Kelham Island Museum: Museum of Tools —

Kelham Island Museum is part of Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which gives an idea of the sort of thing going on inside this old iron foundry. I was expecting general local history, cutlery, coffee pots etc. but hadn’t appreciated that those skills also meant that Sheffield made a lot of engineering and hand tools too.

As such, the museum is also host to the extraordinary Hawley Collection. A remarkable assortment of tools and works in progress that show how the tools were made. This means that the tools that made the tools are also presented - leading to a wonderful sort of meta exhibit.

 

The really great thing is that it’s a personal collection turned institutional, and where you’d expect more gaps, and more bias you’re met with sheer quantity of artefacts and a really well presented, coherent exhibit. Both the character of the founder, Ken, and the group of volunteers that man the ‘research room’, (biscuits and enthusiastic tool chat were more noticeable) are firmly felt in the gallery.

 

Elsewhere in the museum is the massive River Don Engine that came to the museum straight from the factory floor where it had been used to make armour plating for nuclear power stations.

 

I also really appreciate any museum that incorporates it’s archives and restoration work into it’s displays – It gives a sense of continuation, activity, and relevance.

 

Representing Replicas — The Cast Courts —

I was thrilled to discover the V&A Plaster Cast Courts for the first time recently. Tucked to the side of the museum, and away from the weekend crowds, the Courts house plaster copies of famous architecture and sculpture from across world. The scale of the rooms and the gigantic Trajan Column that dominates them is the first thing to be impressed by (even more so when you realise that they should be stacked on top of each other to achieve their original height). The spectacle of seeing such impressive architecture inside another building, framed and lit in the context of the museum is incredible. 

 

The sheer randomness of the collection is intoxicating. The courts have Frankenstein displays where the front of a cathedral from Santiago de Compostella has doors inset from Germany from 200 years earlier. Old mixes with new and everything from all over the world is together in one excessive architectural Disneyland. 

 

The really interesting thing around the casts is of course that they aren’t real. That is to say that they aren’t the original objects. They are facsimiles of much coveted masterpieces of art and architecture from throughout the ages. But the discussion around an objects authenticity and it’s subsequent relevance to scholarly or artistic study is only part of my fascination. In 2014, Room 46B was renovated, (the courts having originating in 1873), and it’s in this more modern world that this odd collection exists now. A modern museum setting that is constantly reassessing the usefulness and quality of facsimiles in all their forms – from digital print outs and online representations, to VR experiences and 3D-printed stand ins. What is and isn’t valid as an accessioned artefact seems to be as much up for grabs as ever. 

Here are some links about the history of the Cast Courts:
I never knew the V&A was originally the Museum of Manufactures! The History of the Courts. Room 46A. Room 46B.

 

Alice Anderson at the Wellcome Collection —

Luke-Thompson_Alice-Anderson_01

Things wrapped in copper thread. It’s a deceptively simple artistic process but the result is stunning. Helped along by the fantastic lighting design the ideas of concealment, repetition, abstraction, scale, and familiarity changed as you walked through the space and the pieces caught the light differently – interactivity at it’s simplest and effective. The images here show the range of scales the work takes, ‘Geometries 64 Shapes’, a collection of small objects on a wall, and ‘Ropes’, a 250m long installation that you could get inside and walk around. 

 
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I really liked how the thread brought the objects back to a collection of simple shapes, with what looked like dull planes and then as you moved they shimmered with texture. The original objects were physically there but, like a palimpsest, were ghosted and built on top of when given their copper lustre. My favourite piece wasn’t on a postcard: ‘Jars’ from Anderson’s site is below. Wellcome Collection link here.

 

The Language of Things —

I’ve just finished Dejan Sudjic’s excellent book The Language of Things; Design, Luxury, Fashion, Art. How We Are Seduced by the Objects Around Us. I’ve drawn up the extracts I want to remember, this is mostly within the contexts of design vs art and my perennial fascination with collecting.

It is just possible that we might be on the verge of a wave of revulsion against the phenomenon of manufacturing desire, against the whole avalanche of products that threatens to overwhelm us. However, there is no sign of it yet, despite the outbreak of millenarian anxiety about the doom that faces us if we go on binge-flying. Even the return of the selling of indulgences, a practice abandoned by the medieval church and now resurrected in the form of carbon offset payments, is not stopping us from changing cellphones every six months.
— pg 6
Just a few of these useless objects re-enter the economic cycle as part of the curious ecology of collecting. but collecting is in itself a very special kind of fetish, perhaps one that is best understood as an attempt to roll back the passing of time. It might also be an attempt to defy the threat of mortality. To collect a sequence of objects is, for a moment at least, to have imposed some sense of order on a universe that doesn’t have any.
— pg 21 

The aims of the first hoarder/curators of the great cabinets of curiosity were to amass more treasures than could be seen by one man in a lifetime of travel, thus collecting objects is directly equitable to the collecting of time. Most people would say to a lesser or greater extent that their objects are a good representation of them, that maybe they are defined by them in some way. It stands to reason then, that these objects that are imbued with the owners personality, continue on after the owners death, and should keep the collector alive in some small way.

Somewhere between these two versions design is the idea that design is a public service. It’s notable that the in Britain one of the first industrial-design practices that emerged in the 1940s called itself the Design Research Unit, a name calculated to suggest that it was a branch of the Welfare State more than any kind of commercial activity, even though it was actually started as the subsidiary of an advertising agency.
— pg 26

Some one once said that design is a social discipline, (requiring conversation, discussion and collaboration) if only because it has social consequences. I can’t remember who and google won’t tell me – any help greatly appreciated!

