Big ideas and small disruptions: Subversive Designs at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery

By Sarah Jackson | 05 November 2013

Exhibition review: Subversive Designs, Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Brighton, until March 9 2014

Rebecca Joselyn, Crushed Can Jug
Rebecca Joselyn, Crushed Can Jug (2009). From the Packaging Collection, Designs in Silver London© Courtesy of Designs in Silver, London
According to Stella Beddoe, the curator of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery’s latest show, the applied arts have been unfairly treated by the art world.

“Fine art has the superior profile,” she says, noting that fine art pieces not only command higher prices but are also commonly regarded as being able to "tackle serious issues" in a way that applied and decorative arts do not.

Nevertheless, makers have been playing with form, function and materials to create objects intended to provoke and amuse for more than 200 years. Here this subversion is interpreted as a positive, not destructive force that questions and overthrows entrenched ideas and attitudes, often by using shock tactics and humour.

The first of three exhibitions deals with world politics and big issues such as environmentalism as seen in Paul Scott’s Plate, After the Dam 2 (2010). The traditional blue Willow Pattern is submerged beneath waves of water and topped by a tourist boat - illustrating the damage caused by the creation of the Three Gorges Dam in China.

There is nothing immediately subversive about Matt Smith’s Bring me the Body of Cardinal Newman (2012), which resembles a simple church kneeler stitched with a Latin phrase. The subversive element is in the hidden history it seeks to highlight.

Paul Scott, Three Gorges Dam Plate
Paul Scott, Three Gorges Dam (2010). Potteries Museum, Stoke on Trent© Courtesy of Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent
Upon his death in 1890, Cardinal Newman requested to be buried next to Father Ambrose St John, his close friend with whom he lived for more than 30 years. Just before Newman’s beatification in 2010, the Vatican attempted to disinter and separate the bodies, which proved too difficult.

Thomas Heatherwick’s Extrusions bench is one of a series of pieces that are the result of squeezing heated metal through a shaped mould. The beginning of each piece is snagged and contorted, but rather than discarding these, Heatherwick delights in the fluidity and uniqueness this gives each piece.

Rebecca Joselyn’s Crushed Can Jug (2010) and Ring-pull Salt and Pepper (2010) are exquisitely beautiful objects made of precious metals - but in the shape of discarded containers. Similarly, Tapio Wirkkala’s Tutenvasen (1970s) are small porcelain and stoneware vases that resemble crumpled paper bags.

Tapio Wirkkala,Tutenvase
Tapio Wirkkala for Rosenthal, Tutenvase, Brown and White (circa 1971). John Clark, Brighton© Courtesy of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
A final room subverts the body. As you might imagine, the emphasis here is on fashion, which is perhaps one of the most interesting parts of Brighton Museum’s collection.

Alba D’Urbano’s Naked Dress, printed with an image of the designer’s naked body, has apparently sold well since its creation in the 1990s, although curators note drily that they are yet to see anybody in the street wearing it.

Nearby, Georgina Godley’s Undergarment and Vivienne Westwood’s Bra and Bustle question the changing fashions of standards of beauty, creating underwear that exaggerates and deforms women’s body.

It could hardly be an exhibition on subversion without including some elements of punk, so it’s not really a surprise to see several examples of the Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren-designed Sex Pistols t-shirts. Everything about the Sex Pistols was designed to provoke strong reactions.

It was anarchic and fresh – but could not remain so.

Created to commemorate the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011, Simeon Farrar uses the same iconography as Jamie Reid’s design for the Sex Pistol’s God Save the Queen. Rather than mocking or subverting the Royal family, however, the Royal Wedding t-shirt was designed as a celebration.

What was once 'anti' can soon become established as attitudes and prejudices change and new forms of subversion emerge. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years, Subversive Designs can be reprised. It would be interesting to see if any of these objects could be considered for a re-appearance.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

More Pictures:

Church kneeler reading ‘Ex Umbris et Imaginibus in Veritatem’ (Out of Shadows and Appearances into the Truth)
Matt Smith, Bring me the Body of Cardinal Newman (2012)© Courtest of Matt Smith
Thomas Heatherwick, Extrusions bench; Aluminium with chrome finish; Collection: Heatherwick Studio
Thomas Heatherwick, Extrusions bench. Collection: Heatherwick Studio© Courtesy of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
View of gallery showing Undergarment by Georgina Godley and Naked Dress by Alba D’Urbano
View of gallery showing Undergarment by Georgina Godley and Naked Dress by Alba D’Urbano© Courtesy of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery
Simeon Farrar, Royal Wedding t-shirt (c2011); Collection: Simeon Farrar Archive
Simeon Farrar, Royal Wedding t-shirt (circa 2011). Collection: Simeon Farrar Archive© Courtesy of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

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Follow Sarah Jackson on Twitter @SazzyJackson.

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