Friday, August 06, 2010

Style Wars

Style wars at the British Chess Championships: grinders versus slashers; pythons against piranhas; "silky smooth" (Jonathan Speelman in the Indy on GM Adams in Round 2) v. rough and tumble.

I'll leave it to my fellow Streatham and Brixton Chess bloggers to comment on playing style, pugnacious or otherwise. This post is about style wars in another place, a parallel universe, where you'll also find an annual outpouring of popular enthusiasm in the cause of competitive display, aesthetic enrichment, conceptual engagement and, nice when it happens, financial reward. Go to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

The RA Summer Expo. and the British: both held in the summer, can get hot and stuffy, and make a nice day out. And there's more: both have a democratic dividend where amateurs and professionals rub shoulders and find themselves hanging (out) together; and both thrive on rivalry and contestation, in public view and behind the scenes.

But in this year's space-time conjuncture there's a worm hole between the two, and a chess set has made it through. Yes, a chess set has appeared at the RA Summer Exhibition. It is in the Architecture Room where it fights for its place in a mêlée of exhibits, no buildings as such for obvious reasons, but designs in gestation, thought experiments taking shape, concepts half-built, models of possibilities, and small-scale replicas of some realised things.

Spot the set competition at the RA Summer Expo.

The set is the size of a pretty decent Staunton, presented in a glass (well, perspex) case, and it is exhibit number 1064 (the curator had a sense of humour).

Found it!

In this buzz a chess set must pack a meaningful punch to get your attention, and in the grand tradition of chess sets with attitudes, this one is "Style Wars: Modernists versus Traditionalists", produced by The Mobile Studio.

Exhibit 1064


selective laser sintering nylon and acrylic.

Mobile Studio. £1,500.

The Mobile Studio has happily let us use their photos, and has given us a link to Iconeye, an online design/architecture magazine, where a piece by Manijeh Verghese explains what Style Wars is all about (links added):

[Style Wars]...... took the debate over the Chelsea Barracks as its subject. A variety of infamous modernist and traditionalist buildings became the chess pieces: Foster’s Gherkin was the modernist king with Clarence House as its traditionalist counterpart. The pawns on each side were the opposing proposals for the Chelsea Barracks by Rogers and Quinlan Terry respectively.... The Mobile Studio took the game and elevated it to a platform for the discussion of architecture and politics....[They] made us question the relevance of style in architecture; explaining that good architecture arises not from modernist or traditionalist schools of thought but rather out of discussion, collaboration and game-playing.

Of course, you don't have to be an architect, or a chess enthusiast for that matter, to realise that the éminence grise in this debate is Charles Windsor; not mentioned explicitly in the article, he is the elephant in the exhibition. Perhaps, though, there is an implied criticism - each side should contend on a level chess board, and not via back channels from the elevated bastion of royal privilege.

As chessed-up readers will know, the ancestry of Style Wars is a long one. Sets with a dialectical disposition go back to the Collective Farm v Town, and Capitalists v Communists creations of the 1920s, and further. This is a welcome addition of direct relevance today.

It also visually alludes to Yoko Ono's Play it by Trust (White Chess Set) conceived in 1966/7.

Yoko plays a new move.

With everything one colour, you have to trust your opponent not to move your bits, you'll probably get confused as to which side you're on and who won; and does it matter anyway - Yoko wants us to "imagine peace". There's a foretaste here of "good architecture arises.....out of discussion, collaboration and game-playing"; everyone's a winner.

At the risk of blundering in this particular game, I'll ask, as the Chessman on the Clapham Omnibus, whether having all the pieces, and the board, rendered white, as in Style Wars, is making an architectural-aesthetic point, rather than a conceptual-cum-ludic one as in the White Chess Set.

I think it must be, because if you were playing a side with all its buildings painted black you'd be at a serious disadvantage, and not just because white moves first. To find out why you only need stay on the bus a few more stops further south until it reaches Colliers Wood.

The Brown and Root Tower, Colliers Wood.

Voted "the ugliest building in London in 2006."

Black does not become her. But it would look lovely in white. Wouldn't it?

Whatever. It's brilliant that a chess set makes it to the RA Summer Exhibition, and that our favourite game can once again assist as a vehicle for representing the play of thesis and antithesis in contemporary debates. Maybe the next one will be Republicans v Monarchists. And I know which side I'd like to play.

The edition of Style Wars [© July 2010] in the exhibition has been snapped up already, but you can commission yours from The Mobile Studio; Directors, Chee-Kit Lai and Max Dewdney.
Photography: Mobile Studio © June 2010

Chess in Art Index


Jonathan B said...

I go through Colliers Wood fairly regularly. That building is truly terrible.

Tom Chivers said...

Looks ripe for the painting to me.

ALCHEssMIST said...

Nice reminder about Yoko Ono's Play it by Trust - White Chess Set.

It would be interesting to make a Black & White Minstrel Chess Set - where each piece is half white, half black, and the black & white squares are maintained.