Martino Gamper & Haim Steinbach

April 10, 2014 / Arts and Culture

By Don Grant

Don Grant reviews a pair of art exhibitions in disguise as IKEA product displays, or is it the other way around?

Martino Gamper: design is a state of mind &
Haim Steinbach: once again the world is flat
Serpentine Galleries
Until 21 April 2014
Admission free

Back in the late 1980s, posters advertising the V&A used the coy slogan ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. The new Sackler Gallery has a ‘caff ’ called The Magazine, in deference to the old gunpowder store from the Napoleonic Wars, to which it is attached. You can get away with anything, it seems, if you chant the mantra ‘traditional meets the modern’, a bit like parking a Lamborghini Veneno in the courtyard of a Palladian villa in Veneto.

So here we have a wannabe rural villa in the neoclassical style in Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park with one of those cheap stackable plastic chairs you find in pub gardens parked alongside. But, let’s venture inside. This is an exhibition, curated by Gamper, about shelving - mostly shelving with objects on them.

Some shelves have no objects on them and they are none the worse for that; designs by Alvar Aalto, Franco Albini and Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis Group, and Gamper’s own, could easily be stand-alone pieces, although Vico Magistretti’s beechwood Nuvola Rossa contains objects selected and curated by Andrew Stafford, including indicators from an Austin A30, some string found at Brick Lane market in 1985 and a door release switch found amongst the demolished ruins of James Turrell’s 1999 Cornwall eclipse inspired installation, The Elliptic Eclipse. And so on. Wire whisks, wooden spoons, Ron Arad’s ping-pong paddle, a heater knob from a Peugeot 205, a cigar mould, a bell-shaped knitting needle gauge, yellow packing foam and, on an off-the-shelf IKEA shelving unit, a display bristling with tools.

There were über-trendy, goth attendants at every turn, as it would have been only too easy to trouser a bicycle light bracket found in London in the late 1990s or a zinc die-cast model of the Eiffel Tower. Somehow my tendency to purloin, liberate or simply steal an object was dampened by a lack of desire to own virtually any of them, apart from a few books and records collected by Simon Prosser to fill Dieter Rams’s natural anodised aluminium, powder-coated, pre-treated, mild steel 606 Universal Shelving System. A collection of bricks adorning Andrea Branzi’s laminated wood, ash wood, and crystal Gritti Bookcase was collected by Maki Suzaki from Carl Andre’s assistant in New York and brought back in his luggage, instead of the 36kg of reference books he had purchased at Strand Book Store on Broadway. Without a trace of irony, he states in the catalogue, ‘ This is why to me, they are not bricks, but books I have not read yet.’

I entered another, smaller gallery and liked quite a few of the objects on display, even to the point of pocketing one, but I then realised I had wandered into the shop.

Across the bridge that spans the short distance between the two galleries is, according to their web-site, ‘a theatre that interweaves history, art and adventure’. In the original gallery, and running concurrently with Gamper’s show, Haim Steinbach was displaying, amongst other things, objects on shelves. Also utilising everyday objects, Steinbach’s interest is in the fundamental practise of collecting by exploring the placing of objects on shelves. Déjà-vu, or what?

He abandoned Minimalist painting in the seventies, some pleasing examples of which are on display, and started to create works using linoleum. He also invited the public to lend their salt and pepper shakers to be displayed within his installation of modular building systems, i.e, shelves. Somewhat portentously, his participatory gesture reactivated the salt and pepper shakers within a new context and made the connection between the private and public sphere. He had also borrowed some perfectly nice Victorian doll’s houses from the V&A Museum of Childhood and displayed them high up in the gallery, out of reach, and almost out of sight. With a last glance at an Ajax cleaning can on a wood and plastic shelf, and a kitsch Little Orphan Annie plaster figurine atop another shelf made of Spiderman masks, I left and felt I had shortened my own shelf-life by a couple of hours.

Originally published in Kensington and Chelsea Today.

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