Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Weeks ago I went to see an exhibition at Contemporary applied Art in London called The Stuff of Memory by the artist Simone Ten Hompel.
See exhibitions’ brief on the CAA WEBSITE

The exhibition’s flyer says: “Spoons. Bowls. Jars. Containers. These are the stuff of our daily lives: dependable and utilitarian; and we barely notice if they also carry the ghost memories of their own pasts disguised within form and function.
But Simone has noticed for us”

I was particularly moved by a series of 108 spoons hanging on the wall and by the poetry of the display. They were grouped by “paragraphs” of 3 or 4 spoons, and the light was projecting their shadow on the wall.

Exhibition at CAA. Picture Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist.

I looked at them many times from left to right and then right to left.  I felt those spoons had a story to tell but as I was left alone with them, a lot of questions came to my mind: Why 108? Why is this particular one grouped with this one? Is there a story with a beginning and an end? How can I be moved by spoons that are amongst the most common tools on earth?
And then I let the magic operate: they started to whisper to my ears. “I look fragile but in reality I am strong”. “Try to eat with me and you will have a lot of fun”.  “Me and my two friends have something in common but you won’t find it”. “I am clumsy but I am beautiful”…
And they were not spoons anymore. Every one of them had its own personality and its own story. And they were talking and chatting.

I personally found this series of spoons very strong and moving because it encompasses what fascinates me with Applied Art works:  spoons are originally meant to be used but here they have a great potential that goes far beyond functionality: they become poetic storytellers.

But I know Simone, and I wanted her to tell me her own story. I had the great opportunity to interview her specifically about this part of her exhibition and I thank her for her time. Here is Simone’s story:

Spoons are the first and last tools we use in our life. We start to learn to eat with them, (not with a fork or a knife) and the last thing you possibly eat is soup and that will be with a spoon. So a spoon is a metaphor for life and what happens in between and it allows me to explore that. Also it has the shape of the hand: a cup with a handle attached to it. Sometimes it is a shell and a stick and in some of my spoons, I make the junction between the cup and the handle quite obvious. Those are the two elements. It is a symbol for life. 

Photo Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist

Why I have done so many?  Having done spoons beforehand, I have always done them in sort of groupings but the groupings were much tighter and here with that group I have done 108 of them which is a figure that can be divided or multiplied by 12 and 9. The dozen and also the figure 9 are sacred numbers in religion and have mystical connotation. ‘108’ is a Harshad number and thus makes it for me a figure that has personality. 108 then falls into groups that have a dynamic for debate or elude conversation among them.

I started with some spoons and put them out and then I thought what was missing in them. Just not “any” spoon was made. Some are specifically made to fit into the sentence of its group. Also having to think about selling them within the context of a gallery, I had to make something that would operate in that way, a sort of compromise. If it had been a series where I absolutely didn’t need to think about that aspect, it would probably have been one piece. However the display would have been the same. In this scenario the audience was asked to make a choice of their own new sentence with their own memory and people were asked to select 3 or more spoons. And then the discourse continued with the remaining spoons with new sentences or paragraphs.

Exhibition at CAA. Picture Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist.

They didn’t reinvent my grouping but because it was in the exhibition “the stuff of memory” they had to make their own association. It is likely that association was memory driven, but they had to ask themselves if this one goes with that one and usually stuff from the past came into their reflection.

Yes. Look at the whole series: the first one is a wire spoon and the last one is a thin cut out of a stainless steel spoon, a very fragile one.  So it sort of goes to full circle without being identical.

Photo Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist

Not all of them are functional. Some are reflection about function. The poetry comes from what we bring into the spoons, like a kind of embody memory, possibly?
Spoons are essentially life enhancing tools and as far as I could tell it is a symbol of culture. With one of my spoon (which is made of two pieces, a front and a back) I am speaking of cooperation, balance, division and separation of function. They are operations that are negotiated and quietly democratized.
When we drink coffee or eat pudding we must likely have our odd collection of spoons in a drawer. If we own a complete silver set, we must likely like one particular size because it fits the mouth better than the others or has other personal reasons for being favored. So we are quickly building up a rapport and affinity with a tool like that. And why is that? The spoon itself is not only a tool of life enhancing quality but it represents the start of independency when we start to feed ourselves getting the liquid food from the plate to the mouth without direct contact or interference of the hand. It manifests notions of culture boundaries and their manners or etiquette.

