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"Wieki Somers" Tag


”CULTURE – APPROPRIATED BY COPYING”


Sunday, January 11, 2015

Studio Wieki Somers

 

”Chinese stools – made in China copied by Dutch” is a work that dutch artist Wieki Somers finished in 2007 and was added to the permanent collection at the Stedelijk Museum of Modern art in Amsterdam in 2009. The work is the result of a one month long project that Somers spent in Beijing, China working with the expertise of local craftsmen in their traditional workshops to create products inspired by the city itself.  Somers found inspiration in customized seats used by people such as security guards, street vendors and rickshaw-drivers that had undergone improvised repairs and modifications by its respective creators. In Somers  own words she ”couldn’t do it better” than the original creators of the seats and therefore purchased some of them, used traditional casting techniques, made replicas of the original seats, with the ”final” version being in aluminum with red (or blue) metallic car lacquer finish. When Somers chooses to completely copy the work of somebody else she explains it as making a comment on the prejudice of ”China” copying European designs and works.

The subject in Somers work can be closely compared to the work Bastard Chairs / Sitting in China (2002)” of photographer Michael Wolf. While both Wolfs and Somers work portrays and comment on the democracy of design, DIY-culture they still become works of cultural appropriation despite of and even because of their seemingly sympathetic intentions.

The complexity does not only come with the European artist portraying something of a culture that is not his/her own. It also comes when Somers only spends a month in Beijing, a city of almost 20 million and talks about preserving the memories of the stools, memories that are not hers, and describes the red coated finish of the stools as a reference to ”the other side of Beijing”. ”The other side” meaning to her the ”modern side” where she explains that ”pride and prosperity is displayed with a sparkling extra layer”. Through this she defines the city by implying that the city might only have 2 sides and maybe she even gives us insight on her view on taste in the ’the modern Beijing’.

The same complexity becomes apparent when Michael Wolf refers to his work as a “great symbol of the Chinese people’s thriftiness and resourcefulness”. In the artists own description of their works and in what others have written, you constantly see a clear Eurocentric perspective and interpret an almost condescending, even if not intentional, tone (as in Wolfs quote above). When Somers comments on copying Chinese designs she infarct copies something created by ”regular people” while the prejudice she is commenting on is of Chinese designers copying European ones. This creates a situation where Chinese design isn’t being taken seriously and in which Somers uses her position in the cultural hierarchy by pointing out the ”cultural treasures” of a culture that isn’t hers. And by doing so she implies that the people of that particular culture cannot see or simply do not understand what she does.

 

Comparison

 

 

Cultural appropriation is in itself a real issue because it demonstrates the imbalance of power that still remains between cultures that have been colonized and the ex-colonizers. And the relationship east and west/orient and occident is in itself complex. Whether the culture has been colonized or not the western perspective is post-colonial in how it puts the west, right on top of the cultural hierarchy.

CA still often becomes a hard concept to grasp.

One reason is how culture is never created, lived, consumed or appropriated in a vacuum.

It is explained by Cynthia Freeland when talking about “cultural crossings”; “No culture is homogenous or has gone untouched by the world. The purest-seeming instances of cultural values are often products of complex strands of interaction”

Another reason for CA being hard to grasp for many is how ‘the west’ is so used to pressing their own culture onto others and taking what they want in return. Not thinking of how using someone else’s ‘cultural symbols’ to satisfy a personal need for self-expression is in itself an exercise in privilege.

Pierre Doze refers to Wieki Somers work describing it as ’cultural play’ and goes on talking about the risk in employing elements that are ’deeply emblematic’ of a culture. Doze continues; ” This affinity for symbols that are (apparently) exhausted, vulgarized and have become difficult to handle since they have already been exploited and miss used by ‘Mass Culture’ illustrates the designers recurrent approach”. Dozes text coming from the Studio Wieki Somers own book

Out of the ordinary’ lets us know the designer isn’t fully unaware of the complexity in this issue.

Complexity doesn’t mean that ‘cultural play’ or cultural exchange can never happen, or that we can never partake in one another’s cultures. But there needs to be some element of mutual understanding, equality, and respect for it to be a true exchange.

Freeland comments on philosopher John Dewey’s view that art would be the ‘expression of the life of a community’; “ We must know ‘external facts’ before trying to acquire the ‘internal’ attitude of appreciation for another community’s art”

Wieki Somers work appropriates not only Chinese culture but also on working class culture, while its intent still might be the upvalueing of DIY-made objects or even commenting on appropriation itself.

The writer Jarune Uwujaren explains it in simple words in ”Everyday Feminism magazine”;

 “When someone’s behavior is labeled culturally appropriative, it’s usually not about that specific person being horrible and evil. It’s about a centuries’ old pattern of taking, stealing, exploiting, and misunderstanding the history and symbols that are meaningful to people of marginalized cultures. The intentions of the inadvertent appropriator are irrelevant in this context.”

