Visual Art: A Sorry Tale of Two Museums and a Match Made in Heaven ; Great Subjects, Great Exhibits. but Two New Displays of Work by Designers at the V&A and the Design Museum Show Up the Weaknesses of These Institutions. Marcus Field Has a Suggestion to Make

By Field, Marcus | The Independent (London, England), June 18, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Visual Art: A Sorry Tale of Two Museums and a Match Made in Heaven ; Great Subjects, Great Exhibits. but Two New Displays of Work by Designers at the V&A and the Design Museum Show Up the Weaknesses of These Institutions. Marcus Field Has a Suggestion to Make


Field, Marcus, The Independent (London, England)


Woe, woe, woe. The Victoria and Albert Museum is a place filled with woes. And among its biggest woes is the question of how to deal with contemporary design.

Looking for an answer is a special team of curators and advisors with a remit to stage events and shows and establish a longer-term policy for acquisitions and displays in the lead up to the opening of the proposed Spiral building. The current exhibition of Ron Arad's work is part of this process.

The subject is a good one. Arad may be a name little known to the general public (designers rarely achieve the status of artists, pop stars or actors) and yet he is one of the most important creative talents working in Britain today. Now 49, he moved to London from his native Israel in 1973 to train as an architect. After completing his studies at the Architectural Association in 1979 he found little to inspire him in conventional architectural practice and so he set up One Off, a hybrid studio for making, experimenting and designing objects.

Some works in the exhibition date from this period. There is Rover Chair, a reclaimed car seat on a framework of scaffolding poles, and Concrete Stereo, a working record player and amplifier - cast, naturally, in concrete. While on one level they function simply as a chair and a record player, on another they are 3D polemics on the subject of making. All the age-old issues about materials and honesty, craft and manufacture, aesthetics and ethics, are all bound up here. It is exactly for the purpose of unravelling and pontificating on such matters that the V&A was established.

So far, so good. The exhibition includes many of the products made by Arad over the next 20 years, things which have won him both academic respect (he is now professor of Design Products at the Royal College of Art and his limited edition pieces are collected by museums the world over) and commercial success (his plastic Bookworm shelving manufactured by the Italian company Kartell is just one of his bestsellers).

Where this exhibition goes wrong is in its failure to communicate the deeper issues effectively. Arad himself was invited to exhibit his work as an "installation", and the result is just that. His products are mounted on a beautiful shiny and sinuous platform of metal which pierces the museum's entrance hall and medieval treasury. The whole thing is as gorgeous and showy as the best retail displays, but since this is neither merchandise nor art it requires commentary and critique. With the best intentions the museum has provided something on interactive VDUs. But nobody wants to look at a screen unless they are forced to and so visitors remain clearly baffled (there are virtually no labels). This is a shame, because Arad's work is rich in exactly the sort of content the V&A is searching for, and yet it remains untapped.

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Visual Art: A Sorry Tale of Two Museums and a Match Made in Heaven ; Great Subjects, Great Exhibits. but Two New Displays of Work by Designers at the V&A and the Design Museum Show Up the Weaknesses of These Institutions. Marcus Field Has a Suggestion to Make
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