For many museum goers – myself included – a visit to an exhibition is not complete without a visit to the Museum shop to peruse the accompanying catalogue.
These alluring objects extend upon what we have seen in the gallery space and look fabulous on our bookshelves and coffee tables.
Historically, the MCA has demonstrated great ambition in its catalogue designs; this ambition has been acknowledged on numerous occasions with awards from various design industry bodies.
But it was the catalogue from Wit’s End, an exhibition held at the MCA in 1993, that caught my eye during a recent dig through the archives. Covered in black faux fur, this was a catalogue too intriguing to pass by.
The curatorial vision for Wit’s End was to explore the concept of humour through art and text. There were two distinct but interrelated parts to the project: the exhibition, which comprised works by fifteen Australian artists (many of whom are now Collection artists), and the catalogue, which allowed writers to unpack and explore the exhibition as well as notions of humour, irony, and comedy.
As curator Kay Campell writes:
'Pam Hansford and myself, as editor of the book and curator of the exhibition respectively, intended from the outset to set up a relationship between texts and works of art, in which neither would duplicate or illustrate the other. Writers were asked to respond to the theme according to their own diverse interests, rather than specifically address works in the exhibition.’
Ashley Barber of Librex Press managed the production of the catalogue, which was printed in a limited edition of 1000, 500 of which are bound with artificial fur. Marita Leuver of Leuver Design designed the publication, and drove the design concept of the book, including its fur cover. The contrast between the furry cover and the glossy pages within was a nod to the absurd, a key theme for the show. The fur also introduced a critical element of play to the seriousness often associated with a weighty museum tome. The catalogue was the recipient of an Australian Design award at the time.
Wit’s End also explored the subjectivity of humour, perhaps best demonstrated by this anecdote about Hany Armanious’ work The Witness:
'On the eve of the show’s opening a sign was left for the cleaners advising them that ‘The Witness’ of Hany Armanious was a work of art and not the gesture of a critic. At a distance it looks like excreta on the museum’s marble staircase, but on closer inspection, is found to be a human figure of shredded foam and oil.’
Peter Cochrane, ‘MCA’s seriously comic proposition,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 17 February 1993
Catalogues are a rich research tool that grant something as transient as an exhibition an extended shelf life. As then MCA Director, Leon Paroissien, wrote in his introduction to the Wit’s End catalogue:
'Publications such as this have a life beyond the exhibiting of works of art and, as such, represent a significant contribution to the dialogue between artists, on the one hand, and curators and critics on the other.’
In her current role, Stephanie looks after the MCA’s collection of archival materials. Stephanie completed a Bachelor of Art Theory (Hons) at UNSW and Masters of Digital Information Management at UTS. A book worm at heart, Stephanie is also passionate about the importance of literacy and access to information.