In the wake of the Creative Unions exhibition at Central Saint Martins, Kate Keara Pelen, Creative Producer: Gallery and Public Programmes and Sarah Campbell, Museum and Study Collection Curator discuss the three works selected from the show to become part of the permanent collection and the importance that both the museum and public gallery spaces hold for the College.
Can you explain a bit about the CSM Museum and Study collection and its acquisition process?
SC: Each year the CSM Museum and Study Collection receives a selection of new student work from the degree shows. Collecting contemporary work is a real strength of the museum; we have over twenty thousand items in the collection, ranging from medieval manuscripts and Japanese prints to paintings by Raqib Shaw and garments by Alexander McQueen. The annual addition of brand new works by our graduating students boosts the richness and currency of the collection. The best thing about these new acquisitions is the way they highlight current areas of concern for our students. They provide discussion points and incite new debate around the older works.
KKP: It also must make quite an impression on newer students to show that threshold – between studio experiment and collectible object, being crossed over by graduates every year. As makers we can think there is a mysterious chasm between what we get up to in the studio now and what is considered important enough to collect for posterity.
SC: Yes, I think that our students find it inspiring to see work by recent graduates in a collection alongside established, world-renowned artists and designers. The museum setting allows the objects to accrue significance for them. In the museum, we work with the academic teams from a wide variety of courses, across all nine programmes. In our teaching, we showcase both “new” and “old” items from the collection. This encourages students to take very recently produced work more seriously and, I hope, let them imagine that they might have work in here one day too, in turn inspiring the next generation.
The temporary exhibition and the permanent museum collection hold very different roles in the presentation, and preservation, of contemporary art. Could you both talk a bit about how you view these roles, and where you see potential for crossover and collaboration?
KKP: I think what an exhibition can provide is a carefully crafted framework for mutual reinforcement – it can bring out similarity and difference between works. Creative Unions provided a snapshot and a cross-section of activity taking place in a specific context at a given time. The large number of graduate works on display allowed for the breadth of our design programmes to be reflected in a single exhibition. These may at first appear disparate but they are brought together around thematic arcs which have particular resonance for the exhibitors as individuals, for the College as a whole and for our extended community. These surveys map out where we are, and where we aspire to be, through our material culture.
SC: In terms of the collection, I think preservation is really where we deviate from the exhibition environment. Allowing students to hold in their hands items that have previously been seen on walls, behind glass or on plinths makes a big difference. For example, we have a piece from last year’s degree shows: a pair of shoes covered with expanding foam and then coated in chrome paint by BA Fashion Knitwear graduate Sarah Ansah. When these are on display in a gallery they look heavy, metallic and otherworldly. However, when picked up, they are incredibly light which takes you by surprise. Conversations with students about the shoes cover their concept but also their physicality: what would it be like to walk in them, how many blisters they would give you?
Giving students that agency and seeing their interpretations of objects is really interesting and also gives them a lot of confidence.
KKP: The diversity of tactile qualities really struck me when putting together this year’s show: from the smooth to the sticky and the abrasive. The surfaces and textures in the display cried out to be touched, but the gallery has to limit public contact for security and conservation reasons. It’s essential that future designers and makers are able to get their hands on these things in controlled conditions, so they can get a sense of the full impact of the physical object. The Museum object-based learning sessions make this possible.
What role do you think our museum and public spaces in the College can play in opening up social engagement? Do you think there is a specific role that the archive or museum can play and also the temporary exhibition?
KKP: Spaces dedicated to the arts can provide a haven of fresh thinking and a space for the association of ideas. The gallery and museum play an important role for our students in the provision of free space for reflection, chance encounters, as well as focus and quiet in a sometimes distracted and distracting world. I also find that the more time students – and people in general – spend inhabiting museums, galleries, libraries and archives, the less intimidated they become and therefore the more equipped they feel to really look and reflect. I too can feel disarmed upon entering a space designated as having special cultural value and importance. I am interested in how we soften and ease those initial impressions, while preserving the sense of wonder that museums and galleries can conjure up. I think our London Design Festival shows, bursting with ideas and approaches, are great tools for excitement, playfulness and inclusion in the gallery space. The visitor numbers reflect that – what we need to do is maintain that spirit of accessibility and enthusiasm the rest of the time!
