Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Space Between Furniture and Art by Zachary Velazquez

Zachary Velazquez

Contemporary Art/New Media in China

Defne Ayas and Zhao Chuan

The Space Between Furniture and Art

When considering our surroundings it is natural to intuitively view
our environment as occupying its own space, separate from the self.
After all, as an individual, one can only assume complete control over
him/herself. Every other object in our surroundings exists as its own
entity, created and swayed by multiple influences that extend far
beyond the individual. However, today we no longer live in a world
oblivious to mankind. Humans have molded and created the material
world that we live in. Not only has the land around us been reshaped
and partitioned, but almost every object in our daily lives is the
result of human interference and design. This includes something as
seemingly natural as a home garden, as simple as a kitchen table, and
as complex as a computer. People not only rely on the objects and
environment that surround them, but these external things are the
direct result of the human mind.

In one way or another, it has taken will, creativity, innovation, and
an understanding of emotion to develop the objects that are now often
dismissed as purely functional. Without the artistic mind, much
around us could not have possibly developed to the point that it has.
Furniture, which can be viewed as one of the most common and
functional objects of our daily lives, is no exception to this.
Furniture has had an important role in our lives for thousands of
years, acting as an extension of local culture. Different designs and
variations in structure are telling of a people's customs, idea of
beauty, method of interacting with the world, and concept of their
surroundings. China is a country with a long history of furniture
design, with a unique aesthetic that developed independently from the
West. However, today, as China opens itself up to globalization and
receives influence from the West, contemporary Chinese artists are
designing furniture that comments on change and the space that we
currently live in. As this investigation continues, Chinese artists
are gradually picking away at the line between art and design,
creating work that tackles this conflict and tries to surpass

Furniture, as an object, is not only identified by itself, but also
the space that it inhabits. In an interview, designer Jutta
Friedrichs states, "Furniture occupies a beautiful space between the
body and the environment/architecture, communicating between the
two." Furniture acts as a mediator between the individual and the
greater space that he/she occupies. The flow, direction, and emotion
of a room can be determined by where a piece of furniture sits. It
creates the boundaries in which one can move and invites an individual
to act and rest in a particular manner. But just as furniture is
designed and arranged to create order within one daily life, it can be
contorted and rearranged to create confusion and a new context for
interpretation. Ai Weiwei's "Furniture" series, which was started in
1997, dissects and reinterprets furniture pieces from the Ming and
Qing Dynasties. Works such as "Table with Two Legs on the Wall," in
which a table is folded in half so that two legs are weighted on the
floor and the other two rest against the wall, beg the viewer to re-
evaluate the way they experience their environment. This simple
gesture pushes a traditional item of stability onto its side, where it
remains in a defunct order, hanging on the edge of reality. Another
piece by the name of "Grapes" is composed of nine partially merged
stools that curl around each other to form a single piece that
resembles a cluster of grapes. By deconstructing and rearranging the
stools, Ai Weiwei is able to change our conception of ordinary form.
"Grapes" takes away the preconceived notion of how stools are supposed
to function, while at the same time drawing attention to the
traditional form's structure and capacity for a more playful use. Ai
Weiwei doesn't simple destroy the old and make a new, but is able to
use a long and established history of precise wood working, fitted
joints, and shaping to his advantage. He works within the old
structure, making adjustments so that he can create an evolved form
that can stand on its own as a unique piece. The space as we know it
is not destroyed, but reconsidered and worked into a context that
provides depth and understanding.

The idea of re-evaluating the spaces we have grown accustomed to has
been a reoccurring trend in contemporary Chinese art that goes beyond
furniture design. Experimental exhibitions such as Art for Sale
(1999) and Post-Sense Sensibility: Distorted Bodies and Delusion
(1999) have tried to find a new way to display and curate a show. The
Persistent Deviation/Corruptionists (1998) exhibition focused on
giving the artist a platform to develop his or her own obsessions and
not be restricted to conforming to a "commonality or mutual
relationship." This show attempted to do away with exhibition
limitations that try to have a group of artists adhere to a theme or
method. The show was thus held in the basement of a residential
building in Beijing, away from the white wall galleries and the eye of
the government, allowing the artist to explore their freedom of
individual expression. The artist's space became his own, and he was
able to use it according to his own will and ambition. Acknowledging
that a piece derives important and meaning through the space that it
occupies, gives an artist the freedom to experiment with its context
and the established notion of what something is supposed to do.

