Read: Thresholds and Touch: Gillian Marsden
Date: September 30, 2015
Author: Gillian Marsden
The focus of the exhibition CUSP resonates particularly with material innovator and architect Anupama Kundoo’s description of walking the threshold space between two rooms: the ‘cusp’ being the passageway between these. In doing so, CUSP is the documentation of a transitory period of Australian design. It doesn’t dwell on the room recently absented, and it doesn’t project into a detached futurism. Rather, it acts as part of the passage that traverses from the space of the abstract; to the place of understanding design through tactility and utility. It also acts as two sites that operate as conduits of human experience, where need and emotion pass from one hand to the other. Its focus is the passage – the future is now. And – as this exhibition demonstrates – that is room enough. As Kundoo articulates in practice and philosophy: hands instinctively understand design. We seek to know things by tactility. As any gallery invigilator would recognise, their surveillance is not only to monitor border crossing dare-devilry, but also to capture the spontaneous acts of hands seeking to fulfil their innate purpose: to touch, and in doing so, to know.
At Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery, the living pod by Kundoo has been placed directly in front of the exhibition entrance. This has a strange effect. People are folding paper in an exercise to understand the compression and expansion of Kundoo’s work, but it becomes apparent that these people do not want to face the door. They are subconsciously seeking privacy as they work on the exercise. So they sit with their backs to the exhibition entrance, overlooking the pod that is meant to correspond directly to the paper forms that they are folding. This creates another oddity, absorbed in the process of folding as the audience spy the headsets alongside them. They hold them to their ears. A man and a woman are conversing, disembodied and faint and – as if looking for an explanation – the audience turns and realises that the audio is connected to the film screening against the pod. This oblique drawing of the attention to the pod expands as the voices and film develops into something multidimensional, and, tellingly, tactile.
For one of the key images in this documentary film about Kundoo’s practice is that of hands manipulating small balls of lightly oiled dough into a thin ‘papyrus’, which is then seared on hot, dry metal plates. It is a ubiquitous scene of old-world streets. An ingrained rhythm is at work – the hands are unconscious whilst the mind and eyes above wander or fix. It begs the question: is a fundamental characteristic of good form making a quotient of memorisation? A question that is equally challenged by images that reveal and challenges; scenes of small technology factories; line after line of stooped women and their fingers piecing together an endless stream of tiny compartments and solder globules. But are our hands getting enough exposure to a variety of tactile processes? And if they are not, how is that changing our designs? Are our design processes suffering? Are products becoming harder to the touch or, conversely, are they so polished that we are becoming touch addicts? A little fixated (or indeed, mesmerised) by particular gauges of smoothness, and is that smoothness a strange subconscious quest for a human skin we have lost touch with?
I was recently provoked to consider the purpose of rocking chairs. My son had been reclining on the little sofa in our living area, when he suddenly asked, “What is the point of rocking chairs?” referring to the 19th century American rocking chair that I had recently repositioned from a hallway to a living space. I step slowly through the conundrum: what is the point of rocking chairs? Surely it sits within the realm of luxury, a comfort of some sorts? Yet, what is particularly comforting about rocking, about this repetitive movement? My suspicion is that it is again, a kind of memorisation; one knotted to the natal movement of our nine-month suspension in liquid that is in a state of almost constant agitation as one foot steps in front of the other; a movement that may be frequently mimicked throughout our post-natal months by our caregivers settled in rocking chairs, babies in arms.
Perhaps in reaction to a world now full of unnatural grades of polished surface and finish, it is the sites of stress and use in CUSP that are strangely compelling. The exhibition has travelled to seven sites around Australia. Who knows how many people have explored and known the designs through the open thresholds of an exhibition that actively encourages touch? In turn, all this touching and knowing has left an imprint and we can observe this evidence of utility as an insight into how design wears and dissolves through these transactions. The human approach to such knowledge can be tentative or forceful – the tactile skin of intelligent wallpaper has started to bubble and gather in the bottom corner. The steel bar is gathering dust and hair around its footings. There are scuffmarks on the laminate and the metal is chipped. Similarly, the Boston Rocker’s were often painted and/or stencilled, and part of their aesthetic development was the patina that grew with age combined with the polish peculiar to skin contacting wood.
All these are sites of juncture where design gets handed over: the object, the form, or an exhibition, and inevitably – depending on how rigid or flexible its perimeters are – it becomes subtly (or not) redesigned by use. In engaging with the idea of the threshold, CUSP suggests that good design is not static and will in-build expansion points in order keep itself designing through use and new contexts; an understanding that is perhaps transferable to the process of supporting local design culture as it moves through the endless mesmerising threshold.
Image: After Durer (Gillian Marsden, 2015).