Exhibition Review: Couriers of Taste, Jessica Hemmings

All a matter of taste and trade: CRAFT Magazine. July/Aug 2013
Danson House, Bexleyheath DA6 8HL 1 April – 31 October, 2013

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Completed in 1766, Danson House was originally built for Sir John Boyd, sugar merchant and vice-chairman of the British East India Company. Sited across more than 180 acres of land, the Georgian villa is an evocative backdrop for the curatorial partnership of Day + Gluckman, this exhibition being part of their on-going Sinopticon project. But where Sinopticon’s original focus was on contemporary interpretations of chinoiserie, Couriers of Taste expands the remit to include work that addresses global trade and the Exotic. Danson House itself provides an important reference point here. Built to display the acquisitions of its first owner’s travels, it offered evidence not only of his worldly experience but also of personal wealth accrued, in part from the labour of slaves. The curators confront this from the outset, acknowledging the ‘contentious and often abhorrent implications of
trade that spurs global commerce: from fashion and taste to darker nuances such as racism, production values andthe contested territory of exoticism.’

Nine artists are exhibited: Gayle Chong Kwan, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, Meekyoung Shin, Susan Stockwell, Karen Tam, Laura White, WESSIELING and Ai Weiwei. There are peaks and troughs, with excellent work alongside less remarkable padding. Highlights include a modest cabinet on the ground floor, containing some of the hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds Ai Weiwei showed at Tate Modern three years ago, temporarily reclaimed via the curators’ social media campaign. Diplomatically described as ‘stolen/acquired/disseminated’, the seeds are exhibited (this time safely under glass) with Paddington Bear-like luggage labels noting where they will return after the show. Poignantly, as the curators remind us, they are freer to roam the world than the artist who conceived their making.

The bulk of the exhibition occupies the upper floor, organised around themed rooms: Territories, Contemporary Chinoiserie, Opium Den, the Trader, and Consumerism. Early on we see two maps by Susan Stockwell, of the African continent made from Chinese money, and of China made from US dollars. Both maps remind us that economic power, and the cultural influence that comes with it, is now experiencing something of a shift away from Europe and the US towards China and the continent of Africa.

Laura White’s installation of several dozen sculptures fashioned from eBay
and charity shop ephemera – the Esque Collection – is a high point. No effort is made to blend into the space. Instead, a sea of sculptures on raised plinths injects the entire room with a visual cacophony of resurrected and eclectically grouped junk. One wall is painted fuchsia and contains Face the Elements, a collection of quotes from fashion magazines by WESSIELING, who has several works here. The suggestion is perhaps that fashion drives the material consumption responsible for the discarded content of White’s work, though when set against the visual clamour of the sculptures, the connection the texts make feels somewhat tenuous.

Meekyoung Shin truly steals this show, with Translation, a collection of pots made from soap displayed on packing crates conspicuously stamped fragile. Shin’s museum collection replicas are visually deceptive: the transience of soap as a material is not immediately obvious, nor is the fact that the objects here are not as valuable as first glance might suggest. Shin also made the soap Duke of Cumberland in London’s Cavendish Square, until this June (recreating an equine statue that formerly stood there). This was literally exposed to the elements, disintegrating over time. While disintegration is not yet apparent in the pieces inside Danson House, a sense that the identity of an object – and by extension its maker – is both fluid and fragile is a poetic response to the exhibition’s theme.

The same magic and subtlety isn’t present throughout the whole exhibition, but other highlights – in particular Ai Weiwei’s seeds and White’s boisterous combinations – are well worth the visit.

Professor Jessica Hemmings is Head of the Faculty of Visual Culture at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin.