When London-based artist Aaron Angell dived into the Glasgow Museums collection to make a show for Glasgow International at Kelvingrove in 2016, there was one object which intrigued him above all the others. Now painstakingly restored, the 19th-century Wardian case is the centrepiece around which he has made his new show at GoMA.
Used as a means to transport delicate plants back from the British colonies, Wardian cases became increasingly ornate as amateur plant collectors sought to outdo one another with the elegance of their specimens. Now repopulated with ferns and mosses, the case is both beautiful and problematic: a relic from a tricky, colonial past.
Occupying pole position at the entrance of GoMA’s ground floor gallery, the case references the time when this building was the private home of a tobacco lord and slave trader. Angell continues the domestic theme with sculptures and installations placed around the space: he compares them to “islands” of furniture in an open-plan loft apartment.
Angell continues the domestic theme with sculptures and installations placed around the space: he compares them to “islands” of furniture in an open-plan loft apartment
Each domestic component is a cluster of playful allusions. There’s the central heating system, a replica of a Roman hypocaust inside a transparent inflatable bed (Angell collects inflatable furniture from the 1950s); the lighting, a gaslight attached to a concrete sculpture (made to the Roman recipe, using pig’s blood); the garden, a giant cabbage sourced from a record-breaking grower in South Wales.
There are ceramic urns, made by Angell, a keen potter, referencing those given as wedding gifts in Roman times so the ashes of the happy couple could be mingled when time took its eventual course, and a glass painting of purgatory, but with frogs and toads instead of people.
A difficult space to work with, the gallery has nonetheless given Angell a chance to play with his ideas on a larger-than-usual scale. The results are quirky and rich, splicing and dicing crafts and hobbies, traditions and references, and creating their own oblique, idiosyncratic argument with the building and its history.
Angell plays upon his own biographical background fusing it with fantasy and fabrication. The artwork appears amateurish and has a sense of the vernacular, but the artist resists this label as he states:
‘I am interested in certain hermetic, hobbyist cultures where there is a difficult mixture of canonical and fantasized history’.