It was in 2010, at the opening of an arrangement by fashion designer Akira Isogawa, that Piggott first encountered The Johnston Collection. Enthralled by the sensuality of Isogawa’s interpretation of the space and his emphasis on its dreamlike qualities, Piggott began to consider the possibilities that Fairhall might hold for a contemporary artist. Particularly appealing was the freedom and flexibility afforded by the nature of Johnston’s bequest. As a dealer first and foremost, Johnston was interested in the ways in which people live with things, rather than in any intellectualised notion of aesthetic perfection. His approach was more practical than reverent, and accordingly the trust stipulated that the collection should be regularly rearranged, and that it be displayed without ropes or barriers. Visitors are thus able to move freely among the objects, as if in a domestic setting, without the layers of formality and distance usually present in the museum experience.
While few institutions have the benefit of such an accommodating bequest, the contemporary artist’s intervention has become an increasingly prevalent motif of house museum curatorship in recent years. From the grandiose, controversial installation of Jeff Koons’ seventeen sculptures at the Palace of Versailles in 2008, to Elmgreen and Dragset’s understated and darkly witty constructed interiors, Tomorrow, exhibited earlier this year at the Victoria & Albert, the barriers between public and private, history and invention, connoisseurship and kitsch, have been continuously tested, manipulated and undermined. The essentially fictitious nature of the house museum is a notion that preoccupied Piggott from the outset of her project. In this curiously hybrid space, the needs of history must be balanced against those of aesthetics, the desires of visitors against those of curators and artists, and amongst all of this are the often complex needs of the objects themselves, for the most part, never intended for mass exposure.
In this curiously hybrid space, the needs of history must be balanced against those of aesthetics, the desires of visitors against those of curators and artists, and amongst all of this are the often complex needs of the objects themselves, for the most part, never intended for mass exposure.
Murmur is not Piggott’s first experience of incorporating museum objects into her practice. In 1993-1994, her major installation, Double Breath (contained) of the Sitter, at the National Gallery of Victoria saw her works symbolically interspersed amongst a selection of stockings, gloves and other corporeally and emotionally resonant objects sourced from the gallery’s Fashion and Textile and Decorative Arts departments. Evoking Susan Stewart’s ground-breaking examination of the ways in which the ‘souvenir’ and the ‘collection’ function as objects mediating experience in time and space, Piggott’s practice is consistently distinguished by sensitivity and delicate attention to nuance. She has worked extensively with ephemeral media—light, air, sound and scent have all figured in her creations over the past three decades—and accordingly, her intervention into The Johnston Collection is one that plays as much upon the notion of spirit as upon the material object. The eight rooms that house the collection, as well as the spaces between them, are curated with an emphasis on emotional affect. Several rooms have been symbolically ‘restored’ to their original purpose, and while their arrangements and contents may differ from those present during Johnston’s lifetime, a sense of these spaces’ history and the lives lived within them is captured.
Particular attention has been devoted to Johnston’s relationship with Ahmed Moussa, his Egyptian-born assistant/companion with whom he passed more than 20 years of his life. The upstairs bedroom, where Ahmed slept during Johnston’s lifetime, is all but filled with a carved four-poster bed, on which two toilet mirrors are positioned facing one another, reflections cast infinitely back and forth between them. The effect is both intimate and curiously poignant. In a new work, From B to A, in Colonial Knot, the trailing thread of a pillow embroidered with Johnston’s initial disappears beneath the bed, symbolically connecting this space to his own bedroom, directly below, where the thread of a matching pillow, embroidered with Ahmed’s initial, winds up to meet it. Conceived by Piggott and worked by one of the collection’s guides and former president of the Embroiderers Guild, Dorothy Morgan, the work alludes quietly to the ever-present themes of private affection and public propriety.
Drawing upon the potent olfactory link to memory, Piggott has scented the room with sandalwood, its warm, woody fragrance providing an additional air of comfort and envelopment. In the adjoining upstairs sitting room, an 18th century portrait attributed to Joseph Highmore has been draped in muslin. The delicate fall of the fabric obscures the sitter’s face while framing her hands, one holding a rose, the other gesturing to it.