Artist Amba Sayal-Bennett’s first UK commission at London’s Somerset House, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, explores ideas of appropriation and abstraction.
For her first U.K. commission, an installation at Somerset House in London, artist Amba Sayal-Bennett chose a particularly meaningful source of inspiration: drawings by Sir William Chambers, the architect of Somerset House itself, originally home to the Royal Society, the country’s national academy of science, as well as to the Royal Navy.
Geometries of Difference, her resulting collection of ten multilayered sculptures, which are installed throughout Somerset House, is intended to establish a dialogue with the 18th-century building and its past, reinterpreting elements that reveal the British colonial imagination and imperialist attitudes of the time that were encoded in the designs of Chambers’ buildings.
“I incorporated architectural drawings by Chambers into my designs because they are abstractions of the site itself," says Sayal-Bennett. "Within my works, shapes and forms are isolated from the original drawings, redrawn digitally and reimagined. The digital re-drawing becomes an act of reinvention.”
This commission is the latest initiative in the firm’s collaboration with Somerset House and The Courtauld Gallery in London. The collaboration includes, among other exhibition sponsorships and cultural programs, an annual artist commission, which celebrates new experiences and perspectives from emerging artists.
Says Lisa McBreen, Head of International Marketing at Morgan Stanley, “We are proud to team with Somerset House and Amba Sayal-Bennett on this thought-provoking commission. This series of work is a fascinating reflection on the history of Somerset House and its cultural significance, and considers how the building is used today as home to the UK's largest creative community.”
London-based Sayal-Bennett is known for mining information from diagrams, drawings and maps, and for using her findings in novel ways. In Geometries of Difference, she appropriated aspects of Chambers' drawings, just as he cherry-picked formal elements from the architecture of other civilizations that existed in previous centuries. Chambers' use of Greek and Roman structures in his designs for Somerset House, for example, evoked an earlier age of empire at the same time as Britain embarked on its own era of imperial control.
Chambers, who travelled to China three times and studied the country's architecture, designed the Great Pagoda in London's Kew Gardens in 1761, which Sayal-Bennett also drew on for inspiration and which is considered one of the most important surviving chinoiserie buildings in Europe. This fanciful interpretation of “Chinese" styles was actually an amalgamation of structures from China, Korea and Japan. Viewed as exotic and idealized, these non-Western structures were removed from their original contexts, their meanings lost.
Sayal-Bennett emphasizes these abstractions in Geometries of Difference, creating a contrast with the diagrammatic nature of the architectural renderings on which it is based.
Her multilayered sculptures, however, do share qualities with the 18th-century drawings that inspired them. Steel, like paper, can be made thin and foldable, and both materials are easily stacked. In addition, Sayal-Bennett used the same palette as Chambers' pastel watercolor washes for the sculptures' powder coatings. By redrawing the original architectural renderings with a computer-aided design program, Sayal-Bennett created new shapes and forms, along with new ways of viewing them. According to the artist, “I was thinking about misuse as a form of ‘disobedience.’ By not respecting the designs that are part of a colonial legacy, and not using them for their intended purpose, I was able to explore misuse as a form of refusal.”
The work will be on view from September 22, 2022, to February 5, 2023. Sayal-Bennett also created an edition of smaller sculptures; the negative cuts of the Somerset House commissions, that look like printing plates. Morgan Stanley's set is currently on view in the firm's London offices.