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Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, at the Design Museum

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Installations presented in one of the Design Museum’s two inaugural exhibitions at its new home make for a fun but flabby show

Fear And Love: Reactions to a Complex World is one of the opening exhibitions of the recently completed Design Museum in its new home in the former Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street. The exhibition, designed by Sam Jacob Studio, reads almost like a mini-Biennale, presenting 11 original installations commissioned by international designers across a variety of disciplines and subject matter.

Perhaps inevitably, given its recent makeover of the Commonwealth Institute (with Allies and Morrison and John Pawson), OMA features in Fear And Love – as it does in the other current show in the Design Museum’s new venue, Beazley Designs of the Year. The practice’s presence is also inescapable in the controversial private residential blocks built over the old Commonwealth Institute gardens surrounding the museum. The OMA offering is a response to Brexit and, with AMO (OMA’s research and design studio) it has created for this exhibition The Pan-European Living Room, furnished with pieces from each of Europe’s 28 member states.

Rural Urban Framework’s (RUF) short film, Reflections, by Dulguun Bayasgalan, shown on a loop in a Mongolian felt ger (yurt) erected in the museum, is astonishing for its drone footage, revealing the growing encampment of gers on the outskirts of the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar. A generation of nomads has settled on the city’s edge, abandoning centuries of traditional life for wage labour but unable to afford apartments. RUF don’t offer a convincing solution to the problems the growing tent ghetto throws up; but it informs and addresses tricky questions about the challenges the incomers present for the city’s infrastructure.

The introduction to the exhibition asserts that ‘design is changing. Once focused on objects, designers are now increasingly concerned with contexts’. This shift of emphasis is echoed not only in the wide-ranging multimedia installations but also in the exhibition design itself. Sam Jacob Studio’s slightly sci-fi translucent matte grey PVC curtain (one stretch of which is 190m long) weaves its way around the large rectangular hall, leading you from one installation to the next and breaking up the hangar space into smaller exhibition spaces. Despite a second hanging of soft grey Kvadrat felt, the noise of the various audio presentations and the whirring movements of Madeline Gannon’s Mimus exhibit compete against each other, sometimes distractingly, but perhaps effectively contributing to the atmosphere of uncertainty, ‘fear’ and even plain confusion. Sam Jacob comments: ‘The subject of Fear and Love was always more of a mood than a statement. Our design attempts to embody this ambivalence in a way that adds mystery and imagination.’

The visitor is asked to switch gears quite quickly from an in-depth and objective look at the growth and uses of dating app Grindr (saving refugees as well as facilitating fast liaisons it turns out) to the simple photography of staple carbohydrates by Kenya Hara, graphic designer and artistic director of Muji. The former – an innovative presentation of four films by architect Andrés Jaque – makes a strong case in support of his claim that ‘proximity-based people discovery or hook-up software is one of the most significant designs of the last decade’.

An exhibition that is pointedly not about objects makes it a more challenging experience. Engaging with 11 different ‘contexts’ gets tiring and inevitably – despite the swoop of Sam Jacob’s curtain, leading you on – the show loses pace. By the time I got to Metahaven’s abstract presentation about Sea Shepherd’s whale killing prevention efforts I‘d reached saturation point. Pondering the manifestation of fear and love in our complex world and considering the design response to a number of challenging contexts is certainly a worthy endeavour. The real struggle is to present all this in a vital and energetic way, with focus and authenticity. And that is a larger concern for the Design Museum itself maybe, as it continues to settle in to its own complex context.

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