Metaphorical Objects: top - Heart - Ting Jiang; middle - Bionic - Jin Song; bottom - Prosthetic - Xuefei Li






ross mcleod


In 2014 RMIT Interior Design was invited to design an installation in one of empty traditional shop houses that populate Southern Song Imperial Street in the Nansong district of Hangzhou, China. In the conception of a project which was located within a site of significant cultural heritage the design team involved in the RMIT installation were asked to carefully consider the issues surrounding cultural and environmental sustainability. As a response to the theme of ‘healing’ outlined by the IDW curators, the design and construction of an installation that responded to the physical fabric of the existing buildings and which exhibited works that were produced through the recycling, reuse and reconfiguration of found and broken objects seemed appropriate.

In realising the design, the project team used the concepts of the ‘hospital’ and the ‘patient’ as a way of qualifying their ideas. To this end the project attempted to intertwine ideas that were concerned with the realm of medicine with ideas about the nature of the designed object and contemporary lifestyles. Through the adaption and re-use of particular objects and materials the students were asked to comment upon the issues brought about by the nature of modern technology and the consumerism that accompanies it. Within this combination of concepts it was intended that the collective work of the students and the configuration of the installation would offer a reflective experience for the visitor, a moment to consider the nature of the world and question their role in taking care of it.

Melbourne Workshop


The design of the installation and the sculptural objects on display within it were developed through two intensive design and construction workshops. The first workshop held in Melbourne produced the majority of the objects that were displayed in the exhibition. Over a two week period the students were encouraged to gradually develop an appreciation of the metaphorical dimensions that lie within objects and materials. Initially they were asked to scour Melbourne to source discarded everyday objects which they would use as raw material for the design and construction of a series of sculptural works. As an introduction to this exercise the students were asked to research aspects of twentieth century sculpture, particularly Duchamps’s ready-mades and the industrial assemblages of David Smith, Anthony Caro and Australian sculptor Robert Klippell.

In undertaking the design process the students were asked to defer coming up with a concept for what they were making and rather adopt an approach to design in which they would think ‘through’ the objects and materials in front of them. In this way the students immersed themselves in the processes and techniques available in the workshop environment and discovered that through these acts that they could imbue meaning and intent into built works. Ultimately the physical, structural and metaphorical aspects of a piece were synthesised simultaneously within the act of making.

In coming to terms with this approach to the creative act we referenced Richard Serra’s famous Verb List. As Samantha Friedman points out, these lists were a creative strategy in which the artist dealt with the nature of process and were used as a way of applying various activities to unspecified materials. As we were attempting to draw medical analogies with the nature of the physical world we compared Serra’s list with a list of the prefixes and suffixes that make up the description of surgical procedures and sought to adopt quasi-surgical procedures to the transformation of the broken objects in the workshop.

These conceptual foundations to the project led to a study of the developments of science in relation to the body and the issues being raised by genetics, artificial intelligence and the ‘post-human’ condition in the age of advanced communication and biological manipulation. The work of the celebrated RMIT Interior Design alumna Lucy McCrae and her work as a ‘body architect’ was referenced as a way of adapting everyday items to make commentary on the evolution of the body’s relationship with technology.

To both further complicate and qualify the students evolving approach to the assemblage of their objects they were asked to consider the environmental implications of China’s (and the rest of the world’s) rapid industrial development and the enthusiastic global adoption of Western brand-name consumerism. Levelling a critique of this contemporary ‘Cultural Revolution’ to an audience (and political administrators) in China was considered to be a fine line to tread and so the issues the students were addressing and their form of expression had to be carefully tempered and suitably communicated.

Ultimately the students developed a complex and multi-dimensional approach to the analysis of found and broken objects and their reconfiguration into expressions and commentaries on the relationship between the body, technology, the environment and culture.


The Waiting Room


The second workshop in Hangzhou involved the students responding to the physical fabric of the shop-house site. This called for a subtle integration of the display of the abstract sculptural objects made in Melbourne with the white washed plaster walls, dark exposed timber beams and ornate screens and windows that defined the traditional Chinese building. The first few days of the Hangzhou phase of the project involved a maddening quest for the appropriate materials we needed to complete the installation. Many requests were ‘lost in translation’ and we found that the best communication technique was drawing. So we drew everything from plans and perspectives to images of the tools we needed.

