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Histories & Theories Of Design:


Histories & Theories Of Design: Questioning the Collection

Design as Museum

tumblr_inline_omdshuNeEu1sgdg3g_540.png Design as Museum
An interesting collection of items at the Victoria and Albert Museum is the South and Southeast Asia collection. This exhibition of foreign goods contains 60,000 ancient artefacts which includes…

Jaspar Rogers questioning and collecting

The Role of Museum

A Post Soviet Soviet Book About Phobias

Dmitry Sayenko

Absurd ABC: Phobias

St. Petersburg: Nikodim 2009

Woodcuts on handmade paper, quarter bound, leather and paper covered boards

Museum no. 380410009211608

Edition of 12

Located in the Printing and Drawings room on the 3rd Level of the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a small collection of post-Soviet prints. No more than 30 objects, let’s call it a bite-sized exhibit. The collection gives the visitor a glimpse of a quiet revolution, sparked when artists found themselves no longer restricted by the censorship laws of the Soviet Union. Print has developed a significance in the post-Soviet art scene. Its strict monitoring and restrictive nature during Communism, made it all the more inviting medium for artists to express themselves in the age of freedom.

Dmitry Sayenko’s Absurd ABC: Phobias is an interesting artefact born out of this period of new found freedom. Displayed in a glass case in the middle of the exhibit floor, it is a small hand bound book, placed next to a visually striking three dimensional publication of a short text commenting on the absurdities of life under communist rule. The content of Sayenko’s book does not share the same politically charged metaphor as the artefact it’s displayed next to. Instead it deals with phobias, more specifically the phobias of great figures in history. It has a light hearted tone as it comments on how said figures coped with their alphabetically ordered phobias.

The way in which the V&A decided to display the book though paints a different picture. A double page spread containing lino cut likenesses of Stalin and Lenin, the poster boys of Communism with “PROPAGANDA” printed in bold red under them. A viewer would mistakenly think that the rest of the content has a similar Soviet vibe to it, but in reality these are the only two pages which have any connection to that era. The rest of the book has historical figures such as Alfred Hitchcock, Aesop and Bram Stoker to name a few. The way it is visually displayed connects it to the context of the exhibition, but it completely neglects to represent the broader spectrum of the author’s inquiry. Information which, under Communism would most likely be unavailable due to its Western nature.

It is interesting to take a look at the design choices made by the author as they offer historical context to the artist’s professional life during the post-Soviet regime. During the period of restructuring, Sayenko’s publisher went bankrupt, victim of the economic “shock therapy”. That prompted him to establish his own publishing house, Nikodim. The scruffy looking pages of the hand bound book could be interpreted as the emergence of DIY culture within Russia’s artistic movement, an antonym to the mass produced propaganda prior the Fall. Its distinct lino cut pressed images, echo similarities to the Soviet Propaganda posters, but in the book’s context the style is more of an aesthetic choice, disvalued and disconnected from its original purpose.

“Chair” – Guillermo Cardenas

(1)Christine Keeler 1963, by Lewis Morley

(2) Keeler chair
(3) “Chair”
(4) "Stacking chairs: 3107", Arne Jacobsen
(5) “Chair” caption

The Keeler chair (2) is a slightly modified copy of Arne Jacobsen’s 3107 chair (4) that was used in the photoshoot of Christine Keeler at the height of the revelations of the ‘Profumo Affair’. The Profumo Affair was the first tabloid of this kind that earned a place on newspapers due to the shocking involvement of sex, a Russian spy, and the secretary of state for war, what maximized the popularity of Jacobsen’s design within the markets and the people. The chair where Keeler posed had been made in 1962, using moulded plywood, and bent tubular steel; it was bought from Heal’s London by Lewis Morley, the artist who took the famous picture; and finally, it was donated to the V&A museum by the photographer and Dr and Mrs. John V. Knaus.

The V&A says in an article: “the V&A had to be the perfect place for the [Keeler] chair for two reasons: because it has great collections of both photography and furniture, and because the chair is a British cultural icon.” Being just a bad quality copy of the 3107 chair that has been loaded with historical and political connotations, the end product becomes a pretext to tell a story. Design becomes a story, history. “It is touching, somehow, that the perfect photograph was posed in a flawed chair and that both are now in the Museum.” Says the same article.

The “Chair” flipped against the viewer (3), imitating the position of the one in the Keeler’s portrait right above (1) is claimed to be the Keeler chair. The caption (5) assures: “[…] The photographer Lewis Morley bought it in 1962 and used it in his portrait of Christine Keeler.” However, it is clearly not. The one in the famous photograph has a slot that has been cut for use as a handle whereas the one exhibited there is a real 3107 chair.

Without any notification or further reference, an object similar enough to go unnoticed by the visitors has been placed in the space reserved for the “Keeler chair”. In this case, the voice of the museum doesn’t seem to be taking seriously the visitor nor the real specimen. This object seems to be a mere opportunity for them to show that the V&A owns that part of our history and that we have to believe it even if we can’t see the real specimen. Even though the physicality of the Keeler chair can be considered a simple pretext to tell a part of our history, a real specimen in a museum should never be disrespected in such a way nor the visitor.

References & Bibliography:

The SCANDAL Story – film & actual events (interviewees incl. Christine Keeler + film cast/crew)