Lost in space
25 Years: The Anniversary Exhibition
At the Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, Norwich, until 31 August
When the Sainsbury Centre opened in 1978, there were 600 items in its collection, but now there are over 1,300. Visitors this summer can inspect some of the most recent purchases in a temporary exhibition, '25 Years', but they might also wonder whether the experience of seeing art at the centre is quite as wonderful as the anniversary catalogue assumes.
Sir Robert Sainsbury, who died in 2000, described his approach as 'passionate acquisition', not methodical collecting - hence the eclectic range of things which he and his wife Lisa amassed, from Giacometti sculptures to Japanese ceramics, paintings by Francis Bacon to the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Lady Sainsbury continues to collect, 'maintaining a lively interest in a wide range of objects' (says the introductory text) 'but particularly drawn to Japanese works'.
A small 12th-century bronze disk shows a seated Buddha in relief between two vases - the figure a dusky gold against the green patina of the disk (see bottom). There are Muromachi vessels in stoneware and lacquered wood; an 18th-century ink and colour-wash drawing of a Tiger Facing the Mist. These Japanese pieces do stand out, especially when the context is yet another of Andy Goldsworthy's bland arrangements of leaves (progressively decaying in three large photographs) and Philip Stevens' landscapes, routinely NeoRomantic. More worthwhile are some paintings from the reserve collection that are also on show: Rothko-esque abstract watercolours by Mübin Orhon, a Turk living in Paris after the Second World War (see top).
Like the items they join, many of the new acquisitions in '25 Years' are quite intimate in scale - you easily envisage them in a home. Foster's design is meant to reflect this domesticity, especially in the so-called Living Area of the centre, where more permanent displays from the collection are found.With vitrines at just the right height, and 360infinity visibility, you can certainly see objects close to, but this intimacy is compromised by the ceiling being some 7m above you and by the insistent presence, at the edge of vision, of so many other artworks stretching into the distance. In which sense the Sainsbury Centre is the opposite of domestic - those nice armchairs don't quite do it.
So the individual items are like punctuation marks in continuous space, not true focuses in more demarcated space; their energy is dissipated. Continually deploying the 'kit of parts' that Foster has provided - the standard issue pedestals, screens and shades of grey - do the centre's curators wish they had the option of something more like a room (enclosure, a lower ceiling, just a few choice pieces on display)? A place where works retain their own identity, and the juxtaposition of different media and cultures - something the centre tries to encourage - seems less arbitrary.
The problem is encapsulated at present near the mezzanine floor balcony, where a pair of 2,000-year-old Chinese earthenware 'mythical beasts' face each other in a vitrine;
but it is scarcely possible to see them properly, because of all the objects on the floor below that form a blurred backdrop when you try to look. In his catalogue essay, Foster says the view from the mezzanine 'makes explicable all the things which come under this single roof '. It does - but it also resembles one of those panoramic photographs of supermarkets by Andreas Gursky (with classier goods, of course). The singularity of the artworks is lost in the spectacle of acquisition.
When the Sainsbury Centre was completed, Peter Cook wrote a lengthy assessment for The Architectural Review (December 1978), but apart from a passing reference to 'tiny objects lurking somewhere around the lower mists of this strange place', he made no comment on the artworks or visitors' experience of them. Which seems an oversight because - for all the virtues of the centre - no work of art there communicates or captivates as much as it might.