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Sunday, 16 February 2014

Building a better architecture exhibition: Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy

For their new Sensing Spaces exhibition the Royal Academy set out to answer the question, can you put architecture in a traditional gallery space? Doing away with any drawings or models, Sensing Spaces is structure, space, light and activity jammed straight into the gilded vaulted ceilings we know and love. The RA has created a playful, immersive exhibition- but does it actually tell us anything new about architecture? The Ministry investigates...

If you’ve ever been to the Summer Exhibition then your memory of the Royal Academy exhibition space is probably a series of 8 or 9 good-sized rooms packed floor to ceiling with artworks. Stripped bare, the RA’s exhibition space becomes a 23,000 square-foot canvas - it’s every curator's wet-dream (or maybe their nightmare). The floor plan is big enough that they have managed to pack in 6 epic-sized installations that finally let architecture be experienced as it’s meant to be – in massive proportions.

Technically you can wander through the exhibition anyway you’d like, but its hard to not find yourself distracted by this wood behemoth, proudly surveying the scene.  Pezo von Ellrichshausen’s installation ‘Blue’ is like a children’s tree house with windy stairs bringing you up above the 'canopy' to really appreciate the beauty of the gallery’s ceiling. I mean really, have you ever looked up at the Royal Academy? Von Ellrichshausen makes sure you do by essentially blocking your view of anything else. A not-so-subtle word of warning from the conservation team- just because you can see the historic features does NOT mean you can touch them.

Each of the architects has brought something incredibly different to their structure. It’s tempting to describe them all in detail- but what would be the fun for you when you visit? Diebedo Francis Kere shows how serious architecture can be fun and creates a honeycomb cave of colours through the gallery (if you've been noticing brightly coloured straws littering Piccadilly tube station of late here's why). Grafton Architects play with light in what feels like the most serious piece of the exhibition. Keno Kuma challenges your idea of what architecture is all-together by creating a delicate softly lit garden of bamboo. By comparison, Li Xiaodong's moon-lit forest seems clunky and awkward (word of advice not for the claustrophobic!)

Any critiques of the individual works aside, does Sensing Spaces actually teach us anything about architecture? As non-experts ourselves, we can't say we left the exhibition understanding anything more about the big questions of art vs. design that the RA are trying to address. The exhibition's core concept is a bit of a double-edged sword conceptually speaking. Focusing on built 1:1 scale installations removes need to interpret drawings and models - visitors use their senses to feel the quality of the exhibit's spaces. Presumably this is what the title of the exhibition refers to - contrasting with the 'typical' architecture exhibition where we're assisted in imagining spaces (although the V&A did something similar with 1:1 structures a few years back). However, without assistance from explanatory drawings the installations appear to be just that- built space art installations like you can see in almost any white cube gallery. This begs the question, should something like design even be displayed in this way? Or does it take away that technical, practical element which differentiates it from art? We personally would have loved to hear more from the architects about what they wanted to achieve in the space- much in the same way that interpretation brings a deeper understanding of art in any context. To label or not to label- it is a big question in the art world anyway. Would this additional information have detracted from the experience of the installations in the space? Its a big question that someone undoubtably spent a year's worth of sleepless nights considering. 

The curators do seem to have anticipated this critique - a handful of iPads in the entrance contain design images for the curious. Yet without some specialist knowledge they contain little explanatory power and seem to be mostly there to be appreciated aesthetically.

Whether or not it says something insightful about the intersection of art and design- we can absolutely guarantee you are going to enjoy yourself. At the Ministry we strongly believe in engaging visitors with art done in a way that's light-hearted and accessible. Sensing Spaces provides opportunities to play, sit, chat and wonder in the way that all good exhibitions should. Not to mention that crucial factor (always high on the Ministry's list)- you can experience the whole thing through the lens of your camera phone. To be honest, why bother creating immersive, awe-inspiring, interactive spaces and then not let the public respond in their favourite way: photography. Whether its artsy shots through the moonlit forest, silly selfies amongst the neon-coloured straws or just trying to capture the light in the galleries- we are sure there is plenty of evidence on Instagram that attests to the exhibition's popularity. Like Lightshow at the Hayward Gallery last year, what Sensing Spaces does best is encourage its audience to engage in their own way. 

At £15 a ticket, Sensing Spaces is pretty pricey. But for the touching, playing and exploring you get we’d say it’s definitely worth it. Its art that packs a punch, it’s design with a sense of humour, it’s the Royal Academy like you haven’t seen before. We also have to mention, almost more impressive than the exhibition itself is the absolutely tremendous events programme the RA has built up around it. Explore the gallery enhanced by poetry (7th March), music (10th March) and DJ sets (21st February). You can even learn how to write about architecture (31st of March), hear more from the experts or get your yoga on (30 March). You have until the 6th of April to make the world of Sensing Spaces your own- so what are you waiting for? 

Sensing Spaces: Architecture Re-imagined is on at the Royal Academy until the 6th of April.

1 comment:

  1. I always enjoy the Royal Academy and the sensing spaces exhibition looks and sounds fascinating. Well worth a visit even at £15