SO-IL: Viewing China
Federation Court is a large, light and airy atrium the in the middle of the building that houses the International Collection at National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). Each day, the concrete slabs of its floor feel the transient imprint of thousands of feet traveling to and from all corners of the gallery, whether it be to access artworks, visit the Design Store, or ponder the meaning of the symbols forged in the impressive stain glass ceiling of The Great Hall.
To celebrate the beginning of Melbourne Design week in March, The NGV unveiled a series of geometrically shaped display cases made from brightly coloured dichroic acrylic in Federation Court. Designed by New York based design firm So-Il (Solid Objectives-Idenburg Liu, founded by architects Jing Liu and Florian Idenburg), each multi-coloured vitrine houses white porcelain objects from the NGV’s Decorative Arts collection, ranging from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
In a more traditional context, porcelain objects of this nature would mostly likely be placed neatly inside a simple glass cabinet up against a gallery wall, or atop an understated plinth in the middle of a room filled with artworks from a similar time and place. It would be a predictable, unassuming display that many viewers would pass without hesitation. However, SO-Il’s presentation of the objects is anything but expected; in fact, it is designed to spark curiosity.
Enclosed within such innovative and unusual display units, in a light-filled and spacious foyer, the objects summon the attention of those walking by. From a distance, the units look like neat and sharp formations that collectively form a carefully crafted rainbow landscape. Each shiny, angular panel reflects parts of the surrounding architecture, and some internal mirrored fragments reflect various angles of the objects within. The display units offer a 360-degree view of each piece of porcelain, and a stroll around the vitrines allows each piece to be viewed and experienced through various veils of colour. The bases are all mirrored, as are some of the angular panels that form the walls of the units. Reflections of the objects bounce around the inside of the display cases, as do shards of colour, streaks of light and subtle echoes of the architecture of Federation Court and The Great Hall.
To quote the architects of SO-Il, ‘our exhibition design unravels assumptions of gallery objectivity, and instead suggests new ways of looking at the delicate artefacts. Rather than interfering with views of the objects, the coloured panels serve as filters. Each multi-faceted case offers multiple unique views of each object’.
There are so many ways to view and engage with the porcelain objects through SO-Il’s display units that close inspection is required. Thus, engaging with the display units themselves is an integral part of the experience. While they may have been overlooked and forgotten in a predictable and unassuming glass cabinet on the second floor of the gallery, these aged objects are drawn into focus and recontextualised, so that they can be viewed and experienced in a fresh, contemporary fashion by 21st century audiences.