Photo Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist

It goes back from where I come from:  not only farmers would have spoons hanging on a wooden rail for display, but also they were hanging them because they didn’t have cupboards at all... In addition, hanging the spoons allowed me to handle them and to keep them in the position I had chosen. The shadow on the wall is their own memory. It is almost like their conscience. This I will leave it for the onlooker to make sense out of it.

There is a group in the series of spoons reflecting on, me making, that what I am making there and then. The spoons and other works in the exhibition are about all aspects of memory and how or what activates a memory. I am interested in the quest on how memory happens: where is it stored? What it triggers? Is it like a sign? Like a hidden path that you stumble upon or that you consciously seek out? All of a sudden, you find somewhere a kind of twig in a forest and you see there is a path. You follow it and out of nowhere, something hits you like the smell of your mum’s handbag from a far distance in your life. Is it truthfully perceived or subjectively sensed? It is a discovery, it is a journey, and it is unexpected. Depending on how much the audience is ready to let itself immerge into it. The exhibition is about that or it can just be taken as seeing objects, which may be read as a story. It can be very pragmatic as well as in the stillness of it hanging somewhere. It will suit me if people eat from it, make use of the stuff or take it as exhibition are taken?

Photo Simone Ten Hompel. Courtesy of the Artist

Friday, 10 December 2010


Every year I drag myself to Frieze Art Fair. And every year I come to the same conclusion: I really enjoy it for the first 30 minutes and then I am slowly overwhelmed by what surrounds me: too big, too much to see, not enough explanation. I usually finish the exhibition as if I was running a marathon. It’s a shame.
Frieze is THE place where tribes of extremely powerful, rich, intelligent, well-educated art-related people of the entire planet gather… It is so intimidating. I don’t belong and everything is organised there to make you feel that way. So this year I tried to think about those feelings beforehand and decided to try a little experiment. I decided to pick up every WHITE artwork. Like a treasure hunt. And you know, what? It was highly fun and I really enjoyed Frieze for the first time.

But then I started to think about it. Why was it so enjoyable?
First and to be honest, because I picked up a theme that is important to me: white. But then, I think I enjoyed it because it had no sense whatsoever. No clever connection between the pieces, no sophisticated curating, no references to artistic movements or schools… Just something so simple that even a child can do it. Another way of enjoying Art Fairs.

So it gave me other ideas for next year. This year was about colour, but I might try by size (starting from the smallest one to the biggest one), by materials used (wood, steel, fabric…), by weight, by value (if the materials used are cheap or expensive) or location (hung on the wall, put on the floor, on a chair or table…). All those classification will probably be irrelevant and disconnected from the artists’ messages but it might give very different interesting angles to the exhibited artworks…

Here are my Frieze 2010 WHITE findings (Pictures Isabelle Busnel):

Thomas Houseago, Untitled 2010

Thilo Heinzmann, Aicmo 2009

Erwin Thorn, Inhaltsanalyse II, 1969

Erwin Thorn, o.T., 1964

Erwin Wurm, Mr Mutt, 2010

Daniel Sinsel, Untitled 2010

Don Brown, Yoko X (sitting), 2004

Matias Faldbakken, Remainder

Ugo Rondinone

David Shrigley, World one and World two, 2010

Markus Schinwald, Untitled (sacks), 2009

Manuela Leinhoss, Frame

Manuela Leinhoss

Donald Moffett, lot 020110

Callum Innes, Untitled n28, 2010

Florian Slotawa, SG07 1,2,3, 2010

Ugo Rondinone, Still Life, 2008

Silke Otto Knapp

Thursday, 2 December 2010


White fascinates me. This topic will come again and again in my blog in many different ways.
I am not the only one who is fascinated by the colour white… Just for the pleasure, here are some inspirational quotes:

The first of all simple colours is white, although some would not admit that black and white are colours, the first being a source or receiver of colours, and the latter totally deprived of them. But we can’t leave them out, since painting is but an effect of light and shade, so white is the first then yellow, green, blue and red and finally black. White may be said to represent light without which no colour can be seen.