Since most furniture is viewed primarily as a commercial product, and
not as art, the more artistically geared designers end up working in
the grey space between the fine arts and design. Each category has
its own context that implies a certain way of evaluating the work.
Furniture works such as the Ai Weiwei series are created specifically
for the gallery. In Ai Weiwei's case, functionality is not his
primary concern. Although certain pieces such as "Table with Two Legs
on the Wall" could theoretically be used like a traditional table, the
piece was primarily created to be studied and interpreted by a viewer
and not used as a common object. Furniture designers such as XYZ
Design and Jutta Friedrichs of MÜ Furniture, on the other hand, create
works that must be functional and reproducible by request or within an
edition. When explaining the distinction between design and art,
Jutta Friedrichs says, "Historically, a difference between the two
didn't exist. The distinction is a product of industrialization. The
consumer/market has more power and is demanding certain products in a
certain style. In a way, addressing a brief (designing) is a lot
easier than setting your very own guidance as an artist." Although
furniture design first relies on making works that are sellable in a
commercial market, the pieces can often be considered as art and shown
in expos, competitions, and galleries.

A problem that contemporary furniture faces in both the design and art
world is accessibility. Although furniture made by design companies
is marketed to people interested in this type of product, both
networks are relatively small and unknown to the greater public.
Furniture shown in art galleries, especially in China, is viewed by a
small public of insiders and intellectuals who come to see the pieces
as sculptural works of art. In Shanghai and Beijing, most exhibitions
are not well advertised and there isn't a well-developed class of
people interested in contemporary art. However, if a piece or series
is really well received, it has the opportunity of reaching
international circles. Works by furniture designers are viewed as
contemporary furniture first and works of art second. This means that
some pieces, no matter how artistic they seem, may not get the
attention they deserve. These furniture pieces also reach a specific
group of people and are produced in relatively small numbers.

The issue of accessibility does not lie in the content or design of
these works, but in the platform on which they are shown. Many
furniture pieces benefit from being displayed in a gallery setting
since it provides the work with a neutral environment that allows it
to be read as art. The problem, however, is that China does not
promote the study of contemporary art to its people. One of the more
successful contemporary Chinese art districts, 798 in Beijing, has had
more success in attracting a visiting public. However, a large
percentage of viewers are Westerners and are only in town for vacation
or business. Through education, advertising, and a better-developed
gallery scene, one could be certain that contemporary art could reach
a much larger Chinese population. However, fully functional and
sellable furniture that is shown in design exhibitions, might have a
harder time reaching the public since its geared to a much more
specific array of people. If the design works are brought directly to
the people in an open setting that allows the passing public to
stumble upon the exhibition, then more interest can be stirred and a
more general public could be aware of the artist's work.

Although this divide between furniture design and fine art is more
discernable in the works of artists like Ai Weiwei and XYZ, certain
artists, such as Xue Tao, drift closer to that ambiguous border. Art
website writes, "Xue Tao is one of a young generation of
artists who are unconcerned with the category in which people wish to
place them, preferring to work unconstrained, between disciplines. He
leaves the decision of whether his works are to be viewed as art or
design to the viewer." Xue Tao's furniture contains a rich social
critique as well an appealing aesthetic that easily puts his work on
the edge of art and design. By making sculptures entirely of knotted
newspaper, Xue Tao is able to make works that comment on the
experience of living in modern day China. The country's rapid change
and constant influx of information make newspaper a perfect material,
while the delicate hand worked technique calls back to a more
traditional and labor intensive time. By curling and knotting the
newspaper, Xue Tao is able to evoke an active struggle that is laden
in the framework of contemporary culture. The fact that he makes one
of a kind pieces that aren't mass-produced, widely circulated, or
often functional has little importance when trying to classify the
piece as art or design. There are many examples of one of a kind
furniture pieces that have very little physical practicality (such as
a ceramic craft vase). Pieces like "Stool 1" have the shape and
design that allow it to be labeled as furniture and the content that
helps describe it as art. As more and more artists realize that
categories are often inaccurate and vague, they can create without the
pressure of feeling as though they need to conform.

