The State of Things

Porcupine, Idiots, 2005
Porcupine, Idiots, 2005

A show of design and craft by a disparate selection of practitioners leaves Frederico Duarte wondering just what the state of things is 

The State of Things, currently showing at the National Museum in Oslo, presents an array of design collectives and individuals who, according to the curator, Stina Högvist, are actively involved in creating some kind of utopia: “the present in which they themselves want to live.” Judging from the works on display, this present is at best undefined, slightly self-indulgent and gloriously post-modern.

Although the exhibition’s scope is international, the Scandinavian context steers it towards a challenge to “blonde modernism”. There are no pure lines or simple, functional forms here; in fact, there are very few products at all. The show is dominated by objects, artefacts, devices, installations and, ultimately, artworks. These designers seem to be saying that they are not content with labels or categories being imposed on their work – be it design, craft or art.

Probably the exhibition’s strongest statement – if it has one – is the way in which this particular zeitgeist questions the notion of good taste. Works by the Finnish collective Revolutions On Request play on pop culture and religion, with kitsch pieces such as “Lick It Up”, a copy of rock band Kiss’ Gene Simmons mask, complete with a motion detector silicone tongue, and Everybody Needs Love, a hand-stitched portrait of Jesus.

A chaotic, makeshift strand runs through the show. The first thing you encounter are Swedish “radical craftsman” Lagombra’s rough-timber cycle ramps. Although apparently illegal (according to Oslo’s public safety regulations) the piece adds an element of adventure to the public square outside the museum. Then there’s Norwegian Temp’s Temptation Island, a mass of ceramic objects and bric-a-brac piled up in an amorphous, nauseating celebration of crockery. It’s all refreshingly unrefined.

A rabbit head trophy with pearls stitched to its ears, a bird with a fake peacock’s tail, a lioness melting into gold nuggets and a porcupine (with metal needles) on wheels create provocative and humorous portraits of the dead.

The international collective Åbäke created a new Norwegian flag, and designed the exhibition’s intelligent catalogue. Åbäke, along with designers such as Martino Gamper, Uglycute (who designed the reading area and reception desk) and Kjell Ryllander, perhaps have not benefited from the particular groupings on display here – there’s no obvious direction or mission in the selection.

The State of Things offers no clear manifesto. These pieces of design, craft and – when other categories fail – art are more reactive, rejecting notions of industry and resorting to fantasy, humour and escapism.

Just as Marcel Duchamp stated back in 1917 that art is what the artist says it is, is design today simply what the designer says it is? Increasingly, yes. Having said that, the ambition of being the autonomous creator, manufacturer and distributor so dear to the “new crafts” movement is very well addressed here, even if any sense of urgency or commentary is absent from the exhibition itself. This feels like a somewhat accidental and lukewarm revolution.

The State of Things is at National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design. Osl, until 3 September

Originally published in icon, July 2006

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