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Twin chairs when yuh want to sit in ah circle and get out of here.
“Is it really that good down there?” a beautiful stranger and her friend asked in passing, as I sat four inches above the ground on an expansive slab of installation furniture designed by artist cum furniture designer, Dean Arlen. “Actually, it is… and you are welcome to join me; in fact I think it was designed that way.” I replied with a relaxed smile and a delayed understanding that innuendo was suggested, having never been implied. That experience summarizes the distilled essence of the AlterEgo Project; a collection of teak, mahogany and deceptively hewn, metal-accentuated furniture, currently on exhibition in the lobby of Scrip-J, at the Fernandez Industrial Complex. The pieces of furniture by Arlen are subversive information-objects with a greater sense of their own understated complexity and much more refinement than one would normally expect to find in simple conversation pieces.
Valerie Taylor in serene surrender. —Photo: AKINDELE HICKLING
The root of the expression itself appears to be discourse. Rooted in this exploration are questions that include but are not limited to: what’s the appropriate angle for comfortable engagement in the act of eating a meal? Or lounging, over drinks, while liming with friends? And do these activities necessarily involve a table at all? These and other post-modern constructs root the AlterEgo Project squarely in this, our Caribbean context. At first glance the seating objects appear to be a series of rough and unrefined throwbacks to medieval torture apparatus that one would expect to find amidst Gregorian chanting and steamy, sweaty, sessions of somewhat Spanish Inquisition. Yet surprisingly, on engaging with these objects, one is instantly converted from distant notions of the divine. The work presented is shocking and inviting and inexorably pragmatic.
They had supper on a ledge front view.
EXPERIENCE If there was to be a thesis put forward on the Caribbean cultural experience of furniture, the AlterEgo Project would certainly be a contender; it looks like nothing you have experienced and feels like nothing you want to forget. Unabashed and unwavering, with subtlety and sinew in each gentle caress, effortlessly each piece reveals itself to you; thrusting upon you as a deeper understanding of your own proclivities. The AlterEgo Project has as its premise, contradiction. On the outset the furniture appears to be stark and disproportionate, acute and unrefined, with defiant angles projecting into space, as if to impale predetermined notions on the flank of the collective subconscious. The feeling of the slippery surfaces, on the contrary, is somewhat disavowed of such solemn notions as the innovative hardwood furniture brings to bear a crashing juxtaposition of disparate propositions: the veritable hot-bed (or seat) of discourse and interaction.
ERGONOMICS Without a single curve in sight, the obtuse angles tend either toward a hundred and twenty degrees or punctuate at right angles, with a chiseled hammertoe, in the case of “Back up Yu Backing”. Elongated and equipped for the fight, defiant and irregular, one would instantly approach these pieces with a sense of trepidation. Arlen himself stated that during the development process, strong conversations emerged, wherein fundamental lines were drawn regarding the concept and requisite notions of ergonomics and comfort. The chairs simply look deathly uncomfortable; yet once you experience them, you cannot really look at other chairs in quite the same way. The low-to-the-ground reclining position, of “Deck Me, Deck Dem” and the comparable “A Funny Looking Aztec Thing”, is infused with post-modern expressions of Caribbean posturing. “The angles, the ergonomics… notions of interaction, of lounging…” Arlen articulated some of the ways in which the pieces of furniture in the AlterEgo Project were specifically designed to “make political statements about the expectations of dining and of social interaction.” The reinterpretation of coffee-table armchairs—“When Yu Want To Sit in Ah Circle An Get out of Here”—connect the shoulder-line of the deeply seated patron in a natural and gently sweeping arc, veering gracefully towards the wrist in a relaxed yet somewhat aggressive posture; instead of the neatly tucked elbows one would expect to find in otherwise diplomatic, polite-conversations on the molded plastic forebear, adorning the adjacent conference room facilities of the gracious exhibition hosts. The stark reality of our existence has rarely before come so clearly into focus. One could almost expect to find the iconoclastic pieces from the AlterEgo Project in the lobbies of Ian Schrager upmarket resorts in bustling urban centers, adorned by intermingling cosmopolitan jet-setters; or in bleeding edge museums of contemporary modern art in Paris, Barcelona, New York or LA.
