The Float in the Sight of Things | Ferens Art Gallery, Hull in collaboration with the Museu Frederic Marès, Barcelona | 1997

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Jonathan Allen's installation at the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull is a subtle exploration of, to paraphrase Noel Coward, the power of cheap magic.

In a series of works linked by a meditation on the idiosyncratic Frederic Marés Museum in Barcelona, Allen toys with scale and perception to recreate the sense of wonder and folly within that particular museum, and within museums in general.

In the major section, three video elements combine in a darkened space to create something of a cross between sophisticated installation, and Victorian music hall. Inside a small, brightly lit box, the tiny lead figure of a ringmaster is frozen in the act of cracking his whip. As you peer into the glass, you slowly become aware that your face is being projected on a huge scale, over the now giant shoulder of the ringmaster, onto a vast screen in the corner of the gallery. As other spectators explore the gallery space, dwarfed even by the ringmaster, the huge, inquisitive face becomes a kind of Gulliver, staring down at the wandering Lilliputians.)

In the third video element, on a video screen built into a lectern, a catalogue from the Marés Museum hypnotically levitates away from the hands holding it. But in common with the ringmaster illusion, this is no high-tech video effect, but wantonly transparent conjuring. As in museums, it seems to say, banal objects can be transformed simply by our willingness to believe, by the power of our imagination.

Three further sections of the installation continue the theme of see-through illusion. A black and white photograph of the small clicker used to count visitors into a museum is blown up and presented on a huge canvas. Its number however is frozen in movement, as if a ghost presence were permanently crossing the museum's threshold. In another corner of the gallery, a spot-lit map of the Marés Museum is suddenly plunged into darkness, whereupon the map remains visible, traced out in green luminous ink against the blackness.

Most miraculous of all, two views of rooms within the museum have been rendered using that 3-D effect more commonly found on religious postcards or children's rulers. Looked at from one angle, the galleries are crowded with Marés's eccentric selection of objects, but move your head to one side and all the objects disappear, transforming the rooms into that most poignant oxymoron: an empty museum.

The Float in the Sight of Things tests both our power to effect, and desire to experience moments of transformation. For a willing audience, the mundane becomes charged with the marvelous. Check in your doubt at the door and enjoy the magic lantern show.

[Steve Hawley, 1997]


The Float in the Sight of Things followed a four-month residency by Jonathan Allen at the Frederic Marès Museum in the spring of 1995, funded by The Elephant Trust

Photography Mark Enstone


All works © Jonathan Allen 2012. All photographs are © their respective authors.