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Transforming Functional Objects Into Symbolic Art Works


Claudia Arenzo, Program Coordinator and Research Assistant at The Chipstone Foundation.

The Villa Terrace is not a place that I normally associate with contemporary art. To me it was a beautiful old home near the lake that had some original furniture, one completely wallpapered room, and was mostly used for events. I was thus pleasantly surprised as I discovered a thought-provoking exhibition containing interesting contemporary art pieces.

The exhibition, which took place in the house’s second story north rooms, was titled Metamorphosis: The Transformation of Everyday Objects. It proved to be exactly that, an impressive array of artworks that played with the boundaries of their medium. These were artworks that had some sort of decorative arts component, hence their inclusion in a decorative arts museum, but morphed this characteristic into completely unique pieces. The work that I was immediately drawn to was Ray Chi’s Desk.

Ray Chi’s Desk, from 2005, is made from wood, bamboo, wicker baskets, stone slate, glass and plants. The title ‘Desk’ is somewhat misleading, as this piece, although functional, blurs the line between furniture and sculpture. There is so much going on that my first instinct was to want to want to touch it, yet the sculptural quality of the desk made me hesitate. Was this meant to be treated like a fine piece of art in a museum, or as a usable work of art? The piece consists of a wooden desk with diamond shaped wine bottle holders and a diamond shaped book cubby cut into the front. The left side of the desk has a small lower level resembling a step with an inlaid light that lights up the glass that acts as a cover. There is a glass vase with flowers on top of this step. The surface of the desk is divided into different functional spaces. There is a square inlaid basin filled with stones and running water, an inset basket filled with artificial pears, a rock garden, a blackboard with chalk and a green plant tumbling over the edge. The right side of the desk has little shelves divided into small compartments, each containing a crystal, stone or knick-knack. There are also wine glasses hanging upside down. The back of the desk, where one would sit, has a beaded curtain hanging down. The desk as a whole gives the impression of an architectural object, a building that is part of a peaceful landscape including a pond, garden and plants.

My curiosity won out, and I ran my hand across the surface, opened the small diamond shaped drawer, and even dipped a finger into the fountain. There was something incredibly appealing about running my fingers across the beaded curtain that served as the desk’s back. Listening to the beads click together brought the satisfaction that I believe I would feel if I were ever allowed to run through a Cornelia Parker installation. Chi had hit it right on the head, furniture is meant to be experienced through the body. It is meant to be touched and sat at. It is meant to engage all of the senses, instead of just sight. This is not to say that Ray Chi’s object was not visually appealing; in fact, it was at first its visual complexity that drove me to touch.

Artist at Desk Photo courtesy of the artist.

Eighteenth century carvers showed off their skills by creating intricate and beautiful carving on furniture. Furniture has thus historically blurred the line between function and art: furniture and sculpture. Chi has created comparable visual stimulation in a contemporary way. The desk contains anything you would ever want a piece of furniture to accomplish, but does it in an interesting and beautiful way. It is both calming and stimulating, juxtaposing the relaxing sound of water in the fountain, foliage, and a small rock garden with the religious altar metaphor of the New Age knick knacks placed in the side shelves. The artwork embodies productivity, containing a place to store books, which in turn is juxtaposed with a storage space meant for wine bottles. There is a basket of fruit near a small blackboard with chalk. The desk is a ball of contradictions that cancel each other out, creating the ideal multi-function space.

As I continued to stare at the piece, questions lingered in my mind. What do the different components of the desk mean? Do they reflect the artist’s identity? Would this be his ideal workspace? Would the desk contain different spaces if it was meant for somebody else? Did Ray actually read the books that he included in his piece, or are those there for show, trying to portray an artificial spiritual intellect (similar to people who build up big libraries full of books they never read)? In order to gain a better understanding of the symbolism behind the Desk, I decided to go straight to the source and ask the artist.

CA: How do you view your piece and how did the idea evolve (or not) to become what it did?

RC: The piece was made during a period of my life when, as most people do, I was coming to grips with the realities and responsibilities of adulthood while simultaneously reflecting on the freedom of youth. It was around this time that I also created a sculpture entitled Balance, that literally translated this oscillating power struggle between adult and inner-child in a sculpture resembling a ‘sophisticated see-saw’. During this period, the idea and form of the desk became symbolic of, and synonymous with, life as a productive adult. Within the framework of this form I began to play.  In the end, the piece became more about a kind of balance between Calmness (spirituality) and Productivity (reality). As with many office desks you see today, this desk has many built-in accessories... but instead of relating to a goal of efficiency and organization, these accessories address one’s psychological and spiritual needs.

On another level, I was also interested in the idea of furniture and domestic objects as a mode of communicating a personal sense of style or sophistication to a larger audience. For example, the notion that a display of artificial fruit in your home might suggest that you have a refined sense of taste or hospitality... or how the books displayed on your coffee table and bookshelves become a physical declaration of your intelligence and worldly interests...or how cultural objects and forms are often appropriated as a symbol of one’s spiritual sophistication (bonsai trees, zen gardens). Just look in any interior design or style magazine and you will see similar ways that ‘the experts‘ suggest you design your domestic persona. The desk, overflowing with these suggestions of style, class, and culture, became a kind of landscape of idealized identity.

Were you looking back at specific furniture or sculpture when you created this piece?

RC: No, not anything specific. But I am always looking at the design work of Ettore Sottsass and the playground designs of Isamu Noguchi. In retrospect, I can see the influence of both in this work.

CA: Do you think of this piece as a green object?

RC: There is an element of re-use and perhaps up-cycling to the piece (glass block, wicker baskets, bamboo placemats, bead curtain), but those materials were chosen more for their color, materiality and meaning than a concept of sustainability.

CA: How does this relate (or not) to your video work?

RC: This piece relates to some of my video work in that it attempts to bridge the gap between (or bring together) two or more modes of working and thinking.  In the case of ‘Desk’, they are the worlds of furniture design and sculpture. Some of my video and installation work is created with a similar mindset, blurring the boundaries between the didactic (functional/cerebral) and purely aesthetic (emotional/intuitive).  You could view most of my creative output as a way of wondering out-loud questions like: “can architecture be musical?”, “can film be spatial?”, “where is the boundary between furniture and sculpture?”

CA: Have you sat at it? Do you think of it in terms of function? (One of the first things I wanted to do when I saw it was sit down at it, touch it, experience it not just as a work of art, but as a functional object with different textures to run your fingers over).

RC: The piece functions perfectly well as a desk.  Most of the objects contained within it are functional as well. But as I mentioned earlier, that functionality does not necessarily address the practical needs of a traditional desk. Many of the sculptures I make overtly use the language of furniture, and in doing so, inherit the expectation of functionality. I embrace this fact as a way to allow the viewer easy entry into the piece, but then try to subvert that comfort of recognizability with altered forms, unexpected textures, and surprising features. I also view this piece as purely sculptural. Textures, colors, forms, and materials were chosen and created as much for visual and tactile reasons as functional or conceptual ones. My goal was to create an object that could be simultaneously perceived as sculpture and furniture - where Form does not follow Function, but rather, the two evolve side-by-side.

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