John Walsh on Monday: The curious art of home furnishing sculptures

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS MORNING, should you have nothing else to do, why not stroll down to your local Homebase superstore? For there, as unexpected as a teddy bears' picnic in the middle of the M25, you will encounter modern art trying to make itself useful.

Homebase, the DIY people, and the Tate Gallery have launched a joint initiative called "At Home with Art". It starts this morning. Its aim is to offer "contemporary art at affordable prices" to customers who have simply popped into the store to buy some Polyfilla and a couple of Rawlplugs.

Such fortunate passing-trade punters now have a chance to inspect the work of the nation's top artists and buy it to grace the walls of their stylish homes; for the artists were commissioned "to create an object for the home that could be mass-produced".

We have, therefore, the sculptor Permindar Kaur displaying a customised shower curtain covered in little pedestrian-crossing-man figures and costing pounds 48; a wall-mounted tuning fork, that well-known domestic necessity, designed by Angela Bulloch, retailing at pounds 57 and making all your other wall-mounted tuning forks wholly redundant; and Antony "Angel of the North" Gormley's designer coat peg, a small steel cylinder that would (if I am any judge) need a six-inch screw to attach it to the wall, after which you could hang pretty well anything on it, up to and including a grand piano, and it wouldn't budge.

It's a strange beast, this art-in-the-kitchen initiative, occupying a space somewhere between art, design and craft. Asking an artist to supply "an object for the home" elides the distinction between the functional and the decorative; which is why you now have serious artists such as Richard Deacon pondering one of his bashed-metal sculptures (a curious object with what look like arms and legs sticking out at right angles) and wondering if it might come in handy to unblock an S-bend.

Alison Wilding presented Homebase with a ceramic sculpture that is, shape- wise, somewhere between a small-scale Millennium Dome and a white hat covered in horns and announced: "I don't know whether this piece is functional or not."

Oh, come now, Alison. What you've gone and done is create the world's first melon-squeezer. Call it the Wilding Juice Extractor, stick it in a nice box and we'll make a fortune. Really, artists have no business getting involved with home furnishings, with those DIY superstores that are modern shrines to small-minded conservatism.

Artists should not be required to do anything that smacks of practicality. They were not put on Earth to be practical. Nobody ever asked Rodin if, when he had a spare hour, he could knock off some stone cladding suitable for the enhancement of a modern fireplace. Nobody ever wrote to Henry Moore, requesting that he run up a couple of egg-shaped paperweights for the local gift shop.

But it may all catch on. The Gormley super-peg, the Deacon dyno-rod, the Wilding juice extractor may all become extremely popular. You may even find the artists spending more of their time at the DIY stores, looking for inspiration.

Why, I expect, any day now, you'll find Tracey Emin standing in the bed- linen department of Homebase, underneath a sign that reads: "Ms Emin will happily customise your sheets for you."

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WHILE WE are on the subject of home decoration, some choice insights could be found in the Sunday papers into the personal style of Lord Irvine of Lairg, with the serialisation of Janet Jones's Labour of Love. Ms Jones is the wife of Lord Richard, who was leader of the House of Lords in 1997-98 and was closely involved in cabinet proposals about reforming the Upper House.

The author's entries are necessarily second-hand, since she relies heavily on the stories brought home by her endlessly put-upon husband, but they have the vividness of news. Lord Richard, it seems, never came through the front door with the words "Hi, honey, I'm home" on his lips. He seems to exist in a permanent state of fury or collapse after yet another row with the Lord Chancellor or one of his cabinet colleagues. The entries tend to become a little formulaic, until you feel you could represent the whole diary in a single entry, concentrating on the key political issues of the day:

"12 June. Ivor [Lord Richard] has crossed swords with Denis about what Peter should do over Derry. Ivor spoke to Derry, who denied ordering the wallpaper from Harrods. Peter is worried that Tony is losing patience with Robin over Chevening. The Chequers trustees are worried about the Blair children digging up the garden. Ivor has asked Black Rod for a piece of paper detailing the cost of bathroom tiles. I made toad-in-the-hole for supper.

"Donald is upset because Derry treats him like a kid. `I hate his guts,' he wailed. `I hate him I hate him I hate him.' Nick Brown has been asked by the Treasury to cut benefit for homeless infants by 100 per cent. Ivor has asked him for a piece of paper detailing the pros and cons of toddler vagrancy. Derry is such a bastard. He reminds me of Henry VIII. Ivor suspects him of being patronising. He and Ivor had a row about whether to have fleur-de-lys wallpaper above or below the dado rail in his private quarters.

"Derry told Ivor not to worry his silly head about such matters. The Chequers trustees are concerned that the Blair children have stripped all the lead off the roof. Peter rang to say he's worried that the press have found out about the tungsten uplighters in Derry's walk-in wardrobe. I wish I was in Chevening. Black Rod rang to ask Ivor about colour swatches. Ivor has promised to speak to Tony about Ben and Jerry. Derry has asked Osborne and Little for a piece of paper offering a 20 per cent discount. He's such a horrible man. He reminds me of Cardinal Richelieu."

THE GUINNESS Book of the 20th Century has just been published, revealing surprising facts about words whose modernity we take for granted, whose meanings have an up-to-date ring to them, whose very sound is the sound of the neurotic fin de siecle: words such as "clone" and "paranoia" and "fetish" and "gene".

The surprising truth is, of course, that they and lots more like them have been around from the start of the century. Even "mouse" (computer) - a word so redolent of the Eighties, you can practically hear Duran Duran playing in the background whenever it is mentioned - turns out to have been coined in 1965 in a book called Computer-Aided Display. But what struck me was the lists of key words that first saw the light of day in each decade.

They fall on the ear like poetry: each set a tiny haiku, suggesting a whole narrative, full of vivid colour and character, with just a few nouns.

When you discover, for instance, that the 1910s introduced the words "jinx", "floozie", "birth control" and "loony bin" - well, you wouldn't need to be J M Coetzee to construct from these details a poignant, Hardyesque tale of blighted fortunes - a family curse that skips a generation, a modern young flapper called Daisy who thinks she's immune to both social convention and the workings of fate, a disastrous love affair with that all-important visit to the Marie Stopes Clinic fatefully postponed, a hard-to-explain pregnancy, and poor Daisy ends her brief life going off her head in the Magdalen laundries. That's the story of the decade. It's all in the words that the years created.

Or take the Forties, which first gave the world the terms "loo", "gremlin", "antibiotic", "teenager", "soap opera" and "fax" (yes, I know - faxes in the Forties, indeed). But stare at those words for long enough, and they will yield up an off-putting subtext - a claustrophobic narrative of modern kids and washing facilities, in which a spotty oik called Gordon rarely leaves the vicinity of the bathroom, because the evidence in the mirror tells him all too plainly that he will never make it with girls. Despite eczema cream, pills, furtive scrubbing with Phisohex and twice- weekly acne treatments, nothing works.

If he is ever to declare his love for Rosanne, the girl of his dreams, he must perforce do it by electronic mail.

Scroll forward to the Eighties, and the picture changes again. The tragic Hardy novel of the Tens and the James Kelman-ish lavabo narrative of the Forties have long gone. The Eighties tone is pure vulgar blokeishness. What were the words it brought in? "Toyboy", "chatline", "wannabe', "car boot sale", "Yardie" ... See what I mean? There's no narrative in this story; it's just a noisy charivari of casual sex, foolish dreams of stardom and lost Sunday mornings spent trying to flog your old record collection in a field somewhere off the A10, to raise enough dosh to buy drugs from the dangerous Jamaican gangsters who have moved in next door to you.

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