The Madsen Commissions


A while ago I was contacted by the curator and CEO of York Museums Trust, Janet Barnes about being involved in a new group exhibition at York St Mary’s.   York Art Gallery is undergoing an £8 million redevelopment project, made possible by a bequest of £2 million by Peter Emil Madsen and Karen Madsen, a brother and sister who lived in York.  In addition to their financial bequest Peter Madsen left his collection of art, mainly comprising prints, paintings, and books. The museum acquired a few pieces for the collection and sold higher value items at auction, but the remainder of the collection is currently in storage. It is this resource that forms the basis of the project.  Along with four other artists, I was invited to view the collection and develop a proposal for a sculpture or installation responding to the collection and some of the wider themes around cultural value.  The items that were in the collection vary incredibly from statues to strange mechanical toys and objects, to books, papers, maps, chests, figurines, other peoples sketch books, paintings, prints, all from a variety of periods.  No matter where I looked it was difficult to draw a connection between the objects or even to find out what sort of person Peter Madsen was, what he liked, what was precious to him, what were the things he valued?


I’m fascinated by the fact that there are many beautiful items that have been bought because of some personal interest or connection, yet do not appear to have been preserved, presented or displayed within the home of the Madsen’s. Many items still have auction lot stickers on, frames without hooks, books have been mended yet stored in plastic bags. Items appear to have been collected and perhaps forgotten about or been seen as too precious to be handled within the everyday. These assumptions lead me to wonder about the character of the Madsen’s and how they have perceived value in the way that they use their belongings within their lives.

A number of these items have Japanese origin and the items I am most excited about is a small collection of Japanese hand bound books as well as a collection of prints and paintings made on Japanese rice paper.

Intriguingly there are markings, perforations, paper cuts through some of the covers and pages of the books, which on first inspection I assumed were made by an artist, but are actually the trails left by insects – incredibly delicate and beautiful and coincidentally mirror the landscape drawings found within the books contents.  Other interactions include foxing, water damage, dust mites, stabbing and other curious marks made by the passage of time, climate or the way they have been stored. I find these marks beautiful and fascinating and want to use this as my starting point for an ambitious installation which magnifies these uncontrollable interventions of nature and time found in the everyday.



The original idea I proposed included a number or hanging screens similar to those found in Japanese homes, which would be suspended horizontally from the ceiling of the main space.  This idea of presentation is inspired by the gridded roof of York St Mary’s mimicking the look of Japanese screens.



Within the screens a series of hand made and found papers are installed containing interactions involving processes found within decay, overgrowth and the marking of time. These could include using moths, worms, snails and other insects to perforate the paper in the same way the books have.

A few weeks later I discovered that my proposal was approved, but that I couldn’t have the space that I originally proposed.  Instead I was positioned at one of the far ends of the main hall.  This changed the whole idea of suspended screens for me, which I didn’t think could work as well and after some thought decided that I wanted to present the papers and books inside suspended perspex boxes with a sheet mirror on the floor.  I wanted the viewer to be able to view underneath the boxes where the insects had burrowed through.




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