Personally I am not sure I can fully agree that intent can ever be completely ’irrelevant’ but has to be seen as such for the discourse to progress. A discourse that is something that is not only relevant in design today but in fashion, music, film, television and fine arts as well.

Especially in a work as layered as Weiki Somers ”Chinese stools – made in China copied by Dutch” it becomes obvious that the discourse stays relevant for how we have to critically view design today and hopefully how we will view the design in the future.

Wieki Somers invites your fantasy – Listen to your eyes.


Monday, November 26, 2012

“A porcelain pig’s skull is a teapot. The tea cosy is made of rat’s fur. Imagine that bourgeois ritual moment, when tea is ready with several people already gathered around the small table. And than the furry animal skull lands. A delicious shock, a clash of contradictory thoughts. Horror and delight, celebration and menace. And while your friends silently wonder what kind of tea this might be and how it will taste, there is a moment in which the tasty and the unsavory, harm and delight, can no longer be distinguished.”

 

The High Tea Pot, designed by Wieki Somers in 2003, is presented in the Stedelijk Museum along with the story above. This storytelling is an important element in Somer’s design [x]. She has her own studio since 2003, and can be considered as a part of the second generation of Dutch designers who gained international reputation. Whereas the previous generation was focused mainly on the conceptual ideas, this new movement revalues the aesthetic element. Her works always contain a narrative element. She doesn’t like objects which are completely finished, to smooth, to ‘design-like’. Because, as she states; “in that case you can’t continue the story, you can’t get your fantasy going and can’t put anything of your own in it”. That is the reason why she attempts to design her products in such a way that the user can dream away. Like a story in a book can have an open ending.

She works on intuition, according to the question she wants to rise. She sees a story in her surroundings, designs a piece, and again creates a story. She makes people create their own stories. And so did I. My story started as soon as I saw this piece the first time. So therefore I have decided to make my research a visual story rather than merely factual text. I will guide you along my own associative journey.

Listen to your eyes.

 

I got a memory flash of a room I’ve been in. A medieval castle in Vianden, Luxembourg. It was autumn, windy and I must have been eight years old. The smell was humid, and came from the old wet bricks through the flaked off plaster on the walls. The candlelight was dimmed, as so was the sound of the thousands of feet which once walked the tiled floor. The large robust wooden table in the middle of the room was apparently meant to display how the previous kings of this castle had their rich meals. Therefore the table had an overload of fake food. Stuffed wild game lay on the stable. Glassy eyes of swines stared lifeless. Meat of the surrounding forest took their position of being decoration seriously. Some sporadic fake apples painted in a gold cover.

A display of luxury, covered in a thin layer of grey dust, the dust of the stories happened here.

 

 

It reminded me of other displays of dead animals, especially these two pieces I saw when visiting the Verbeke Foundation in Antwerp. It shows a typing dead hare. The dead animal is turned into a machine by a human hand. Think of words as ephemeral, fragile, organic, rattail.  Wieki Somers does the same, she turns it into a pig’s skull an object of use, with a functional purpose.

 

When talking about dead animals, roadkills popped up in my mind. How damaged and used their bodies lie ruffled up at the side of the road. With their wet fur stuck together in the dirt they look gaunt..

 

Then, think of fur as a luxurious product. Think of the ‘bourgeois ritual of having high teas’. The ability to afford luxurious products. Arrogance and superiority of wealth. To place ourselves above others, above animal living, degrade them to a decorative coat.

 

As I got deeper into the matter, and after I had associations relating to the Hight Tea Pot itself (the material), I thought of a spherical scenery in which it could fit. Sinister, wicked, fairy-tales with a dark twist. Images from movies as the Adams family, Tim Burton’s Vincent Price, and Lemony’s Snicket appeared.


 

As I sunk in these atmospheres I discovered a fascination I have for this High Tea Pot. Both the materials that Wieki Somers used are ‘cold’, by that I mean the deadness of the animals. But these remaining of different animals become alive again when the hot tea is poured in the pot. Then the skull heats up, the rat fur is warm and touchable. You feel the heat from the inside, like a breathing organism. And so, I stumbled upon Victorian post-mortem photo’s. These photographs portray recently deceased people. Sometimes the person seems deep asleep, or arranged to appear more lifelike, or even together with alive family members. These photographs contain the same weird mix of death and live, cold and warmth.

 

As a last note I would like to conclude that the High Tea Pot is a narrative object, and creates a room around it. The invitation to make your own stories, was resulting in this path for me. And whereas the starting point for every story is the design object every time, the paths can lead up to total different stories, so therefore there exist a lot of different endings.


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