There’s a 50-dollar drink called “heartbreak” on the menu.
Intrigued, ordered then paid. What comes to you is a bottle of water.
VALUE – such an interesting thing to talk about.
“The oyster’s our world” is a wooden stepladder with shell, coral, pearls and diamonds; “Waltzer” is a wooden broom inlaid with opals, turquoise, garnets and onyx; “Jimmy” is a laundry bag coloured in with pencil and biro; “100% Cotton” is an overall with embroidered splatters. They were created by a British artist Susan Collis, whose works focus on issues of labour, value and workmanship. With works exhibited internationally at institutions such as the V&A and the New Orleans Museum of Art, Collis successfully combined conceptual art’s minimalist aesthetics with tenuous labour and devotion to create works of art abounding in detail, precision, time and love. These objects are placed so casually that unsuspecting viewers could be forgiven for assuming that they had mistakenly wandered into a work-in-progress gallery. Only closer scrutiny could reveal this hidden preciousness, not only because of its meticulously crafted camouflage, but also its unlovely context of these seemingly cheap objects. When asked what made her first start using objects like dust sheets, overalls and stepladders in an interview, Collis said: “I think to start off with because I wanted to make these things which were to be invisible but very worked, I was just looking around the college for things that you would walk past and things you wouldn’t give a second glace to.” Ordinary objects are not considered to be expensive; in other words, value is not usually associated with the normal, yet that is where Collins’ message lives in. She made the overall and laundry bag more valuable by paying tribute to the intense labour and sophisticated craftsmanship in a way that is subtle and invisible to the casual eyes. The concealed value appears when time has passed rather than the moment of using it. The stepladder and broom became mundanely pricier with the added precious stones. Objects that are previously ignored or underestimated are now celebrated with respect to its own value in serving as our everyday assistant and our finite time holder, no matter whose, the craftsmen’s or the visitors’.
Although the decisions behind the positioning give the work its conceptual thrust, the idea of having the objects in a gallery as a settled art exhibition makes its purpose too obvious or intentional. The way they appear could be chewed on because there is a hidden layer of satire. To play a little twist, these objects could be potentially put back to where they are found. It will be interesting to see how many people would give a second glance to a gem-painted stepladder near a construction site. On a fluid street, will a biro-coloured bag be debunked or stay still? In a flow of people, will someone stop beside a pearl-inlaid broom and chuckle to himself that he is about to make a fortune? How much stupidity and snobbishness out there?
Now if I ask you, between an exquisitely embroidered and a diamond-inlaid overall, which one do you think costs more? If they are equivalent in price, which one do you think is more valuable then? “One thing that surprised me is that a lot of the gemstones are cheaper than I expected them to be.” said Collis in a conversation with Mackay Butcher and Cylena Simonds. “People are always asking how much they cost and I think they imagine that it would be several thousands but it isn’t. I suppose that’s because I am often using quite small stones and I’m not going for the best quality, but they still sound exotic.” What she is saying about value is thought-provoking in terms of the relationship between the materials she used and the objects that are made. In a way, it is questioning our values – how we view the world. Is a normal stepladder really worthless? Does inlaying gemstones make the object more valuable in terms of the fact that it’s still a tool? Does this exclusive stepladder make the chore pleasing? Is a bottle of water worth 50 dollars? Or is the feeling of heartbreak something that you can buy with money?
Well, we all have different answers.
There is a store that sells empty bottles in Beijing. It is located in a basement and has only goods shelves and a few chairs.The bottles are labeled with “patience”, “courage for change”, “away from the keyboard”, “a blue sky in Beijing” and etc. And the price ranges from ￥10 to ￥35. It went so popular that they sold more than 200 bottles in the first month. They call these bottles “The Container of Heart”. “The bottle is a spiritual supply. For individuals, it is a ceremony for something that has been realized to be changed.” said Mo, one of the two storeowners. No matter how many different views we hold for the discussion of value, we all agree that the spirit has always been something priceless – something that cannot be evaluated or measured. But here, it is quantified and even being traded. Thus, it is perfectly understandable that some people have called them frauds. Despite the criticism or the misunderstanding, ￥10 – 35 is a good price range that is either negligible or unaffordable. The fact that you can buy something priceless with certain amount of money makes you feel a sense of rarity, which heightens the preciousness of the invaluable. The essence of trade-off that lies in the action of giving-out and taking-in highlights the feeling of obtaining, although it is something you can make on your own. These bottles are not only labeled with the price but also weight and volume. Having wishes in a limited amount is clever. A bottle of 50g “sense of security” is surely not enough for a girl who is in a bad relationship. But you cannot really buy a hundred bottles of safety, unless you know exactly how much you need. Therefore, what it suggests is a sense of self-reliance. It requires you to be self-sufficient and gain more on your own.
