Sunday, 25 October 2015

THE DREAM OF MODERN LIVING? Contemporary Artists Explore IKEA

THE DREAM OF MODERN LIVING? Contemporary Artists Explore IKEA

Curated by Paul Carey-Kent

At Warrington Museum and Art Gallery   2 Oct - 14 Nov 2015 (NORTH Festival of Contemporary Art - Warrington is the site of the UK's first IKEA store)

I rather like IKEA, as do the people of Warrington. I suspect it’s a worldwide passion: in Winnipeg a few years ago, I met a couple who were delighted that the city was to get a store, so saving them a regular 300 mile drive to Minnesota. I’m not sure how many residents of Deal or Dundee made the 300 mile trip to Warrington when the first UK IKEA opened there 25 years ago, but Warrington IKEA is still said to have the highest visitor figures of any in the country - alongside the lowest spend per head, suggesting that people go not just to buy but to see and to experience designs, ideas - and also food - from elsewhere. 

Of course, one can criticise IKEA:  for the alleged far right sympathies of its founder, Ingvar Kamprad; as a lead representative of a trend towards global uniformity which undermines the vigour of local cultures; or as prioritising cheapness and accessibility over quality materials and design (having said which, does anyone remember how bad MFI’s furniture was?).   IKEA, then, stands for a style which sanitises the once-challenging thrust of artistic modernism and turns it into innocuous everyday design. It challenges nothing and proposes a lifestyle which emphasises order and value for money – and even seeks to control how we move around the store. Yet are things so simple?

Kamprad published The Testament of a Furniture Dealer, effectively IKEA’s philosophy, in 1976. The business’ stated aim is ‘to create a better everyday life for the majority of people’ through low prices, quality and simplicity'. But as Daniel Birnbaum has put it (Art and the IKEA Spirit, Frieze 1996) ‘the catalogue dictates the general outlines of everyday life, but it is ultimately always you, the customer, who puts the things together. Everyone who has tried to assemble a product from IKEA knows that the possible combinations and mistakes appear to be infinite. Thus IKEA, when treated in the right way, offers not levelling and global uniformity, but the very opposite - a form of do-it-yourself existential individualism. In Isn’t it Great to be Swedish (1991), the writer R. Fuchs saw this quite clearly: ‘Life is like assembling IKEA furniture: it’s hard to understand what the point is; you’re unable to put the pieces together, some essential part is always missing, and the final result is never at all what you’d hoped for’. 

Matters are complicated, then. But anyway, artists are an awkward bunch. They prefer to run counter to any lifestyle implicitly proposed by brands such as IKEA. They’d rather misconstruct, repurpose or even blow up the furniture. They dream of dragging that cool normality into their own less ruly domain – not just the furniture but the catalogue (which has the world’s largest print run at over 200m copies annually), the soft toys tempting their children, even the whole world of the store, as when Guy Ben Ner takes his family to live there, pirating the lifestyle rather than buying into it. Moreover, the artists on show in Warrington follow on something of a tradition of addressing IKEA. Clay Ketter, who is in the show, first appropriated and reconfigured IKEA products as large assemblages echoing architecture and minimalist art in 1994; Jason Rhoades brought chaos and sex to the official order in his sculptural mash-ups Swedish Erotica and the IKEA slogan-pinching The Future is Filled with Opportunities, 1995; and Rob Pruitt has a way with mass-produced IKEA paintings - they take the look of expensive art and make it affordable, he reverses that process by overpainting them into valuable uniqueness.  Those strategies of returning to modernist roots, introducing disorder, and playing on value are among those taken up here.

So is this a show about IKEA? Hardly. Is Far from the Madding Crowd a novel about farming? It’s a show about the power of transformation in which IKEA provides the raw materials – literal and attitudinal – from which the artists set out. They get to some rather interesting places, inside and beyond IKEA.

Guy Ben Ner: Stealing Beauty, 2007 – film, 18 minutes

Israeli video artist Guy Ben Ner, wife and two children install themselves in a succession of IKEA model rooms in Tel Aviv, Berlin and New York, there to live among the price tags and customers. Every now and again, they get thrown out. Activities include washing up (without plates), going to bed and taking a shower (where it seems the artist is caught masturbating). Mostly, though, they’re sitting around discussing Engels and Marx on property, as triggered by Ben Ner’s son being sent home from school for stealing – cue his father’s lectures on right and wrong, which veer off into children as ‘good business for the future’ and trigger his son’s awkward question: ‘is Mum private property?’  Stealing Beauty is deliciously entertaining yet grapples with serious issues: economics, morality, and the difficulties of the exiled or stateless. Is this as close as they get to home?

