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EXHIBITIONS: The world seen in open-ended ways

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Richard Wentworth's Thinking Aloud At Kettle's Yard, Castle St, Cambridge until 3 January; at Cornerhouse, Manchester, from 9 January-28 February; and at Camden Arts Centre, London, from 9 April-30 May

The rapid first sketch on a menu or the back of an envelope is a staple of architectural myth-making. Fetishising such scribbles fosters the cult of personality to which some designers (lately Ando?) are all too happy to subscribe. But occasionally the estimation of these works is well-founded, as with one now hanging on a wall at Kettle's Yard. Drawn by Joseph Paxton on a piece of pink blotting paper in 1850, it shows his Great Exhibition building, the Crystal Palace, in embryo.

Such 'first thoughts' were the starting-point for artist Richard Wentworth in devising this National Touring Exhibition for the Hayward Gallery. Among them are sketches by Vanbrugh, Rietveld and Gehry and the prototype for Dyson's modish vacuum cleaner. Wentworth values these initial propositions 'because their first aim is not to please but to find something out'. But there are finished works here as well, an eclectic host of objects alongside what is usually deemed art. Included are a cube-shaped cardboard box of remaindered toy dinosaurs, a mole trap, a prosthetic hand. Just what is going on, one starts to wonder.

The show's title, 'Thinking Aloud', is a clue, with its sense of the speculative and provisional. Wentworth says that he doesn't want to be 'didactic' but to 'provoke more open-ended ways of looking'; he wants the transformed gallery to be a place 'where meanings are fugitive and things can coalesce in different ways'. At the core of his installation is 'the imponderable notion of 'resonance', the way certain things seem to chime.'

So, in a loose way, certain themes emerge: house and shelter, map-making, war. In the area where the first of these is explored, we find a child's miniature model house made of pins, a Walker Evans photograph of construction in West Virginia, a safety-at-home poster from the Second World War; but nearby is another Evans photograph, of a sharecropper's grave, and next to that a Lutyens drawing for the Cenotaph. The concept of shelter expands disconcertingly. Moreover, the boundaries between this and the other subject areas are fluid, for objects or images encountered later feed back into it, to further magnify and reconfigure it. As in a kaleidoscope, the patterns perpetually shift.

Some of the 'resonance' that Wentworth remarks upon is a matter of visual rhymes: he flanks a sketch by Gehry for the Weatherhead School of Management with MacDonald Gill's map of the London Underground (1923) and an elaborate doodle which Lloyd George drew while the Terms of Armistice were formulated at Versailles - and all three have a spidery, skein-like look. In similar vein, Gehry's design process model for the Weatherhead building - an improvised- looking asemblage of brown and silver paper, wood and plastic - is juxtaposed with Brassai's photograph of a sculpture involontaire, a rolled bus ticket.

But the exhibition is most successful when the resemblances are more fundamental, and one such similarity comes with a jolt in the last of the rooms. What appears to be a minimalist textile piece suspended against the wall turns out to be a pristine white body bag, neatly zipped, while also in view is a cast-iron brick mould from Baggeridge Brick. Each, one realises, is the container for a standard product - and one's thoughts return to the sharecropper's grave.

If death of the human subject is one leitmotif of 'Thinking Aloud', the show is more equivocal about the fate of objects. Do they die too? Lurking in the passage by the lavatories, like a nasty secret, are two compact blocks of pulverised metal, all their component identites obscured. But back in the gallery, a pair of crushed car wheels enjoy an afterlife of sorts, for, propped against the wall like distorted trefoils, they have sculptural presence. And objects really live again, with new identities, in an array of ingenious recyclings from Cuba.

Kettle's Yard is crammed with material as Wentworth employs all likely (and some unlikely) spaces to challenge assumptions about value, conventions in looking, and expectations of meaning. The show ramifies afterwards in your mind; and the contents of, say, a shop window seem different from before. 'Thinking Aloud' has unusual potential. It could change how you see the world and how you interpret it.

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