“If Bunny ever saw something she wanted in the collection, she knew she could just call me and ask, and I would invariably say, yes”. Bunny is the nickname of Rachel Lambert Mellon; a wealthy philanthropist, horticulturist and art collector. The quote is taken from her husband’s published memoirs and is one of many sources Rachel Alliston uses to piece together and pick apart the life of an influential social elite in her solo show Property of a Private Collection at Centrum Gallery in Berlin, which ran from February 20 to March 20, 2016.
Alliston’s practice has long been invested in exploring the relationship between feminism, architecture and its relationship to hegemony. Drawn to the concealed yet pervasive networks of power that take place within the structure of empire, she was immediately attracted to the figure of Bunny after reading her obituary in The New York Times in 2014.
For Alliston, Bunny represents a complex network between money, culture and women: with access to wealth and the potential to effect change, she is empowered within capitalist system. However, her position is woven into the fabric of her male intimates and the ‘hobby’ of collecting becomes an act of permission. The two-year research project devoted to the reverse role of ‘collecting the collector’ strikes a contrast between both worlds: Alliston, a US American artist who now lives in Berlin, re-presents Bunny’s life through the context of her own situation.
The central work of the show connects both lives together through a lo-fi film (2016) projected onto a piece of board. Alluding to the diverse range of source material used to construct her biography, the video begins with a counting of page numbers that escalates like a bidding auction. In tandem with this rhythm are quick succession shots of Alliston’s not-for-profit art space Decad in Berlin, where it was filmed. Mellon’s life is recounted by a computer-generated female voice. Stories related to her art collection, her friendship with the Kennedy’s, her work on the White House gardens among other past times are threaded into a script Alliston wrote. There is certainly a dry humour in the way the visuals of the artists’ modest working space meet the narrative of high end glamour. Two women, an older German-speaking national and a younger English-speaking creative professional, read lines off a sheet of paper. Hinting at gentrification throughout the film, both actresses embody a metaphor for new and old Berlin while also bringing attention to Alliston’s own position as an American artist who inhabits the city for monetary and artistic benefit.
Acting as an extension to the video, a handmade desk sits behind the projection board. A spontaneous collection of A4 sheets of paper are placed in a binder and printed images create a catalogue of Bunny’s homes, the gardens she designed and her auctioned possessions. Beside it on the wall are two prints made from a digital image Alliston created from appropriated flower drawings by botanist Gerard van Spanedonck (1746-1822) that were part of Mellon’s collection. Nailed to the wall, the preciousness of the medium and content are, like the rest of the work, turned into a clunky attempt to connect to such lavish taste.
Throughout the exhibition there is an acknowledgment of Bunny’s accomplishments as a highly skilled garden designer and a respect for the impressive amount of work she completed in her lifetime. It equally recognises these opportunities as a result of one’s privilege in society and while Property of a Private Collection is certainly not a celebration, it is also not a vengeful judgement of the protagonist. It exists in a more honest space that questions the role of women on both sides of art collecting and production within the art market. Inseparable from Alliston’s critique is her own interrogation into the attraction and repulsion towards obscene displays of money and uses the process of excavation to unravel her own complicit relationship with the strata of bourgeois culture that her work is intimately connected to.**