A category that can, with certainty, be used to classify Chinese
furniture designers are those that are foreign born, but now living
and working in China, and those that are native Chinese. What really
divides these two types of artists is the inherent cultural struggle
and sense of identity that is worked into their individual pieces.
Shao Fan, one of the most notable Chinese artists to work with
furniture, reconstructs and juxtaposes modern and traditional forms to
create a dialogue on language and identity. While Ai Weiwei uses
existing artifacts from past dynasties, Shao Fan will often integrate
contemporary design and material, with the style of furniture from the
Ming dynasty. When commenting on his piece entitled "Ming Turd," a
fat and distinctly designed curved bench, he says, "I wanted to show
that even the most ordinary, base things can be made beautiful and
turned into art. Of course, no artist who wanted to live would have
dared to offer the divine emperor an artwork that might suggest he was
human. But we are all emperors now. We are all the same." A piece
such as "Ming Turd" is able to comment on social developments in China
by altering a traditional form so that it can create an internal
dialogue. Other works, such as his chair pieces, interject sleek
metal forms into the worn wooden curves of traditional Ming dynasty
chairs. The chair piece entitled "Moon" had been designed to contain
the logographic nature of its character, while at the same time
indicating an obvious gap between the old and new. The constructed
contrast between modern minimalistic aesthetics and tradition shape
and material is brought to light when Shao Fan reflects on his art
education. In an interview with Telegraph newspaper, Shao Fan says,
"I realize now that my education was Western. As I got older I wanted
to move away from the Western aesthetic – the aesthetic that academics
in China teach and which are espoused by most contemporary Chinese
artists. I had to learn by myself how to be a Chinese artist, by
trial and error." This is a conflict of identity that is apparent in
his work, and one that can only be expressed by a Chinese artist.
Even if a foreign artist attempted to mimic Shao Fan's style, there
would be an ingrained emotional conflict and personal struggle missing
from the confines of the piece.

Although there are certain Chinese issues that a foreign artist living
in China would have less success tackling, a foreign artist can
without a doubt make Chinese furniture that is relevant to
contemporary issues. MÜ Furniture designer Jutta Friedrichs is a
German born artist, who went to school in London, and moved to China
in 2005. After doing product design in Shanghai for two year,
Friedrichs decided to branch out on her own and start designing
furniture, something she felt had greater value and a more meaningful
lifespan. When designing her last line, she drew direct inspiration
from the city of Shanghai as well as her impulse to connect with
nature. Friedrichs states, "My main inspiration was contrast, which I
found a lot in a city on a fast train of trying to overcome old
traditions and poverty. The city's increasing awareness of
environmental issues contrasting the excitement for consuming the
newest products (pollution through production) was an other
inspiration to combine natural with manufactured elements,
aesthetically as well as in the material." This contrast is a
signature element of her pieces, which combine a sleek manufactured
aesthetic with richly textured wood. Her furniture pieces are
beautifully simple and provocative, juxtaposing the hard lines of the
city with the tapering grain of nature. By engaging in a new
environment, Friedrichs was able to eventually find a new aesthetic
that was true to both herself and her surroundings. This is a
transformation within the visual arts that is the direct result of her
experience as a foreigner living in China. Her furniture pieces thus
become just as much a part of Chinese culture as any local artists'

Contemporary Chinese furniture design currently occupies a conflicting
yet exciting space in both the art world and within China's quickly
developing society. Tottering between the applied and fine arts gives
the artist the opportunity to design furniture that works within
different contexts and plays with different notions of our
surroundings. Globalization and social conflicts that are unique to
China bring forth an investigation of identity and a desire to come to
terms with contrasting perspectives. In the process of breaking down
these boundaries, Chinese artists are freeing up their minds to
uninhibited expression and tackling issues that are true to themselves
and the surroundings that have influenced them.

1 comment:

Stephen said...

Thank you for sharing this information. I love this issue very much