Commissioned by photo editor Holly Hay, photographic agent Ger Tierney, and curator Shonagh Marshall, four emerging photographers create imagery for a range of everyday objects for Dover Street Market and The National Portrait Gallery’s museum shop.
tea towel. Photography Dham Srifuengfung, 2017
If you visit any major gallery, you'll exit via the gift shop and frequently find more visitors around the postcards and prints than viewing the original artworks themselves. It's often an odd collision of culture and commerce. But what if these takeaway treats were that bit more special? It's a question posed by photo editor Holly Hay, photographic agent and former i-D team member Ger Tierney, and curator Shonagh Marshall as part of Dover Street Market's Photo London Open House event.
The frequent collaborators have teamed up with the National Portrait Gallery to reimagine the gallery gift shop, commissioning four emerging photographers — Polly Brown, Dham Srifuengfung, Jacob Lillis, and Larissa Hofmann — to create imagery for a coaster, tea towel, magnet, and compact mirror. While responding to the architecture and permanent collection of one of London's great cultural institutions, the resulting objects playfully probe the relationship between art and retail within the cultural landscape. Do we view these everyday objects differently when the work is commissioned especially? Before the event, Ger Tierney acts as our tour guide as she takes us inside The Museum Shop.
First, what was the catalyst for this project?
This year Dover Street Market was keen to do something fun during Photo London and asked Holly and I to get involved with Shonagh Marshall. We had limitations with the space and concept, which actually made it really fun. We knew we wanted to do something around emerging artists who wouldn't appear on the walls at Photo London. We loved the idea of introducing these artists to the DSM audience in an unconventional way. We wanted to focus on the relationship between culture and commerce, placing objects that resemble those sold in a museum shop within Dover Street Market, and exploring what their significance would be if they are never attached to an exhibition or a museum. They introduced us to The National Portrait Gallery, which was very exciting as it really gave the project gravitas working with such an incredible institution.
As "teamwork makes the dreamwork," could you talk us through the collaborative process. How did you work with Holly Hay and Shonagh Marshall on the Museum Shop?
Holly, Shonagh, and I are all good friends so it was so much fun to get to work on this creative process together. Holly and I spend a lot of time discussing photographers we love and we have a really good sense of each other's taste, so it was an easy win to agree on who we wanted to have involved. With Shonagh's experience as a fashion curator, she really understood the museum and commerce side of things. It was such a positive experience, getting to do something like this with your close friends. I think they are incredibly talented women and the whole experience has made me adore them even more! It was such a brilliant feeling to sit in on meetings with your friends and think, "My goodness, she's a powerhouse."
And the photographers themselves?
We have a relationship with each of the photographers and we felt each one really had their own point of view and would bring something unique to the table. They were amazing and so up for the challenge. It was such an unusual brief for them, but they all rose to it and delivered something really special. It's such a fun project. We wanted it to feel beautiful but not too serious.
Could you talk us through the work? How do these images make you feel?
Polly Brown has such a unique approach, often putting herself in her imagery. Her final images have so much humor. It was a great study in perception as she did not actually touch the artwork, but to the eye it looks like she put her finger up the statue's nose! We were drawn to Jacob's work with Simone Rocha and his beautiful books capturing a real grandness, whether it's a street corner or inside a royal building. His final shot is so serene and beautiful it really captured the beauty of the NPG before opening hours. Dham has a huge knowledge of the art world, particularly the more traditional masters, and he always inserts a little humor into his work. His study of a nose and his beautiful collage really married his work, and incredible eye for casting, with this project. Larissa has such a feminine sensibility to her work and, in particular, she can capture something incredibly mundane and spring it to life with an elegance and a real sensuality. Her image is perfect for the hand mirror. I love how surreal and almost obscene it looks while maintaining a real beauty to it.
If people take one thing away from this project, what do you hope it is and why?
That people's perception of a print or an artwork can be changed. That they would view these products as something to display proudly in their home, as they would a print. I'd love to see some photos of how people chose to display their tea towel or coaster in fun creative ways. Maybe we could start a hashtag for people to post them! I think traditional formats of art and photography are changing with social media and technology, and this project has been a fun nod to that change while still creating something tangible that someone can hold and enjoy rather than store on their phone. I also love how the project brought together two very different institutions while celebrating great talent. I think there's something really special about that.
Finally, as this project celebrates beauty in the everyday, we have to ask... what does beauty mean to you in 2017?
Diversity and self love!
Dover Street Market Photo London Open House is on May 18 from 5pm to 8pm.
Text Steve Salter