Friday 9 September 2016

Chess in Art: RA Afterthought

[This post by Martin Smith]

We were talking a few of weeks ago about Chess in Art at this years Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Well, there wasn't any. Which was a bit disappointing, and makes you wonder whether today's aspiring artists are really trying hard enough. But still, it is probably right that the RA's selection committee shouldn't let in any more arty chess sets - stunning though they might be - especially when modelled on the buildings of the capital: ancient, modern, and ancient-looking-but-built-just-now, stunning though they all may be as well.

You'll remember we saw one such chess set last year...

Franklin's Morals of Chess (2015)
By Karl Singporewela
...and another just five years before that:

Style Wars: Modernists versus Traditionalists  (2010)
By Mobile Studio  
So, whatever the seductive materials employed, or the fine craftsmanship at work, enough is enough - especially as complete chess addicts don't have to go the RA to see London skylines. We have them in our own backyard:

Nonetheless, recent developments in my neck of the woods give cause to revisit all this, and look again at the aesthetics of chess-in-architecture.

You may remember - just - that back in 2010, when we discussed the wonderful Style Wars chess set by the Mobile Sudio, we reckoned that the point of it was to highlight the contentious issue of whether we should prefer modern buildings designed in a contemporary style, or ones that, although built today, adopt yesterday's manner (always familiar, often loved, usually conservative). Of course that subtitle: "Modernists versus Traditionalists" made clear just what the debate was about. But we also noticed that the Style Wars chess set avoided taking sides on the issue by making both of them white.

At that moment we put on our semiotician's hat (or was it the anthropological one - I forget). Thus, had one side been black it would have been handicapped by a negative cultural value - even if we may not consciously realise it (or so the psychologists tell us, don't they?): black is supposedly, if subliminally, bad. Style Wars avoids triggering this insidious prejudice, or invoking this cultural ill-omen, by rejecting the use of the colour completely. There was no implied disadvantage; the dice were not loaded.

To get to the nub. The question we posed back in 2010 was whether an actual building rendered in the sepulchral hue of black would be adjudged rubbish as a consequence of the colour, whatever the merits of the physical design. A case in point was a building not three miles from where your blogger is typing these lines. Inherently clumpy, brute, graceless and plain, it cast a baleful shadow over the locality. "Up yours" it seems to say. It was voted the worst building in London 2006.

And it was black.

Not any more.
11 August 2016
The same building (awaiting some finishing touches, and the removal of the crane and construction hoist, etc) is designed - as it always had been - as a simple block. It is essentially a deft arrangement of a few underlying cubes. You might even dignify it as a kind of vertical Palladian. It is honest, uncluttered and without gimmicks, and it has now been given a white-over gleaming in the southern sun from over Wimbledon way. It is indeed rather fine don't you think. Thumbs up. Though I wonder if it will offer affordable housing for local people (with or without their own entrance).

In its previous incarnation the building was unloved, so it was never given an affectionate, if tongue-in-cheek and back-handed,  nickname like all those others: "The Gherkin", "The Cheese-grater", and "The Can of Ham". Maybe "The Tombstone" would have caught the public mood. We shouldn't have to wait too long now for the estate agents to coin an upbeat endearment for the once ugly duckling in its new guise. If they could, they would surely rebrand the neighbourhood as well. Who, in this brave new buy-to-let world, would want to be found on the wrong side of the tracks in proletarian "Collier's Wood", as its stop on the Northern Line is known. "Wandle Park" (the green space to the west across the main road, overlooked by the tower) suggests itself, and would do wonders for property prices.  

Recent Chess in Art on Lost in Time: Hackney Seen in New York;  Richier Reloaded; Miss Tanning's Appendix.

Chess in Art Index at another place 

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