Shaping ideas

The chair may rival the wheel in its profound impact on the way we live, and poet Carla Harryman's choice of it as the focus of an exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum works wonders in exploring how things mean. Harryman is the third writer invited by Cranbrook to construct a "visual essay" in response to its collection, in keeping with a trend which opens museum collections to public scrutiny and use. The most famous instance of this kind of guest project was curated by Fred Wilson, an African-American artist, who, in exploring the Baltimore Historical Museum's collection, discovered a trove of articles that pointed to Baltimore's involvement in the history of slavery.

After her investigation of the Cranbrook collection, Harryman chose the chair, instead of paintings or prints, because of its prominence in human history, in design history and specifically in Cranbrook's own past &emdash; a number of the most famous chairs of the 20th century were designed by Cranbrook faculty members.

In last month's brilliant lecture and reading of her poetic responses to the chairs, Harryman talked about the desire of poets to make something out of words, speaking about language as a material itself rather than, as it is usually conceived, being "about" something else.

Harryman, along with designer Peter Hill, made eight chairs of words. They projected light on chairs with significant social and design histories, the shadows of which became forms for Harryman's texts.

With Eero Saarinen's "Womb Chair," the shadow becomes a wide, lapping tongue that suggests a text investigating the relationship between objects, words and desire. The "Womb Chair" poem is a tutorial on gender issues in language, ending with a stunning rejection of the physicality of the original, bright red, crudely voluptuous chair:

I can tell you something straight out: I do not want this chair in my house. In spite of all of its maternal affectations she is the other woman in a man's fantasies. I would prefer a bank of words scorched on the floorboards that trouble us with ideas. Indeed, this is exactly what I want. What you see here is a public reflection of that more intimate design.

On the other hand, the shadow of Saarinen's famous "Bench" suggests a fence or blockade and, wonderfully, Harryman's text becomes a story about, or meditation on, what happens to an object when it achieves the status of an icon, which "Bench" certainly has become.

Before writing "Kingswood School Chair" and "Cranbrook Dining Chair," Harryman interviewed Cranbrook students who use the chairs daily and she allowed their words to write the poems. Eames' "Billy Wilder Couch" looks like a fragmented psychoanalyst's couch and the resulting poem is a formally fragmented, tortured shape that also plays off the mood of Wilder's 1950s movies. The shadow of Saarinen's "Pedestal-Tulip Chair" becomes a wine glass that celebrates itself. In all of these texts, the form of the chair's shadow determines the structure of the writing.

Perhaps Harryman's "Chairs of Words" project suggests a retelling of Greek philosopher Plato's dialogue about the Ideal which reality can only reflect but never achieve.

More fundamentally, it is a beautifully installed exhibition that turns on subtle poetic nuances and playfulness, and invites philosophical meditation on the relationship between language and objects.

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