A quasi-scientific presentation of seminal exhibitions from the past, through primary evidence such as original texts, images, clippings, scans, transcriptions


10 December 1999 – 25 March 2000
Curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 

1 press release1 introduction text from the leaflet
1 map from the leaflet
1 original transcription of a conversation between Hans Ulrich Obrist, Margaret Richardson and Cerith Wyn Evans
7 installation views

Sir John Soane's Museum was formerly the home of the neo-classical architect John Soane. It holds many drawings and models of Soane's projects, and the collections of paintings, drawings and antiquities that he assembled.
The Museum was established during Soane's own lifetime by an 1833 Private Act of Parliament, which took effect on Soane's death in 1837. The Museum’s collections contain many important works of art and antiquities, including Hogarth’sA Rake’s Progress and An Election, Canaletto’s Riva degli Schiavoni, looking West, the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, 30,000 architectural drawings, 6,857 historical volumes, and 252 historical architectural models, as well as important examples of furniture and decorative arts.
In 1999 the museum hosted the exhibition Retrace Your Steps: Remember Tomorrow, for which the curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, invited artists like Steve McQueen and Cerith Wyn Evans to respond to the collection. Douglas Gordon suggested the title.
In keeping with the way Sir John Soane displayed his collections, the works on view were not labeled. There were no didactic panels or sound guides; visitors were encouraged to move through the rooms as they wished, encountering unexpected works of art in unexpected places.
Hans Ulrich Obrist (1968) is Co-director of Exhibitions and Programs and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Gallery. Before that, he was Curator of the Museum in Progress, Vienna, from 1993 to 2000, and has been a curator at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris since 2000. Since 1991, Obrist has curated and co-curated more than 200 solo and group exhibitions and biennials internationally. 

Press release:
Gilbert & George, Douglas Gordon, Anish Kapoor, Steve McQueen, Richard Hamilton, Rosemarie Trockel, Cerith Wyn Evans, Richard Wentworth, Rem Koolhaas and Herzog & de Meuron are among the artists and architects whose work will be featured in Retrace your Steps: Remember Tomorrow, the first major exhibition of contemporary art at Sir John Soane’s Museum.

The exhibition was initiated by the young Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and leading British artist and filmmaker Cerith Wyn Evans, whose work has featured in major exhibitions including Sensation at the Royal Academy, London, 1997. The exhibition is curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist, best known for his cutting-edge exhibitions at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Take Me (I’m Yours) at the Serpentine Gallery, 1995 and the Cities on the Move show at the Hayward Gallery this summer. The exhibition has been arranged to coincide with this autumn’s major Soane exhibition at the Royal Academy. The artists have all been inspired by Soane in some way, and have selected the locations where their works will be displayed in the museum. The exhibition juxtaposes contemporary works with Soane’s historic artefacts, allowing visitors to experience the arrangements in a personal way and to be inspired by them, as Soane intended.

Many of the works have been created specially for the exhibition: Anish Kapoor is creating a mirrored, rotating table sculpture which will reflect light; a new painting by Richard Hamilton will be “infiltrated” behind the moveable planes in the Picture Room; Douglas Gordon is creating the title for the exhibition, which will also be displayed as a work of art; Richard Hamilton is designing the exhibition poster and Gilbert & George have created a work of art and the postcard. Cerith Wyn Evans, who is creating the exhibition guide, will also replace the bells on the rope which separates the private office area in the museum from the public area, an intervention “on the edge of the invisible.” Performance events by Christina Mackie and Tom Gidley will be presented on video and there will be a kitchen lecture by Cedric Price. Bruce Mau’s internet-inspired project, two works from the nvisible Museum and Lucius Burckhardt’s work on Soane’s garden pavilions will also be featured.

The artists participating are: Lucius Burckhardt, Yung Ho Chang, Katharina Fritsch, Tom Gidley, Gilbert & George, Douglas Gordon, Joseph Grigely, Richard Hamilton, Jacques Herzog & Pierre de Meuron, Koo Jeong-A, Isaac Julien, Anish Kapoor, Rem Koolhaas, Christina Mackie, Bruce Mau, Steve McQueen, The Museum of Jurassic Technology, Nanomuseum, Cedric Price, Liisa Roberts, Rosemarie Trockel, Richard Wentworth, Cerith Wyn Evans and nvisible Museum.

This is the first in a series of contemporary art exhibitions at the Soane Museum, which will continue in 2001 with an exhibition of loans from the Invisible Museum.

Exhibition Leaflet:

I was always very stimulated and inspired by the relationships, the interstices in the Soane Museum, the conversations that are happening between various narratives, various objects and these extraordinary vistas that you come upon by accident and then you catch a reflection of yourself. It is an incredibly complex, stimulating place and no one visit is ever the same as the next visit.

Cerith Wyn Evans in conversation with Margaret Richardson and Hans Ulrich Obrist, London 1999

People often say when they come through the Front Door, “which way should I go?”, and you have to say, “Well, you can go there or you can go there, it’s a choice.”

