Couriers of Taste

Couriers of Taste
Danson House, Danson Park, Bexleyheath
April 19 – October 31, 2013

review in Crafts Magazine (July/Aug. 2013, pp. 63-64)

Danson House was originally built for the sugar merchant and vice-chairman of the British East India Company, Sir John Boyd, and completed in 1766. Sited on more than 180 acres of land, the Georgian villa serves as an evocative backdrop for the curatorial partnership of Day + Gluckman, who present this exhibition as part of their on going Sinopticon project. Couriers of Taste takes a broader view than Sinopticon’s original focus on contemporary interpretations of chinoiserie, instead expanding the remit to include work that addresses themes of global trade and the exotic.

Danson House provides an important reference point here. Originally built to display the acquisitions of its first owner’s travels, it not only offered evidence of his worldly experience but also confirmed personal wealth accrued, at least in part, from the labour of slaves. The curators’ confront these contradictions from the outset and acknowledge the “contentious and often abhorrent implications of trade that spurs global commerce: from fashion and taste to darker nuances such as racism, production values and the contested territory of exoticism”.

Nine artists are exhibited here – Gayle Chong Kwan, Stephanie Douet, Ed Pien, Meekyoung Shin, Susan Stockwell, Karen Tam, Laura White, WESSIELING and Ai Weiwei. Peaks and troughs exist throughout, with excellent work situated alongside less remarkable padding. Highlights include a modest cabinet on the ground floor which contains the results of the curators’ social media campaign to temporarily reclaim some of the hand painted porcelain sunflower seeds Ai Weiwei exhibited at the Tate Modern three years ago. Diplomatically described as “stolen/acquired/disseminated”, the seeds are exhibited (this time safely under glass) with Paddington Bear-like luggage labels noting the destination they will be returning to after this exhibition. Poignantly, the curators remind us that these seeds are freer to roam the world than the artist who conceived of their making.

The bulk of the exhibition occupies the upper floor of Danson House, organised around themed rooms: territories, contemporary chinoiserie, opium den, the trader, and consumerism. Early in the exhibition are two maps by Susan Stockwell of the African continent made from Chinese money (purchased on eBay) and of China made from American dollars. Both maps remind us that economic power, and the cultural influence that comes with it, is now experiencing a dramatic shift away from Europe and the United States 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 one of the exhibition’s high points. Here no effort is made to blend into the space, which is something of a relief when site specific projects like this one can make finding the art work an impossible game of hide-and-seek. Instead, a sea of sculptures on raised plinths injects the entire room with a visual cacophony of resurrected and eclectically grouped junk. One wall of the same room is painted fuchsia and contains Face the Elements, a collection of quotes from fashion magazines by WESSIELING, who has several works in the exhibition. The suggestion here is that fashion drives the material consumption responsible for the discarded content of White’s work, but the texts connection is somewhat tenuous when set against the visual clamour of the sculptures.

It is Meekyong Shin who 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 would suggest. Shin is also responsible for creating a version of the Duke of Cumberland currently in Cavendish Square, London. Here the soap sculpture is literally exposed to the elements and slowly disintegrating over time. While disintegration is not apparent in the pieces displayed inside Danson House, a sense that the identity of an object – and by extension its maker – is both fluid and fragile is a poetic and remarkably real response to the exhibition theme.

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