Saturday 31 October 2009

Noble and Webster

This piece ‘Two fucking rats’ by Noble and Webster formed part of the Distortion exhibition curated by James Putnam at the Venice Biennale. It was housed in a beautifully crumbling building in the Fondamenta S Ana by a small bridge over a canal and we almost missed it in the rain. I have admired their work in books before but this was the first time I’d seen a piece. I like the way the rubbish is transformed by its shadow and things aren’t quite what they seem. The setting here was perfect in a small side room that could easily have housed rats.

Venice Biennale: Library

This installation by Woojung Chu is inspired in part by Jorge Luis Borges ‘The library of Babel’ and the quotation ‘The universe (which others call the library)’. It depicts the librarian’s relentless search for the source of all universal wisdom. It comprises several desks cabinets and a globe but none of them are what they seem or present knowledge in an easily accessible form. They contain a collection of heads, geometric forms made of wire, lists of words and letters, pulleys and the form of a man crouched in the fetal position. One globe is a maze of interlocking rooms and the other is covered in images of what might be astrological signs. The work suggests that the library is a place of persistent search for elusive, unanswered questions. The whole installation gives a feeling of the uncanny and that what we think we know is all an illusion.

Venice Biennale: Giardini

Tomas Saraceno’s ‘Galaxies forming along filaments like droplets along the strands of a spiders web’ hung in one of the main rooms at the Giardini pavilion. It filled the room and encouraged interaction as people clambered through its filaments and posed for photos through the fibres. I liked its lace-like qualities and the feeling that you could float through it.

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s installation Shadow Play was one of my favourite pieces. I was attracted by its uncanny feel that ‘infused the ordinary with a sense of wonder’. The backlit objects on the turntables moved round forming almost abstract pattern of shifting shadows on the opposite wall; it was a very relaxing experience. The known items on the turntables were transformed and became unknown and slightly uncanny through their shadow images. One of the interesting things was that the tables, lights and objects on the turntables were not hidden and were very messy but you looked past them and concentrated on the shadows.

In the Russian pavilion I admired the work of Anatoly Shuravlev, whose small crystal balls hanging from the ceiling included tiny photos of figures that changes the course of history. I also enjoyed Gosha Ostretsov’s installation entitled ‘Art life of the torments of creation’. It was a small wooden house which interacted with the visitor as they moved round it; hands moved pictures on the wall and a mannequin made marks with a pencil on a desk. It appealed to me because I saw it as a haunted house from a fairground that included na├»ve mechanical movements. However, I later discovered it is a representation of the artist showing that his works will live on after him in a victory over the future.

Venice Biennale: Arsenale

This was the first time I’d been to the Venice Biennale and I was impressed by the amount of art in the exhibition and throughout the city. We managed to see everything in the Arsenale and the Giardini in one day and spent the rest of the time visiting other venues.

This installation by Lygia Pape was the first thing we saw when we entered the Arsenale. It took a while to adjust to the dark, but the lines of threads glowing from the centre of the room gave it an ethereal quality. As you moved around the room and the threads were presented at different angles to the light they appeared and disappeared giving a magical feel to the whole piece. The ambience was slightly upset by the continual flash of cameras as the public took photos of it.

Jorge Otero-Pailos’ ‘Ethics of dust’ was made up of sheets of latex used to clean a wall during the restoration of the Doge’s Palace, during which ‘the translucent material became an index of the site’s past’. From a distance the piece appeared to be a textile and it was only when you read the caption you realised what it was.

Saturday 17 October 2009

Telling tales: fantasy and fear in contemporary design

This conference on 16 October was linked to the current V&A exhibition Telling tales. Gareth Williams, the curator of Telling tales, spoke about his rationale for the exhibition, most of which is also explained in the book that accompanies the show. Jack Zipes explained that fairy tales are metaphors of adaptation to life. I was interested to hear him speak because I have found the ideas in his books interesting. He explained that the study of the unheimlich helps us to understand the Heimlich and the reconstitution of home on a new plane occurs through reading fairy tales. He gave us a short history of fairy tales and explained how they adapt with the times and concluded by saying that fairy tales keep alive the uncanny impulse of striving for home; they are a resistant force in all art forms.

