Nutilitarianism: a rise in multi-functional art?

Das Institut: Kerstin Brätsch and Adele 

Artworks that double as display racks; a seating unit slash musical instrument slash gallery: such is the scope of nutilitarianism, a rising trend for art with a multitude of purpose.

Contemporary artists, have, of course, long co-opted the utilitarian, subverting or adapting function to their own ends. Commodities such as wallpaper, textiles, foodstuffs have all received artistic make-overs, while renewed interest in Modernism has seen artists such as Nicole Wermer and Claudia Wieser reprise the Bauhaus spirit with art that hovers on the very edge of domestic or industrial design.

Nutilitarianism not only seeks to provide functionality, however; it emphasises multiplicity of purpose.

It's a Swiss Army knife of art in which, admittedly, certain features may seem as dubiously essential as a tool for descaling fish, yet in other cases provide eminently logical ways to enhance both the production, and purpose, of art.

Take, for example, Das Institut, a feted collaboration between New York-based German artists Kerstin Brätsch and Adele Röder.

Turning the tenets of marketing into a fluid space for artistic endeavour, the paraphernalia and, indeed, ideology of commercial consumption becomes an artwork in itself.

Kerstin Brätsch and Adele 
                  Röder, Das Institut

Specially designed sculptural stands display items such as zines, posters and stickers - inventory and marketing material as well as art objects (page top).

Paintings on mylar, hung in the manner of promotional banners, can also be utilised as backdrops for performances or lectures (above).

While styling itself impishly as an 'import / export agency', Das Institut is, in fact, governed by creative input and output, its goal the fluid dissemination of self-produced work and aesthetically profitable collaboration with other art 'manufacturers'.

A very different approach to nutilitarian functionality is exemplified in Etienne Chambaud's The Sirens' Stage, a coolly Gallic reflection on language, narrative and creative intervention.

The 'Reef' at its centre consists of little more than a series of numbered white plinths, a visually low-key installation with a dynamic multiplicity of purpose (below left).

Etienne Chambaud

At once an evocation of ragged rocks as well as a teasing allusion to the lack of conventional artworks atop each plinth, the Reef doubles as a stage for interventions, both impromptu and initiated by written instructions. It also serves as an administrative centre in which a Copyist continually types up records of the work's evolution.

With notable economy of means, Chambaud creates a powerful nexus for the shifting states of possibility that define much of his practice.

Swiss artist Mai-Thu Perret's Crystal Frontier projects revolve around a docu-fictional account of a commune of women located in the American West.

Texts purportedly written by its members are accompanied by objects such as ceramics, clothing and other handicrafts which, within the realms of Perret's fiction, are produced by the women as everyday necessities and goods for barter.

Mai-Thu Perret

The utilitarian demands of communal living are often physically reflected in Perret's works. Little Planetary Harmony (left), a gigantic, aluminium-clad teapot, references the drinking of mescaline tea, a ritualistic or recreational pastime engaged in by some of the Crystal Frontier's members.

Yet the pot also features a perfectly plastered interior accessed via a door on its side. Used as a gallery space - a "complicated structure, just to entice you to look at the simplest kind of paintings" the name of the work, along with Perret's observation that "it also looks like a spaceship" hints at further use within the Crystal Frontier fiction as a specific location for the imbibing of psychotropic drugs.

Much of the work by fellow Swiss artist Reto Pulfer is subject to the artist's own idiosyncratic sense of function, yet absurdly parallels our increasing dependence on gadgetry with which to organise our lives.

A mélange of sculpture, installation and performative potential, Pulfer's pieces are named using a reference system alluding both to their use and component parts.

'Ofaz', for example, designates 'sofa or seating', and many of Pulfer's expanding Ofaz series celebrate an off-beat multi-functionality.

Reto Pulfer

Loose panels within the seating area of Ofaz 1442, for example (left), are covered with drawings, scrawls and annotations which can be re-arranged in multiple combinations.

In addition, an integrated stringed board and amp converts the sofa into a musical instrument. And finally, it can of course simply be sat on.

There's probably more than a hint of irony to Pulfer's resolutely lo-fi entertainment centre, a rag-tag pretender in a world of iPads, Blackberries and HD home cinema.

And it's this world - with its increasingly complex, often contradictory demands on the organisation of our lives - that the growing presence of nutilitarian art seems to explore and reflect, from the eco-conscious, recyclable mindset of Perret's commune, to the streamlined efficiency of Das Institut.

If we, and so much of what we use, is required to multi-task, there's no reason why art shouldn't, either.

Mike Brennan

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