In September 2015, a series of images sent shockwaves across the globe: a three year old child lay face down, washed up on a beach in Turkey after an overloaded dingy containing Syrian refugees had capsized. As a result of the tragedy, thousands of Europeans opened their homes to complete strangers who stood in solidarity by offering asylum to those who faced desperate circumstances. Now, as Britain teeters on the edge of significant political change; should we leave the EU and thus close our borders to some of our closest allies? FOUND, a new exhibition curated by Cornelia Parker at the Foundling Museum in London could not have come at a more appropriate time in our history.

Thomas Heatherwick, 'Seventy Years of Stirring', 2015 © Thomas Heatherwick. Photograph by Ed Lyon

Thomas Heatherwick, ‘Seventy Years of Stirring’, 2015 © Thomas Heatherwick. Photograph by Ed Lyon.

Philanthropist, Captain Thomas Coram established the Foundling Hospital in 1739 in order to educate and shelter deserted children. Small objects or tokens were left by mothers with their infants as a means of identification, if and when their child was claimed. Inspired by the museum’s collection of these trinkets, Parker engages with the history of the hospital by encouraging us to identify our roots and identity through materiality.The exhibition, which intermingles harmoniously with the museum’s permanent collection (including works by Hogarth and Gainsborough) focuses on a simple premise: to place objects which were once neglected, overlooked, destroyed and discarded in a new creative context where they can be re-evaluated and celebrated. Over sixty ‘artists at large’ (including writers and musicians) have responded to Parker’s intention both literally and conceptually – whether it be a vitrine of rusty bent wire (Mona Hatoum, Found (wire drawings), 1997/2016), a dried frog tacked to a piece of wood (Alison Wilding, Cellar Frog, 2016) or items from Bob Geldof’s rubbish bin (Jessica Voorsanger, Bob Geldorf’s Rubbish, 1994).

An extraordinary combination of artefacts and artworks are on display here: John Lennon’s detention sheet (Jeremy Deller, John Lennon’s school detention sheet, 1995-6), a discarded staircase ripped out from Jimmi Hendrix’s flat on 23 Brook Street (Cornelia Parker, There must be some kind of way out of here, 2016), hundreds of pawnbrokers coupons skewered onto a piece of string which reaches over two meters in length (Ron Arad, Untitled, 1951, 1973) and a refuse bag full of ‘Romania Today’ magazines which inspired the album artwork of the 90s pop band, Pulp (Jarvis Cocker, Romania Today, 1985), are just a few of the thoughtful pieces on show.

Rachel Whiteread, 'Untitled (Found)', 2016 © Rachel Whiteread.

Rachel Whiteread, ‘Untitled (Found)’, 2016 © Rachel Whiteread.

One of the most compelling works is presented by Keith Coventry. Two replica Bronze heads from a decapitated Henry Moore sculpture, King and Queen, 1994 lie inconspicuously on the table in the centre of the room. According to the artist the heads were stolen from the Glenkiln estate in Dumphries, Scotland and turned up years later in a garage. But whose garage was it? Did they steal the heads? And if so, why? By omitting the salient details, the audience is left to contemplate this curious tale.

Stories of co-incidence and heartfelt family anecdotes punctuate the exhibition, particularly in Justine Picardie’s Moonstone Magic, 2016 and Richard Wentworth’s Memoir of a Facist Childhood: A Boy in Mosley’s Britain, 1998. Perhaps the most touching work of all is John Smith’s Dad’s Stick 1950-2007. Smith’s father, a DIY enthusiast, showed his son the stick he used to stir paint with when he decorated their ancestral home. After cutting off the end, the piece revealed multi-coloured concentric circles. Much like a tree, each circle represented a passage of time and a familial memory which could not be disentangled from the object itself.

Bob and Roberta Smith, 'I Found Love', 2016 © Bob and Roberta Smith.

Bob and Roberta Smith, ‘I Found Love’, 2016 © Bob and Roberta Smith.

Edmund de Waal (the lost and found, 2015) uses the theme of the exhibition to inspire a new work, presenting thirty unique porcelain objects within a series of identical black display cases – almost as homage to the glass exhibition cases typical of the British Museum. With their diminutive scale and beautifully textured glazes they evoke ancient artefacts – perhaps Neolithic or Iron Age relics. De Waal was intent on capturing the landscape and mythology of the Orkney Islands as if the pieces themselves had been washed up on the shore.

Within this captivating exhibition, Parker presents the artist as an ethnographer, who observes and gathers artefacts overlooked in everyday life. These abandoned objects, with their powerful traces of the past, have been given new homes and a second chance.

By Wilhemina Madeley
FOUND at Foundling Museum, 27 May – 4 September 2016, 40 Brunswick Square, London, WC1N 1AZ