Justin McGuirk, Editor of Icon magazine, told us that decorative and narrative design has been around for most of civilisation it is only recently that Modernism has caused a blip in this sequence. He also suggested that many items have a narrative even if that isn’t their main design feature, while others use decoration with no narrative. Tord Boontje explained how he uses storytelling in his work. He started by showing us a video of his installation at the furniture biennale in Milan, then described how his figleaf wardrobe required an amazing number of people and skills. He then told us about two of his recent projects the ‘witches kitchen’ range and the work he has done based on the lace at the Design Centre, Philadelphia.

I found Claire Pajaczkowska’s talk on the uncanny particularly interesting. She described the paradox of the wardrobe as being safe, desirable and containing but also suffocating, and linked to a fear of immurement and death. It is a transitional space between real and narrative reality. It has the capacity to allow transition. The designer allows forgotten meanings to come through. The object is a transformational space for the maker and the user. She also talked about the child’s psychological development and the concept of the core complex.

Julia Lohmann’s pieces in the exhibition reference the origin of their materials. She shows us that leather sofas are made from cows. She noted that her pieces are democratic you don’t have to own them to experience the message just seeing it will put you off meat. She often links science and art in her work and has worked with the Welcome Trust

Friday 16 October 2009

Artists in residence talks

The three artists in residence in the Farnham, UCA, Textile Department each gave a short talk about their work on 7 October. Rosie James showed us the work based on Minimalism she had done for her MA and then described the commissions she has been working on recently incorporating scanned and embroidered figures. The picture above shows one of Rosie’s pieces in a showcase at Farnham, UCA, she also has a very interesting blog. Rhian Solomon showed us her MA work based on body image incorporating knitted wire and the use of pressure belts on skin. She also showed us more recent work involving skin and laser etching on egg shells. Zoe Acketts showed us the woven textiles she produced for her MA and explained that she is continuing that work to produce a line of furnishing fabrics.

Thursday 15 October 2009

Introducing fairy tales: Meaning and making

This symposium on 3 October at the Sackler Centre was linked to the current V&A exhibition Telling tales. The day opened with Professor Maria Nikolajeva talking about the traditions and history of fairy tales with reference to the links between stories around the globe and explained why fairy tales matter. She told us that myths are true but fairy tales are magic, unreal, entertaining and instructive. Catherine Hyde is an artist who has produced ethereal lustrations for many fairy tales. She spoke to us about her work and a recent commission she had been involved in producing illustrations for The princess’ blankets by Carol Ann Duffy. Emma Laws, based at the V&A, gave an illustrated talk about the collection of illustrated fairy tale books held by the V&A with many beautiful examples from Dulac and Rackham. In the afternoon Margaret Rustin, a child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, and Michael Rustin, Professor of Sociology at the University of East London spoke about the relevance of fairy tales and how he genders are portrayed in them. In the final panel discussion the speakers revealed that their favourite fairy tales were the snow queen and baba yaga.

In praise of shadows

This exhibition at the V&A included work by lighting designers who use low energy lighting and alternative energy sources. The title comes from the essay on aesthetics written by Junichiro Tanizaki. Cyclo by Marie-Virginie Berbet was an interesting idea that adapts the lighting conditions depending on the user’s activity levels. Fragile future by Drift was a beautiful combination of dandelion seed heads and small light bulbs that formed a wall decoration. Medusa by Mikko Paakkanen was also fascinating; made of fibre optic rods it expands and contracts, forming first a narrow cone and then a round ball of light. Sonumbra by Loop at the end of the exhibition provided a mesmerising spectacle as light in the electroluminescent wires of the sculpture followed their paths in a delicate lace design. Having helped Loop to learn about lacemaking for their first Sonumbra installation I was impressed at the intricacy of their latest version and how beautifully the light flowed through it.

