Thursday, 9 November 2017

Collector as Curator: Placement Context and Grouping Relationships

 - Leigh Gregurke

Somewhere in the motion to not take collecting too seriously I think we distilled how we display items down to three identifiable states.  

1. The shelf or display case bot
2. The desk bot 
3. The storage box bot

Inside those display options we further break the contents of the display into a similar trio of categories. Line, character and faction alignment.

What if however, by establishing these limiting categories we are restricting our own ability to see, enjoy and experience the items we collect? I wonder if that by limiting our options and engagement of how we present we are limiting our creativity and removing a portion of play and appreciation from the the process?

I don't want this article to tell you how to display your own collection - however I want to tell you how to see and think about the choices you make. This is a heavy piece of writing and it will challenge you, but I hope that you will go away thinking very differently about the way you view toys on a shelf.

1.  Display context, a space's effect on the object.

Where we place an item has a profound effect on how we see and value that object. Place it in a display case and suddenly it feels precious and worthy of attention. Drop a figure on your desk and suddenly it's a 'desk bot' a fun little play piece. Store something under your bed in a plastic tub and it's out of rotation, not loathed enough to sell but not worth valuable visible-space resources.

The amazing thing about that power is the way in which we can curate those spaces. Your nicely lit Ikea Detolf doesn't need to be filled with your MP line and your desk isn't bound to stuff that fits in your hand. Your storage box needn't feel like a hidden cache of movie toy regrets and older items that you grew tired of... 
In the basement of every museum and gallery is a treasure trove of incredible artifacts just waiting to be shown when the time is right. That is what your storage boxes should be, a little resting place, a bench awaiting rotation of your ongoing exhibition.

A high quality centerpiece figure with a shelf to itself further pushes its prestige.

Your Masterpiece Autobot cars look great regardless of where they are, having them hog a display shelf full time is robbing someone else of the limelight. Take a risk and explore the opportunity of that space that makes everything look great. You know that tired joke of someone thinking a bin or a light switch in a gallery is part of the exhibition? It's a rubbish joke and it grinds every artist/curator like myself no end but there is an underlying connection to something important there. Put something in a gallery space and suddenly we re-consider its status, its meaning and value. Tired jokes aside a lot of contemporary art acknowledges that contextual power and plays with it - your nicely lit shelf isn't far removed. Place that three step changer you bought on whim on a pedestal and suddenly it is a new object, similarly shift your shiny new  Masterpiece figure to your desk and it seems a whole lot less precious and ready to be fiddled with.

Animated Cliffjumper as small as he is when placed alone in an iconic central position suddenly demands attention and little details and qualities start to emerge.

2. Object relationships, groupings and elements of form

Equally important to where we put things is to what groupings of objects we put together.  While there are definitely times when singular figures are displayed more often than not we group objects. I think the most common categories in which we group things share what I will call 'applied cultural traits' i.e. terms of identification we have applied that are more informed by status in media or fiction rather than based on their formal (physical) information.

I see three common groupings with a little variation occasionally.

1. Line. Year of release, G1, G2, CHUG, "MP", Animated, Prime and Alternators etc. The list of sub-themes goes on and on and you know what I mean. There is a sense in grouping in this fashion, it stems from their original intent. When collecting and display commonly intertwine and displays use this grouping it becomes a method of visually cataloging.

2. Character. We all know someone who has a Prime shelf, or a Starscream shelf or... You know the type. In a hobby so dominated by larger than life characters that flow over films, comics and toy lines it's only natural to want to assemble and collect iterations of your favourite character. Often this extends to not just one character but capturing a group of characters who appear in fiction or media. A Wreckers or a MTMTE shelf for example.

3. Faction. Autobots and Decepticons. I see so many collection photos and its always rare they intermingle, something very tribal and cultural encourages us to keep them apart and grouped together. What if by conforming to this arbitrary segregation we are denying ourselves so much display opportunity?

Size aside there are very little in the way of design elements that link this trio, most of the connection is through our knowledge of the characters and the line. To an outsider it is a trio of disparate robots sharing similar scale.

The above three groupings all share that mentioned applied cultural trait. There is very little about the form - the object itself that is shared with other items in the same display. This however isn't always the case as characters have identifying colours and shape patterns that remain somewhat consistent but even then we find ways of linking characters with very few shared visual elements. The other challenge inherent with the above groupings is that it seems to promote a "more is best" approach. I understand that as collectors we often want to show as much as possible and space is limited but objects really do look better when they have space to breathe. The nature of action figures as forms is that they have to inhabit three dimensional space; to crowd and obscure them is to deny so many facets of their form. I am aware they are different entities but a gallery space knows that a number of works crammed together, one peering over the shoulder of another does no favors to anyone. Become a curator of your own space and avoid the miasma of the five deep mob of intermingled figures where nothing stands out.

