London Design Biennale: Exhibition Review (Somerset House 07/09/18)

My thoughts on the interpretations of ‘Emotional States’

It’s been difficult to write this review; the Biennale as a collection of individual installations doesn’t have the familiar sense of a curatorial view or overall narrative. The exhibition was not one perspective but almost just a lot of individual exhibitions happening right next to each other – almost. The theme of ‘Emotional States’ refracted through the interpretations of the designers and the eye of the viewer and became a few threads between the installations. It’s along these lines that I’m going to discuss the installations that stood out most to me.

The Pentagram’s installation ‘Masks’ was probably the one which took the title theme most literally, as in states of emotion. With roots in Darwin’s theory of universal emotions* in all humans and many animals, their work did an exhaustive study of the presentation of emotion. 7 emotions specifically: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise. They combined the information gathered to create (in a process of trial and error) masks in the signature shapes and forms used to signal each emotion. This work boils emotions down to the essentials used to communicate them. It shifts the usual focus away from the subjective and personal experience of emotional states and towards an apparently universal and even somehow objective communication of emotion. Emotion from the outside not the inside – this was an unexpected take on emotion to me, and one that attracted my attention.

[*a less-famous theory of Darwin’s only researched and re-published in the last decade or so: The evolution of emotion: Charles Darwin’s little-known psychology experiment]


The Australian installation ‘Full Spectrum’ used colour and emotion together, playing with the association of rainbow colour with gay love to celebrate the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Australia. Visitors could stand inside and touch the ring of quietly suspended and softly colour-changing optic fibres – knowing what they represented and interacting with their tactile soft glow was certainly an emotive experience. Joy + peaceful awe.

Full Spectrum

The installation by the Haberdashery Studio, ‘Radiance’ also explored the association of colour with emotion, this time focusing on the feelings inspired by the colours of three different sunsets. The notes emphasised the personal and subjective quality of emotional responses to colour and light, as they draw on an individual’s memories and past emotional connections/experiences/associations.


Rather than primarily colour and emotion, ‘Matter to Matter’, the Latvian installation, explored scent and emotion, as well as place and impermanence. It used a scent diffuser with scents of Latvian nature as well as a bench made from native wood to create an emotive sensory backdrop to the largest part of the installation: a green glazed wall of constantly recondensing humidity. This was again part of evoking place (emotional place to those with relevant emotional associations, such as the designer), and also about creating an impermanence which leaves room for emotional expression. The installation encouraged visitors to leave messages of emotion in the condensation – which would then fade.

Matter to Matter

‘The State of You’ by Qatar also used the evocative power of scent, seven different scents even. The scents were carried by smoke released from domes, which on first sight were not visually stimulating, but one you step inside to smell the smoke you notice the ceramic patterned lining. These were patterns from traditional Qatari architecture, and contrasted with the outer concrete shells of the domes. The scents were intended to trigger subjective emotional reactions from visitors as well as the designer, the ceramic/concrete juxtaposition images the meeting between traditional architecture and the main material of current and future redevelopment, while the contrast between the concrete domes themselves and the smoke around them plays on the physicality of the present versus the ‘non-physical past’.

The State of You

From Hong Kong too: the link between emotion and memory with scent and colour. ‘Sensorial Estates’ was an installation of scratch and sniff brightly-printed wallpaper, with aromas including sandalwood, opium, and egg tarts. The scents were meant to explore Hong Kong (a name which translates to Fragrant Harbour) as a ‘place of memory’. This was an exercise in scent triggering emotional states, but as an exploration of Hong Kong itself as well it was another interpretation of the main theme: Emotional States as in nations and emotion.

Sensorial Estates
Sensorial Estates

Poland’s installation, ‘A Matter of Things’, approached the link between emotion and the state by presenting a history of the country through emotive objects. Alongside information boards, supplemented with photographic documentation, they offered a selected apparently ordinary object(s) per decade which were representative of that part of Polish history and which in summoning a memory of history would also summon an emotional response. An example is the manhole cover, chosen to represent the 40s, as a symbol of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising against German occupation and the Ghetto, in which the sewer systems were used for communications and transporting supplies by the Polish Underground resistance.

A Matter of Things; ’40s

Mongolia’s ‘Toirog’ installation explored the state and emotions connected with it by expressing emotions felt by those who play parts in the country’s cashmere production, a major industry. A large mural traced the journey of cashmere production through the emotions of those involved: from goats and goatherds through knitters and delivery drivers to sales coordinators and warehouse managers, and Design Biennale visitors. Alongside this textual approach to evoking emotion they placed a *textural* approach: large clear containers of unspun cashmere, enabling the audience to engage with the tactility of the material. And an awe-filling tactility it was too; I’ve never felt anything like it. I’ve written elsewhere about the power of tactility in art and in exhibitions in terms of access to the art, and the use here of a tangible experience to cause an emotional response works clearly along those lines.


Furthering the link between emotion and country/state, several installations focused on an interpretation of the main theme just by exploring their traditions and history. Somalia’s ‘What Remains’ was a tribute to the country’s historic architecture and its destruction in the civil war, contrasting images of the devastation with 3D models of the most iconic architectural pieces. ‘In the face of conflict and destruction, ruins are proof that there was something before the wreckage and the painful emotions that they evoke’: this installation uses the interesting method of reaching across the chronology of the country to provoke emotion.

What Remains

This exhibition, with its lack of a single curatorial narrative or arrangement, had the potential to be confusing, and was in places overwhelming with information. But ultimately the varied range of installations worked to its favour and the benefit of the viewer, as the same subject was approached from so many different viewpoints that there would be a rare viewer who did not find something interesting. It was a large exhibition, and this is another way in which the variety of installations was a positive: it was refreshing, where perhaps an exhibition of this size with a more traditional narrative would have struggled to sustain the audience’s interest. It is also an interesting and more realistic way to address a topic, from multiple points of view all at once and all in the same space, rather than suggesting a single interpretation. The audience were given little direction on how to approach the installations, with no specific order being suggested, and were instead left to find their own way around Somerset House, which avoided the implication of a hierarchy or chronology between the installations, and rather just had all the ‘Emotional States’ co-existing.

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