Saturday, 5 December 2009

Design for Real Serpentine Gallery, London The Independent, London 30 November 2009

The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens exists to show off art. Art, as we all know, is perfectly useless. It exists to be admired. Now, all of a sudden, the Serpentine Gallery has had a change of heart. It has hired a curator with a mesmerisingly unpronounceable surname, Grcic, to assemble a show of forty-six objects which are useful. (I hear the man who is making the podcast for the Guardian newspaper first asking how the name’s pronounced, then taking several runs at it, falling back, and running again.) What is more, these particular objects are examples of their kind. There are variants upon them everywhere that we look. I am sitting on one of them now. Yes, everywhere we turn our heads these days there is a bed, a child’s bicycle, a plastic chair, the arm of a wind turbine flailing the air.

So what happens when we show off useful objects in an art gallery? We begin to relate them to the art experience. We just can’t seem to help ourselves. We look for beauty, elegance, singularity. We check out the colours for evidence of harmonious relations between one hue and another. We wonder why this bed, for example, seems, in part, to resemble an abstract painting, and whether it is a better, a more pleasing bed, for doing so. Most of all, we pause, and stop regarding them solely as objects of utility. We begin to respect them a little more. We begin to scrutinise them with a little more delicacy. We ponder upon the relationship between beauty and usefulness, and we speculate upon the fact that when a good designer gets it right, our lives are perhaps improved a little.

And that is the purpose of this rather delightful show, to make us reflect upon the nature of objects that are designed for our use, to speculate upon whether they are good or bad, ergonomically sound or otherwise, good for the world or not. The objects are well spaced and well displayed, often humorously so. Look at this perfectly gorgeous copper fishing lure, with its brazen feathered tail, and how it is mounted for our pleasure, behind glass. And then there is a plastic chair – oh that blasted modernist ideal! – which seems to hang from the wall, half way up, like one of those balloons we used to rub and rub on our arms, and then stick onto the top of uncle’s bald head for the sheer hell of living.

The central area is good too. It consists of a circle of 25 kg sand bags, heaped four high, across which we are invited to sprawl. A circle of tv screens spews out random facts about injection moulding, the usefulness of robots, etc. Computers invite us to explore more fully all the objects we have just seen on the show’s website: So what do we find out about the design and fabrication of objects such as these raise? Bicycle production outstrips car production world-wide three to one, for example. And some not so evident ones too, verging on the metaphysical: the speculation that lightness may be a human objective. Hmmm.

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