Lets examine a number of different approaches to groupings that break away from the traditional cultural identifiers and aim to give space to your figures to be appreciated.

3.  Alternative display groupings.

The Duo. I am going to skip solo display as I covered it lightly when talking about the choice of context. The duo is similar in that it places a small amount of information at the forefront and allows the eye to focus and find details akin to the solo display but with the added element of comparison and contrast. While there is an element of cultural identifier information with the above image both being Autobot leaders they exist from completely different lines (one being unofficial even). Any two objects together removed from other visual information encourage you to think about the negative space between the two, how they interact and contrast. Negative space ( the space existing between and around objects) is completely lost when you cram a bookshelf full of robots. 

Immediately in this relationship I started to think about the similar design elements, the flat angular panels and sharp design cues. The duo also enables the chance to explore difference between two forms, replace one of the above figures with something more organic and new relationships emerge.

The Trio. There just always seems something intriguing about trios, the options, the directions, it never feels flat or uninteresting.  I like the trio as it seems to always end up enabling three dimensional and directional movement. More often that not one figure gravitates to the front and one drops further back giving genuine depth to your display.

Playing with size and scale. When you have toy-lines with a plethora of varying scales and size classes it feels a little boring to keep everything similar. Scale often works best when there are points of reference, Kaiju films work best when they have cities to smash and tiny people swarming like ants to extenuate their grandiosity and immense size. Your figures are no different, a citybot is an abstract set of blocky shapes and ramps until you populate it with tiny inhabitants. You can also explore absurdity and contrast with a small and large representation of the same character together.

Shape Harmony.  This can be a tricky one but often I find myself just noticing little re-occurrences of shapes amongst things in my collection and I want to put them together. The above crew shared a lot of rounded and elliptical forms and while displays like this are not always immediately successful it gives you, the curator, a more intimate knowledge of your collection, a chance to experiment and see patterns where perhaps you had not before.

Colour Harmony.  Identifying comparable colours on a shelf is not out of the ordinary when we focus on character but to put character aside and curate a space that draws focus to an enjoyment of that colour is something you have not considered. When pulled together the arrangement starts to take a new form, you notice little differences in hue that you might have previously overlooked and you attain an appreciation of the reoccurring visual colour principles that occur across differing releases.

Colour Gradients and Contrast.  Starting to get a little more experimental now... Occasionally when I pick a group of items and arrange them by colour I find myself pulling items that might not fit exactly. To remedy that I try and build the spaces in between and then notice a gradient that spreads across a group building one hue to another. It can draw attention to little changes in hue and you begin to appreciate the varied state of a colour.  Using contrast allows a powerful visual effect ( not pictured ) wherein you might have a similarly coloured group contrasted by a sole figure of a contrasting colour drawing the eye.

Complimentary Colours.  Colours that appear on opposite sides of the colour wheel look great together, you might remember making a colour wheel way back in school? Seemed a trivial task then but as I have gotten older I have really learned to appreciate its value. Pulling together items from opposite sides of the colour wheel can create visually engaging and interesting displays and more often than not you start to realize how many figures in their own palettes utilize complimentary colour schemes.The above shot really needs a Dai-Atlas just to nail that point.

Texture/Colour/tone/Shape/combination elements. Often the best display choices are ones that utilize an awareness of a number of the above elements. This display considers a communal colour hue and tonal facet, a re-occurring shape motif of pointed jagged edges and adds a textural component as there are very few open flat plains and the often organic forms are high in surface detail. 

With this creative display intent I feel you engage both play and imagination. No cultural identifiers were thought of when assembling the group however immediately it encourages them, it wants you to tell stories about them. The common shapes, colours and textures give a sense of belonging and uniformity that drives creative associations between the forms and limits and sometimes erases any disparate design style between lines.

4. Collector as curator

When my state gallery started mixing contemporary, modern and historical works I initially was not sure of its success. I quickly however dealt with any doubts and I began to find genuine enjoyment in the relationships between objects new and old, created years apart in different contexts and climates. Toys and collectable items are not entirely different and we have the power as curator to maximize our own space.

By segregating objects to the values prescribed to where they are stored, by only thinking of the values we attribute to toys and by cramming a billy bookshelf like a peak hour tram we lose a lot what we love about the objects. Nothing beats that personal inspection of a new toy in hand, we don't try and juggle ten at once and neither should your display.

Your collection is all about your decisions, make the best ones you can. Curate.

As always. Keep it #refined.

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