Margaret Richardson in conversation with Cerith Wyn Evans and Hans Ulrich Obrist, London 1999

At a meeting at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 1995, Cerith Wyn Evans told me a lot about Sir John Soane, which inspired me to make a first visit to the Museum of the same name. Cerith and I began to meet regularly in the Museum. After a while, the idea of an imaginary exhibition began to take shape and, in the course of the following two years, it crystallized in conversation with Margaret Richardson, the Curator of the Museum.

Numerous are the posthumous museums and memorials devoted exclusively to one artist, architect or author and designed to preserve or artificially reconstruct the namesake’s original working or living conditions. Much rarer are the museums conceived by artists in their lifetimes as a Gesamtkunstwerk and preserved as such. Sir John Soane’s Museum is a case in point. In 1833, four years before he died, Soane established his house as a museum and negotiated an Act of Parliament to ensure its preservation after his death. His holdings fall into four main categories: antique fragments, paintings from Canaletto to Hogarth and Turner, architectural drawings (such as Piranesi’s) and Soane’s own work in the form of architectural models and drawings. Although Sir John Soane’s Museum has regular opening hours and attracts some 90,000 visitors a year, it has acquired a reputation primarily by word of mouth. The paradox of a well-guarded and yet public secret as well as the permanent pull between visibility and invisibility are the considerations that motivate the coming exhibition. Cerith Wyn Evans questions the distinction between public and private space in a museum by making his intervention on the staircase almost invisible. The work slides into the existing context as it subtly changes the sound of the bells. Seen in a different perspective, the familiar becomes unfamiliar.

This oscillation between the familiar and the unfamiliar leads us to Steve McQueen whose work will only reveal itself at a second glance. A table rests on a mirror creating a paradox in the sense that the mirror demands an image. Via the mirror, McQueen puts viewers in a situation where they are sensitive to themselves watching the piece. It is also very physical; it makes you aware of your own presence.

Since the Museum has the dimensions of a home, visitors do not have the same relationship to the works on display as they would in monumental museum architecture. The gulf between the Museum and the world of living experience, criticised by Adorno, has been bridged. Gilbert&George spent an afternoon in the Museum drinking tea out of Soane’s cups. The resulting photograph is framed and placed in the Library Dining Room. Gilbert&George show a kinship with Soane in the way they investigate the infinite complexity of life in their own organically growing and steadily more compact home in Fournier Street, where things accumulated from the present and from the past are allowed to coexist side by side. Similarly Isaac Julien has painted his studio in a Soanian yellow – as shown in photographs in the South Drawing Room.


But do we know exactly where the room stops, where it bends, where it separates and where it joins up again?

Georges Perec in Espèces d’Espèces

The use of space in the Soane Museum reminds us of Heinrich Kuerz, the young (fictional) painter in Georges Perec’s Un Cabinet D’Amateur, who painted the beer brewer and collector Hermann Raffke over 100 times in over 100 pictures in his collection. Perec speaks of the staggering spirituality of the eternal second coming, of a complex game of authenticity and fraudulence and of the magic charm of smaller and smaller repetitions. The complexity of Perec’s convoluted rooms and images takes us into the Picture Room of Sir John Soane’s Museum. For the duration of this exhibition, there is a new attraction in the Picture Room, a painting by Richard Hamilton, to be premiered here. Visitors can see the painting only when the movable planes of the Picture Room are open. This flexible mode of hanging not only has the advantage of saving space, it also allows paintings to be viewed from different angles. On the way to the Picture Room, in the Colonnade, we also see Marcel Duchamp’s glass model which appears in the painting.

The nvisible Museum is a collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, video installations, photography and mixed media, lent out to friends, artists and museums: a museum without walls, a nomadic collection of contemporary art with no home. To this exhibition the nvisible Museum is lending two works – by Katharina Fritsch and Liisa Roberts.

The idea of the Russian doll leads us to the Nano Museum whose architecture is a tiny double, silver frame (2” x 3”) where artists present very small diptych-like exhibitions. In the context of the Soane Museum, if functions like a museum within the Museum. Every museum can hide another museum. The exhibitions in the Nano Museum will change on a weekly basis. The first show will be by Hans-Peter Feldmann and further programs will be announced later. The Museum of Jurassic Technology, which has many parallels to the Soane, is also included.


We boast our light, but if we look not wisely on the Sun itself, it smites us into darkness, the light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge.

Milton, Areopagitica

Soane achieved his effects not through ornamentation or ornamental reduction but through space, color and light. Scholarship on Soane has recently begun to recognize the importance of light in the architect’s work, in Arata Isozaki’s book, for instance, which has unleashed a veritable Soane boom in Asia. For example, using common materials and basic construction, the work of the Beijing architect Yung Ho Chang shows us the Chinese belief in an introverted universe mirrored in Soane’s universe. His “view collector boxes” suggest ways in which Soane might have considered the views outside his windows.

