The New Decor 04.08.11


Chain Leather Swing by Monica Bonivici (image: David Levene)

In tackling home furnishings for the Hayward's summer blockbuster, artists are catching up with design, says Charles Holland

The New Décor – the Hayward Gallery's summer blockbuster show – looks, at first glance, like design's evil twin brother. The many and various pieces explore a darker side of design, probing everyday objects – beds, chairs, doorways and, even, hammocks - for signs of psychological anxiety, political repression and sexual fetishism.

It's a big, sprawling show and the Hayward is filled with the work of 36 individual artists, many of whom have contributed more than one piece. Austrian art group Gelitin have a number of exhibits, all of which take a warped junk shop aesthetic. A sofa, seemingly lashed together from broken bits of bentwood furniture, is cushioned with the backsides of various stuffed toy bears.

Other work has more explicit, or at least, heavily signposted, content. Mona Hatoum's Interior Landscape reproduces a prison-like cell in which images of Palestine appear repeatedly in the details: a delicate bag cut from a map of Palestine, a pillow stitched with human hair in the same precarious outline.

In one of the more quietly powerful pieces in the show, Jin Shi reconstructs the home of a Chinese migrant worker at half-scale. The resulting object is deeply unsettling, a squalid doll's house pushed quietly into a corner under the gallery's stairs.

Many exhibits don't work so well. Elmgreen and Dragset contribute a number of pieces that seem both heavy-handed and slightly twee: broken clocks, cracks in the wall and multiple doorways that lead nowhere lapse into a familiar form of cliched surrealism. Similarly, Monica Bonvicini's Belts Couch, a sofa made from old leather belts, and Chain Leather Swing, a kind of S&M hammock, offer not much more than one-plus-one-equals-two style literalness.

They're also an exhibition catalogue writer's wet dream, inviting all sorts of easy inversions while remaining curiously inert and clumsy as artworks. Indeed, a minor criticism of the show – along with pretty much all contemporary art shows, to be fair – is the slightly hectoring quality of the labelling and the way the audience is carefully directed towards a singular reading of the work.

More pertinently, perhaps, the exhibition fits into a rich seam in current design, one that uses familiar and traditional domestic objects as a site for exploring psychological, political and latent symbolic meaning. Despite being made by artists, many of the pieces in The New Décor wouldn't look out of place at the Milan furniture fair. Designers like Studio Job and Jurgen Bey have been making work of a similarly critical nature for some time now.

The work in The New Décor lies at the boundary between art and design, a self-reflexive space characterised by objects that are often ugly, grotesque and deliberately ham-fisted in their construction. Broadly speaking you could characterise this as postmodern, not in the cliched sense of ironic allusion and historic reference, but in its more critical incarnation as work that replaces modernist optimism with self-doubt and Dadaist playfulness. Overarching meta-narratives of social improvement and progress have been replaced with a million smaller stories exploring the way in which our identities are encoded in the objects that surround us.

This exhibition could then have easily included work by designers as well as artists. In doing so it might have shifted the content from commentary to something more ambiguous. We are used to art that is critical and difficult and which makes us uncomfortable. The sharp edge of design increasingly occupies this territory too, asking us to live with our uncertainties and make them a positive part of our environment.

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Untitled (Chandelier VII) by Yuichi Higashionna)

The New Décor is at the Hayward Gallery, London, until 5 September



Charles Holland

quotes story

The work in The New Décor lies at the boundary between art and design, a self-reflexive space characterised by objects that are often ugly, grotesque and deliberately ham-fisted in their construction

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