Consuming the Exotic, a design exhibition by postgraduate architecture students at Oxford Brookes University, is currently running at the Old Fire Station. Focused upon visits to Istanbul and Cappadocia in Turkey, the artwork addresses themes of authenticity, cultural value, and ritual. Central to the exhibition is a focus upon carpet-making as a fundamental aspect of Turkish culture; half of the exhibition comprises the students’ visions for how this industry, and the associated ideas of cultural value, will change in the future. The perspective for this project was inspired in part by the cult science-fiction novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy, using a projection of the future as a means of socio-political analysis and commentary. The socio-political focus of Consuming the Exotic is the environmental consequences of the booming tourist industry, not only in terms of quantifiable differences such as air pollution from increased air traffic, but also the social consequences of an almost fetishistic quest for an ‘authentic’ experience of cultural alterity.
The divide between what is perceived as the authentic and the inauthentic, from a tourist’s perspective, lies at the heart of much of the exhibition. Each of the students has produced a design for the Grand Bazaar as a carpet workshop as it might exist two hundred years into the future, taking into account changing perceptions of value. Jonathan Carter’s work engages directly with the idea of a country and its traditions being commercialised, packaged specifically for tourist consumption. His design involves a complete objectification of the ‘experience’ of the Grand Bazaar, creating an elevated platform inside the building from which tourists can observe the complex without having to engage with it. Josie Liatsou’s design follows a similar theme, creating a maze experience within the original bazaar. Selected view-holes allow the tourist to witness everything the designer wishes him to; carefully hand-spun carpets, with time expended in the creation of the carpet increasing its value. Out of view, however, all construction is mechanized – Josie describes this as “taking a sarcastic approach to what’s presented to [tourists] as handmade.” This is also reflected in the films and photographs that are projected onto carpet fabric hung from the end of the gallery; Igea Troiani (exhibition co-curator alongside Andrew Dawson) said of their work that “Some students would take photographs of buildings that were absolutely exquisite, and others were looking at the landscape as a kind of globalised No Man’s Land”; it becomes impossible to claim either presentation of Turkey as ‘real’ or ‘fake’.
Other exhibits adopt a more pragmatic perspective, attempting to construct a sustainable future for the industry in light of environmental change and engaging with ideas put forth in Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. Written in 2010, the manifesto states that “No one can say with certainty where the unravelling of the financial and commercial fabric of our economies will end. Meanwhile, beyond the cities, unchecked industrial exploitation frays the material basis of life in many parts of the world, and pulls at the ecological systems which sustain it.” With a population of approximately 14 million in Istanbul alone, Lucy Dickson estimates that there are at least 8 million prayer rugs in daily use, creating a barrier from the ground to allow for worship in a clean space. Based upon these figures, her project suggests a future for the carpet industry based upon consistent recycling. “My future scenario suggested that sources would be dwindling, and maybe we’d have to find a way of using landfill as archive to be able to recycle plastic objects… The same carpet that goes in, physically, is the same one that comes out – it’s the same plastic.” With architecture’s increasing need to be environmentally aware, the focus upon recycling is an important one. However this would fundamentally reconstitute how the value of the carpets is quantified, given that the most important factors are currently amount of human effort expended in creating the product, and the individuality of the designs. Francesco Miniati’s design attempts to accommodate this; he would transform the Grand Bazaar into a place to build rather than buy. Given the increasing expense of handmade carpets, these types of items will soon be financially out of reach for a vast number of people. “My idea is what we could do to own one carpet in this scenario… You can’t sell a carpet but can teach people how to make their own, so knowledge becomes a currency… Anybody can become a designer; if you have in mind a colour or pattern…somebody will teach you how to create it… At the end you will have your masterpiece.”
Providing thought-provoking perspectives on how a culture of tourism shapes the global landscape, constantly re-defining what is considered traditional, Consuming the Exotic will be running at the Old Fire Station until Friday 1st March.
For more information about the Old Fire Station and their future exhibitions, please visit their website. The artists whose work is on show in the exhibition are: Carlota Boyer, Laura Brayne, Jonathan Carter, Sharan Chandola, Lucy Dickson, Artemis Hoholi, Imogen Humphris, Irma Ismail, Joanna Jagusiak, Jennifer Jammaers, Ileana Liaskoviti, Josie Liatsou, Samantha Malitskie, Jonathan Marsh, Francesco Miniati, Giorgos Nearchou and Victoria Page. The exhibition is curated by the artists, Andrew Dawson and Igea Troiani, who would like to thank Original Field of Architecture Ltd. (Oxford), Ege Carpets (Denmark) and Oxford Brookes University for sponsorship.