Ryan Gander: Lamps Made by the Artist for his Wife (20th, 41st and 45th attempts) – various materials 

When his wife - and Director of the Limoncello Gallery, incidentally - said she was going to IKEA to buy a lamp, Ryan Gander said don’t waste money, I’ll make us one. The bric-a-brac result may have demonstrated the sleek merits of IKEA’s combination of bespoke elements, but had enough wonky charm to sell as an art work, and Gander has embarked on an apparently endless attempt to make a lamp for Rebecca. At least, that’s how he tells it, but then the Chester-born, Manchester-trained artist – who made a balsa wood model of Warrington’s IKEA store for his degree show! – does an entertaining line in fantastical lecture performances, and can attach a tidy tale to any of his remarkably varied conceptual inventions.  Either way, his lamps are an entertaining interrogation of the difference between art and design.

Ryan GanderSamson's Push, or No. VI / Composition No.II, 2011 - custom coloured Ikea tables

Samson’s Push stacks IKEA tables so that they correspond to the colours and area of Piet Mondrian’s painting No. VI / Composition No.II, 1920. As in classic Mondrian, it’s all horizontals and verticals, no diagonals or curves allowed. The furniture is slyly returned to its inspiration by means of another staple of Avant garde art – the accumulation – and for good measure Gander uses the title to take us back to an Old Testament suggestion of it all coming crashing down…

Clay KetterSurface Composite Reconsidered, 2013 - Archival Inket on paper, Edition of 12

In the 1990’s Clay Ketter, an American who has been based in Sweden for more than two decades, made several sculptures out of IKEA elements. They were in line with his view that ‘Perhaps the primary purpose of the artist is not to make art, but to recognise it as already consummated in the world around him. By this recognition, the artist can baptise these ready manifestations as art’. Just so, slight adjustments are enough to give IKEA kitchen units a fresh life as minimalist sculptures, and consistent with Ketter’s interest in the layering of a structured surface. The influence is coming back around the circle.  So how about a more affordable version, in line with what one expects of IKEA? Ketter’s print spins off his IKEA Surface Composite re-purposings to deliver just that...

Michael Samuels:   3 Billies – IKEA Billy bookcases

Liverpool-born, London-based Michael Samuels is known as an assemblage artist who seeks out, cuts up and fits together parts and pieces of retro furniture to make new abstract forms which yet retain some of their prior life’s historic, aesthetic and utilitarian resonances. His bricolage of modernist furniture, domestic objects, and most recently concrete cast from them has typically concentrated on 60’s material such as ercol or G Plan. Here, though, he applies the dexterous technique to three Billy bookcases – perhaps the most iconic of IKEA’s products – in each of the available colours. Where Ryan Gander’s tower rearranges the present into the past, Samuels chops it up to form a precarious vision of the future.

Dominic Beattie: Studio Chairsmdf, ink and varnish 

There’s a tradition of art which incorporates aspects of furniture design, of which Donald Judd, Richard Artschwager and Franz West are but part. Dominic Beattie is an artist who has made flat pack chairs – together with the architect Lucia Buceta Santos – so that people can sit on them to contemplate his paintings. He doesn’t see them as sculpture (though they occupy the space which sculpture might) nor as paintings (though they are hand-coloured by a painter) but as chairs.  In fact, he’d like nothing better than for the design (which requires no fixing or glue) to be adopted by IKEA and sold cheaply enough for many people to buy them. Maybe, though, he protest too much about his artlessness. To come at the question ‘art or design?’ from the less usual direction: ‘is this really not art?’

David Rickard: Absent Minded, 2013 - Plaster, steel and plastic explosives

London-based New Zealander David Rickard often sets off disruptive physical events as chance-driven catalysts within his scientifically-informed art.  Just so, ‘Absent Minded’ is formed from a pair of boxes cast in white plaster that echo both minimalist sculpture and  domestic storage systems – within which Rickard has released an explosive charge. Pieces of plaster have broken away to reveal the steel reinforcement grid embedded within. Where Gander both bodges and reveals the origins of the style, and Samuels and Ketter reconfigure it, Rickard radically undermines the order. He leaves us to wonder what we should be reading into it…  maybe just that if you absent-mindedly leave the cooker on, or a tap running, or explosives in the sideboard, drama can occur.

Frédéric Pradeau:  Assembled IKEA Furniture Blindfolded Without Training, 2011 – film, 46 minutes

Marseilles-based Frédéric Pradeau (born 1970) has his own take on the absurdities of modern life:  he has exhibited a still for extracting pure alcohol from Coca-Cola and rugs made of dust. In 2004 he reduced the available space in a Paris gallery by 14% by building into it the dimensions of a council flat.  Here we see him constructing IKEA furniture blindfold, simultaneously parodying the precise and yet often problematic nature of DIY instructions, the seriousness with which performance art is more often presented, and the use of chance procedures in conceptual art practices. 

