A case for objects
Some shops are akin to modern art museums or galleries, partly because of their aesthetic and partly due to my current net worth (i.e. buying something other than postcards or books will probably be out of the question ).
One such shop is Margaret Howell’s. I went in one afternoon while still living in London. I’d say her ideal customer is the well-heeled architect (m/f) whose tastes are stupendously understated and very expensive. While browsing through the racks, I discovered this cashmere cropped jumper and actually tried it on. The price was equivalent to that of a decent (subjective) weekend getaway to Berlin or Venice. And I’d been on a number of those. Suddenly I thought I’d take this jumper over a weekend away any day. I felt slightly guilty at the thought, but it also interested me. Wasn’t I all about experiences over material goods, minimalist living, etc. etc? I remember being seduced by an article in the Guardian some years before, which featured people who said no to new furniture and yes to a trip around the world, so to speak. I was very impressed by this – this was enlightenment. And now here I was coveting a buttery soft piece of clothing that would probably combat the cold like a berserker, over and above a weekend in, say, Copenhagen?
This… experience in the Margaret Howell shop has stayed with me. I think it was then that I started to consider objects as experiences of a sort. It’s just that they are so integral to our existence that they paradoxically fade into the background. Once that pair of jeans is on our body it’s mostly forgotten about (unless it’s a really, really good pair of course).
I think that when we slow down every once in a while to become aware of the warmth provided by a jumper draped over our shoulders or even our movements when we fold that clean and crisp feeling bed sheet, we have an experience. I’m going to be bold and a little outrageous and call these everyday objects/ experiences: micro getaways.
Now, whenever I hear someone say they much prefer experiences over objects, I get what they mean to a certain extent, but I also think it’s a little more complex than the eternal ‘sports car: bad – travel: good’ dichotomy. Personally, I find objects and material things fascinating (that doesn’t necessarily mean I have to own loads of them). Just thinking about all the effort that went into, say, the simple computer mouse on my table blows my mind.
Yes, material objects – especially everyday ones – can seem a little mundane, not worthy of much attention, but they also allow us to experience the world in specific ways. All we have to do is slow down sometimes, and become aware of our interaction with them.
I never did get that jumper but I might one day, in lieu of a weekend in Copenhagen.
Dip, mix, turn, throw.
Some notes on Soap Opera
If you’ve ever blown soap bubbles, you’ll recognise the lollipop-shaped device needed to create them. This one, however, is about 40 inches in length and attached to a robotic arm that wears a white sleeve. The ‘arm’ sits on top of its own circular plinth and the latter has been placed on, what could be described as a giant serving tray.
To create soap bubbles, the arm has an arsenal of different movements up its sleeve (I couldn’t resist), such as the ‘zigzag’ or the ‘rainbow’. Sometimes it moves tentatively, in preparation of a large, sweeping gesture. Whatever the movement though, it all starts with the arm dipping the circular part of the ‘lollipop’ in a bath filled with soapy water.
When thrown into the air, the bubbles sail down in cinematic slow motion; their clear, spherical form flexing like glass made out of Lycra. The size of the bubbles ranges from cantaloupe to outsize pumpkin. There are spectacular, long bubbles that look a bit like those balloons used to make balloon animals. Their soapy membrane catching the light and turning fuchsia, lush green and yellow in places. I also think the bubbles resemble huge raindrops (is this what butterflies see when they happen to get caught in the rain?)
In general, visitors over the age of ten stand and watch this magical process silently, almost with a sense of reverence, half-smiles on faces (anyone younger can often be seen dancing gleefully around the installation, trying to catch or pop the soapy spheres). Witnessing outsize soap bubbles ‘coming into being’ is not something many of us will have experienced, so to try and capture this, smartphones invariably appear.
Soap Opera, which is what this installation is aptly called, gives rise to an aesthetic experience that’s almost meditative; the robotic arm doesn’t rush. Then there’s the quiet drama of these gorgeous spheres appearing and disappearing. Forever. The fleetingness of the bubbles makes the experience poignant and the bubbles even more beautiful. They’re fragile, like the thinnest glass imaginable. Much more so. Ten seconds is ancient when it comes to the life span of these bubbles. So you have to enjoy their existence in the moment, they can’t be preserved.
The robot’s natural habitat is the factory floor. A place not usually associated with frivolity and fun. Factories are about producing widgets in the most efficient way. Robots play a crucial part in this. So it’s interesting to see a robot performing an activity (i.e. blowing bubbles) we normally associate with and do for fun. You could also argue that the robotic arm is still producing a type of widget – soap bubbles. They are, however, utterly ephemeral and don’t have a use or function, other than to delight and generate a sense of wonder in us.
Swiss design studio AATB created Soap Opera. The installation, commissioned by V & A Dundee, was on display in the museum from 14 September 2019 to 28 October 2019.