Erasmus Darwin House
West Midlands

What would happen if Ziggy Stardust had a date with Barbara Windsor and spent the afternoon at the Science Museum? Artist Kirsty E. Smith might have the answer.

Smith has a particular relationship with her sculptures, which she terms “beings’. They have names – ‘Cyril’, ‘Russell’, ‘Madeleine’, ‘Ziggy’, ‘Stan’, ‘Colin’. Colin is the most recent member of the group and is having his first outing at Smith’s most recent exhibition, Inventions of the Mind. Frillip Moolog is the name given by Smith to the ‘place’ where her sculptures and the sensual interaction with her work are experienced: an alternative universe, ‘another place’.

The works are beautifully designed and made, incorporating prized oddments such as pieces of redundant industrial machinery and bits of extraordinary kitchen equipment with carefully sourced fabrics, trimmings and upholstery. Smith likes to either create or suggest movement in her beings; they lean towards a kinetic existence. Their internal structures are carefully constructed for longevity; she wants them to be robust and ‘fit-for-purpose’. In this respect she is an inventor, and, frankly, obsessed with designing and researching exactly the right components to make her beings perfectly purposeless.

One can’t help thinking that Smith was destined to use this venue – it must have been calling her name. This show has been developing for some years; whilst the artist was still studying at Manchester Metropolitan University; she curated a ‘fantasy’ exhibition in the museum, imagining favourite artists and designers amongst the exhibits. It did not come to pass, but it sowed the seeds of the current installation. Other serendipitous events have brought the show to fruition.

Inventions of the Mind finds the beings installed amongst the exhibits at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield, the artist also lives and works in the city. The beings are discreetly placed within the museum, the former home of Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus. Erasmus (1731 – 1802) was an extraordinary enlightenment figure, a gentleman scientist and a natural philosopher, perhaps a bit of a dilettante. He was the hub for a group of important men who went on to be pivotal figures in the coming industrial revolution. The Lunar Society of Birmingham, numbering amongst them Josiah Wedgewood and James Watt, referred to themselves as the ‘Lunaticks’. They met monthly at Erasmus’ house, on the night of the full moon to discuss their latest inventions and ideas. The wall text highlights the phrase: “Thinking freely can be dangerous”, an establishment reaction to their revolutionary ideas.

The beings sit remarkably easily amongst the 18th Century style furnishings, objects and exhibits. ‘Ziggy’, a spacey, shimmering orange and turquoise octopus with unsettling white plastic claws (actually large fork type implements used to lift roasted meats) occupies the ‘Inventions Room’ beneath a crystal-armed chandelier. He sits comfortably alongside the heavy drapes, the bulbous tassels and tiebacks – he can converse with the décor of the house whilst also expressing something of the dazzle and flash of technology and science. The turquoise netting that covers his midriff is made from the material used by milliners for exotic veiled hats; with this Smith confesses another of her references, the childhood desire to be a sophisticated woman, elegantly attired and coiffed.

‘Madeleine’ sits at the rear of the entrance hall; she is bustle like, corseted and voluptuous. Smith found the ‘jazzy’ green and white fabric at one of her favourite haunts in Birmingham – The Fancy Silk Store (she imagines a touch of Bertie Wooster about this fabric too – a dapper driving jacket perhaps). The black, leg-like corsetry is made from a webbed industrial heat-spacer fabric, sourced from a specialist company. Smith likes this juxtaposition, the feminine and the industrial, the fit-for-purpose design and the phantasmagorical. Erasmus Darwin was a supporter of women’s education and ‘Madeline’s’ presence is a testament to his foresight.

Smith makes rich reference to many sources: art historical, popular culture, industrial design, interior and furniture design, she particularly cites both Freud’s ‘uncanny’ and surrealism as theoretical positions – perhaps, ultimately veering more towards the surreal.

Newcomer ‘Colin’ is a small fellow who perches atop the bookcase in Erasmus Darwin’s library, he’s something like a sea cucumber; his face is an industrial component from a dairy – all valves. He has feathered protuberances (beautifully made feather ‘hackles’ used in military Glengarry caps); they have the feel of the variety magician’s bunch of flowers. His tubular, upholstered body curves forward and leans into the room – as if he’s listening in on the museum information video featuring Adam Hart Davies. I am assured that ‘Colin’ is very well balanced and weighted with lead to ensure he keeps to his perch.

Kirsty E. Smith’s work sits in that notoriously uncomfortable nexus where fine art, craft and design collide. The debates about this kind of practice continue to rumble despite the reams of recent discourse that have addressed the impasse. In latter decades, craft has been, in many respects, the poor relation of fine art, but forays by fine artists into the world of making and constructing and ‘makers’ into the conceptual and aesthetic territories of the ‘artist’ have blurred the disciplinary boundaries. Smith sees her own work erring towards fine art, but with her training in Contemporary Craft she has deep affinities to the world of industry and design. She is something of a hybrid as are her extraordinary sculptures.

The art world is generally exercised, especially with textile-based work, by the thorny issue of nostalgia. Where do ideas about memory and nostalgia overlap? What about sentimentality, that candyfloss Nemesis of conceptual art? Kirsty E Smith instinctively negotiates these fine balances with great skill and humour. Her work is accomplished, inventive and funny and this show is a lovely opportunity to see her strange beings in a considered and conducive environment.

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