Arts: Go forth and multiply

Multiples are the pret-a-porter to the haute couture of the unique work of art. Now a new project intends making these popular and affordable objects more widely available. By Judith Palmer
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The Independent Culture
A special place in 20th-century British art history should surely be reserved for Sir Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Sid James. Back in 1951, when The Lavender Hill Mob had the brainwave of smelting down their stolen gold bullion and disguising it as miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower, they weren't just out-foxing Scotland Yard: the Ealing Studios comedy-team was creating the nation's first witty art multiples.

It was another decade before the rest of the art-world finally caught up, with Claes Oldenburg, Joseph Beuys, Ian Hamilton Finlay and John Cage amongst the many hundreds of artists producing cheap editions of quirky, mass-produced objects. Piero Manzoni canned his Artist's Shit and Yoko Ono made her all-white travel chess sets. If original artworks were haute couture, the multiple was pret-a-porter. You couldn't take the gift-wrapped Reichstag home with you: but 75 lucky people in 1968 spent a few quid on Christo's multiple Empaquetage of Roses and carried off a slender bundle of flowers tied up in a cellophane shroud. A very canny investment now worth a few thousand.

Throughout the Nineties, few young British artists resisted the urge to go forth and multiply. Damien Hirst adopted the "ready-made" principle and packaged up ping-pong balls in high-ball glass tumblers, while Mark Wallinger made mini, die-cast equestrian statuettes to help offset the cost of buying his real chestnut racehorse. Sometimes you're buying a highly-crafted, cherishable item - sometimes a jokey bit of ephemeral tat. But where does one find these art souvenirs?

The newest addition to the multiple market is the Multiple Store, an independent research unit based within Central St Martin's College of Art & Design, which recently launched with a collection of six new commissions in editions of 20 to 200, priced from pounds 90 to pounds 495, and from artists such as Cornelia Parker, Keith Coventry and Turner-Prize winner Grenville Davey.

"We thought there was a market for an organisation bringing artists to a new distribution network," explains Multiple Store director Sally Townsend. "We're like publishers really, and we'll keep adding to the collection throughout the year. We're trying to enable artists to explore ideas in materials they may not be familiar with, while bringing their work to a wider audience. Multiples, by their very nature, allow you to bring the price down and reach more people, yet you're still buying something pretty exclusive that won't be made again."

The collection goes on show this week both at Central St Martin's and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and continues to tour nationally to non- gallery venues, as well as being available via the World Wide Web (www.multiplestore.org) and mail order.

"I find these opportunities quite fruitful," says the Scottish sculptor, Kenny Hunter. "Like public art projects, the Multiple Store commission has taken my work in directions it wouldn't otherwise have gone in. If you're designing everything for a white-cube gallery space, you might go round in tight circles. This helps to extend your range."

Hunter (who currently has a solo show of giant, toy-like figures at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery), has produced a pair of busts, as his multiple, depicting Monica Lewinsky and Saudi bomber-and pan-Islamist, Osama Bin Laden. A skit on the traditional iconic piano-top heads of Beethoven, Socrates, Burns and Lenin, the curvy, resin duo pose the question: "What is History?"

"The newspapers throw up a constant fresh stream of famous people like these for us to digest, all with a very short shelf-life," explains Hunter. "They're good, wee bookends," he recommends. "Nice and heavy, they'd be good murder weapons."

Simon Periton usually makes whisperingly delicate paper cut-out doilies, but decided to make his multiple in glass. "Afterwards, I went glass bonkers for a bit," laughs Periton, "and spun off to make glass mushrooms and an 8ft floor doily in enamel-painted glass." His multiple, Barbiturate, is a dainty, gently kinking strand of fragile, hand-twisted barbed wire in opaque lilac, black or white glass. "It enabled me to finally use an idea which had been sitting in my brain for years," he says.

Once he conceived the piece, the Multiple Store put him in touch with Bill Tuffnell and the London Glassblowing Workshop, to embark on the lengthy process of working out how to make the barbed wire. "It felt strange being so hands-off," Periton admits, "when normally I cut every piece myself in my studio. I wanted to make something simple, beautiful, useless and ornamental. The hazards associated with using barbed wire are now turned upon its owner, who's now got to take care of it."

"I did not want to make a knick-knack or ornament," insists Graham Gussin, who has taken an Atlas of the Stars and pulped it to make a large disc, luminously pale and slightly speckled, which looks like a wonderful, inter-planetary Alka Seltzer. "This is designed to be hung up and out of the way, ideally 7ft above normal picture-hanging height. The idea was to take infinite, unmappable space, and condense it."

Several years ago, Cornelia Parker bought a Namibian iron meteorite, intending to launch it back into space. "It's an irregular, long and knobbly rusty rock, a fragment of some spent star, and while it's still here on earth I thought I'd use it as a drawing implement," Parker laughs. Gripping it with tongs, she heats it up then burns careful holes across her London street atlas. First she takes out the Millennium Dome, then the Houses of Parliament, Wormwood Scrubs, Buckingham Palace, and St Paul's Cathedral, charring her way down through the pastel-tinted pages in her own rampaging Fire of London. "It's your own personalised meteorite fall," she says, "tying in with that doom-laden, end-of-century fear of the unknown."

Scottish artists Dalziel and Scullion are seasoned multiplicists. Treating the TV like a budgie's cage, they made a successful series of little sleeping hoods marked Rest to drape over your television at night (in handy 17- inch and portable 14-inch sizes). Their latest multiple is The Idea of North, a delightfully simple compass floating in a chunky disc of sandblasted perspex, as if caught in the middle of a glacier. The idea presented itself when their next-door neighbour called round in desperate need of a compass so he could line-up the arrow on his new weather vane.

"I love the idea of everyone around the country holding these compasses at a slightly different angle, but them all still pointing in the same direction, at the same imaginary place," muses Matthew Dalziell. "The more that are bought, the more the work grows. They all become connected, with people dotted around the place, all joined in the same idea. That for me is the essence of a multiple, rather than just an edition: something that becomes a bigger work because there's more of them. It's also a good compass," he adds. "It's Swedish. It could save your life." It makes a a fabulous paperweight, too, and just think how it could sort out all your feng shui needs.

"I think for people not used to buying art, there's a great feeling of safety in numbers," considers Gill Hedley, director of the Contemporary Art Society - spoken as if a surge of collective Dalziell and Scullion compasses were already quivering in her hand. "Multiples are great," she says, pointing out her Tracy Emin Mug , Mariele Neudecker plaster mountain, and jars of Anya Gallaccio gerberas. "It's rather like buying prints - a way of getting your nerve up before committing yourself to buying something much bigger and more expensive. You couldn't usually afford works by a lot of these artists. In fact, you probably couldn't even get them in the front door."

Multiple Store at Lethaby Gallery, Central Saint Martin's College of Art & Design, Southampton Row, London until 30 April.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield until 20 June (01924 830302)

There will be a special evening viewing for `Independent' readers at the Multiple Store on Wednesday 28 April 6-8pm, at which the artists will discuss their work. For free tickets, call 0171-514 7258

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