In this case, money is neither an asset in the form of coins and banknotes or a system to evaluate the spirit. It is an object, in which it functions as a physical medium, just as a clock or a USB. A clock or a watch is a device for indicating time while a USB has its limited capacity for carrying digital value. Time could be measured but its value cannot. Having a room filled with clocks doesn’t mean you have more time, but if it makes you anxious, then in a sense it does. The fact that these bottles have only maximum ￥25 difference in price makes the accountability of money as an assessment ignored. Money is, indeed, an artistic creation full of hope.
What is additionally worth talking about is the setting of the store. There is no signal but only a few chairs and clean, empty bottles on the shelf. The emptiness of the space and the bottle creates a free condition for one’s self-reflection, because “emptiness itself, is the possibility of being filled”, as Kenya Hara interpreted. Mo said there was once a professor who stood in his store for 3 hours and declined his hospitality when he said to him “please have a seat.” The professor then said that it would disturb the peace. What Mo and his partner attempt to sell is a chance to reflect, by materializing one’s values. It is a great concept and needs integrated branding for its potential values to advance as a brand.
Let’s look at a more thorough design practice in the context of value. It is a story about newspaper. The loss of young readership from newspapers in Japan has become serious. So in order to get young people rediscover the value of newspapers, designer Yoshinaka Ono created a completely new medium – The News Bottle. It is an innovation that continuously increases the contact points between young people and The Mainich Newspaper, and indeed a revolution in the entire press industry. The packaging of the mineral water that is bought by young Japanese everyday is changed into a newspaper, and over one month sold 31 varieties. Through using AR technology incorporated into the bottle packaging, it is possible to access the latest news, which actually created buzz for the online articles. By introducing advertising on the bottle, it results in a significant price reduction of the water and newspapers.
Newspaper is now seen as a less valuable thing because technologies have made access to information free and convenient. You can get informed anywhere at any time even if you don’t have printed media or digital devices at hand. We don’t need a newspaper that takes up extra space in our already crowded material world to catch us up. Furthermore, there’s an expectation from people that the widely spread information should be free because we now have a shared world called Internet. So why would you pay extra 2 dollars for a not beautifully produced piece and to be of concern in indirectly killing more trees? What the News Bottle did was not just activating communication between young digital natives and traditional print media; it re-specified the purpose of buying a product. Another example that not only did that but also re-conceptualized the user involvement is the Donation Bottle, by the same designer for the same client. With its objective to solve global issues and change newspaper into a media that makes people act, it uses newspaper article that reports world issues as the packaging. They have identified, as Shove did in her research, “the need for a better understanding of the collective transformation of taken-for-granted conventions of normal practice.” It has built a mutual construction of problems and solutions at the meso and macro level, which helped them to reach a larger group of audience, like people who don’t read newspapers or might not care about global issues but would actually buy water everyday. No matter what the purpose of buying this product is, whether to drink, read or donate, the value of the bottle and the 2-dollar coin is increased. More importantly, the value of individuals has been magnified. It transfers an ordinary action into a meaningful impact. Furthermore, The Mainich Newspaper’s attempt to solve the global issues demonstrates to us why it as a press industry should exist. From the creation of The News Bottle and Donation Bottle, we now know the values behind its brand and the significance of having such companies to play a part in the world.
If you have $100 at hand, would you buy a piece of newspaper printed on a water bottle? Or would you buy a ￥30 empty bottle labeled “courage” or maybe a $50 bottle of water called “heartbreak”? How about spending it all on this post? Well, as I said up front, It’s $100. But for people who get this far, thanks for your invaluable time reading this. I’ll get you 20% off!
But sorry, Cash Only.