It’s a while since I last visited Brighton Pavilion, the home of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery but each time I have visited I have come away feeling that I had seen something fresh and perhaps a tiny bit marvellous. Today was no exception with a visit to the current feature exhibition Subversive Design. Billed as “Craft, design and fashion with attitude” the exhibition explores how designers and makers react to the world around them. Indeed the curators state that ” this major exhibition subverts your preconceptions and challenges your relationship with objects you use on a daily basis.” But does it?
The dictionary definition of Subversive is:
Adjective: Seeking or intended to subvert an established system or institution.
Noun: A subversive person – (The government claimed we were subversives or terrorists.)
Certainly some of the objects on display fulfil these definitions, but many others, while being interesting art objects in their own right, are of the sort of thing which can be found in any “Cool” design outlet in the trendy areas of any city in any country. Perhaps not quite that subversive then. What I find interesting is how many modern artists/designers have used expletives, profanities, gory and explicit sexual imagery as a shock tactic in an attempt to subvert. This was particularly relevant in the clothing of Vivienne Westwood from the 80’s, and granted at that time it was considered shocking by many; but it is a constant surprise to me that so many contemporary designers and artists still do so. Are we really still shocked by images of genitalia or prolific use of “The F-Word” in the 21st century?
The piece that I found the most compelling was the digitally printed cotton duvet cover which looked like a flattened cardboard box. Made by the Dutch collective known as SNURK, the piece is called the Clochard Duvet and was made in 2008 as a comment about homelessness. Now I am fortunate that I have never been homeless, but this made me think about my own attitude towards those who are. I think this is what really good art or design is about, something that challenges you and makes you consider your ideas and beliefs.
Clochard Duvet (2008) SNURK, printed cotton
I have said previously that much of what was on show looked as if it could be found in trendy design shops, and indeed a quotation on the gallery wall in relation to jewellery inspired by rubbish (crushed tin cans, used razor blades – but NOT made from these things) says:
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only that gives everything value” Interesting words indeed, and more so when you realise that they were spoken by Thomas Paine circa 1776-1783. Nothing changes. But does something really have to have financial value to be esteemed or indeed be Valuable?
A common element of all the work on show was the exceptionally high standard of manufacture, perhaps because this is essentially a Design show and not an Art show, even though much of what is on show is also Art. An interesting piece is the ceramic figurine of Grayson Perry’s alter-ego, Claire by ceramicist Carole Windham from 2003. Titled “Claire, a Tranny who won the Turner Prize” the figure shows Perry dressed in his trademark frock, but lifting his skirt and exposing himself. Carole Windham says of the piece “the title is a quote from Perry and by depicting him as his alter-ego lifting his skirt and masturbating I am reminding the viewer of the dual way in which we perceive the world – it is up to each of us whether we experience the polarities as conflicting or complimentary.” Carole Windham 2003. The piece is more interesting in that Perry himself has work on display in the show from around the same period in time which bears several remarkable similarities to those of Windham and which perhaps asks the question who is/was aware of whom, or if neither knew much about the other, where did they get their particular style influences from? A second link to Perry can also be seen in the flamboyant costumes of Leigh Bowery, the 1980’s influential avant garde performance artist, pop star, club promoter, fashion designer and model. Personally, I see Bowery’s influence in much of Perry’s sartorial styling. But is any of this really subversive? I am not sure.
“Claire, a Tranny who won the Turner Prize” 2003 by Carole Windham
A somewhat more suprising garment is the dress worn by Lily Allen to the Glamour Awards ceremony in 2008. A pretty pink silk is printed with the decapitated image of all-time Disney favourite Bambi. Designed by Giles Deacon and called “Who Killed Bambi” the dress takes its name from a song by the almost-punk band Tenpole Tudor, and the motif has been reused in ceramics and jewellery.
Who Killed Bambi? by Giles Deacon and worn by Lily Allen
It is an interesting garment as it’s imagery definitely subverts the soft and feminine fabric.
Several of the other objects on show are really what I would call art or maybe decorators pieces. These are objects which have novelty but no actual practicality, and in my view, perhaps not really subverting anything, rather just being fun or interesting.
Fifties Housewives. A wall paper commissioned for the exhibition by Dupenny
A strange lamp (horse?) made from reclaimed items stands against wall paper covered in digitally printed spiders
“Chopper” (2008) by Richard Slee, yard broom and ceramic figure
Two items which I think illustrated the “shock” value of subversive design were the muslin dress from the late 18th century, which in its day was considered shocking and disgraceful as muslin had only previously been used for undergarments; and the beautiful washstand; vanity unit from the early 1900’s. This lovely piece of furniture was made in the Art Nouveau style with delicate marquetry inlay of flowers and leaves. What was the most shocking thing about this pretty piece at the time was the fact that it was built around a metal framework made to look like wood!
I really enjoyed this exhibition even if I am not entirely convinced that all of the pieces on display are subversive. My feeling about it is that it just scratches the surface of this subject and that there is scope for further investigation perhaps exploring more specific ideas.
It is definitely worth a look if you are in Brighton between now and March 9th 2014.