In addition, as part of our exhibition spaces in the College, we have four Window Galleries, including a designated Museum Window. These vitrines operate at the threshold of the University and the public realm, providing a glimpse into College activities. Although the long, narrow, frontal format of these spaces can seem restricting, it gives our exhibitors a chance to devise display methods that intrigue the passer-by and, ideally, stop them in their tracks.
SC: As a museum we work with students in UAL but also with external groups. In recent years, we have become increasingly aware of how the collection can be used to support social well-being in the community. We recently ran a Knowledge Exchange programme with Anne Marr and Rebecca Hoyes from Textile Design and a group from the Claremont Project in Islington. The culmination of the project was the creation of a banner for Claremont. To inspire them in their work we showed them all sorts of pieces related to colour from our collection, including Joseph Albers’ colour samples. It’s great working with groups like that because you don’t know how people will react to the exercises, but we are not afraid to try things.
Could you both talk us through the works selected from Creative Unions for the museum collection – Kate it would be great to hear your thoughts on the works as part of the show and Sarah, your thoughts on their new role and significance in the collection.
SC: We were really interested in taking on Andrea Liu’s Mending Portraits, which are made of tanned salmon skin. We don’t know how these are going to change over time – whether they will discolour or become more fragile, but it’ll be interesting to see how students react to them. Things involving animals can often be divisive. We have a fake hamster cage that’s actually a prototype for a paper shredder and the presence of a toy hamster in it often prompts students to talk about the cruelty of keeping animals in cages or, conversely, attracts them to pet the creature before they realise it’s fake.
KKP: Andrea’s work was situated within the New Histories section of the exhibition – in dialogue with works that share an engagement with tradition, narrative and collecting. Showing her delicate woven salmon skin pieces alongside jewellery, poetry, architecture and illustration allowed the nuances of her project to emerge in ways they might not have among other textile works. The title of her project is ambiguous and intriguing; alongside nearby Rhiannon Williams’ Fracture Edit and Ana Rita Otsuka’s Recurring Cleaning in the exhibition, the inherent poetics of the work surfaced.
SC: We have also selected Veronika Fabian’s jewellery collection – this acquisition really reflects how broad Jewellery Design is here at Central Saint Martins. In the collection, we have pieces which record the hosting of couch surfers over a period of time, pieces that explore the exchange value of objects through bartering and ones that look at the de-humanising effects of prisons. Self-identity is is an urgent topic for many of our students at the moment and it will sit well alongside the other jewellery in the collection.
KKP: I find the assured strength of Veronika’s work very impressive. Oh, to have been this self-possessed as a new graduate! The complexity of techniques and the intensity of the project overall are quite formidable. Veronika’s work held its own between two large TV monitors in Creative Unions. Were these heavy henchman-like devices guarding the work or were they dominating it?
SC: Finally, we have Paolina Russo’s work. For the piece purchased for the Museum, Paolina has used the natural structure of athletic trainers to create a corset-like bodice. These are worn with knitted leggings in a chequerboard pattern – knitted into the material as an optical illusion. Unusual elements like these are always great for showing students and visitors.
KKP: Paolina’s work is being seen – and talked about – a lot at the moment. She won the L’Oreal Professionnel Young Talent Award and interned at Maison Margiela, where she was mentored by John Galliano. She’s been featured in i-D and It’s Nice That and took the runway by storm at London Fashion Week. So for Creative Unions she felt confident and relaxed enough to allow us to experiment with forms of display for her ballgown. I wanted to show the video she made with collaborator Aidan Zamiri alongside the gown, but I was averse to adding another monitor in an already media-heavy show. Instead, we projected the moving image onto the bare back of her mannequin. The result was an abstracted version of the film that animated the figure and brought the garment to life in a new way. It’s a lively solution that, I hope, reflects the designer’s own playful approach.
What sort of projects will the museum and the Lethaby gallery be working on together next?
SC: Each year the Museum and Study Collection has a public exhibition in the Lethaby Gallery. These usually focus on one aspect of the collection and often include collaborations with the College’s programmes. This is a great chance to exhibit graduate and staff work to enhance themes and ideas within the collection.
The annual show during London Design Festival is always an important exhibition for the museum as it’s a chance to learn more about new acquisitions that we may have previously only seen in the Degree Show. There are so many works on view during this period that it can be hard to really focus and see themes emerging. The design show allows for a more measured contemplation and exploration of the work and its themes.
The Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection is based in the Granary Building. The collection contains work produced by staff and students, a large art and design teaching collection, the British Artists’ Film and Video Collection and some historical College records. It is open to the public by appointment.