To say that 'What If', an exhibition about art on the verge of design and architecture, is reminiscent of a shop, might sound derogatory,but it is not. Rather, it testifies to the intelligence with which this show treats the complicated issue of how design and architecture don't simply help us organise our lives, but, more significantly, inhabit our imaginations in a similar way to art. Previously, the category of 'fantastic' or 'surreal' architecture and design was invented in order to deal with this unseemly excess of significance. 'What if' suggests a far more subtle interchange, or breakdown of distinctions, between use and fantasy, actual and potential space, social ideals and the realities of an economy in which style is one of the single most important rates of exchange.
If the exhibition evokes this new type of shop, it has to do with the way in which the works by the 30 artists are grouped in quasi-furnished clusters, or zones, so that they become the basic elements of an architectural scheme through which an enticing interior emerges, a space you want to drift idly around in. The layout of the work was organised by Liam Gillick, who, according to curator Maria Lind, was also the exhibition's 'filter' - presumably much in the same way one of his own stylish and deceptively cheerful multicoloured Perspex panels is meant to filter the visual surroundings into a space for a social scenario that may never take place. In theory, this sounds stifling and authoritarian. Individual art works made it difficult to see how artists such as Jim Iserman, Martin Boyce, Philippe Parreno, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Jason Dodge, Elmgreen and Dragset, Jorge Pardo, Superflex, Rita McBride and Olaf Nicolai could be integrated. In practice, the set-up was surprisingly liberating, the structural linking of the work served to highlight different relationships, as if the precisely formulated ambiguities of the setting unleashed those instances of productive uncertainty which today makes the whole big woolly concept of design (as opposed to art) seem the most relevant prism through which to sort our experiences. This was evident, for example, in Dominique Gonzales-Foerster's installation Brasilia Hall (1999-2000), an amazing exploration of the way in which the intense light in the tropics can turn Modernist architecture into atmospheric mirages rather than monuments to rational form. Or in N55 and Andrea Zittel's respective preoccupations with the minimal requirements of a practical, cheap existence, in which an underlying rhetoric of catastrophe continually re-codes the general fashion for minimal style as 'real necessity'. And, for once, Sylvie Fleury's straight-from-the-shop shoes were allowed to wallow in their own languid fashion moment, rather than illustrate some flimsy concept of Feminist subversion.
Ultimately, this shop-model reinvention of the group exhibition could not avoid a reflective glance at its immediate context. It recalled both the relative homogeneity of the art world as well as the long-established complicity between exhibitions and more traditional shopping. However, 'What If' confronted such economic and institutional questions head-on, on the experiential level, rather than dealing with them as a theme or evading them through idealistic metaphors.