Leonardo Da Vinci

It takes a great deal of courage to design in white and it also takes no courage at all.
I wanted my home to be totally pure, to be a statement that was honest and clean, straight from the heart, a dream. I wanted a place that would give me the feeling of floating. I wanted to come home and feel simplicity and peace.

Ralph Lauren

I have transformed myself in the zero of form and dragged myself out of the rubbish-filled pool of academic art. I have torn through the blue lampshade of colour limitations, and come out into the white… Sail forth ! the white, free chasm, infinity is before us.


We should remember that to the physicist, black and white are not colours… Psychologically, however, black and white are colours because they produce sensations, and they have symbolic meanings as well as definite effects on visibility.

Louis Cheskin

Emptied of all extraneous detail and colour, whiteness stood for what was pure, modern and spiritual. In a period of political turmoil, they offered a new way of thinking about the world and Englishness.

 The Independent on Ben Nicholson

White has a great covering power. The whitewashed family does not question the bride’s blushes beneath the veil.

Derek Jarman

Whiteness is the most conceptual colour…it does not interfere with our thoughts.

Yoko Ono

Every citizen is required to replace his hangings, his damasks, his wall papers, his stencils with a plain coat of white (paint).

Le corbusier

This white light, purged from the angry, bloodlike stains of action and passion, reveals, not what is accidental in man, but the tranquil godship in him, as opposed to the restless accidents of life.

Walter Pater

And white appears. Absolute white. White beyond all whiteness. White of the coming of white. White without compromise, through exclusion, through total eradication of non white. Insane, enraged white, screaming with whiteness. Fanatical, furious, riddling the victim. Horrible electric white, implacable, murderous. White in bursts of white.

Henri Michaux (with Mescaline)

Monday, 22 November 2010


In the FT weekend supplement Superior Interiors (October issue), I read a very interesting article about a new phenomenon tagged as “Critical Design”. The question asked in the subtitle was: “should a piece of furniture stretch us emotionally and intellectually?”
As a jewellery designer and a craft person, I am particularly interested when people blur the boundaries between disciplines. And I think that it is what Critical Design is aiming somehow.
But what exactly is Critical Design ?

The term ‘critical Design” was first used by a duo of designers: Dunne and Raby (professors at RCA). I was curious to learn what they call critical design and therefore browsed their website I recommend it to everybody interested in design…

Here are some extracts of “CRITICAL DESIGN FAQ”:

“What is Critical Design?

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate.
What is it for?

Mainly to make us think. But also raising awareness, exposing assumptions, provoking action, sparking debate, even entertaining in an intellectual sort of way, like literature or film.

Why is it happening now?

The world we live in today is incredibly complex, our social relations, desires, fantasies, hopes and fears are very different from those at the beginning of the 20c. Yet many key ideas informing mainstream design stem form the early 20c. 

Society has moved on but design has not, Critical Design is one of many mutations design is undergoing in an effort to remain relevant to the complex technological, political, economic and social changes we are experiencing at the beginning of the 21c.
Is it a movement?

No. It's not really a field that can be neatly defined. It's more about values and an attitude, a way of looking at design and imagining its possibilities beyond the narrow definitions of what is presented through media and in the shops.
And its future? 

A danger for critical design is that it ends up as a form of sophisticated design entertainment: 90% humour 10% critique. It needs to avoid this situation by identifying and engaging with complex and challenging issues. Areas like Future Forecasting would benefit from its more gritty view of human nature and ability to make abstract issues tangible. It could also play a role in public debates about the social, cultural and ethical impact on everyday life of emerging and future technologies.”

At that stage, what Critical Design stands for starts to make sense but to make it even more accessible, I think its needs to be illustrated by some very concrete examples.
The article featured some objects. I chose only 3 of them (the ones I found the more relevant) and I did some research on the web to understand those objects and the manifesto of the artists.

Wokmedia, "Once Furniture Collection" (picture from Wokmedia website)

In the Wokmedia website I found those statements:

About the objects:
“"Once" (name of the project) consists of chopsticks held together by a chaotic structure of friction and gravity, creating a Still life with a pinch into our collective lower back to encourage us to rethink our consumption habits. All pieces in the collection are limited to 20. "Once" is part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Art and Design New York and selected pieces will be shown at the Design Museum Holon Israel mid of March 2010.”

