The “para-” prefix indicates a beyond, and look against, search ask alongside, more about or abnormal state. SFMOMA’s ParaDesign exhibition collects objects that often seem wrong, lack obvious usability, or contain other degrees of uncertainty—carrying with it the assertion that these objects exist for themselves as narrative devices or as critiques of design objectives. Though many could be functional domestic objects, they are shorn and twisted, made to serve a different purpose than what one would expect. This is also one of the rare exhibitions at SFMOMA to feature the work of architects, including R(s)ien, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, SAANA, and Lebbeus Woods.
What is a design object and what is its reason for being? Where do these intersections of art, architecture, and design converge? ParaDesign attempts with limited success to answer these questions. By placing these objects in a museum collection, they clearly are contextualized to subsume any use-value into art-historical or market value. What does a work like An Te Liu’s Cloud (2008), a circuitous air-conditioning unit looping through labyrinthine pipes in gleaming plastic like a set-piece out of 2001: A Space Odyssey defying all logic and HVAC principles say about design? How does the intervention of color to change one design object into another in the case of James Welling’s Glass House photos 0469 and 0966 (both 2010) where colored photographic filters reinterpret Phillip Johnson’s Modernist classic. ParaDesign awkwardly interrogates these subjects but ultimately the answers it provides are elusive.
The exhibition features many experimental architectural case-studies like R(s)ien’s heshotmedown (2007), an anemone-like model with accompanying miniature video screens of 3D flythrough and Nancy Sinatra’s version of Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) playing from a small speaker. Diller+Scofido’s works feature prominently in the exhibition with His/Hers (1993), a series of passive-aggressive bath towels on their racks telling the story of a relationship and their Vice/Virtue (1997) series of blown glassware. Vice/Virtue (1997) contains: a martini glass with a syringe as the stem, a coffee cup with a blown glass pill dispenser, and a tumbler with an ashtray and cigarette holder underneath that vents into the glass itself.
These objects convey a humorous commentary on domesticity and addiction. Then there are objects like Alex Schweder La’s Bi-Bardon (2001), a urinal with obvious reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain but cast to appear as if it was in the process of doubling itself in a cellular mitosis. Peter Wenger’s Buildings Made of Sky (2007)—a grid of familiar corridors between skyscrapers in Manhattan is turned upside down creating new skyscrapers in the reversed figure, the gap between the buildings.
Usually it is assumed that an exhibition would be arranged in such a way that the objects’ placements reinforce associations or structures a particular narrative or chronology, but the association between these objects and their arrangement leaves a disappointing feeling of uncertainty. The exhibition spans three rooms: the first, a tightly packed cluster of objects; the second, a row of plexi-glass cases running through center; and the third, a small rectangular hallway containing Tobias Wong’s pieces. Flat work is hung haphazardly throughout the exhibition at varying heights and configurations.
Does uncertainty work as an organizing principle? A case can be made for the joy that one experiences with unexpected encounters with works of art or finding new and challenging pieces in a gallery. Here, however, uncertainty is the only unifying principle of the design and organization of the exhibition itself. There is no visible signage available, one must first locate a laminated chart with certain areas highlighted denoting the artworks and then stammer around the gallery, groping for titles. The arrangement of objects in the space also seems irrational or flippant with large areas left empty and other pieces hung so high that they are difficult to look at. Here the question of uncertainty is not so much directed at the objects themselves but by the relative lack of care of the exhibit itself. This was particularly unfortunate in the case of Lebbeus Woods’s architectural drawings-a selection from his Centricity series. The drawings were hung so far up that wall that it was impossible to view them. Tobias Wong’s smug takes on fashion brands were stowed in half of an ancillary hallway and other large photographs were hung at awkward heights. In some attempt to be contemporary or edgy, the arrangement of objects made it more about the design of the room, than the actual works of art. SFMOMA’s ParaDesign collection contains ostensibly interesting design objects but its presentation will leave many patrons frustrated rather than inspired.
Paradesign is located on the 2nd Floor of SFMOMA until July 24th.