Can Art survive a Utilitarian Context

Over the past fifteen years I have worked closely with architects to make a number of large scale works integral to the structure of buildings, the architecture provides a place for the art and the art brings something out in the architecture. I value the distinction between the two disciplines, they are seen both separately and together and although there is an interaction the art remains autonomous. My question is – if functionality and ownership make architecture susceptible to change, can art survive in this context?

On a visit to London in 1965 I saw Anthony Caro’s scarlet painted sculpture ‘Early One Morning’ at the Tate Gallery. Being tall for my age I bent my knees to lower my eye-level and realised that this artist was shorter and his eye-level was lower than mine. How can one tell from a juxtaposition of girders the height of the man who put them together? No matter – I was already using my body as some kind of measure. In 1969 I saw a copy of the original 1921 black and white film of Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Slat Dance’ and the pieces started to fall into place, Schlemmer wrote about peripatetic perception and ambulant space, his costumes extended the body to articulate the surrounding space through movement and proportion – it was personal, structural, spatial, time based, abstract.

At Central St Martins I had eschewed Fine Art and made jewellery. In 1981 I made a series of works under my generic title ‘Wearables’, they marked the end of the jewellery and a new beginning in sculpture followed – I had made the decision that the distinction between practices was valuable, that blurring the boundaries between Art and Craft and Design could render a useful object useless and did not make Art. The Wearables were named as they were meant to be seen – as useful objects to be worn – they were not to be seen as sculpture. As objects they were little more than some stockinette roll, dyed, stretched, knotted and tied over circular wire hoops of various sizes. These flat discs were to be worn like hats – reminiscent of a circular brim, set on top or tied against the side of the head, pushed off the head and worn on your back like a sunhat – or hung on the wall much as one hangs hats in a hall. The experience of wearing them was both surprising and unexpected – the aim was to bring a sense of consciousness and spatial awareness, both abstract and glamorous.

Complications arise when a utilitarian object is taken from its everyday context and exhibited in a museum or documented in a book. Lets take the example of a cup – it takes its form and scale from its function, to carry liquid to the lip – we can recognise it by its form. What about clothing? A sari for instance is simply a length of cloth. Without the knowledge that it is a sari or how a sari is worn, the length of fabric gives little away apart from the fact that it is a complete and specific length of fabric that has not been cut. If we already know about saris we can interpret the piece of cloth but if you use the fabric of the sari to wind it into a turban or cut it into a dress then it is no longer a sari and has been transformed. Nevertheless, due to the familiarity of a sari you might be able to show in exhibition the quality of the fabric – how it falls, folds and tucks, the depth and design of the border – knowledge is crucial. So what about Schiaparelli’s stylish Shoe Hat – a high-heeled shoe turned over to make a hat, heel uppermost, toe set rakishly over the forehead. No point in exhibiting it as though it were a shoe, it must be seen ‘upside down’ as a hat and a photograph or other device is usually used to show this to enable the object to be understood.

Unlike a cup the Wearable is not a recognisable object, like the sari and Schiaparelli’s Shoe Hat it needs documentation – if it is exhibited upside down then you will be confused and the voice of the object is lost. For these reasons photographs of the Wearables being worn accompanied the work when it was exhibited to enable the viewer to have a personal experience in a public situation where the piece could not be touched. These black and white photographs brought out inherent characteristics of imaginary cinematic glamour to create a series of portraits whilst being an integral documentary adjunct to the work.

Nearly 30 years later the Wearables are in public collections of jewellery – under this category I have found them upside down and inside out in museums and catalogues all over the world. Despite sometimes lengthy communications their inherent usefulness appears to deny the object autonomy and grant the curator of utilitarian objects creative ownership.

Does something similar happen in architecture when a building is adapted in use – how does architecture retain it’s integrity and how important is authorship for the architect?

What happens to art that is site specific if the context for which it is made is altered? Perhaps someone changes the viewpoints or the use of the space, a shade is put over a window to diffuse the light or a contemplative space becomes noisy or subjected to muzak. It is not a temporary installation in a white cube art gallery – that is what makes it interesting – but surprisingly it is the autonomous nature of art that also makes it fragile and vulnerable to external changes – can it survive in this context?

Published in RIBA Journal May 2009 © Susanna Heron April 2009