Grey knitted cacti, a cast resin model of collapsing Basil Spence tower blocks, a guinea pig (that came to be known as ‘The Gorbals Rat’), an embroidered parrot and a picture of an ape in an elaborately decorated frame—these were the final home ornaments that Daphne Wright produced for her Gorbals Artworks project.
Each new flat in the Gorbals development was to be furnished by one of these items, together with a User’s Manual and instructions on how the object could be swapped, hidden or displayed. But whatever happened, the objects were to remain part of the flats: if the resident moved, the ornament stayed.
This book is, in part, a exploration of how Wright arrived at the idea for Home Ornaments as a wider theme, but also how she chose the subjects for her models in particular.
The concept of public art in a private sphere, ownership and historical context, together with questions of taste, value and the relationship between the unrequesting recipient with the artist and the object itself, permeate the book. It is indeed the tension and discussion that Wright was hoping to achieve.
With just such a jumble of ideas, contexts and perspectives, Francis McKee pulls a magical trick out of the hat. From the cornucopia, he writes ‘Shelf Life: A Pocket Encyclopaedia’, and gives us an A–Z of definitions, conversations and theorisations. These run from Accumulators to Ziggurat, tripping over Bakeries, Crisps, Debt, Housework, Kitsch, Pawn, Pomegranates, Sweets, Twomax, Yeast and many other wonderful things along the way.
Interviews that Wright conducted with some of the residents flow through the Encyclopaedia with rhythm and clarity. D for Dinner starts: ‘I had a good man. Don’t get he was great but he had his wee points.’ (sic) The only thing that wasn’t clear was who was speaking. And seeing as Charles Darwin and Clement Greenberg were credited, it only seems fair.
Simon Morrissey teases out the tensions referred to above, and looks at the inherent contradictions and pressures on public art, while giving valuable background to the processes in Wright’s work. It is interesting, for instance, to read that the decision ‘to ornament’ came as much from the community and its history, as from Wright’s concurrent temporary job in John Lewis’ china and glass department. That there are no easy judgments is the tenor of his essay.
The book is elegantly put together with wit and sensitivity. However it would have been good to see pictures in the Encyclopaedia that corresponded with the textual entries. While not all are direct references, when McKee is talking eloquently about ‘sea pigs’, the common guinea pig, it would be nice actually to see one.
Ruth Hedges is a London-based writer