BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

Simon Martin

BY Michael Bracewell in Reviews | 01 JAN 07

The nine minutes of Simon Martin’s compelling, memorable film Carlton (2006) are devoted to a cultural philosophical meditation upon the Carlton cabinet, designed by Ettore Sottsass in 1981, and a founding example of the work made by the radical design group Memphis, established in Milan that same year. Outlandish, mischievous, heroically quirky – riding a perilous back-curve between supreme aesthetic poise and assuredly knowing kitsch – Memphis design was as much the articulation of an anti-historicist mission statement as it was a deft-footed style surf on the surging tides of 1980s excess.

With this in mind, Carlton is first distinguished by the way in which Martin’s film portrait of the Sottsass cabinet reveals this room-divider/bookshelf anew as, in fact, a design classic: before you can say ‘greed is good’, you feel over-powered by the sheer totemistic audacity of what looks more like a futuristic altarpiece than a large piece of furniture. Martin films the Carlton in a way that at times is almost darkly brooding – more articulate of the savage mystery of ancient empires than the year in which Aneka had a UK Number One with ‘Japanese Boy’.

But such museological seriousness, in many ways, seems precisely the effect that Martin is after; his enquiry makes of the Carlton cabinet an art object that is part ornament and part curio – the direct descendant, in fact, of the ‘conversation piece’ table sculptures that were in vogue amongst the upper-middle classes during the 19th century. The film’s ultimate intent – at once charming, subtle and profound – is to prompt nothing less through this meditation on style than a discussion on the nature of time and being.
Shot on 16mm film and transferred to DVD, what you get in Martin’s Carlton are a series of lingering, exquisitely-lit shots of the Sottsass cabinet. These are accompanied by an essay-like commentary, delivered as female voice-over. The speaker’s inflection is both formal and conversational – the spoken word equivalent, perhaps, of the historical notes contained on museum signage panels.

There is a cold, forensic feel to the first few minutes of the film; no attempt is made to guide or coerce either our reading of the images or our expectation of where they might be leading. We hear some solid, establishing facts about Memphis design – including the fact that in 1989 Karl Lagerfeld envisaged his apartment in Monte Carlo to be kitted out entirely in the Memphis style.The commentary then pursues what might be termed the ‘diffusion effect’ of Memphis design, subsequent to the dissolution of the actual group in 1988. And thus the thesis begins to broaden: ‘People could be effected [by Memphis] without having to buy or own the objects.’ We hear that ‘a mutated postmodern gene survives’, enabling ‘a generalized environment of quote, reference and approximation; a place of perpetual refurbishment and all-purpose vernacular. It is no place in particular, and everywhere we go.’ And there you have the fulcrum of Carlton’s thesis; the pivotal observation on which the film transposes from the specifics of the Sottsass cabinet, and into what seems more a safari through the role of the contemporary artist in relation to the socio-cultural constitution of the present day.

In the accompanying commentary, from this point, what had been coolly instructive becomes portentously open-ended – the increasingly questioning tone held together with a series of ‘what if’ statements that might be drawn from the early novels of Douglas Coupland or the editorial of a style magazine. Did ‘today begin’, for instance, with ‘the closure of Warhol’s Factory? – or with the fact that one woke up to find one knew the lyrics to “West End Girls”, by the Pet Shop Boys, off by heart?’ We near the conclusion of this list of questions with a doubly ironic pronouncement, shaded with a hint of ennui: ‘If only lists didn’t seem so yesterday’.

In one sense, Carlton appears to suggest – unless there is some uber-irony at work, so covert as to be virtually sub-sonic – that the Sottsass bookshelf can be taken as a marker for both the end and the beginning of an era. The end of consequence-free games with style, perhaps, and the beginnings of everywhere looking like everywhere else. This is territory which has been fairly well trodden by other commentators – Tom Wolfe’s ‘7/11 Land’ in his 1998 novel A Man In Full, for instance, or Peter York’s writing on retail design in Peter York’s Eighties (1995).

But this in no way invalidates Martin’s film, the elegance and economy of which grants its arguments an inflection reminiscent of Ezra Pound’s high Modernist plea at the conclusion of his ‘Cantos’ (1915–22): ‘I have brought the great ball of light. Who can lift it?’ Pound’s challenge seems to resonate through our present age, and is echoed in the closing questions of Martin’s filmscript: ‘What is the story to be told? What will make a better picture?’ Such tickles of unease – as auction houses record a boom in the sales of boutique hotel furniture of the early 1990s – seem increasingly necessary.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.