The title of this year’s exhibition at Two Temple Place is “Unbound: Visionary Women Collecting Textiles.” Sounds marvellous and wild and free, doesn’t it? Well, unfortunately it’s still Two Temple Place, so it had the usual crowd of stern biddies staring us down to make sure we didn’t accidentally brush up against anything. I know the photo above makes it look as though there were interactive displays, but what you can’t see is the rope barrier that ensured you couldn’t actually get anywhere near those fun looking yarn balls.
Anyway, even though I’m less than enamoured with the atmosphere of Two Temple Place, as well as its last few years of exhibitions, I do think it’s a fabulous building, and it is free to enter, so I normally pop along at some point to see their annual exhibition, which runs from January-April (this year’s ends on 19th April). This year’s theme was the work of seven women, five of whom were roughly contemporaries born in the mid-late 19th century, and two modern women, all of whom were involved in collecting textiles. Most of these women, as is typical of collectors, were fairly wealthy and had the time and funds to devote themselves to their passions, and I’m sure they must have had interesting lives, though unfortunately those stories didn’t always come across in the text. However, I did note some tidbits on Louisa Pesel, who travelled extensively, taught shell-shocked WWI soldiers embroidery to help with their convalescence, and designed the cushions for Winchester Cathedral. Another of the collectors (whose name escapes me), bought her pieces mainly from street markets in London, which apparently had beautiful 18th century garments on offer for cheap back in the 1920s and ’30s (sounds way nicer than the piles of cheap knock-off shoes and handbags they seem to primarily sell today).
As always with Two Temple Place, there were some really lovely artefacts here, but the curation felt lacking. Instead of providing a narrative, the signage was basically: short biography of a woman and a brief description of a handful of objects she’d collected, with no attempt to tie the pieces together in some cohesive way. The text panels were all quite dry, and I found my eyes glazing over as I tried to read them to the point where I had to read some of them several times because they were too boring for my brain to absorb the content (I used to have the same problem during lectures – no matter how much I told myself to pay attention, my mind would start wandering, I’d look up, and it would be the end of class and I’d have absolutely no idea what was discussed), which is why I can’t recollect which woman collected which things. In an exhibition that was meant to be about the pioneering spirit of these women, I think they could have tried a bit harder to make them stand out as individuals, though maybe that’s partially my fault for being bored so easily.
Still, despite my short attention span, I did take an interest in some of the artefacts, especially the Georgian dresses, the traditional straw dollies, and Yinka Shonibare’s reimagining of the slave ship The Wanderer, a voyage made well after the slave trade from Africa was banned (shown above right). In Shonibare’s version, the slaves managed to take control, hence the colourful batik sails. I wanted to like the Balkan textiles more, but without much description of how the objects were used and what the patterns meant, they all got a little samey. One plus side of the rather dour atmosphere was that it managed to work magic on the group of schoolchildren that were visiting the exhibition at the same time as us. I know I’ve complained about unruly children at various places lately, but these ones were completely silent, to the point where it was almost eerie. I can only assume one of the stewards terrified them into submission. We were done with this exhibition pretty quickly (though I made sure to use the upstairs toilets before I left – they’re fabulous!), and though I enjoyed it more than that awful molester Eric Gill exhibition (how could I not?!), it definitely wasn’t great. 2.5/5.
Since we were only a short walk away, we then headed to Somerset House to see the intriguing sounding “Mushrooms: The Art, Design, and Future of Fungi,” a free exhibition that runs until 26th April. Even though I am a vegetarian, I loathe mushrooms (in my experience, many other vegetarians do as well, so it escapes me why some places offer mushroom risotto as the sole vegetarian option (not really an issue in London in this day and age, but I still encounter it at weddings, in smaller British towns, and in Ohio, which is mostly not down with the whole vegan thing)), so my only real experiences of willingly eating mushrooms are the few times I dabbled with the magic variety in my younger days. But I still think fungi are weird and interesting, and provide exciting possibilities in terms of being a sustainable material, so I was keen to see some mushroom art!
Even though the exhibition space was much smaller than that of Two Temple Place, I think Somerset House managed to cram quite a bit more content in, as each of the three rooms was jam-packed with art on the walls and display cases on the floor. There was a guy who had collected mushroom stamps from all over the world, which filled up an entire wall, and some excellently bizarre collages by Seana Gavin. I also loved the William Morris inspired mushroom wallpaper designs above the previous paragraph, though I think I’d prefer a different colour scheme – maybe blues or greens?
I thought the Infinity Burial Suit was really kind of awesome – it is woven from thread implanted with mushroom spores, and the idea is if you bury a body in it, the mushrooms will feed off the body as it decomposes and eat up any contaminants to prevent them being released into the environment. I’m not sure that I prefer it to a traditional body-shaped coffin lined with velvet, and massive statue of myself either reading or looking sassy (or both!) on my grave, but by the time I die, I suppose it might be one of the only options available, depending on how much Earth has degraded by that point (which is more depressing than the thought of my own death). And on a lighter note, given the nature of mushrooms, of course some of the art was amusingly phallic, particularly the 3D pieces.
The text contained brief descriptions of how mushrooms had been viewed throughout history, from being treated with suspicion by medieval Europeans, who thought they were used by witches (I have never personally used a mushroom in a spell, though I’m sure they must have some useful medicinal properties) to becoming kind of adorable in the Victorian era, thanks mainly to Lewis Carroll. The little shop had some neat mushroom themed products, and apparently I could have had a free mushroom facial, though I presume the appointment slots were booked up by the time of my visit. Overall, I enjoyed this much more than Two Temple Place, and I’m definitely glad I stopped in to check it out and see my name written in fungi. I still won’t be eating a mushroom any time soon, but I respect their aesthetic! 3.5/5.