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Reflective Design

mexicosepoctVictoria Broackes, head of the London Design Festival at the V&A, reports on a special installation at the museum in celebration of the Year of Mexico in the UK

Frida Escobedo: ‘You Know You Cannot See Yourself So Well as by Reflection’

This year, to mark the Year of Mexico in the United Kingdom, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) and the London Design Festival had the opportunity to collaborate with the Mexican Embassy in the UK to commission a special installation for the V&A’s John Madejski Garden.  It is the major summer commission for the garden, a spectacular installation at the very heart of the museum, located in London’s South Kensington.  It is also the major art commission of the Year of Mexico, a centrepiece for the many celebrations that are taking place across the UK.

With a wealth of innovative design talent in Mexico to choose from, we knew we would end up with something very special.  From a shortlist of four concept designs by prestigious Mexican architects and designers, we chose to work with the architect Frida Escobedo, whose winning submission of a pavilion is entitled You Know You Cannot See Yourself So Well as by Reflection. This quote from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar is an apt title, referring to the reflections of people and buildings created on the surface of the installation itself, and also to Escobedo’s philosophical influences and ideas.  The piece was installed in late May and will stay in place to be seen by almost everyone who visits the V&A, until the end of the London Design Festival in September.

Each September, the V&A plays host to the London Design Festival, a celebration of the best of contemporary international design. Our partnership is unique, bringing together the world’s leading museum of art and design and London’s principal festival of cutting-edge design to produce a wide range of installations and displays, a huge events programme, and some glittering parties. The Festival at the V&A is a fantastic way for us to engage with designers from all around the world, each at the forefront of their field. The Festival is a symbol of the Museum’s bond with the international design community: ever since we opened our doors in 1857, the V&A has continuously celebrated the work of contemporary designers and in turn been a source of inspiration to following generations.

Known as ‘The Mexico Pavilion’, the installation was an immediate hit with visitors to the Museum, who have embraced it as a place to sit, walk, lie and lounge, alone or with their friends. It is a testament to Escobedo’s integrated design that the piece has fitted into the life of the V&A as if it were part of the building – from the first day it was treated by Museum staff and visitors alike as though it had always been there.

The pavilion itself is an interactive, flexible structure, a series of 13 low, interconnected platforms with reflective aluminium surfaces, built in and around the garden’s central, water-filled ellipse. The platforms can be reconfigured in various ways to suit different occasions, from casual gatherings to a formal amphitheatre, and long tables and benches for workshops, events and performances. Unlike many other art and design installations, and most objects in the V&A, visitors are welcome to engage with, touch and walk on the pavilion, and throughout the summer it has been a joy to see people of all ages sitting and standing upon it, the cool water below offering a refreshing paddling area during the hot weather.

The Mexico Pavilion reflects the V&A’s commitment to displaying the very best of contemporary design from across the globe, and it plays an important role as the stage for a broad range of V&A talks, performances and events throughout the summer, and during the London Design Festival this month. Events so far have included an outdoor cinema, a series of pop-up talks and a design workshop. Over the summer, we had the V&A’s ever-popular ‘Imagination Station’, a free, family-friendly event, which invited young and old alike to interact with the pavilion in a creative way.

Escobedo’s inspiration came from the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlán, which was built on a lake in the early fourteenth century and became the foundations for today’s Mexico City. She explains that the pavilion is “an abstraction of this first settlement in the lake: a mirrored system of platforms that resembles the city’s grid and the sheen of the water. The reflective surface integrates the pavilion with its surroundings, becoming a link between past and present, between context and a new common territory.” Indeed, the pavilion is arresting yet unobtrusive; simple and contemporary, representing the crossover of cultures by simultaneously referencing one of Mexico’s most celebrated historical cities whilst mirroring and blending in a contemporary fashion with its distinctly British surroundings.

For Escobedo, the mirrors are key. “The mirrored platforms act as a liminal zone that, on one hand, occupies and appropriates the John Madejski Garden, and on the other reflects the V&A building,” she says. “In Lacanian terms, this surface could act as a ‘mirror stage’ that illustrates the conflicting nature between how we imagine ourselves, how we project ourselves and how others perceive us.”

This disconnection between how we view ourselves and how others view us is central to Escobedo’s design. By changing the way the garden looks, the pavilion may be seen as a mask – a threshold between ‘self’ and ‘other.’ Accordingly, it becomes clear to see how You Know You Cannot See Yourself So Well as by Reflection speaks to the Year of Mexico in the UK: Escobedo hopes its position, presenting the overlap of both cultures, will inspire fresh dialogue around the loaded concept of a ‘cultural other.’

Here at the V&A we are privileged to be able to present and commission creative works of art and design that spark discussion and inspire optimism for social improvement. We place great importance on building relationships with partners all over the world to expand our international programme of cultural partnerships and exchange.  Working with the Mexican Embassy on this project was a wonderful opportunity to take part in their celebrations this year and to draw on the wealth of artistic talent emerging from Mexico today.


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