Arranged on a long, wide GAN-produced felt wool runner (the ‘island’) as a promenade of particoloured pairs of Brobdingnagian-sized socks, Patricia Urquiola’s soft sculptures are reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg’s mid-20th century giant soft sculptures of prosaic everyday objects. ‘The ordinary must not be dull’ declared Oldenburg. As though responding to his rallying cry, Urquiola’s socks are extraordinary chaise longue-like modules that invite Gallery visitors to take the weight off and have a lie down.
Each sock is designed to lie ‘face’ down so its heel rises like a camel’s hump to create a back rest to allow users on either side to stretch out heel-to-toe and cuff-to-heel. Invitational statements like ‘welcome to the Woollen Island’ are arrayed on sock cuffs, while other socks have captions such as ‘Hop On, Look Up’ and ‘Hop On, Hop Off’. The geometric design of the Urquiola tapestry hanging on a nearby wall is actually a schematic pattern layout for the sock sculptures.
The setting for Recycled Woollen Island is essential to the success of the installation. Housed in the Gallery’s Great Hall, its stone clad monumental walls and clerestory windows read like a cathedral nave. The secular cathedral effect is enhanced by the huge kaleidoscopic mid-20th century hand-cut coloured glass ceiling designed by Leonard French (1928-2017). Described by French as functioning like a ‘Persian carpet’, The Sydney Morning Herald described how ‘Victorians’ (the people of the Australian state not to be confused with the historic British era) ‘love to settle on the floor beneath the artwork . . . to gaze dreamily up at its suggested heavens’. The Gallery’s decision to juxtapose the sacred and the profane—the ‘sacred’ nave-like setting and French’s transcendent ‘sky’ in opposition to Urquiola’s Oldenburg-like ‘mundanity’ of socks—creates a delightful, nonpareil experience.
Sustainability is an essential part of the installation. Spanish rug company GAN produced the sock sculptures in India from recycled wool sourced from the company’s past projects plus yarns made from recycled PET plastic bottles. Urquiola’s long-standing collaborations with GAN include her most recent Nuances collection of pieced felt rugs and a horseshoe-shaped pouf. Created from remnant wool from GAN projects, the stripes in each rug are hand sewn to the next, a process and technique that allow the 2019 Nuance collection to be seen as the research and development forerunner for the creation of The Recycled Woollen Island.
Oldenburg wanted art to do ‘something other than sit on its ass in a museum’. His definition of art is amply answered by Urquiola whose soft sculpture socks are designed to sit but also be sat on. Her sculptural and sustainable response to what she describes as ‘the spontaneous gesture of socks on a floor’ is part of Urquiola’s deliberately ‘humorous narrative’. Socks may be ubiquitous and universal, but in the hands of Patricia Urquiola they transcend Oldenburg’s ‘dull’ dictum to become anthropomorphic islands of idyll.
The Recycled Woollen Island was created with the support of Hub Furniture, Melbourne. The Triennial continues until 18 April 2021.