Contemporary Applied Arts, 8 October – 6 November 2010
The Stuff of Memory is an exhibition that evolves. At first it appears to be all about the past; how everyday objects are completely entwined with our construction of meaning, and how one person’s past is unique and yet can chime in accordance with another’s. However, it quickly becomes apparent that the assemblages of everyday objects do not just serve to provide a nostalgic link to the past, they are questioning the very fragility and changeable nature of memory. Simone ten Hompel does not present us with single items, but a plethora of permutations on a theme: containers and jars, bottles and spoons. This is memory as reinterpretation. Each object could be a reading of the same event, but each time it is slightly different, because as time moves on we are different. So, the coffee pot has shifted slightly, the angle of the lid is different, the interior is now a bright coloured felt. Bottles become fragmented and pulled apart. The single text panel that accompanies the exhibition suggests that “Just as a fairy story in being told over and over again is never quite the same, in the multiplied re-interpretations of these objects Simone’s narrative insists on their connections in the very act of showing that they are always different.”
The realisation that the artist is not just dealing in a personal exploration of her own past, and the objects which relate to it, but that she is questioning the very nature of the objects themselves, helps to explain the arrangement of the displays. The central area of the gallery space is filled with two large, make-shift tables constructed from oil drums and painted plywood. On one long wall is a wooden rail, attached to the wall with cast iron brackets, from which hang numerous spoons. The effect is quite modest in comparison to some of the silverware displayed. The exhibition’s designer, Michael Marriott, who has displayed ten Hompel’s work in the past, chose this simple approach to reflect the “industrial/found references” in her work. There is an appealing, uncomplicated feel to the space which compliments the everyday nature of the pieces.
Upon the tables are groups of objects mainly in precious metal, but also incorporating mixed media such as wood, stone, fabric. Some of the objects are entirely constructed, some are fragments, cut up elements from existing objects such as plastic bottles or rubber hot water bottles. Many are familiar, they echo the everyday in all our lives, from coffee makers and food container lids to tea strainers and trays. Ten Hompel’s immense skill is to merge the found and created in a seamless way, that has us looking closely to check this is not some long-forgotten item we have seen before. Unfortunately the lighting in this area feels unplanned. The basic spotlights do not seem trained on any particular objects, but are almost randomly poised at the tables. Many of the objects are highly reflective, and the effect makes it hard to examine some of the items without glare. Mostly there is the sense that none of the items have been singled out, which may be intentional, but does lead you to wonder where your focus should be.
The objects are grouped, but there is little indication how or why. The available text sheets give away few clues; the name of the object, the media used and its price. Perhaps this is the artist’s way of saying “this is my memory, but what does it mean to you?” If we accept the suggestion that all memories change, that nothing remains static, then trying to pin them down, to understand each one may be impossible. The best that can be hoped for is a common understanding and moment of recognition. In this way, the aspect of the exhibition which works best is the display of spoons suspended on the wall. This group of objects does not need explanation. The spoon is a universal object; it is something we encounter on a daily basis, an item with many functions, sizes and shapes, an object which can represent simplicity itself or be the most elaborate and luxurious of items. It seems fitting that ten Hompel has chosen the spoon as the focus of a profound study. Hanging from the wooden rail the spoon is exposed, dissected and re-assembled. As you move along the undulating line, a rhythm emerges between the groups. Here, there are tongs, stirrers, sticks. There, there are scoops, shovels and ladles. And all the while they are still spoons, re-worked in every possible way, from the smallest scale to myriad different uses. From materials as unlikely as felt or papier mache, to opulent gold and enamel.
The fact that many of the objects are crafted from expensive materials does make it hard to immediately connect to them as representatives of anything one may have seen before. But that is too literal. Metal, and silver in particular, is the language ten Hompel uses to communicate, just as a writer uses words or a photographer uses film. If we allow ourselves to be distracted by the inherent value of the pieces we are losing the sense that she is trying to convey. Ten Hompel’s work has in the past tried to grapple with this dichotomy: the nature of silver as a material which is useful to the craftsperson (malleable and reflective) versus its status within society as a precious commodity. By integrating the silver pieces with many items that are less polished, made of more mundane materials, it seems that she is able to deflect our attentions temporarily from thoughts of value and move us to contemplate their personal worth and meaning.
Despite the conceptual nature of this exhibition, it is still a means of selling the artist’s work. Each object is numbered, not as in a museum, for us to track down its information and to learn about it, but for us to know its price, should we feel the need to purchase something. Objects which have been given meaning due to their location within a group, are available for sale individually, divorced from their context. One cannot help but wonder how a fragment of a plastic bottle (£60) so apt and appropriate on this table, can convey the same sense at home on your mantelpiece surrounded by your own belongings. If these objects were exhibited somewhere else, seen not as contemporary craft, but as a fine art installation, surely the items would only be available for sale as one unit, to preserve the integrity of the group, to be redisplayed in their entirety. This feels like a fundamental sticking point for applied arts: the tension between producing objects that are hand-crafted, personal and, usually, functional, and the desire to produce objects that may be purely aesthetic or esoteric.
Ten Hompel’s objects combine all these elements, are objects of immense beauty as well as having purpose, yet it feels their value as a medium for metaphor is diminished when they can so easily be separated.
In this exhibition ten Hompel presents a view on the very nature of how our minds work. She suggests that these objects are somehow just like our memories- they appear solid, intact and immutable, but really they are hybrids, changeable and hard to pin down. Some are gems, bright and inviting; a wondrous day, an encounter we cling to. Others are commonplace and ordinary, as surely the majority of our memories actually are. Most importantly these objects, like our memories, exist. They jolt us into remembering, allowing us to re-live our most personal moments.
Melody Vaughan is a foundation art and design student at Oxford Brookes University