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Design in Action

Cabinet of Curiosities

Chosen Site: Leeds City Museum

To begin with I visited Leeds City Museum in order to get a feel for the place, to gather information, and to respond to the institutional environment. I was initially struck by the variety of ways in which objects were arranged and housed for display to the public. Armed with these impressions I began to investigate the history and development of the idea of the museum, tracing it back to early medieval Church treasuries, reliquaries, and cabinet of curiosities. Central to all of these cultural institutions was the concept of the housing and display of objects of mystery, value, and wonder. The Germans called these collectively Wunderkammer.

Musie Wormiani Historia

Leeds City Museum: The Peoples Museum

The curators at Leeds City Museum have been careful to emphasise the importance of the institutional space as a place for local people to come to in order to explore and enjoy the variety of artefacts on display. Taking my cue from this institutional emphasis on the importance of a 'local museum for local people' I conceived the idea of including bits of myself as a person who was born and bred in the vicinity. This developed into the idea of a self-portrait composed of casts from various parts of my body. I thought that these body fragments would be an appropriate response to the institutional environment and fit seamlessly with the disparate fragments of historical interest that are displayed throughout the museum.

Fossil on Display at Leeds Museum

Prompted by considerations of representation and presentation implicit in the very act of selecting items for display for a public space I undertook and extended period of research into the methods of production of body fragments and experiments into appropriate modes of display. I discovered that there was an incredibly subtle relationship between the object and its housing, and that by the very act of placing these two elements

into close proximity they entered into a continued and reciprocal dialogue with each other. The element of chance was a vitally important aspect of this process. This was enhanced by limiting the choice of housing to ready-made and found containers into which the cast body parts were introduced. By introducing the unintentional and random into my practice I was consciously and unconsciously inviting the inappropriate and unexpected to intervene. Far from being a hit or miss methodology this method of working requires subtlety and sensitivity in order for it to work. In this I was inspired by the Berlin Dada artists and also by the Surrealists, including Dali, Magritte, and Andre Breton.

Display of Sculpture Fragments at Leeds Museum

Collection of Casts from my own Body

I experimented with various methods of casting in order to establish the most appropriate and efficient way of realizing my original conception. In used both alginate and Modroc in order to see which was the most appropriate way of casting parts of my own body. The fact that I was taking impressions from my own body was a limiting factor and it took a lot of experimentation to achieve an efficient working method. In the end I opted for Modroc as it was cheaper and easier to use. The moulds had to be made in two parts and then joined together afterwards.

Two Part Mould after Assembly I played with various casting materials including plaster, paper, and wax.Ultimately I chose wax because of the innate flesh like surface and feel of the substance itself. At this point I realized that there was interesting and inspiring connection between the casts I was making and the medieval rituals where pilgrims left wax models of afflicted body at the shrines of famous saints noted for their healing powers. This connection inspired me to look at the wax casts of my body in a completely different light. I realized that there was a subtle yet powerful association between the sculptural fragments in the museum, the wax impressions of my own body parts, and the votive offerings left by pilgrims at famous shrines. The relationship between the pilgrim, the shrine, and the visitors to museums was intimate and compelling.

At this point I realized that display was an integral part of my methodology and could not be meaningfully separated from the making process. I paid particular attention to the manner in which retail outlets designed and arranged their window displays. In this I was following in the august footsteps of Aget and Marcel Duchamp. The surreal nature of shop window displays particularity impressed me.

Surreal Shop Window Display (London 2012)

Avenue de l' Observatoire, (Paris 1926), Eugene Atget

I began to explore the relationship between the body casts and a number of potential display solutions. I trawled the charity shops of Leeds to find suitable containers, some of which I adapted to suit the needs of the casts.

Face Cast & Book

Face Cast in Display Cabinet