The Museum reveals various superimposed and merging states of light constructed by Soane. Visitors encounter direct, indirect, reflected, broken, dispersed or refracted light. (I bow to master list-maker Georges Perec). Light also plays an important role for artists in their dealings with the Museum. Richard Hamilton’s response to the complexity of lighting in the Soane Museum is manifest in his poster for the exhibition in which the gaze penetrates several layers of glass and space. Disparate structural elements come together in startlingly unexpected combinations in Soane’s labyrinth of convoluted meanings with links opening up in all directions like the staircases mirrored into infinity in Piranesi’s Carceri. Similar to Hamilton, Rosemarie Trockel’s photograph shows us the participatory dimension of pars pro toto in Soane’s approach so that, surprisingly, no sensory passivity results despite the incredible overload, in contrast to a curio museum. This derives from the fact that the architectural fragments are not closed off, that the direction of the visitor’s tour is not predetermined and that there is room for possible additions to the arrangements, which is emphasized by the placing of Douglas Gordon’s cast of his own hand. Joseph Grigely’s drawings, which are displayed on the small tables in the South Drawing Room, emphasise the Museum as a conversation piece. Grigely’s way of showing text and displacement shows that “a specific text can have many different forms, all of which express a degree or variation. The variation is rarely merely arbitrary but, rather, reflects the possibilities of human intention.”

Anish Kapoor has planned a dynamic standstill: a table sculpture with a yellow mirror proves on closer inspection to be a container of colored water revolving at extremely high speed. Koo Jeong-a’s works echoes the density of the Museum. Her crystal vessel is constantly filled to the brim and close to inundation.

Bruce Mau projects images onto the existing display, thereby enhancing the associative potential. The Mississippi Museum and the Coca Cola Museum that he and Frank Gehry have proposed are both influenced by Soane. Mau’s installation extends Soane’s practice of ignoring the hierarchy of important and unimportant exhibits by showing significant objects next to worthless “found” items. Mau’s work catapults Soane into today’s internet. The exhibits will be embedded in a material network. Like Bruce Mau, Richard Wentworth reflects upon the Soane Museum from an angle of shifting perspectives. Lucius Burckhardt, a regular visitor to the Soane Museum since the sixties, has come up with an equally unexpected twist. His project deals with John Soane’s little know garden follies, Designs in Architecture, 1778, and why he chose to produce such a modest little volume on garden buildings. Rem Koolhaas exhibits his competition model for a new Museum of Modern Art in Rome, where he uses the Soane Museum as a typology within his museum. Along with the Whitney and the Guggenheim museums, Sir John Soane’s Museum becomes one possibility, one truth among the myriad truths that must be included in undertaking a museum of contemporary art. Within the framework of Koolhaas’s Museum of Typologies the Soane Museum stands for delicacy.

Jacques Herzog and Pierre De Meuron are building a new museum for the American private collectors Pam and Dick Kramlich. Like the Soane, it will be a collector’s private house which will become a foundation or museum. As it is a collection of video and new media, there will by many projections, for example, video walls. In the words of Herzog and De Meuron, “The works are bound to the walls and can be seen or not depending on whether you switch the light on or off. So it’s related to Soane’s closets and the aspect of hiding and revealing …nature, people and images will melt together to form a space.” Herzog and De Meuron interviewed by Hans Ulrich Obrist

from Isaac Julien’s film Frantz Fanon

The exhibition brings three film-related works to the Soane. Tom Gidley and Isaac Julien will make short films in the Museum. These works are less nurtured by objects than by events and intensities, which brings us to Patricia Falguières’ comparison between the Soane Museum and the Schwitters Merzbau. Artists find that the Museum is a place where they can work creatively to produce films which in turn will trigger the imaginations of viewers.

Christina Mackie’s images are of a ruined European city, post-war and of the American mid-nowhere. As she says, “Recognising someone else’s psychological landscape: what you see there is filtered through your expectations.”

To make every element of the exhibition into a cohesive whole all the artists have contributed in the following ways:

Richard Hamilton has designed the poster, and every artist has created a postcard which will be on sale in the Museum. The works on view in the exhibition will be numbered but not labelled – to be in keeping with the way Soane displayed his collections. Instead each visitor will be given a fold-out leaflet, conceived by Cerith Wyn Evans, with plans by Christopher H. Woodward. There are no didactic panels or sound guides but visitors will be encouraged to move where they wish through the rooms encountering unexpected works of art in unexpected places.

Douglas Gordon has created the title of the exhibition, which will be displayed in two parts. Cedric Price has created symbols for the show, which will act as floating signifiers, and will also give a lecture in the Old Kitchen entitled “Time and Food.”

Hans Ulrich Obrist, curator of the exhibition

Douglas Gordon, Fragile hands collapse under pressure (study for a self-portrait), 1999 Cast of the artist’s hand

Steve McQueen, Soane, echo, system, II, 1999 table and mirror

Gilbert & George, Photographed by Nigel Shafran having tea in the Museum, 1999

Cerith Wyn Evans, Modified threshold, 1999 Existing bells altered to ring at a slightly higher pitch

Anish Kapoor, Vortex, 1999

Douglas Gordon, Retrace your steps: Remember Tomorrow, 1999 Title of the exhibition displayed in two parts

Richard Hamilton, The Passage of the Bride, 1998-99