Telling tales

This exhibition at the V&A showcases design objects that are evocative and symbolic of fairy tales rather than being utilitarian. The exhibition is divided into three areas: the forest glade, the enchanted castle and heaven and hell. The exhibition begins in a forest glade, divided into areas by hangings of printed tree branches. Like the Garden of Eden, it is a place of innocence and enchantment with birdsong and soft lighting but the threat of menace lurks reflecting the woods of many fairy tales. Nestling among the trees are Tord Boontje’s chairs and wardrobe and Jurgen Bey’s Linen cupboard house, a romanticised fairy tale home that links sanctuary and defilement.

The second scene is the interior of the enchanted castle. One half of the room is papered with a large design of eighteenth century wallpaper, the other is mirrored, glittery, brash and luxurious. The innocence of the forest glad has been replaced with worldliness and decadence. The high status goods on show here are subverted through the use of inappropriate scale or materials. It includes Joris Laarman’s heatwave lace radiator and Jeroen Verhoeven’s Cinderella table.

The final area returns us to judgement, the afterlife and memento mori. The walls are plain and most of the objects are viewed through open holes into a room beyond, suggesting that we haven’t yet reached this state but giving us glimpses into it. The exhibits include Wieki Somers’ high tea pot made from a pig’s skull with its water-rat fur tea cosy and the lovers rug by Fredrikson Stallard made up of two conjoined pools of ‘blood’.

This exhibition was cleverly staged and presented, showing how modern designers are producing design-art pieces for the commercial market that have a narrative based on fantasy and the spirit of story telling.

Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters was talking about her book ‘The little stranger’ at the Independent Woodstock Literary Festival 2009 at Blenheim on 20 Sept 2009 in conversation with John Walsh (a columnist at the Independent). She started by explaining that she had been an avid reader of ghost stories as a child. She particularly likes the stories of MR James because they expose the reader obliquely to horror/the supernatural. She likes the Gothic because it is about vulnerable people: children are powerless and experience random acts of cruelty. The irrational element of the Gothic appeals to her.
Poltergeists feature in her book and she explained they are associated with repressed women and teenage girls; repressed sexuality. Talking about the ending of her book she said she hoped the undecidability of the ending gives it extra power. She wrote several different endings and hoped she had chosen the one that was ambiguous but not irritating. Each of the main characters has flaws that make them the possible source of the poltergeist activity. I spoke to her afterwards and got her to sign a copy of the book. I told her about my work on the uncanny and gave her a flyer describing it. She was very helpful and encouraging.


This small Crafts Council exhibition was exhibited in the corridor of the Sackler Centre. The most interesting piece was the bent and spiralling wooded sculpture by Charlie Whinney shown here. He has also used the same technique to decorate the entrance and windows of Harvey Nicholls. Other artists in the exhibition were Ptolemy Mann with her woven colour blocks, Eleanor Long and Gary Breeze.

Mary Butcher open day at the V&A

Mary Butcher is currently one of the artists in residence at the V&A exploring contemporary basketry. She had an open day at her studio in the Sackler Cente on 18 September. It was very interesting to talk to her about the residency and see what is required. It takes up far more time than she envisaged and it can be a lonely experience so you have to network and be proactive. She asks all visitors to contribute to a large wall piece she is making but has not yet had time to make any new work of her own.

Last night forever by Andrea Gregson

This site-specific ‘cabinet of curiosities’ by Andrea Grigson was made following a period of research at the Garden Museum in London. It was a long cabinet on stilts placed in the central space of the Museum with peep holes at eye level along its length for viewers to look into. Andrea had studied Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (1661-1859) and depicted scenes from the gardens along the length of the installation. The glimpses afforded of the grottoes, arches, Italian gardens, ruins and seats was fascinating and more enjoyable because it was observed gradually and incompletely through the peep holes.