About the manifesto:
“Julie Mathias and Wolfgang Kaeppner established WOKmedia in 2004. They are based in London with a production studio in Shanghai.
Wokmedia’s work is primarily concerned with the emotional dimension, an archetypal memory or a physical sensation. Often they survey a state of in between where chaos is showing structure and confusion is beginning to make sense. Where out of devastation and destruction emerges a new world. A world imbedded in their childhood memories when emotions were not expected to be filtered, when make-believe was not equated with lunacy”.

Tomas Gabzdil Libertiny, "Honeycomb Vase" (picture from Google Images)

Here are some quotes I found in DEEZEN website
About the object:
“Libertiny made a vase-shaped hive that the bees then colonised, building a hexagon comb around it. The wax sheets used to make the hive were embossed with a honeycomb pattern to help the bees on their way.
Libertiny calls the process “slow prototyping” – it took 40,000 bees a week to make the vase. Since the bees get aggressive when they are interrupted, Libertiny had to guess when it was time to remove the vase".

About the manifesto:
I have been interested in contradicting the current consumer society (which is interested in slick design) by choosing to work with a seemingly very vulnerable and ephemeral material – beeswax.
To give a form to this natural product it has occurred more than logical to choose a form of a vase as a cultural artifact. Beeswax comes from flowers and in the form of a vase ends up serving flowers on their last journey.
At this point I asked myself a question: “Can I make this product already at the place where the material originates?” My ambition to push things further led me to alienate the process by which bees make their almost mathematically precise honeycomb structures and direct it to create a fragile and valuable object – like a pearl. This takes time and time creates value.
Not meaning it as an euphemism, I called this process “slow prototyping”. It took 1 week and around 40.000 bees to create a honeycomb vase.”

Studio Makkink & Bey, "Drawers Cratecupboard" (picture Google Images)

Here are the quotes I have found in Studio Makkink & Bey website

About the object:
“A crate transformed into a cabinet; a by-product transformed into a finished product, extending its life. A shipping crate, normally used to temporarily house goods, takes on a more autonomous role as an interior.”

About the manifesto:
“Studio Makkink & Bey investigates the various domains of applied art while studying the tension between the private and public domain. Taking a critical stance towards the designing of public space, architecture, interiors, exhibitions and products is pivotal. The studio is located in an old industrial building enabling the entire production to come about on site. The design team operates as one entity and includes experts of various disciplines ranging from fashion, design and architecture. The cross-wiring between the different areas of expertise prompts new insights and perspectives, which are used within each stage of the design process. Stories, study and research are in constant movement throughout the design process, to be converted into solutions for a perpetually changing environment. The goal of our studio is to entice a new design culture by showing new alternatives through critical design. Analytical design is a fundament for a new culture in a city, public building or house. Initially, all existing forces are reviewed to be defined again and reshuffled into a fitting design narrative. Experiment, doubt and a hodgepodge way of thinking are crucial to disclose hidden values and stories. This new potential unlocks all the possible qualities to constitute new cultural bearers.”

I think that those three examples, even if very different, share common particularities:
-       they are not really functional
-       they are everyday objects (chairs, vase, drawer)
-       they all try to raise awareness on excesses of our consumer society (profusion and waste, ephemeral and vulnerable, recycling…)
-       they are eye-catching, different, provoking
-       they don’t need pages of explanation and are almost self-explanatory

Those objects fascinate me as they really blur the boundaries between design, craft, and art. Because they lack a specific function, one can wonder if they are still “real” products. Asked whether Critical Design wasn’t Art, Wokmedia did a very interesting answer :
“It is definitely not art. It might borrow heavily from art in terms of methods and approaches but that's it. We expect art to be shocking and extreme. Critical Design needs to be closer to the everyday, that's where its power to disturb comes from. Too weird and it will be dismissed as art, too normal and it will be effortlessly assimilated. If it is regarded as art it is easier to deal with, but if it remains as design it is more disturbing, it suggests that the everyday as we know it could be different, that things could change.”

I love this quote as it summarizes perfectly what I think Contemporary Craft should aim for: instead of pretending to be Art, it should stick to its strength which lies in the power of questioning things through everyday objects and of disturbing our perception of what we take for granted. 

