C. 2013) Presenter Jonathan Jones in the interview states “He [Villar Rojas] is making art which is about the environment and about the fate of the planet.” (Jones J. & Robertson C. 2013) In this way Villar Rojas is using a fabricated or imagined past/present to look towards the future.

Villar Rojas’ installation is very contemporary and his work can be described as altermodern in its subject themes, materials and presentation. As Nicolas Bourriaud who coined the word altermodern says “(…) since the early nineties, the dominant visual model is closer to the open-air market, the bazaar, the souk, a temporary and nomadic gathering of precarious material and products of various provenances.” ( Bourriaud 2005, p.28) This quote could well be a description of ‘Today We Reboot the Planet’ with its diversity of objects and its slowly changing clay/cement mix.
When entering the installation the spectator is presented with a concept, which conjurers up Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History (Benjamin 1999, p.245-255). As illustrated in Klee’s painting, the angel is being pulled into the future backwards, thus facing the present and the past, and seeing the devastation that had occurred but not being able to stop moving backwards to prevent it. But in Villar Rojas’ version the Angel of History is also glancing over his shoulder, into the future and seeing the approaching disaster that awaits.


Sir John Soane is a collector of facts intended to illuminate the future whereas Adrián Villar Rojas is approaching the future in a more philosophical manner by fabricating the pieces in his installation and dealing with imagined tomorrows.
Soane uses antiquities to point to the future by exposing his students to the architectural pieces of the past.
Villar Rojas uses fabricated pieces to look at the present, as if it was the past, to comment on the future.
Both men use archaeological collections which serve as a reference of the past with the idea that they can be used to influence the future. Soane left a collection to the nation for the advancement of future architectural students, whereas Villar Rojas created a collection to illustrate potential devastating futures.

1 In Rosemarie Trockel’s exhibition catalogue for the travelling show ‘A Cosmos’, the first page, credited to Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport [Spain], the exhibition is described as a “cabinet of wonders”.
2 Leonardo Drew collects and arranges found objects many of which are picked up in the street or bought from thrift shops.


Benjamin W. (1999) [1940] Theses on the Philosophy of History. In: Arendt H. Illuminations. London: Pimlico.
Bourriaud, N. Postproduction, Lukas & Sternberg; 2nd ed New York. 2005.
Jones J. (presenter)/ Robertson C. (producer) 2013. Adrián Villar Rojas at London’s new Serpentine Sackler gallery. The Guardian Video Preview of ‘Today We Reboot the Planet’, 19.9.2013. [Online] (accessed on 30.12.2013)
O’Brien, S. (2013) The Bright Gleam From Extinct Galaxies. In: O’Brien, S. & Villar Rojas, A. eds. Adrián Villar Rojas: Today we Reboot the Planet. London: Koenig Books Ltd.
Parsons, T. (1999). The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World History Perspective. Lanham: Roman and Littlefield.
Putnam, J. (2009) Art and Artifact. The Museum as Medium. London: Thames & Hudson.
Schimel, D., Asner, G., & Moorcroft, P. (2013) Observing changing ecological diversity in the Anthropocene. Frontiers In Ecology & The Environment. Vol. 11, pt.3, pp.129-137. [Online] (accessed on 31/12/2013).
Sir John Soane’s Museum (2012) The History of Sir John Soane’s Museum [Online] (accessed on 31/12/2013).
Yallop, J. ed (2011) Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World. London:Atlantic Books.


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