I wanted to make a gag about a press breakfast of Duchampians but I couldn’t quite make it work. It would have been a good gag. And relevant. Almost a century on and we’re still loitering around Duchamp’s urinal, still dealing with its backsplash. A new exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Design Real, plays the Duchampian provocation with a straight bat or with a double-bluff. Hard to say. Wasn’t it a lovely urinal the show suggests. Wasn’t it form and function just the way they should be.
Of course there are no urinals in this exhibition (there easily could have been, as long as they were smart new urinals that managed their task in smart new ways. The only provocation would have been if they were badly designed urinals). The show’s curator, the German industrial designer Konstantin Grcic, has brought mass-ish produced (at some point over the last ten years) design into the small white spaces of the Serpentine – for its first design show - with no apology and little in the way of explanation. Or not where you expect it anyway. The objects have been hung and ennobled on plinths but not described to death. And so the obvious Duchampian come on.
When art galleries and museums do design they usually feel the need to explain exactly what the piece does, how it does it and why it does it better than the thing that did it before. But Grcic’s 42 objects (and, as with the Tin Man, a space where an artificial heart should have been) – including a Volvo tail light, a Lamborghini spoiler, a municipal broom, an easy-pack earthquake helmet, the enormous electric battery for a Tesla car, a Sebastian Wrong mirror and on - are given the sparest of introductions.
Some of the designs are clearly authored – an occasional flash of the flamboyant id amongst all the subdued super-egotism – while others look undesigned and accidental. Some – the water-container wheel – are wonderful lo-fi logic for the developing world, others hi-tech luxury goodies. There are though no editions or prototypes or one-offs. No ‘design art’. Nor is there any hierarchy, narrative, thematic construct. Just stuff, not art, stuff. Grcic wants us to take the pieces as we find them, as found objects in the vacuumed space of a contemporary gallery.
In an essay in the exhibition’s excellent catalogue, the US designer Jonathan Olivares makes the point that design is so inchoate and undisciplined a discipline – such a difficult adolescent - that it might take an artist to put it into some kind of larger perspective. An Andreas Gursky factory shot perhaps. Or Ed Ruscha’s graphics (Grcic’s simple tags to identify each design, calling a broom a broom, a table a table and nothing more, are very Ruscha). And so showing design in an art gallery might help us see design more clearly.
The tagging system also brings in Barthes. The ‘Office Chair’ of the exhibition, the Aeron, is the one many of us sit on most of the time. And the chair is given no extra charge by being put in this space. It just looks like someone forgot to take an office chair away. It’s typology but it makes us think harder about how other exhibits challenge and play against those simple typological tags. The sign and signifier soup gets more tasty and complex.
Grcic does not want us to leave it at the tags of course. There is a fantastic but distinct research space in the gallery; a circle of sand bags, TV screens and hacked Kindles that offer all the background info you could want (most of it from the website that has been launched to back-up the show).
And Grcic uses this background info to ask us to think about the complexities of industrial production, the chains of supplier and sub-suppliers, the testing and trials, the mammoth effort it takes to get this stuff out there. It also looks at the key dilemmas and debates of contemporary design: that the modernist dream of perfectly-formed plastic for everyone is an environmental nightmare.
But ultimately Grcic is, as Emily King points out in the exhibition catalogue, a techno-optimist. And he wants us to feel how clever and complex and beautiful the modern world of design and manufacturing is. That design has solved problems in the past and it will go on solving them.