How can you exhibit a piece of graphic design and still make it look interesting? Moreover, how can you exhibit a book and make it interactive and engaging? This challenge has been accepted at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where Sky Arts Ignition are showing The Memory Palace, a book by Hari Kunzru. The story is set in a future after a magnetic storm has wiped out everything digital and no-one can, or is allowed to, remember or record anything and there are no archives to help. “Signs”, writing, is a mysterious and forbidden act while “pewters” and “internet” are foggy tales that no-one quite understands.
The exhibition takes the form of a “walk-through” book, with parts of graphic novels amongst 3D objects, textured metalic plates, piles of newspaper looking like a little kirk and rather beautiful type on the walls. Each item has been designed by a different person so there is a range of interpretations which adds to the surreal feel of the whole. The fun for the audience or viewer is that we know what the clues mean, we can still remember (though this skill is falling away as people rely more and more on iPhone address books and the internet to do the remembering for them). In The Memory Palace we see things half correctly. The tree shrine above to “Darwing” only partially remembers the man and his theory. The tree dangles medalions of white birds, red birds, blue birds, sort of showing the differences as a lost hint to evolution but not quite getting it right. Nevertheless, this is a really beautiful object with much detail to engage with and menacing stuffed crows watching you as you do so.
The imagery above shows London, where the novel is set, after the storm, with destruction abounding and waves lapping round St Paul’s Cathedral.
One of the features of the story is the memory-rumour of hospitals. This becomes whimsically mixed up as a concept with hospitality. The cart, pulled by dogs – one of which smokes! – has a mish mash of semi-wrong objects, all underlined by the vague memory of smoking-advertising. The human figure has lungs labelled “rasp” and “gasp” while his drip feeds him gin.
Unknown bosses of the book’s present wish to lead the remaining people into “the wilding”, where everyone lives organically amongst nature. Because of that they forbid systems, measuring and categorising.
The image below has some tiny metallic print labels that I was unable to read, addding to the mystery and dream-like feel of the exhibition-book.
At the end you can add your own memory to the collection.
The show runs until October 20th and is well worth a visit if you like artist’s books (is this the next version?) or design and art that is intriguing and engaging. Part of the joy of the show is that you can make your own story. I went to it immediately having seen the exhibitions on Extinction and Salgado’s tribes people at the Natural Hisotry Museum next door. Overall I was left with a feeling of impending doom! But if that means we can make such great pieces of art and design there’ll be some consolation!
All Images courtesy of the V&A press Office.