Johannes Nagel
vessels, perhaps

Objects in Mirror

An unsolicited exhibition proposal for Sir John Soane’s Museum, London


gefördert durch das Programm Kultur ans Netz der IB Sachsen-Anhalt


In 2017 I saw Marc Quinn’s Drawn from Life exhibition at Sir John Soane’s Museum. This encounter between the historic collection and contemporary sculpture was so inspiring that I kept envisioning objects from my own body of work in the context of the museum. What triggered my particular interest was the character of the collection. It appeared to manifest the active workings of the collector, put together not merely as an eccentricity, but as a very functional, form of research into pattern and archetype that had obviously continued throughout Soane’s career. The variety and quantity of art and artefacts collected, and their arrangement within the space, transcended the appearance of any hands-on engagement by Soane, making it a real Wunderkammer.

With the following thoughts I proposed an exhibition of vases and objects that focus on reading silhouettes and the capacity of objects to convey the spirit of their time. My work is very much focussed on exploring archetypes. The collection that Soane put together throughout his life seems to have a similar emphasis. Starting from this common ground there are all the visual correlations and contradictions between past and present. To make a point about the historic transformation of form and the inherent attitude I would like to include Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages as a mirror to look closer at the meaning of outlines and their production.



Let me briefly describe my working practice before developing the exhibition proposal more fully. For many years I have been working around archetypical ideas of vases. These common domestic forms have reflected the zeitgeists of culture for millennia. Most vases are rotationally symmetric and can be described as having an axially rotated silhouette. Besides decoration, material and quality of workmanship, it is the silhouette line that conveys the character of an entire period. They open up a field of reflection on the variations found in archetypal forms. Thus, I have continuously experimented around this variation, always searching for contemporary interpretation.

Over the last few years I have mainly worked with casting porcelain vases in a box of sand. It is a non-technology as I simply dig a hole in sand with my hands and cast the hollow. The form of the hollow can either be the result of a prolonged period of reflection and careful execution, or a very spontaneous act—the outcome of happenstance and gesture. But despite the blurring of form caused by my digging gestures caught in the surfaces of the objects, transferred from sand to porcelain, the distinguishable vase silhouette remains, effecting their transition from container to culture.

My vase forms are not a product of chance however, unlike Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages (1913). In this artwork, Duchamp preserves the physical manifestation of chance: the curved lines of his forms are derived from the arbitrary act of dropping a piece of yarn on a board. It is interesting to consider that if rotated, these chance outlines found in Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages would quite likely create an object that would be recognisable as a vase form.

The age of Sir John Soane was one of distinctive design that consciously drew from the past, studying pattern and form and proportion. It was the era of enlightenment—one of belief in study and education for the better of mankind. Thus this concept of the world resonated in the form and structure of architecture and objects. Marcel Duchamp is one of the breaking points between this era and today’s disbelief in universal validity and unambiguousness. In 3 Standard Stoppages this transition is fixed by producing a ‘standard’ from chance.

The project I would like to propose to Sir John Soane’s Museum is based on Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages as an axis of reflection. I propose to create a body of work that particuarly reacts to the numerous architectural elements, balusters and vases in the museum. My work will reflect upon the definition of a vase as an axial rotation of a silhouette: a collection of vases and objects that consider the silhouette by reflecting upon precision and spontaneity as supposedly opposing qualities. I will draw from the language of sand cast vases, a process that appears to be an inverse archaeology: it does not unearth historic material, but instead creates anew, as a very tactile form of research. This casting process offers some beautiful correlation to the entire collection of artefacts in the museum.

Ideally this body of work would be presented in a focussed wall installation and with my objects placed throughout the collection. I have attached an image of a wall in the attached portfolio, as well as example pieces to give you an idea of the direction that the installation might take. It would be wonderful to include 3 Standard Stoppages by Duchamp, if a loan from the Tate were possible; otherwise the piece could be present through photography. Duchamp’s work preserves a moment of chance through a curved line. I will use this piece to focus the perspective of the exhibition—its presence will be generating comparisons and readings of silhouette lines throughout the museum. In a vase the sculptural values are reduced to an outline, yet this outline carries within it beliefs, ideologies and identities through time. I would like focus on this character by presenting these different perspectives alongside Sir John Soane’s collection.