Matthew Darbyshire: T Rooms
Zabludowicz Collection, London
4 October - 2 December 2012
Review by Emily Burns
Tucked down an unprepossessing residential road in Kentish Town, the Zabludowicz Collection’s latest offering, ‘T Rooms’ by Matthew Darbyshire, presents a refreshing platform for examining the shaping of materialist desire in today’s consumerist society.‘T Rooms’ is a multi-media installation featuring works by Darbyshire and his collaborators Rupert Ackroyd, Jacob Farrell and Scott King, the writer Owen Hatherley and architect Bob Hobbs. Originally created in a reduced format for Tramway in Glasgow earlier this year, the show has been augmented for the Zabludowicz Collection, making it Darbyshire’s largest public exhibition to date.
The multi-sensory, immersive experience begins with the tones of ‘Furniture Music No.3’ (2012), which emanate from the entrance. This musical creation consists of various reworkings of Atomic Kitten’s ‘Whole Again’ (2001), pervading the space with deconstructions of an over-produced, commercialised, musical cliché. In the forecourt, a ‘metalised’ plastic slide, ‘Ways of Sitting No. 5’ (2012), invites comparison with John Berger’s famously anti-connoisseurial ‘Ways of Seeing’ (1972), and satirises the elitist, philanthropic motive ‘to educate and elevate’ through public sculpture.
Together, these interventions pre-condition the visitor for the physical and metaphorical labyrinth of consumerist culture that lies behind the Collection’s majestic facade. Flanked by a series of photograms of fabricated objects, two sets of rooms are hung with architectural vistas digitally-printed on industrial hoardings, defining Darbyshire’s vision of society’s collective but conflicted desires as represented by their design choices or, rather, evident lack of choice. While these designs are clearly inspired by Charles Mackintosh’s famed art deco style of turn-of-the-century Glasgow, the original motifs are perverted into generic patterns, lacking in finesse; the celebrated designs are now reduced to mass-produced, formulaic ‘mockintosh’. Banal but functional building materials such as breeze blocks, MDF and corrugated iron are likewise misrepresented in unexpected combinations of textures and colours. The function of the architecture is indefinable yet familiar, evoking memories of pre-fabricated homes or impersonal council offices in a jumbled pastiche of modern Britain.
The first of these architectural montages is set within the old chapel. As the hoardings do not reach the ceiling, the viewer is forced to contemplate the artificiality of the blue sky and fluffy clouds against the reality of the grey sky through the windows. While seemingly less incongruous in its cavernous industrial space, the artifice of the second series of banners is even more conspicuous. Passages of mismatched architectural details lead to whitewashed dead-ends, faux windows look on to blank nothingness and a door is disconcertingly blocked with bars. A nod toward veracity is made by way of pixellated shadows, but even these do not correspond with the objects they mirror: the all-too-familiar protective yet menacing surveillance cameras of our ‘nanny state’. A metallic sculpture, ‘Smoking Shelter’ (2012) symbolises the sinister influence of ‘good’ advertising but, other than a courtyard clock showing 16.40, there is no evidence of human presence - only the ceiling floodlights illuminating the flimsy facades of this graphic design fantasy. Here is a projected future world of design hubris where neither a consideration of function nor aesthetics applies.
‘Showhome’ (2012) expands this tirade against the oxymoronic phenomenon of generic specificity or ‘pseudo-individualism’ - a specifically capitalist trend coined by the theorist Theodor Adorno (1903 - 1969). While the wall hangings depict exteriors, this model room demonstrates that the situation is also evident in interiors and the objects that complete them. A film at the centre depicts real buildings while, in measured tones, Owen Hatherley’s voiceover ruminates on the woeful state of design today, where the prevailing formula for housing deploys a standardised, pre-digested, minutely varying assemblage of stock elements so that ‘each house is different…very very slightly’.
Assorted high street objects are presented as case studies of modern retail habits. A topiary shrub that would look at home in Kensington hints at ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, while an oversized champagne glass suggests ‘excess is best’. Other objects mimic style icons from the ancient world, but with a contemporary twist, including a classical nude sculpture sitting on a tree stump, a Graecian amphorae covered in fake jewel-coloured velvet and, on the floor, a timeless Chinese paper lantern, unlit, its age-old function usurped.
These historical throwback accessories to an everyman lifestyle are paired with the re-appropriated language of past times or, more ominously, a regressive present. The show is described in its press release as a feat of ‘trompe l’oeil’ and, appropriately, it is housed in a 19th century chapel that is itself a classic revival, illustrating the cycle of re-hashed formulae of second-hand tastes and the possibility of becoming misaligned with the present. The message is clear: our judgement is clouded by what we are universally conditioned to desire and by what ‘fashion’ dictates.
‘T Rooms’ is like walking into a paradoxical world where ‘The Truman Show’ meets ‘The Sims’; a made-to-measure land of prescribed, modular landscaping and limited elements where seemingly autonomous choices are in fact constricted. Modern consumerism is exposed as in a perpetual state of suspended disbelief, ignorant that the design options are pre-determined by the interlinking authorities of supposed ‘free market capitalism’ - government, big business and the economy - as opposed to the individual inspiration of the designers, architects and artists. ‘T Rooms’ is, in essence, a homage to design: its glorious past, its disaffected present, and its potentially dark future.