Matthew Darbyshire, T Rooms


T Rooms is a fictional space; it is a figment of our
collective imagination, conjured up by our conflicted
desires for new buildings and our dread of ever-
increasing control imposed on our living environments.
T Rooms, an artwork by British artist Matthew
Darbyshire, is an immersive environment of vinyl
banners; a maze of visualisations of future streets
populated by sculptures, photograms and a
showhome. The origins of the project are in the city of
Glasgow, its stylistic references in the designs of that
city’s famous son, Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–
1928). T Rooms has now been re-imagined for its
presentation in this 19th century former Methodist
chapel in Camden. The project highlights some of the
realities of contemporary urban space. It confronts
us with the ways in which our social surroundings in
cities and suburbs are increasingly designed,
organised and constructed in generic ways.
T Rooms is made up of things we are told we want.
But their flawless finish and seductive colours
harbour dark undertones of consumerist manipulation.
The material components of T Rooms are evidence of
insidious forms of commercial and political control.
T Rooms is a perfect environment, in which
everything has already been thought of, from the
decorative details on the facades of new public
buildings to comfortable designer furniture behind
lustrous plate-glass windows. But these exemplars of
faultless taste, rather than being accumulated as the
result of a lifetime of experience, are here presented
as a fait accompli, decided for us by the forces that
be through a synthesis of factors including economics,
safety and decoration. T Rooms erodes our autonomy
and individuality; we have been robbed of our ability
to choose. Paradoxically, this mugging happened
in the name of free-market capitalism.
This exhibition stages several situations one might
encounter in that bastion of Britishness, the average
high street. It begins outside the building with Ways
of Sitting No.5 (2012), which Darbyshire made as part
of an ongoing collaboration with artist Scott King.
The Ways of Sitting series is a play on John Berger’s
1972 television series Ways of Seeing, which
democratised the interpretation of fine art by framing
it in relation to modern visual cultures such as
advertising and design. Berger offered the general
public tools with which to decode the hitherto elitist
and exclusive history of art. The Ways of Sitting
series, which typically combines images or sculptures
produced by Darbyshire alongside satirical texts by
King, invites viewers to deconstruct contemporary
culture and its presence in the public realm. Ways of
Sitting No.5, their take on public sculpture and its
imposed mission to educate and elevate, exposes the
emptiness and laziness of much public philanthropy.
Darbyshire’s artistic practice displays a marked
tendency towards collaboration and versioning. These
approaches enable the artist to multiply the voices
and registers within his work, mimicking the plethora
of choice that constitutes contemporary
consumerism; inhabiting it so as to better critique it.
Furniture Music No.3 (2012), the piped music that
emanates from the front of the building, is a collection
of cover versions of Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again
(2001). For this work, Darbyshire collated existing
covers of the song and invited artists and musicians to
create their own interpretations of the hit. Whole
Again was a global chart-topper, reaching number 1 in
18 countries, and is the epitome of a pop classic by a
constructed pop band. A piece of blank impersonal
prose – parched of feeling yet dripping with emotion
– it becomes a blank canvas for almost any situation
or sentiment.
Before entering T Rooms proper, an antechamber
is the site for an intimate encounter with the first of
three Untitled Photogram (2012) works made in
collaboration with the artist Jacob Farrell. These
works are stationed throughout the exhibition like
landmarks. This first photogram acts as a palate
cleanser, with luscious gem-like tints, alluring subject
matter and an impressive sculptural volume. These
enlargements of fabricated objects and stock imagery
take on a liquid quality that lets the images swim
before our eyes. As tableaux of visual seduction
structured in modernist grids – or shop windows –
they exhort us to scrutinise them for meaning. The
photograms ask us to consider the possibility that our
materialist desires – our ‘wants’ – might actually
mean something.
Moving through T Rooms takes us into Showhome
(2012), where a video made with the polemical writer
Owen Hatherley describes in stone-cold tones the
architectural characteristics of new developments
and their political and social history. An increasingly
haunting awareness develops of the hollowness that
comes with these pristine surroundings, and of their
unsuitability to human needs. This environment, made
up of high street and handmade objects, is a display
positioned in conversation with the ornaments and
architecture of the room it occupies.
Near the end of this journey through T Rooms is
Smoking Shelter (2012), a sculpture of a place where
those new pariahs, the smokers, get together to suck
a gasper. The shelter, which Darbyshire made in
collaboration with the artist Rupert Ackroyd,
incorporates signature Mackintosh designs seen
around Glasgow and indigenous Scottish construction
materials such as red sandstone and harl, a type of
concrete stucco, alongside high street versions of
Knoll’s iconic Bertoia chair.
T Rooms is made of images, its vinyl banners are
like those pinned to hoardings around building sites
or derelict buildings. But once the material of the
work is revealed, the allure of T Rooms itself
vanishes into thin air and it becomes just another
neighbourhood in our ever-changing city. It’s
somewhere to admire the possibilities of a new town
square or to note the prevalence of surveillance in
our lives. T Rooms turns the city into an expanded
painting, a blank canvas for your local council.
Here, the property developer’s aesthetic pulls at the
vision of a creator like Mackintosh. It blunts the edges
of his work, morphing it into a plastic, mass-produced
‘mockintosh’, holding up the mirror to the cheapening
and degradation of excellence.
The essence and potency of T Rooms lies not in its
materials, but in the feelings and affects it triggers.
Its exact meaning is elusive. This undecidability
between the poles of seduction and critique lends
it relevance and power as an artwork. T Rooms will
continue to irritate us into questioning our
surroundings, tastes and choices; to ask whether we
are willing to relinquish our right to choose in favour
of a superabundance of ‘choice’ offered by
companies, corporations and – which might very well
amount to the same thing – governments.
Matthew Darbyshire, T Rooms, 2012. Photo: Tim Bowditch
Matthew Darbyshire, T Rooms, 2012. Photo: Tim Bowditch
Matthew Darbyshire (in collaboration with Scott King), Ways of Sitting No. 5, 2012. Photo: Tim Bowditch
Matthew Darbyshire, Showhome (with a film made in collaboration with Owen Hatherley, 2012. Photo: Tim Bowditch


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