Saturday, 31 December 2016

Fear and love in Holland Park.

My friend Owen was over from Los Angeles and wanted to take some culture in while he was here. I was glad he did as I may well have been tempted to be very lazy during the festive break. He was keen on having a look at the new Design Museum in Holland Park and so was I. I'd never even been to Holland Park. Let alone seen the new museum.

I loved the old one down by Tower Bridge. Not just for its clean white lines but also its location that enabled riverside walks and cheeky pints in the pubs of Shad Thames. What it lacked though was much of a permanent collection. In fact you had to pay to visit a temporary exhibition if you wanted to go any further than the shop.

The new museum has got a much more extensive, interesting, and free permanent collection which we enjoyed a good nose around and I'll no doubt return before long. We thought we'd try one of the exhibitions though and opted for Fear and Love:Reactions to a Complex World. It seemed quite apt considering the year we've all been living through.

The gist of the show was a selection of newly commissioned works exploring a spectrum of issues that define our time. These included sentient robots, networked sexuality, slow fashion, and settled nomads. Needless to say that, other than design (surely a prerequisite in this museum), there wasn't a lot to link up these disparate works. Best viewed as a series of individual pieces really.

First up are a bunch who call themselves the Rural Urban Framework. Their piece, City of Nomads, looks at the urban expansion of Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, and how this affects the already challenging lifestyles in the city. It's an interesting look at lifes lived very differently to ours and it's fascinating to see and hear ordinary Mongolians go about their day to day business but it doesn't offer much in the way of solutions to the increasing problems being experienced there.

Andres Jaque's Intimate Strangers, despite coming from a very different place indeed, also suffered with similar problems. A room full of small televisions and one large screen mapped out the history of gay dating/meet up app Grindr. Of course I sniggered when reading messages like "Hey you, how's it going? Fancy sucking a dick tonight?" but the story of the logistics of Grindr and the social impact it's having was highly engrossing. Towards the end of the film we heard the story of a Syrian refugee who'd managed not to ruin his phone crossing the Mediterranean and, once holed up in a Dutch camp, immediately put it to use to find nearby sexual partners. Even in the face of death, it seems, sex is never far from our mind.

Not everyone is looking for a quick fix though. Ma Ka was the most successful fashion designer in China when, ten years ago, she decided to stop producing commercial clothing. She established Wuyong, meaning 'useless', a design studio and social enterprise dedicated to traditional ways of making clothes. A kind of antidote to China's rapid industrialisation and the hyper-consumption that has followed in its wake. Ma Ka often works with women from the mountainous regions of southwest China. Their wooden looms can take months to produce a single item of clothing. It's an almost ritualistic process of planting, reaping, hand-weaving, plant-dying, and hand-stitching. There are several pieces us visitors can ponder and they're all lit very well. So much so that even if I was able to get a pretty decent photo. I'm actually very proud of this one.

Something, or someone, called OMA/AMO, in the wake of this year's disastrous Brexit vote, decided their contribution to this exhibition would be a statement in support of Europe. Their simple, but utterly wonderful, idea was The Pan-European Living Room. A room furnished with pieces from each of the 28 member states of the EU. Anyone looking at it would surely concede that the strength, and beauty, that comes from togetherness is far stronger and more beautiful than that which comes from isolation. Go back to the picture of Ulan Bator if you have your doubts.

Nina Campbell's Peony Place wallpaper represents the UK. Rama Carpet's Greek 'flokati' rug is surmounted by a French mexique coffee table on which stands a Romanian ERO coffee pot. Dieter Rams' Braun clock (representing Germany) surveys Hans Wegner's Danish sofa made more inviting by the presence of a traditional Lithuanian cushion. I liked it so much I wanted to live in it. Much like the EU itself. 

Not sure I'd want Mimus as a neighbour though. This giant industrial robot is very curious about the world around her. But she gets bored very easily too. Reminds me of a few people I know. Mimus has no eyes but she uses embedded sensors to see everyone around her simultaneously. She comes in for a closer look, follows you around for a bit, and then gets fed up and moves on to somebody, or something, else.

The thought behind Mimus is that she (not sure why she's a she, rather than an it) is responding to a commonly cited social fear of robots taking work from humans. Madeline Gannon, Mimus's mum, prefers to see robots as companion species rather than competitors for jobs. With this in mind maybe Mimus should be free to travel around the exhibition, museum, and even Holland Park itself, rather than being couped up in a zoo like cage! Whatever. It was fun to watch people make goofs of themselves interacting with her.

One thing these robots won't need a lot of is food. The rest of us do and one of the planet's most pressing, and obvious, concerns is how to provide that. The population is growing (though if we keep electing psychopaths to power that will surely change soon) and, though there are about 50,000 edible plant species on Earth, most of our human diet is built around just a few grains. Muji art director Kenya Hara has employed artists to paint these grains. They're rendered in hyper realistic form so that most visitors will initially assume them to be photographs. If the staff (in their rather odd black dungarees that made them look like they were on their way to a shift at an abattoir) hadn't given us the heads up I'm sure we'd have too. I took a photo of a chapatti and a naan bread. They looked almost good enough to eat.

The grains and the robot rather sidelined a somewhat dry exhibit ( from Metahaven about the undoubtedly good work the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd continue to do. It made some interesting points about our obsession with creating newer, and ever more powerful, forms of artificial intelligence whilst, at the same time, allowing the continual slaughter of highly intelligent animals like whales and dolphins. It's a pity there wasn't a bit more room given over to this. Maybe it's one for the Natural History Museum and Science Museum to cover in a joint-venture.

Shoved into an even tighter corner was Chalayan's Room Tone. This time I thought rightly so. The thinking behind their piece was that London was a more stressful place than other world cities. I didn't really buy into that premise and, therefore, I didn't really buy into the piece that sought to monitor mental stress as folks went about their day to day business. It was, for me, the most disappointing thing in the show.

I soon moved on to Potocinema's Arquitectura Expandida which sounded much more up my calle. I'd visited Bogota in 2015 and liked the city. As I was on holiday though I didn't visit the neighbourhood of Ciudad Bolivar. One of the poorest and most violent areas it's a self-built community settled by rural migrants fleeing the ongoing conflict between the government and various paramilitary groups and drug cartels. It's a conflict the Colombian government held a referendum to end this year but the electorate voted for it to continue. If one thing has gone down in stock this year it's the value of referendums. That and the pound.

Arquitectura Expandida's commission for the museum wasn't as interesting, initially, as its back story and the work it's done in the local community. All we got to see was some televisions but further investigation revealed they were telling the story of how Expandida had used their commission to build a school for the Ojo al Sancocho collective which teaches young people to make films but, until now, had no space to do so. The installation was a small scale replica of the school built from bamboo and polycarbonate sheets. It was, in retrospect, the most touching (and the most useful) work in the whole show.

Although Christien Meindertsma's Fibre Market could, one day, come to be looked back on as a very useful contribution. Most of the clothes you throw away will end up in an incinerator or as landfill. While the ones you recycle will be turned into materials of low value such as carpet liner. One of the reasons it's so difficult to recycle clothes is because there's been no way to sort them by fabric and colour. Meindertsma has been working with the first generation of machines that can do this. The results are certainly visually very pleasing but it looks like it'll still be a while before this technique is anywhere near perfected.

Vespers by Neri Oxman was the final commission. The ancient cultural artefact of the death mask rendered as a speculative piece of wearable technology. I'm really not sure what Neri is trying to say here but, again, it's a visually strong piece and it added to the gaiety of an exhibition that had, in places, been touching, amusing, educational, and, often, utterly pointless. Much like design itself I guess.

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