Among The Ruins
Until June 24; Dundee Contemporary Arts
Since it opened in 1999, DCA has played host to a wide variety of
exhibitions, but the institution has always seemed most at home with
a more presbyterian approach to contemporary art. Visual restraint
has been coupled with functionality, minimalism, and a carefully channelled
conceptualism. This is no different from many other contemporary art
galleries, responding to the prevailing artistic climate.
But that climate is changing. In fine art, colour, gesture and notions
of craft are quietly working their way back up the agenda, and in
the applied arts, minimal beige has exploded into a riot of big, bold
patterns. As part of the Six Cities Design Festival, DCA has embraced
this new exuberance like a bookish recluse breaking suddenly into
a wild flamenco.
Presiding over this transformation is the Glasgow design duo, Timorous
Beasties. The award-winning pair whose work has been described
as William Morris on acid put together a show of
wallpapers and textiles inspired by the natural world, reaching back
300 years. But this is chintz with a twist big flowers and
trees and birds may be here in abundance, but so are animal skeletons,
mosquitoes and bomber planes.
Its clear from the moment you walk in that its not all
going to be blossoms and fragrance. The first room, in twilight gloom,
is unexpectedly sinister. A flock of black cut-out crows spans the
wall, and on closer inspection, they turn out to be crows of flock
wallpaper, the black velveteen surface revealing their floral pattern.
After that its a cornucopia of old and new, the modern designs
appearing often quite outrageous until you take some time to look
at their weird and wonderful ancestors. Timorous Beasties own
B52 wallpaper sets a substantial geometrical motif of the famous bomber
plane against a lavish brown and black floral pattern. The baroque
curves of the flowers couldnt be more opposed to the stark angles
of the plane.
Only much later in the show will you happen upon an 18th century French
cotton print, The Bombardment Of The Port. As its name suggests, the
principal motif is of a French port under fire from a warship, within
a decorative floral wreath. A further repeating pattern mixes flowers
with military weapons. When you imagine todays equivalent, an
aerial bombardment of Basrah perhaps, you realise that the B52 design
is restrained in comparison.
Timorous Beasties are also renowned for their London Toile, a design
which looks at first like the rustic fabrics of yore. Pastoral scenes
float in foliage-laden islands, pink on a cream ground. But on closer
inspection, these lyrical worlds contain a bag lady, local youths
drinking on a bench, a mugging, and some not very attractive high-rises.
Its easy to imagine that this is a straight spoof of the original
Toiles de Jouy, with their romantic pastoral scenes and happy shepherdesses
in love. But once again there are revelations awaiting towards the
end of the show. A roomful of such toiles (including the title piece,
The Peacock In The Ruins) includes The Horse Trough, designed around
1792 by Jean-Baptiste Huet.
Made in the same colour scheme as the London Toile, this cotton print
conveys a similarly bucolic atmosphere, full of country folk at rest
and play. But like the Dutch paintings of a century before, these
characters are not always pretty, and not always on their best behaviour.
Here, too, are dodgy-looking drinkers on benches, and fights almost
ready to break out. A dog is barking at a fat cat, stuck in a tree,
and some sort of calamity is taking place with a goat.
Studio Job have contributed several striking objects to the show which
combine elegant craftwork with unexpected content. Their Paper Furniture
Lamp is an oversized standard lamp, made beautifully from card and
paper, and decorated with black mosquitoes and cockroaches. That may
not seem like a nice thing to have in your living room, but in fact
the 18th century fabrics are crammed with insects of every sort, considered
every bit as decorative in their time as flowers and birds.
Modern technologies are much in evidence too, taking the repeat pattern
quite literally, and setting it in motion. The patterns on wallpapers
and fabrics glide slowly forever upward, reproducing themselves digitally,
or they grow and recede as the seasons pass. These mesmerizing designs
are for the moment presented as projections, but technology is moving
fast, and soon these moving patterns may be embedded inside the fabric.
What are you afraid of?, this show seems to ask. Throw
out your neutrals and start celebrating the craziness of flora and
fauna. If youre afraid of modern design, its 18th century forebears
will calm your nerves. If youre afraid of being old-fashioned,
the modern exuberance will put paid to that. This is the show, to
paraphrase a politician, which will kill minimalism stone dead.
Black, Sunday Herald 13.05.07