But what the story -
Do the parameters of the gallery shift or shackle an object's message?
Objects always carries stories. These stories can vary and work together like a web of narratives but they can also be different, depending both on the viewer and the space in which they are made to act. In my experience design objects can easily be misread and their meaning, as well as intent, can change the moment they are taken out of their context and put on a shelf in an exhibition space. The 'context,' in my argument, is the designer’s original intention, the personal story and motivation for making a specific piece. I would like to visualise this dilemma in the following example, where the exhibition space plays a crucial role when it comes to altering an object‘s meaning and communicating a story.
Under the name Infiltration, my colleagues and I curated a show at a glass and ceramics gallery/shop called blås&knåda, situated in Stockholm. With this action we wanted to illuminate discussions and occurrences that we experienced as silent or non-existent in the space. Six individual takes on this were conducted and my attempt was called Shackled Spaces, where I exhibited only one object. The reason for doing this was to state a clear example of the different stories an object can communicate, depending on its surrounding and the 'clues' given by the gallery or curator. I took a large amount of responsibility in this as a curator, as I believe it is part of my job to see to the designer’s story and communicate that - if it is of importance for the piece. I chose a white porcelain vase by Magdalena Nilsson, which at first glance doesn’t look like much more than a small container with a very detailed and tactile pattern. It has the size of a heart and fits well in your palm. Attached to this somewhat oval shape is a pipe, directed upwards, almost as a spearing object has punctuated something. This pipe makes the neck of the vase and its surface is completely blank and smooth. Once you start investigating the structure on the body of the vase you discover a repetitive and highly advanced, almost geometrical, pattern, which has a striking yet beautiful depth and complexity
Nilsson is one of two designers in a company called Save Our Souls (SOS), which works with product design. Its focus is to create objects intended to be discursive and, in a bittersweet way, comment on the world around us. She is a relatively new member at blås&knåda (three years) and belongs to the newer, slightly younger generation of craft artists in the collective. I chose to work with Magdalena specifically because of her background as a designer and feel it interesting that she chooses to exhibit her work, filled with stories and hidden messages, in this particular space, considering its apparent democratic history and 'white cube' appearance.
Blås&knåda, founded in the 1970s, is still coloured by the economical and political values of the time, a story that is very present, both in the physical shop space as well as how the place is run. The physical space is that of the typical 'white cube' experience wherein objects are put on shelves to more or less speak for themselves, if at all. This concept of display has its origin in the early 20th century when design started to make its way into the museums. At this time one was very anxious about boosting the value of design, next to art, by presenting it as its own category. However when presented in an art context, the design objects were, in effect, captured next to grand paintings. Labeled with the maker, date and media (as was common for art), design received a useless stamp as art and therefore, in the eyes of the viewer, became as highly valuable. Here lies the problem because this old fashioned view on design, where the intention and utility is ignored, has continued to follow the design discipline and now presents the genre in spaces that are made to deride objects of their meaning. Modernist ideas have also come to set perimeters of how art and design is being exhibited and the 'white cube' is a consequence of this; a place with minimal distractions and plenty of space around each work to enable uninterrupted consideration. In 1976 the art critic Brian O'Doherty described it as place where each work "demands enough space so that its effect is over before its neighbor's picks up". This is how objects have come to depend on themselves to communicate, as the space or context does nothing for them, something I recognised in the craft collective’s shop and gallery.
The display of the objects in blås&knåda is, generally, in the same way quite traditional; one person's collection of craft pieces is placed in a group or closely together. The label does not give anything about the object's story away; some do not even have the title of the piece, merely the maker, the media and the price. In the same way that design was once exhibited next to art, are more conceptual craft pieces and sculptures exhibited next to cups, saucers and glasses in blås&knåda. It is a confusing message, which tells the viewer to consider and value a uniquely produced one-off object in the same way as a cup that serves as a container for tea or coffee. Judging by the display, the only 'clue' that tells some kind of a story is the price tag.
This, with the combination of the space itself; an open structure with white walls and white podiums, leads, in my view, to objects devoid of meaning, or at least dramatically changed.
This display issue can be a consequence of the democratic history of the collective; where nothing is allowed to stand out or take more room than other products. When Nilsson explains the story of her vase she says, "A big part of the message never reaches the customer in blås&knåda. They are looking for a personal connection with the author and a background to the objects in which they are interested in buying". This is very interesting, her awareness of the problem that something else in the shop competes for attention. This is one other hidden or not outspoken story that exists parallel to the one I seek to bring into discourse – the story of the object.
