This was the first exhibition in Canada of work by British artist Robert Orchardson. Inspired by science fiction films and the work of architects and designers who engage with ways of thinking about the future, Orchardson is all too aware of the inherent paradox in visualizing the unknown, any attempt immediately foiled as it becomes instantly familiar. In setting out to imagine ‘things to come’, such endeavours unavoidably speak to us of the here and now. For Orchardson, his artistic proposition compels us to reassess utopias of the past, this revisiting however more than a mere act of longing. Instead it implies a restaging of unfulfilled possibilities as he grapples with fresh meaning and opportunity.
Using humble materials such as wood and resin as well as found objects, Orchardson is unashamedly nostalgic for modernist idealism, appropriating its forms and reconfiguring these, when utility has been postponed, as objects devoid of apparent function. He considers prototypes and models to be carriers for ideas, able to convey utopian potential as they develop into something beyond themselves. Orchardson also sees this sense of possibility inherent in stage sets, a tension evident where a narrative exists between the material character of the set itself and the ‘other’ identity it adopts within the context of a play.
At the Contemporary Art Gallery we presented Endless Façade (2011), an ambitious new installation which partially revisits stage sets designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1955 for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear. Noguchi aspired to an other-worldly state or feeling — a kind of mythical elsewhere, “free of historical or decorative associations” — where abstract, mobile forms created a shifting landscape against which the play unfolded. However, his designs were met with damning criticism, regarded as outlandish and unsympathetic to the theatrical production.
Fascinated by aspiration offset by failure, Orchardson revisits Noguchi’s designs, grasping their optimism and eventual redundancy. A sumptuous floor piece made of red felt, sensual in its materiality, is redolent of the cloak designed for Lear, the cut holes proposed to multiply as the play progressed, symbolic of the protagonist’s deteriorating mental state.
While Noguchi spoke of a unifying grey against which brightly coloured geometric designs and costumes sat, so Orchardson constructs a huge monochrome wall drawing, a jigsaw of interlocking triangular shapes creating a repeat pattern. In part also formally referring to Aelita, a Soviet science fiction film from 1924, this acts as a cohesive backdrop, a recurring motif for a series of highly coloured, prop-like forms, transforming the gallery spaces into an immersive environment tense with possibility. This major work within the overall piece recalls further reference points typical of Orchardson’s practice whereby he reframes the work of other designers, sometimes even fictional characters. For example, working in the 1970s, architectural practices like Superstudio proposed modular structures which could stretch to infinity; Bruno Taut in the early twentieth century proposed a kind of utopian architecture of crystalline forms extending beyond the horizon. Made of endlessly repeating elements, such forms would inevitably have to stop somewhere, their own physicality limiting the potential implied. Therefore, if positioned as ‘endless’, they convey a utopian possibility, a provisional idea for architecture.
A broader context cited by Orchardson for this work is Paul Scheerbart’s 1914 novel The Grey Cloth that tells the story of an ambitious and headstrong architect who pioneers the use of brightly coloured glass. He comes to the conclusion that the visual experience of his buildings is undermined by occupants who wear coloured clothing, clashing with his careful, chromatic schemes. In response he insists that his new wife should only wear grey, with 10% white, in order to be the perfect visual accompaniment to his architecture. In spite of such attention to detail, in a practice that extends to all corners of the world, he often finds his work to be the subject of derision.
Approached through a triangular opening at the CAG, the wall construction pervaded the whole gallery, reinforcing the deliberate sense of entering another world. Against this, the series of coloured objects resemble the amorphous motifs that feature in paintings by surrealist artist Yves Tanguy. The result was an environment that speaks of competing implications of potential and redundancy; abstraction versus figuration; the immediate present as opposed to somewhere else.
Such an ambitious installation corresponds to sensibilities evident in earlier works by Orchardson, including Mimoid (2005) based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris in which strange forms emerge and dissolve back into the living, thinking ocean of another planet. World Without Worlds (2005) consists of a circular wall piece behind a screen that incorporates imagery from the ‘stargate’ sequence of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; within Endless Façade stands a shallow curving screen made of complex rhomboid forms, its geometric patterns mediating our view of other visitors, creating a new ‘stage’ space in which viewers assume the position of actors. Seen within the context of the exhibition as a whole, such machinations are key
to Orchardson’s artistic proposition.
Robert Orchardson and Corin Sworn in-conversation with Richard Henriquez and Leslie Van Duzer
An in-conversation event between artists Orchardson and Sworn with architect Richard Henriquez and Leslie Van Duzer, Director and Professor, School of Architecture and Landscape
Architecture, UBC. Discussion will centre on topics of redundancy, memory and shifts in value and meaning over time.
Despite recently arriving in Vancouver as the new Director, I was already back in the UK in February to install the exhibition Endless façade with artist Robert Orchardson. Orchardson was born in Dundee and now lives in London. Here’s an image of the first room at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham. A version of this ambitious new installation comes to the CAG in November.
The exhibition partially revisits stage sets designed by Isamu Noguchi in 1955 for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear. His proposals aspired to an other-worldly feeling where abstract, mobile forms created a shifting landscape against which the play unfolded. However, the designs were met with damning criticism and regarded unsympathetic. For Orchardson, who appropriates various forms and reconfigures them as prototypes for ideas, the inherent modernist idealism and eventual redundancy of the designs become carriers for something beyond themselves. Here’s a preview of some more rooms with huge monochrome cement walls acting as backdrops for a series of prop-like forms.
As well as the exhibition we’re working on a catalogue in collaboration with Ikon, the first devoted entirely to the work of Robert Orchardson.
The nature of Orchardson’s work with its references to modernist architecture and theatre design, mean the occasion of his exhibition here will mark an appropriate moment to celebrate Abraham Rogatnick’s ongoing legacy of support for the CAG. We plan to host a number of events in honour of his memory.
More blogs from me soon.MORE