‘It Can Be Nightmarish, or It Can Be Wonderful’: Watch Artist Allan McCollum Assemble Installations of Thousands of Near-Identical Objects

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Systems," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Starting his working life in industrial kitchens, the American artist Allan McCollum has been thinking about large production systems for just about his entire life. When he began a serious art practice, it was inevitable that he would be thinking about the original versus the reproduction, and how value is assigned based on scarcity rather than abundance.

In an exclusive interview as part of Art21’s Art in the Twenty-First Century program, the artist is filmed at work in his studio ahead of the 2009 São Paolo Biennial, where he presented a large-scale installation of 1,800 drawings called The Shapes Project (1988–91).  

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 5 episode, "Systems," 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

Production still from the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” Season 5 episode, “Systems,” 2009. © Art21, Inc. 2009.

“I found myself wanting to work in quantities and make things that were singular and unique at the same time,” he tells Art21, adding that his work is about trying to resolve the issue of uniqueness on a higher level.

An installation by McCollum touches on the sublime, bringing together hundreds upon hundreds of copies of the same thing, reproduced with only slight variations. He knows it’s a scary prospect—and at the same time, he delights in it. “There is, of course, the drama of thousands of things,” he told Art21. “It can be nightmarish, or it can be a wonderful feeling of abundance, and it can go back and forth.” 

Though it is currently closed, the ICA Miami has organized the largest retrospective of McCollum’s work to date with a mid-career show that spans 50 years, ending with his most recent interventions, which he calls “regional projects.” At a time when the future of museums and art in general is uncertain, his simple, yet profound, collections of objects and symbols offer an intriguing and meditative distraction.


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s PBS series Art in the Twenty-First Century, below. “Allan McCollum: Works Since 1969” at ICA Miami is closed temporarily; more information is available on the museum’s website.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new series of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch episodes of other series like “New York Close Up” and “Extended Play” and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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