How can one break these unwritten rules of display and alter the atmosphere and the way an object is perceived inside the gallery and shop space? I my contribution to the exhibition at blås&knåda I wanted to offer the viewer a new curiosity on design and craftsmanship, where the object's stories were brought up to surface and the significance was easily accessible. I attempted this by exhibiting two different stories of Nilsson's vase; presenting both physically in different displays of the object, as well as verbally by the author telling two stories. The latter was documented on a film, shot in her studio, where she delivered the full stories. One was the original and the other made up by the designer herself. The stories were played in a loop after each other with only the titles, Stomach and Coral, separating them. The stories, in the way they were narrated, reflected each other as did Magdalena’s body language and tone of voice. The truth about the vase was that it derived from a mold of a sheep’s stomach, the intestines, but the intricate shape of the pattern on the body could be read as that of a coral’s organically grown structure. The two stories did however differ dramatically, both in the process of making the vase and in the ideology behind them. The true story was about turning something ugly into a beautiful decorative object of desire. This story also had references to the meat industry and how we humans tend to throw a blind eye towards what often is spoken of as disgusting or inhuman. Nilsson was very conscious herself of the fact that some actions, and in this case the choice of color, can censor specific stories, which is why she decided to make this vase porcelain white. Her ideology was that the clean and white always has been looked upon as beautiful and she wanted to question this norm by referring to the actual origin of the shape, the stomach – smelly and gory. By naming the project Pretty In White she asks if something ugly could be accepted in another appearance. The false story was on the other hand about beauty and the designer's own relationship towards the object, originating from the coral, and what it meant to her. In the film she talks about her love for scuba diving and how she wanted to conserve the beauty and eternal life from underneath the water surface and bring it into people's homes. She explains it as conserving something extremely old, in some cases even remote, and turns this into something tactile and tangible.
In the galley the vase was exhibited, in different milieus, on either side of the screen where the film was played. On the left side, on a decorated marble pedestal reminiscent of the Roman age, stood a clear glass bowl with golden sand as a base. The vase Coral was resting in the middle of the bowl, surrounded by nothing but water and around it swam a beautiful red Japanese fighting fish. This was intended to give an obvious connection to the sea life, but also how we humans like to conserve certain things because of their beauty and put them on a pedestal to be admired and observed by others. On the other side of the screen there were genuine and aggressive-looking meat hooks hanging from the ceiling. They were dangling from massive chains giving direct connotations to a slaughterhouse or butchery. Three vases were attached to the spearing hooks and they were hanging at a height where one could walk underneath them. The intention here was to guide the viewers associations towards what these hooks usually are used for and in what kind of a setting. It has nothing to do with contemplation or objectifying but rather the opposite, which was where Magdalena was trying to go as well with the truth about Stomach.
This was my way of questioning the physical space as well as the conventional display of the objects in it, showing that by altering the setting a little bit one can achieve quite a change in how an object is read and how its story is interpreted. One can ask if there is a need for creating new contexts for an object and what the consequences of this are? It can, of course, also be said that creating a context (even a false one) is no better than placing an object on a shelf to speak for itself. I would, however, like to argue that both the user, the customer in this case, and the object benefits from this. One should of course be aware of that an object has several stories and that there is life beyond the design phase, when the object leaves the shop space. In the course of an object’s existence it can go through what Arjun Appadurai, professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, refers to as different 'regimes of value,' where objects take on new meanings depending on the human transactions that it encounters. There is no right or wrong when you interpret an object, but I would ideally like it to be the customer’s choice to take part in the stories or not, instead of the decision of the gallery. I also believe that a very big part of the product's 'soul' goes missing without these stories. When you buy the vase Stomach you, consciously or not, participates in the discourse that that object stands for. A consequence of creating a new context might be that the object is perceived as 'shallow' and that the story in fact is added. On the other hand, it can work as a thread leading to the context the object initially was created for. I believe design always is created for a context, it can be solving a problem or commenting on a political issue. It might not, however, be possible to exhibit the object in this context, as it might not physically exist. What one can do is supply a little guidance, instead of making the interpretation harder by only offering the viewer the price tag.
Different stories come into place depending on how and where you exhibit your work. This is inevitable and has to do with a multitude of stories colliding, as well as with the expectations the viewer brings with him or her into the space. Blås&knåda brings the story of both a shop and a gallery, with the addition of a vibrant political history. This is part of its brand and when exhibiting in this space an artist or designer's work will be read through that context. Is it even possible to ask for more stories parallel to that? Perhaps the story of the collective itself is too strong to penetrate? When stepping inside you become one of 'them' and those are the rules you will have to play by. You find yourself in a certain state of mind and read all the objects from this perspective. Some argue that an object, and the space in which it acts, cannot be rightfully understood without the taking of politics, economy, culture and social processes into consideration, as they are integrated in the understanding of the space. This supports my argument that the space in which you choose to exhibit your work is of utter importance for what you end up communicating. The consequence of too many stories colliding in blås&knåda might be that the craft artists and designers themselves chose to remove some information about their work, as it is not suitable for that kind of commercial space. Thus, what art, craft and design seem to have in common is the refusal to be associated with the object within the sphere of consumption. As often, from within these circles, an object is seen as 'degraded' when it becomes a commercial entity.
Frida Jeppsson 2009