This is the opening view from Objects of Transcendence, an exhibition at the Watermans arts centre in Brentford, west London, that features work from artists and designers exploring how objects can be deployed to provoke political or social comment. The shift in lighting is prompted by the content on display – from 19th-century green uranium salts, to artificial fireplaces as indicators of cultural identity.
Despite being modest in size (only four projects are displayed, comprising no more than 10 exhibits in total), the exhibition's content is diverse. The exhibiting artists – Ele Carpenter, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Jeremy Hutchison and Jaskeen Kaur – have taken radically different topics for consideration. While Carpenter explores the potential of communicating concerns about radioactivity through domestic objects, Hutchison highlights the gulf between reality and expectation polarised by advertising.
Irini Papadimitriou, the co-curator of the exhibition, gave Disegno a guided tour of the exhibits on the opening week of Objects of Transcendence. An edited transcript of the resulting conversation is published below. Each of the captions, displayed below in bold, is taken directly from the exhibition catalogue.
i- by Jeremy Hutchison
Professional hand models are employed for a commercial shoot. They are instructed to squeeze lumps of clay and model these for a camera, and as they work, the artist interviews the models.
Irini Papadimitriou This piece explores the hand as part of the body but also as a disembodied object. As the hand models were interviewed, they were asked to mould a piece of clay. The clay replaces the object that would be held by the hand in an advertisement, an expensive piece of jewellery or a mobile phone for example. The object of desire has been taken away and what remains is the hand. The hand itself becomes disembodied and instead the object of consumption.
It very much translates to what the hand models say in their interviews. The female hand model is quite critical of the industry that she works in. She talks about how she feels strange standing next to these stereotypically beautiful women at photography shoots. She is an average women, but her hand is presented as completely separate from her body. In doing this her hand becomes the product.
Of course the hand is exactly what we would expect: it’s white, it’s beautiful and her nails are perfectly manicured. It is the same with the male hand: it belongs to a white person but he has slightly olive skin, symbolising being both healthy and successful; the hand belongs to somebody who has recently been on holiday.
It is powerful to listen to the real people behind the hands. The female hand model’s views do not align with those of the type of person that you would imagine to be behind the hand. It is in this sense that Jeremy’s piece explores the perceptions that we have of advertisements. You don’t have to see the women in the shot, but by seeing her hand you can imagine how she is supposed to look. We live in a society that is surrounded by advertisements but we never question the set-up behind them. From seeing this image you imagine this tall, beautiful woman with longs legs, but the hand doesn’t belong to her. It belongs to somebody else.
Singularly Assured Destruction by Ele Carpenter
The Singularly Assured Destruction artwork is an amateur laboratory measuring the radioactivity of uranium glass to consider the variable risk perception of radiation. Each time the work is on public display the activity of each piece of glass is measured and recorded in a log-book.
Irini Ele's artworks are an interesting way to engage people in conversations about nuclear economy. Singularly Assured Destruction features an old shop cabinet filled with uranium glass objects. Uranium glass is a domestic, green-tinted glass that is still relativity common; you often find it in markets and antique shops. In terms of price, these pieces are very affordable; Ele never paid more than £20 for an item. Uranium glass is therefore very accessible, so many people still have it in their homes.
Uranium salts and dioxide have been used since the early-19th century for colouring glass. They have since been found to contain traces of radioactivity. Ele collects these objects and takes measurements of their radioactivity. The reason why they are glowing is because of the uranium salts. If you find glass in an old cabinet at home then a quick way to figure out if it contains uranium is to use a UV light. If it glows then it is a clear sign that it is uranium. This brightness of the glow is the presence of uranium salts in the glass.
The domestic environment that the pieces are displayed in, the old fashioned shop cabinet and the wooden desk and chair where a book containing Ele’s measurements is displayed, is designed as a way for people to understand the need for legislation concerning radioactivity. There are debates about whether uranium glass is dangerous to handle or not. It is dangerous – you do get exposed to radioactivity if you handle these pieces. By using the example of an everyday domestic object, Ele aims for people to understand that radioactivity is a topic that is very close to home, even though it is very abstract topic that feels at a distance from your day-to-day life.
Customers Who Also Bought by Matthew Plummer-Fernandez
Amazon's Customers Who Also Bought recommendations reveal the algorithmic analysis and assumptions made of shoppers. The project constructs portraits of shopper, found via their voluntary Amazon endorsement on social media, out of the items they have purchased and the products they may have also bought.
Irini Matthew does a lot of work around algorithms but he's also interested in how personal data is shared with companies; issues around privacy. Consumers Who Also Bought deals with our bodies: who we are and how we are perceived, based on our consumption habits. The project is based on algorithms that use Amazon shopper profiles to create portraits of people based on their purchase history. It creates a very limited portrait of a person, only picking up on specific items. The real person is deleted and they are instead replaced with a consumer item. The portraits explore the limitations of how we are perceived by computer systems, algorithms and companies that collect our data. Companies treat their customers not as individuals but instead they hone in on a tiny aspect of their personality, based on the data that has been shared online.
Data protection issues worry me a lot. People often say that they have nothing to hide in terms of the information that they share, but it is nothing to do with that. It's incredibly concerning that anyone can have access to our data. It raises questions about what type of companies can access that data and what could they do with it. It is quite scary to think that so much is out there and we are not aware of its full extent. We need to be more educated about these issues.
Slightly Awkward Feeling by Jasleen Kaur
Slightly Awkward Feeling derives from an investigation into materials and aesthetics that, for the artist, have association with a kind of Indian-ness. For example, a 1950s Axminster carpet and foil Christmas decorations feature so heavily in British Asian homes and Gurdwaras that they are perceived as a kind of Indian aesthetic.
Irini Jasleen is interested in how objects and materials relate to social culture. This particular piece explores how the concept of the home is constructed and how certain objects trigger a memory of home and a subsequent sense of belonging. She is also interested in manipulating the materials that are associated with different cultures and remixing them. It is about how objects can evoke our memories of a place. For example, a woman who is of south Asian heritage walked into this exhibition the other day and said that the exhibit reminded her of her grandmother’s home. In actuality, these things are mass produced.
Jasleen is playing with this idea of how a material can be manipulated or changed to make you associate it with a specific culture and transport yourself to a specific place. It is very much about our relationship with materials and how our bodies and brains interact with certain materials to trigger these connections.