Visual Politics and Active Imagination

by guy keulemans on September 10, 2009

Recently I have been engaged in an interesting email dialogue with curator and writor Freek Lomme about my and Martijn’s SMASH REPAIR project. Its inspired me to reflect upon my own intentions for the work, and as a designer in general – especially when prompted by Lomme to define my visual politics.

My visual politics are to promote subjective personal interpretation. Every object I make has more than one interpretation and I purposely attempt to activate imagination in the viewer by producing ambiguous design. This is my reaction to the over use of conceptual stories for the marketing of design and art objects. It also my technique for maintaining interest in my own work and warding off the boredom of familiarity. At worst, a reflection of my mind’s inability to focus on a single idea. But this is what I think life in the 21st century has become; moments, feelings, ideas and encounters, branched and connected nebulously without barrier or frame.

I believe that every object should have not one single story, but many and multiple, offered by the artist, or imagined by the viewer. It is intuitively natural for me to share my thinking and working processes, but also interesting to create a hyper or meta-awareness of the marketing processes at work in the conceptual design field. To offer many stories is to debase the value of each. The only valuable story becomes the subjective. To keep the story of the object open and flexible is a mark of respect to the viewer, critic or curator.

The only true story is transitory, which is the ephemeral construct we make in our imaginations when we sense an object.

Confrontation with interpretative choice is capable of producing a special effect. This is the dynamical sublime, first defined by Jean Francois Lyotard. It begins with an assault or provocation on our senses that makes the mind recoil. The provocation is perhaps monstrous, illogical or absurd, but after the initial shock the mind has the ability to recover via the use of its thinking power, our imagination. We intellectually process these assaults, imagine their reason for existence, subdue their effect, and subjugate the monster. At once we are affected by profound feelings of beauty and hyper-awareness; the dynamical sublime. It is, metaphorically, a near-death encounter avoided by ninja move, that leaves one shaken yet stirred by empathy for the fragility of life. Aware of human inadequacies, yet braced by strengthening of self-confidence. For we are proud of the little survival mechanisms which help us to cope with complexity.

One of my inspirations is Junya Ishigami, who uses a method to produce ambiguity in this way. Starting from a strong conceptual point he develops his work along as cascading series of fragmenting lines until the work is perceived as a network, or cloud of ideas. Ishigami refers to this ambiguity in the Japanese as aimai, or “unclear”. Normally used in the derogatory sense, it is claimed back and uplifted as a critically advantageous method of presentation. The best example of this in Ishigami’s work is, in my opinion, is the aluminium balooon he presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. Giant, rectilinear yet irregular, clad in vibrating metal and helium filled, the sculpture occupied a mass amount of space, yet moved with a contrasting smooth fluidity. Like slo-mo beach ball at a dance party, it rose and descended before being sent skywards again by the gentle touch of fingers. The video on youtube, despite being low resolution, is the best to get a sense of its size and movement.


This expression of ambiguity has cultural roots in the Japanese tea ceremony and is especially represented in the warped and cracked ceramics of the wabi-sabi style – a movement composed on designers and design studios all attempting to out run other designers with the production of intriguing and novel ceramic techniques. The mystery of these techniques, perfect for reflective dialogue during the tea ceremony, were also products of self-interest; they differentiated one designer or studio from another and were secretively guarded.

~images courtesy of the Freer+Sackler Galleries~

These examples are interpreted here entirely subjectively – I am using them as support for the correct understanding of my own design, the third SMASH REPAIR table. My interpretation of these examples is a subjective interpretation, a quality I consider highly desirable in an object. These objects lend themselves to such interpretations, and I hope, so does SMASH REPAIR. However, there is one fundamental difference. SMASH REPAIR was born from and developed during my studies at the Design Academy, and from within the broader context of “Dutch Design” in general, which prizes the clear and concise reading of objects. From conceptual genesis to functional reading, its considered best if an object has a single, strong and unambiguous narrative.

Given that my proposal for SMASH REPAIR is to do the opposite, its natural to assume that it must also be criticism. In order to both critique the marketing of conceptual design and to survive its earnest machinations, I cannot provide a single concrete narrative. But, practically, I can provide several stories to use as critical diving platforms – from which one can jump into personal mysteries or ascend into the meta-narrative of object as story as idea as thought as commodity. Next, I will post the first of these stories, paired with new images, and also discuss how it relates to the project “The Object W
ithout A Story”
by my colleagues and former fellow students Joana Meroz and Andrea Bandoni.

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