Keri McLennon gets down to work. —Photo: AKINDELE HICKLING
ASSEMBLAGE Arlen describes the works, assembled in collaboration with Richard Taylor and David Blake, as inspired by Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities: interlocking and democratic. The joints are all composed without a single nail or screw, and wherever a screw presents, it is a textured appliqué used to underplay the sophistication of the finished joinery. Even the pieces of furniture that appear to be rough and unrefined are all smoothly sanded with no perceivable flaws. Completing this masking effect of intrigue and “mis-under-estimation”, the spot-welded metal finish joints are also smooth to the touch and free of imperfection. They present to the unsuspecting public, the appearance of the anticipated standard of poor workmanship. The detailing and joinery, from assembly to finish, were thoughtfully considered and impeccably applied. “Mas, ah see yu!”
COMMENTARY In passing, a few of the patrons at the launch of the exhibition, first expressed perplexity and dis-interest in engaging with the seemingly foreign objects; stating generally that the pieces looked heavy, inarticulate and somewhat unrefined. As the evening progressed, other patrons commented that although the furniture was engaging, the venue restricted the full appreciation of such expressive objects. Presented from this perspective, it is easy to understand that one may find it difficult to get a full appreciation of the AlterEgo Project without simply sitting down to experience the distinct works in the series. Most intriguing to experience and observe were the experiences between the patrons and the objects themselves; invariably the response would be… “Oh Goooooood… this is lovely… the good part is the sliding in… This is nice boy!” followed more often than not by “Dean, you are a genius boy!” Consistently, the intrigue and trepidation was dispelled by the first experience of the salubrious surfaces. Cautiously and gently, “I just have to slide into it… “ returned a nervous and particularly attractive young lady, rendered speechless by the experience… accentuated only by “oh woooooow!” And then along came a noteworthy designer, clearly presenting a widely held position on the quizzical “Deck Me, Deck Dem” by stating simply: “Oh no! At 46 and fabulous, we don’t go that low.” Within a few minutes however, he too was a convert. On emerging from the experience, a Freudian slip put the experience clearly into perspective: It looks conceiving… I mean deceiving. The overarching response from those who experienced the AlterEgo Project was that the pieces of furniture were each in their own unique ways, “all surprisingly comfortable”. The AlterEgo Project is a refreshing alternative to customarily feigned highbrow social commentary. It gets you where it counts: in your imagination. Towards the end of the evening, an older, much more conservative lady was overheard remarking, quite in passing, “this is built with men in mind;” a reference made to the aptly titled, asymmetrically composed “When Ah Want to Skin Up and Let De Breez Cool Dem Dong”.
FINAL WORDS The key to understanding the objects, Arlen concluded, was evident in the observation of a child in the distance exploring the deep inner recesses of his imagination in interactions with the pieces: “If he plays long enough, to him it can become a spaceship;” a statement in part that underscores the significance of liberating one’s own perspectives to engage in renewable discourse. Arlen outlined initiatives for a continuation of the discourse with artists and artisans across the twin island Republic, and presents the AlterEgo Project as a successful case study in a series of wider initiatives to engage with communities-like one such in Aripo-carving out innovative models for creative and cultural industries development and authentic social engagement across the society at the intra-community level: encouraging the making of objects in keeping with our identity, presence and experience. If the Alter Ego Project is any indication of design capabilities emerging from this, our Caribbean, then imported notions of design excellence may have quite a bit to contend with in the wake of this phenomenal display. The core capabilities that identify Trinidad and Tobago as a design epicenter of the Caribbean have presented themselves most auspiciously with Dean Arlen’s AlterEgo Project. The ultimate goal emerging from the AlterEgo Project and related initiatives by Arlen, is to establish community-based Design Labs to fuel the creative capacity of grassroots innovators, most commonly referred to in the work of Lloyd Best as “maroon firms”. The question most readily asked by Arlen through the AlterEgo Project-once you get past the shock factor and high-value design proposition is-how can community-based grassroots-design- nitiatives, similar to and including the AlterEgo Project, be brought to the fore of national and regional agendas, as priorities at the cornerstone of sustainable social and economic development?