David Trubridge is one of New
Zealand's best-known designers of contemporary furniture. For many years he has
been closely involved in critical debate in Art, Craft and Design. The article
that follows is modified from his original catalogue essay for 'Furniture in
Context', an exhibition which he curated in 1998.
Imagine a small block of wood, an off-cut say of indeterminate
species. What would you think about it? To answer, you would need to know where
you are visualizing it. Lying in a log basket its only value would be calorific
-- too small or of the wrong species to be of practical value. Neatly stacked
on a woodworkers shelf, the same block would have the value of potential
use. So the way we think about an object, and the value or meaning we give to
it, depends on where we are seeing it -- on its CONTEXT.
Is it possible to create an environment devoid of context where we perceive the
object purely for what it is? This has been one aim of the Modernist Art
Gallery, what some have called the bare white cube: to present each
object as entirely autonomous. The painting is enclosed by a frame and
surrounded by bare walls and neutral gallery space. Take it or leave it. But in
fact it is not like that at all -- messages are being sent out. What would you
think about the block of wood in here? This establishment is an important
cultural institution. There must be something very special about the wood.
Merely by being put here it has been changed. You look more closely. . . .
Marcel Duchamp first raised these questions eighty years ago. His placement of
everyday utility objects into a gallery has been widely discussed as a question
of what is art? Did a shovel or urinal become art because the
artist said so? What has been less debated is the comment that this makes on
the gallerys power to change -- or in other words, the importance of