Sunday, 21 November 2010


Some weeks ago, I put my best shoes, nicest socks as I headed to the Tate Modern to “experience” the Ai Weiwei Installation in the Turbine Hall. My intention was to walk barefoot on the 100 millions seeds, to touch them and why not to lie down on them.
In the tate modern website, one can read:
“Sunflower Seeds is a sensory and immersive installation, which visitors can touch, walk on and listen to as the seeds shift beneath their feet. However, the tactile, engaging nature of this work also encourages us to consider highly pertinent questions about ourselves and our world. What does it mean to be an individual in today’s society? Are we insignificant or powerless unless we act together? What do our increasing desires, materialism and number mean for the future? Ai Weiwei has said “From a very young age I started to sense that an individual has to set an example in society. Your own acts and behaviour tell the world who you are and at the same time what kind of society you think it should be.”

But due to the Health and Safety fears over the dust created from the public walking on the seeds, the exhibition is all now cordoned off and we can only experience the installation behind a security rope: one can’t even touch, see or approach the seeds (the rope is 3 meters far from the seeds). The only thing you can do is ask a member of staff to show you on one the seed.
Here is what you see:

Picture, Isabelle Busnel

And the only encounter you can have with the installation is touching and photographing only one of the 100 millions seeds…

Pictures, Isabelle Busnel

One can argue that on top of the supposed sensory level, there are many other layers in this installation:  one relates to the symbolic meaning of sunflower seeds often associated with The Cultural revolution, another one invites us to reflect on mass production versus traditional craftsmanship (each seed has been moulded, hand painted and is unique) and the astonishing quantity of seeds forces us to think on how we engage with numbers and value.

But I can’t stop thinking that by removing the sensory and immersive part of this installation, the major part of the artist’s message disappears. Conceived to be participatory, this installation becomes conceptual and intellectual.

It is deeply regretful as participatory installations can be so powerful. I remember an Exhibition at the Tate Modern from the Brazilian Artist Cildo Meireles and particularly the last room of this retrospective called “Volatil”: visitors had to enter a room barefoot, the floor covered by a foot-deep layer of plush talcum powder. The room was dark and filled with the smell of gas, a hissing sound and a lit candle in the corner was the only source of light.

Cildo Meireles, Volatile 1980–94 
Photo: Tate Photography

The sensation in-between toes and under the feet was amazing and there was a high sense of awareness with the environment. But being in the dark with the gas smell triggered fear and unease as well. ‘For me the art object must be, despite everything else, instantly seductive.’
 states Cildo Meireles “My work aspires to a condition of density, great simplicity, directness, openness of language and interaction.” One can read on the Tate Modern website that his work inherited the legacy of Neo-concretism, a Brazilian movement of the late 1950s that rejected the extreme rationalism of geometric abstraction in favour of more sensorial, participatory works, which engages the body as well as the mind.
Some people read the piece as a memorial to those killed in gas chambers during the Second World War, though the artist has a more benign take, comparing the experience of walking across powder to floating through clouds. Either way, this installation had a very powerful sensory impact on me.

And that is exactly what I was expecting with Ai Weiwei’s installation : some lucky journalists had the chance to experience it on the private view. Here is what Richard Dorment writes for the : “It took 1,600 people two and a half years to manufacture the number the artist needed to make the piece you see at Tate Modern. Like so much else about China, on paper such figures are almost meaningless. Only by seeing it can you begin to grasp its immensity. Standing before it, we look out over an immeasurable, fathomless grey sea.
But the moment when you step on it, your relationship to what lies beneath your feet changes. Each crunching footstep merely displaces a thin layer at the top of the pile. Our weight leaves no impression on the millions and millions of seeds beneath our feet. What from afar had been far too immense for the imagination to grasp instantly becomes as worthless as gravel”.

In my opinion, participatory installations or artworks share something in common with contemporary craft: it engages the body as well as the mind. According to Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman, he views the satisfactions of physical making as a necessary part of being human. And craft work becomes a way to keep ourselves rooted in material reality, providing a steadying balance in a world which overrates mental facility.
Ai Weiwei ‘s 100 millions seeds are hand crafted by skilled men and women and the message of the artwork was supposed to be transmitted physically to viewers thanks to the tactile, engaging nature of this work.
Too late…I should have gone there at the very first beginning of the exhibition...