Range of Karlberg mirrors as installed at Vilma Gold, London, 2015
Marie Karlberg:   Jeanne and Hair Lice, 2015 - Vinyl on IKEA mirrors

The New York based Swede, active in fashion and performance, has made a large set of vinyl works on IKEA mirrors – including spider on pillow, Celtic chains, classical art and a nude self-portrait series ‘The Body of Work’, effectively musing on herself as the body who makes the body of work. All are reflected into IKEA and into the show, landing somewhere between comic books, tattoo designs and everyday life. The viewer, of course, is in there with her choices: in ‘The Dream of Modern Living?’ they take the somewhat disruptive form of leatherwear and hair lice – undermining any aspiration to a conventionally desirable home environment.


Joe Scanlan: DIY or How To Kill Yourself Anywhere in the World for Under $399

There’s a tradition of ‘hacking’ IKEA components to make unintended items – whether in ananarchist spirit or simply to use the components as the raw materials for differently conceived furniture. American artist Joe Scanlan applies that to the classic definition of conceptual art as that for which it is the idea, not the execution, which counts. Among the various ‘art commodities’ that he sells through his website Things That Fall is a book of instructions for building a coffin out of IKEA bookshelves: a flick through its 50 pages will demonstrate its satirical nature, with the absurdly detailed yet somehow useless pictorial instruction including how to navigate the store and how to take a phone call halfway through the task. As Scanlan deadpans on the site, ‘it’s a great choice for anyone who prefers that their funeral be a modest but stylish affair.’ 

Mary Griffiths:  Accelerator 1-3, 2015 - inscribed graphite on gesso on plywood
Mary Griffiths, a Manchester-based artist who is also the Whitworth Art Gallery’s curator of contemporary art, makes alluringly modulated, apparently abstract drawings. Typically, they have a hidden tale to tell: for example, the idea for Rangefinder 2, 2014, came after a visit to a firing range on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides, from which test missiles were shot over the sea and tracked. Rangefinder 2 evokes, says Griffiths, ‘the long line of the coast and also the swift trajectory of the missile’. Her related drawing Accelerator springs from the location of IKEA next to a section of the M62 that was originally part of the runway for the Burtonwood Airbase, and considers ‘the line’ going fast – whether delineating runway, motorway or graphite.

Sara MacKillop: Ikea bathrooms 2015 – publication, Edition 100

Sara MacKillop often works with the humdrum materials of the office, and her own booklets elegantly re-purpose envelopes, coloured pencils, faded paper, photocopied instructions and strips of lottery tickets as quietly insistent art.  Here she makes a version of IKEA’s 2015 Bathrooms brochure, appropriating some pages straight, the better to disrupt others by reordering, removing information, overprinting, blurring, or shifting emphasis – as when a toilet roll takes centre stage, or things suddenly go blank. Thus MacKillop inserts glitches into the pre-made domestic scenarios and idealisation of experiences which she sees as ‘part of the IKEA ideology’. It’s adroit enough to make it a shame my copy has a corner folded down on the back page.

Artists Anonymous: Freaks for IKEA, 2015 - photographic after-image with IKEA toy

German collective Artists Anonymous - who now live in Northwich, just a few miles from Warrington - suggest an alternative world lying behind everyday appearances: anarchic performances form the basis for paintings made in the manner of photographic negatives, which are then photographed in turn so that the colours revert to a more  positive 'after-image', spooked by its double removal from reality. Here one of those after-images - pertinently titled 'Freaks' - not only shows soft toys but has a real IKEA one thrown in to the mix. The group see that as having got lost in their negative world. There's a parallel with the famous layout of IKEA stores, which lead customers round a pre-determined path in which it can seem that what you really want is always the other side of the divide - while cute stuffed animals lure the children, and you find yourself buying things you didn't plan on...


Stuart Hartley: I hope my pony can get me home, 2015 

London-based, St Helens born Stuart Hartley’s ‘Event’ series of sculptures operate between painting and sculpture. They conjure both the molecular activity which underlies the surface stability of ordinary objects and those random irruptions which flavour our everyday routines – as signalled by such witty titles as the suggestion here that the teetering ball in a matching IKEA Valje H35xW35xD30cm hopes to make it back safely to what Hartley terms ‘the calling void below’, one which may also suggest the movement between public and private, between shopping and taking home. He also, he says, plays with the aspiration ‘of living above everyone else and looking down on the rest of us whilst being just a moment away from a slip back down’.




* Slightly different works by Ryan than in show plan above, but from same series

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About Me

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Southampton, Hampshire, United Kingdom
I was in my leisure time Editor at Large of Art World magazine (which ran 2007-09) and now write freelance for such as Art Monthly, Frieze, Photomonitor, Elephant and Border Crossings. I have curated 20 shows during 2013-17 with more on the way. Going back a bit my main writing background is poetry. My day job is public sector financial management.