Dec 04 2017

Critical Pairings: First Look at Design Society

by Brady Ng

Exterior of the Sea World Culture and Arts Center where Design Society is located, Shekou, 2017. Courtesy Design Society.

Design Society is the first museum-minded institution in China to dedicate its exhibition program to design. It’s also the result of the first ever collaboration between a major British cultural institution with a Chinese body—the state-owned conglomerate China Merchants Shekou Holdings. Three years into a five-year agreement between the two, Design Society opened its doors in Shekou on December 1. While the collaboration and circumstances sounded promising, it was mostly downhill from there. 

Housed on the ground floor of the newly built Sea World Culture and Arts Center, Design Society shares its space with a shop selling Tibetan Buddhist paintings, tucked away on an upper floor with seemingly no foot traffic; a store offering ink paintings, with life-sized depictions of various Chinese communist leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping; a fashion boutique; and the yet-to-open Shekou Museum of Reform and Opening. Walking around the Center felt like perusing an empty shopping mall in a second-tier Chinese city. Meanwhile, the press conference during Design Society’s inauguration had the production values of a variety show on the state-run television channels of the People’s Republic, complete with seizure-inducing flashing lights (which were not so effective in a hall with floor-to-ceiling windows on a perfect sunny day) and the feigned enthusiasm of a bilingual commère.

Ole Bouman, the director of Design Society, said that calling the organization a “Society” (instead of “Museum” or “Gallery”) was meant to break the mold of traditional art institutions, and that the organization’s name is “both a noun and a verb, it’s a place to go and an agenda to pursue.” But when the place to go is an uncomfortable jumble of kitschy shops and exhibition spaces, and the agenda is heavy-handed in its attempts to align itself with the Chinese Communist Party’s buzzwords—to transform “made in China” to “designed in China,” for instance—even the best efforts fall flat.

That’s not to say there wasn’t anything to see. The exhibition in the V&A’s wing was the most interesting among Design Society’s three shows, with “critical pairings” of objects from throughout history that prompted us to consider the purpose of and meaning behind design. A sashiko jacket made in Japan in the late 1800s, worn by laborers who hauled sludge, has an extra of band of fabric running diagonally across the entire garment, meant to be the barrier between rope and vest, hence preserving the clothing’s integrity and avoiding the need to frequently replace the entire outfit. A child’s chair made from cardboard 200 years later, specifically designed to disintegrate after a couple years’ use without contributing to significant wastage, was placed right next to it. An Iranian astrolabe from the 18th century was paired with a Victorinox Swiss Army knife made in 2016, both intricate contraptions but one with a singular purpose and the other carried to weather many challenges. The oldest object in the gallery, an Egyptian unglazed clay vessel from the 10th century that would cool down drinking water in arid heat, was juxtaposed with one of the newest exhibits, an e-cigarette—a ubiquitous first-world consumer product that was conceived in China and branded as a healthier alternative to rolled cigarettes.

Iranian Astrolabe from the 18th Century. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The SwissChamp XAVT produced by Victorinox, 2016. Courtesy of Victorinox.  

If design can embody human achievement, the objects made by homo faber can and have propelled us to greater heights, from human correction to human augmentation. An iron corset from 1750s France or Italy once provided orthopedic rectification; now, we have Cheetah Xtreme running blades that allow amputees to soar on the race track.

But what of our impact on the environment after the mass manufacture of items dreamed up by sharp minds? The extraction of natural resources has ripped apart our Earth, and the discharge of modern development—whether in production or daily living—leaves much-needed land in toxic miasma. This, too, was addressed in the exhibition. Some objects aim to make a point: nomadic design and research studio Unknown Fields went to Inner Mongolia to collect rare earth sediment—a mineral that is present in all smartphones and many other electronic devices—and made vases out of it. Other items are made with the objective of solving a problem, even if only at a very small scale: outdoor clothing company Patagonia used Synchilla (made from PET, which is present in recyclable but non-degradable plastic bottles) to weave fleece jackets.

There were many representations of design used for other purposes, although the stereotype of designers and chairs was unavoidable in the gallery. An armchair made by Norwegian designer Lars Kinsarvik in 1900 incorporated Nordic knots into its form, asserting a visible national identity during the quest for independence from Sweden. Beside it, a plywood chair had no ornamentation, and was meant to look and feel like nothing more than something to sit in, assembled for flattened, universal appeal. A hall chair from 1725 included two lacquer panels bearing a coat of arms, fashioned in China then shipped to Britain for assembly; this narrative of the historical relationship between the UK and China was played up, with the Chinese state media touting the exchange as being part of a “golden era.”

A hall chair produced in China and assembled in Britain, 1725. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

That message was echoed in a Chinese blue-on-white porcelain dish dated 1573–1620, which was placed beside a Dutch knockoff—a tin-coated earthenware plate painted to mimic the real thing, made a century later at a much lower cost. For the industrious who prefer to do-it-themselves, the 3D-printed Liberator, a plastic handgun that delivers more controversy than bullets, was shown disassembled. In all, “Values of Design” was a thoughtful exhibition of design objects, one that fused the V&A’s collection with Shenzhen’s context from the past three decades in a meaningful, educational presentation. This is where Design Society can succeed.

One of the two other presentations mounted for the inauguration was “Minding the Digital,” a mishmash of sound-sensitive garments that didn’t react to sound; mechanical installations that move (as in “flowers” with infrared sensors installed on them, to “bloom” when human motion is detected); intricate, 3D-printed wearable objects that are difficult to imagine as part of anybody’s outfit; and other setups that were meant to be interactive or somehow incorporated digital design into their execution. There were times when visitors were unable to decode the function or purpose of some installations, but the many presentations did offer plenty of photo opportunities for social media likes. The last showcase was an overview of Fumihiko Maki’s projects through the years, paying homage to the architect who designed the blocky, delta-fronting facility.

Design Society is an uncomfortable amalgamation of one of the top cultural institutions of the world and a state-owned corporation that operates in and around the Pearl River Delta’s tricky business climate. This was the most awkward “critical pairing” at Design Society.

Brady Ng is the reviews editor of ArtAsiaPacific.

At Design Society, Shenzhen, “Values of Design” is on view until August 4, 2019. “Minding the Digital” is on view until June 3, 2018. “Nurturing Dreams in Recent Work: Fumihiko Maki + Maki and Associates” is on view until June 30, 2018.

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