The latest show at the increasingly brilliant New Museum in New York celebrates the art of collecting while exploring the passionate underlying impulses that inspire the preservation of objects. Massimiliano Gioni, one of the show’s curators, has written about it being like “a series of imaginary museums”, bringing together the bizarre motivations and modes of 30 artists who have taken their own unorthodox approach in the art world.

We live in an era characterized by what is ephemeral and direct, so that a painting, photograph or limited edition has a permanence that many people now crave. But what comes across most in this exhibition is that what appears valueless can be made precious and extraordinary through the process of collecting. One of the centerpieces of the exhibition is Partners (The Teddy Bear Project), 2002, a monumental and somewhat claustrophobic display of 3,000 family album photographs of people posing alongside teddy bears. The artist behind the project, Ydessa Hendeles has arranged the pictures in a way to illustrate the toy’s social functions: protector of childhood innocence, adult comforter, political mascot and even as an emblem of class status. The work is given added depth on learning that Ydessa Hendeles is the offspring of Holocaust survivors who lost all their personal possessions in World War II.

Installation views, The Keeper, 2016

The entire exhibition raises questions about the source of this need to collect? This drive to own more and more, is it in fact a feature of being human? As the world’s most resplendent example of capitalist culture, America’s relationship to the accumulation of “stuff” is perhaps a reflection of its hectic speed of change. Documenting—a version of collecting—the world when there is so much choice and change is a way to make sense of it, slowing it down and taking control. The New York based artist, Yuji Agematsu, perhaps best illustrates this point with his small sculptures that are constructed from discarded items he finds on the street. Blurring the lines between useless bits of rubbish and art materials, his works are arranged neatly on shelves and can feature a chicken leg, candy wrappers and even a cigarette box. Anything he stumbles across walking the city’s streets has the potential to be included in his work.

The act of preserving can also bear witness to historic trauma or dramatic events. In the face of violence or forced displacement, collecting attests to a faith in the power of images to provide comfort and even security. Loaned from the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, a bottle stuffed with small pencil-sized drawings lay bare the daily horrors of life in the concentration camp. All signed by the unknown artist MM, their collection is an unsettling and moving testament to our intrinsic need to document and record.

Of course genuine collecting does not just refer to collection art, but our genuine need to preserve and collect, originating, perhaps in the limited time we have on earth. For this reason museology plays a vastly important role in today’s culture, and our fascination for the past, in all its myriad facets, continues to expand. At a time when a click of a mouse can erase a memory, our capacity to collect and to conserve has more resonance than ever. 

Installation views, The Keeper, 2016.

There is plenty to see at the exhibition including Susan Hiller’s video The Last Silent Movie, 2007, for which the artist recorded 25 lost or dying languages. On top of this the compelling story of Swedish painter, Hilma af Klint, 1862-1944, whose abstract paintings are worth the visit to the museum alone. Her decision to collect and hide her work from the public eye with instructions not to release them until of 20 years after her death—so that a new age would have the eyes for them—was a masterstroke and worked wonders for her career. Also the Californian Conceptualist Howard Fried’s The Decomposition of My Mother’s Wardrobe, 2012-2015 is a strange and mediated confrontation with death. By preserving his dead mother’s clothes, he is not just manifesting her absence, but by that simple act of preservation he is questioning the very meaning we bestow on everyday items—how much of a person is reflected in what they choose to collect?

The exhibition is a moving and fascinating tour through the compulsions and obsessions of the 20th and 21st centuries. The eclectic show mixes the differing motivations of the artists in a stunningly inventive and disconcerting manner. At a time when consumption is ever more linked to transience and ephemera, the things people collect and imbue with insight and worth, have taken on more significance than ever before.

The Keeper at the New Museum will run through to the 25th of September 2016.