The machine works away diligently and fills our bookcases with ill-printed volumes, its criterion is cheapness. Yet every cultured individual should feel ashamed of such material abundance. For on the one hand, ease of production leads to a diminished sense of responsibility, while on the other abundance leads to perfunctoriness. How many books do we genuinely make our own? And should one not possess these in the best paper, bound in splendid leather? Have we perhaps forgotten that the love with which the book has been printed, decorated and bound creates a completely different relationship between it and us, and that intercourse with beautiful things makes us more beautiful?
— Josef Hoffman, The Manifesto of the Wiener Werkstätte, 1905
— pg 116

Sudjic sees it as a Hoffman justifying luxury. It seems more interesting to me in the kindle vs book (non) debate, and beyond that, as an easy first example of ‘the medium is the message’. I’m also fascinated by what we choose to have in our homes, and choose to elevate as ‘special’, (multiple versions, collectors sets, or luxury materials), and how we give chunks of ourselves to objects and things in the hope that they might extend our personalities or somehow make them more tangible and accessible to others.

It is a curious paradox that even the most materialist of us tend to value what might be called the useless above the useful. Useless not in the sense of being without purpose, but without utility, or at least with not much of it.
— pg 167
[On MOMAs treatment of design in an art gallery]
The price for a Swedish-designed – though carefully selected US-made – version of a chromium-plated self-aligning steel ball bearing to be placed in the same context as Fernand Léger’s painting of a ball bearing was to caption it exactly as if it were a painting. There was nothing more than a blank announcement of date, media and name to distract the visitors from their reverential contemplation of these sacred relics. Nothing about what this undeniably beautiful object was for, or how it was made, could be included.
— pg 172

I can share this frustration, whilst admirably trying to put design and art on the same platform the curators have wrongly treated the design as art. Not only does this impose an implicit hierarchy between the two subjects it also strips the design of everything that makes it design: it’s context and process of creation. Like an embarrassed child the labelling denies the ball bearing’s heritage. As Sudjic goes on to say ‘For design, context and process are essential’.

Dejan Sudjic, The Language of Things (London: Penguin, 2009)

 

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector —

I went enthusiastically to the exhibition about collecting – those who know me well know that I like collecting, collections and collectors a lot. I did my final year project on it at university and it’s been a mild obsession ever since.

I was disappointed to find that this riotous, spectacular and curiosity inspiring subject had been presented in the most sterile way I’ve seen yet. Artists’ collections had been shown next to one example of their work, but in lots of cases it was a photography collection next to some photographs or a taxidermy collection next to some taxidermy. In this sense the exhibition did a very blunt job of drawing a line between the inspiration and the art it inspired, in most cases making the artworks look like bad copies of the collections.

The worst offender was the display of abstract painter Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian pictures. The pictures are small intricate paintings that have a strong use of colour. Outside the room was hung a piece of Hodgkin’s work, all big brush strokes and block colour. Yes, the use of colour was an obvious thread but other than that, this lone, decontextualised artwork, when hung next to the collection (of paintings!) seemed frankly inferior. Surely this is not the point of the exhibition? An exhibition which is dealing with both artist and collection should showcase each in it’s best light but this reduced both somehow.

The other aspect which was lacking was the critical angle about the politics of collecting itself. Whilst collections as artworks was tackled as a topic in the Martin Wong/Danh Vo piece, the idea of artists acquiring items as a whole collection, or from other collections was absent, as was the idea of ownership or authorship through collecting. In the case of Howard Hodgkin the fact that the pieces in his collection had been created as art, had then been collected and returned to object status, loaned to the Ashmolean Museum as ‘His’ collection and then displayed at the Barbican again seems to be a journey that could benefit from some curatorial scrutiny.

Of course all of these gripes are just that – an enthusiast rambling, and there were good bits. Showing all the packing cases that the collections and artworks had come in (albeit in a corner) was brilliant, and I liked the rugs which were liberally strewn around each area. 

(N.B. I’m sure some of these issues are at least touched on in the audio guide or the book, but I shouldn’t have to pay £40 to get a bit of thoughtful insight when I’ve already paid £12 to get in.)

 

Jake and Dinos Chapman: Come and See

Come and See at the Serpentine Sackler Centre is showing from 29th November 2013 – 9th February 2014 This raucous exhibition of the Chapman Brothers work at the Serpentine Gallery is brilliant. Fun and violence crash together in detailed intricate pieces from the Hell landscapes up to the large mouse-trap-esque assemblages – all presided over by eerie and interested Klu Klux Klan inspired, smiley patch toting, socks and sandals wearing figures (presumably us, the visitor!).

The apparent flippancy with which some of their materials are treated – gloss paint drips, rough cut plywood is left unsanded and items are hacked and screwed together in a seemingly uncaring way - is contrasted to the curatorial side in the artists. This side frames and hangs the crude sketches, labours over the tiny skeletons and micro-narratives in the hellscapes and gets haphazard combinations of objects made into presumably expensive and unwieldy bronzes, only to cover up the material with gloss paint and glue. Their work is comfortable in it's disregard for 'proper' process and finish quality and gains weight through it's scale, repetition and spectacle- the amount of work on show is invigorating. Whilst I don't think I'd be excited about living with a Chapman Brothers piece, I left feeling energised and wanting to make more stuff.