London’s wallpaper: Barnaby Barford at the V&A

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Katherine Caddy, CR’s Assistant Editor, visited the V&A to see Barnaby Barford’s ‘Tower of Babel’. Here are her responses

Barnaby Barford’s new ceramic installation looms above us and gleams at the centre of the V&A’s Renaissance sculpture room. It is a piece of today – certainly of 2014/15 – as during this time, the artist cycled with dedication across the city of London, capturing photographs of the façades of shops that caught his eye. Barnaby collected a vast amount of these shots, leading to the creation of 3,000 individual ceramic representations of the faces of London’s businesses. These pieces, handmade in bone china in Stoke-on-Trent, have been ordered into a unique hierarchy and piled atop one another to form a tower. They map the wallpaper of the city and explore its inhabitants’ dreams, financial endeavours (successes and failures), and living spaces.

This is not a passive sculpture. Created in collaboration with the V&A’s curatorial and commercial departments, the installation is Barford’s celebration of a city built on trade, while being a work that gestures to our lack of citizenship within a consumer culture in which we have so easily become complicit. Through this tower, we see London in a new way, and are beckoned to ask ourselves how we feel about this society. Where do we fit into the hierarchy, if at all? This question is pushed further by the fact that each individual ceramic shop front is up for sale on the V&A’s Tower of Babel website.

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The tower interests me especially because its shape is a little strange. It is fitting that at the bottom, where one spots vibrant takeaway fronts, hairdressers, charity shops and bookies, the construction pushes out from the confines of a regular tower and seems to quietly begin to spill across the plinth it sits on; perhaps under the pressure of the weighty, revered giants above (institutions like Sotheby’s and Christie s form an almost perfect circle at the very top). These lofty pieces glimmer the most in the light from the Museum’s ceiling windows and are elusive – we cannot even make out their façades from the ground.

Yet each building front is given space and dignity – all are carefully finished and glossy, whether luxurious or derelict. Barford’s piece is in this way inclusive; a glimpse of London’s social and economic past and present – a tower of our commercial situation, and a homage rendered in ceramics to those who run these shops and those who dwell above them.

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See London’s shops in a new light at the V&A until 1 November: http://www.vam.ac.uk/…/b/barnaby-barford-the-tower-of-babel/ and discover more about the Tower and Barnaby’s work inside Ceramic Review issue 275, out now. Join the conversation on Twitter: #vamTowerofBabel