The idea behind this unusual exhibition is that alien art critics have collected Earthling modern art and are trying to interpret it.
The show is divided into sections such as “Magic and Belief”, “Totem” and “Kinship”. These categories mimic how Western anthropologists classified and (mis)understood non-Western art.
There is an unspoken assumption that the Earthlings are more backward than the Martians – and that only the collectors’ culture could possibly use irony or self-awareness.
One sculpture of stuffed fish in boxes is described as a ceremonial object for bringing luck to hunting trips. Modern experts have assumed that’s what cave paintings were for – so this makes you wonder, how do they know?
A section called “traps” collects works of art that are vaguely hollow – and mostly nothing to do with traps. Other works use more obvious jokes – the commentary on an Andy Warhol portrait of Mao Zedong describes it as an “icon of an Earthling god”.
One downside of the show is that without the concept of the alien museum, it would be a completely random collection of modern art.
The works seem to be collected purely on the basis of whether they will fit into the categories – whether they could possibly be seen as totem poles, for instance.
But this rather peculiar exhibition is still well worth a visit.
Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art
Barbican Art Gallery, London EC2
until 18 May