After a few days we had developed an efficient working model and the group of students had been broken up into three teams to address different aspects and zones of the installation. As we were designing a ‘hospital’ and adopting the iconography of the ‘clinic’ in the imagining of the space we divided the project into three distinct departments. On the ground floor as you entered the building was the Waiting Room. Situated in different rooms throughout the building were The Wards and the centrepiece of the exhibition on the first floor was the Operating Theatre.

The ground floor Waiting Room was seen as the most prominent public space of the show and served as an introduction of the subject matter and typology of work that the visitor would encounter in the exhibition. On the street façade of the shop a large hospital cross was defined on the front window, so that passers-by could view through the cruciform shape and view the works on display. In this space the form of the chair was used to express the physical and psychological conditions of patients waiting to be seen by a doctor. The chairs were realised within a short period of time in Hangzhou, with discarded furniture found within the city. The works were produced collaboratively and the character of each ‘patient’ evolved in response to both the materials at hand and the ‘personality’ of each chair in relationship to each other.


The Wards

Top: Optics - Tiange Wang + DNA - Tao Gu;

Middle: Junli Zhang - Infection + Yuying Li - Biopsy; Bottom: Ranqi Liu - Transplant


In The Wards, the works that were created in Melbourne were arranged into different departments of the hospital. The spaces include the Research Laboratories, Blood Bank, Surgical Ward, Post-Op, Intensive Care and the Cardiac and Plastic Surgery Units. Within these spaces a system was employed that suspended a sandwich construction of laser etched acrylic and black MDF panels. On each laser cut panel were the names of the piece in both English and Mandarin, this was accompanied by a graphic image that related to the object on display and its’ intended meaning.

The panels were attached to a system of tensioned string elements that were reminiscent of orthopaedic traction devices or the threaded lines of a surgeon’s suture. Each suspension network of each display was tailored to act both structurally and expressively within the individual spaces of the building. Surrounding the wired floating plinths were multiple layers of translucent tulle that followed the architectural lines of the ceiling alcoves. These veils of fabric created an ethereal separation between the exhibited pieces and the physicality of the building. The pinpoint lighting of the objects within the darkened inner spaces heightened the clarity of detail of each piece and added a dramatic and mysterious effect to the exhibition.

The disquieting nature of the exhibition was amplified further in the final space of the show, the Operating Theatre, which used the imagery of a patient on the operating table as its centrepiece. In the centre of the curtained space an effigy of a human body lay, as if recovering after an operation. The body was clad in rubber gloves, reaching, aiding and supporting the patient. At its heart was the video image of a human eye.

The space was intended to be an interactive memorial within the exhibition. The inner curtains that enclosed the ‘patient’ were surrounded by another layer of curtain which created a one metre wide walking space around the bed. On the outer curtains were suspended 4000 traditional Chinese coins. Across from the Operating Theatre was a desk where students were stationed. As the visitors came into this space the students asked them to respond to the themes of the exhibition. On pre-prepared pieces of paper the visitors were asked to make a wish for the future of the world and to tie it on to one of the coins. During the course of the exhibition the walls surrounding the ‘patient’ became filled with personal thoughts, hopes, dreams and visions. In this way the final piece in the exhibition was a constructed moment of participatory design which the audience were invited to complete.


Operating Theatre



Interactive Memorial


Over the four weeks of the workshop the design team had worked long hours and in the final set-up of the exhibition had stayed until past midnight on many occasions to ensure the work was done. However nothing prepared us for sustained intensity of the exhibition in which more than 10,000 people walked through the doors over seven days. The tidal wave of visitors attending on the first day and the potential destruction of the exhibition due to the crowd within the space, led us to posting a security guard on the front door for the rest of the week. For the remaining duration of the show the guard would admit twenty five people every ten minutes for ten hours each day. The numbers never flagged and the line would often extend one hundred metres up the road. The Mandarin speaking RMIT Interior Design students who had donated their time to man the show found themselves in an endless cycle of explanation of the works to an inquisitive Chinese public.

Toward the end of the exhaustive week of the exhibition, in which we were endlessly asked to give a definitive rendering of the meaning of the show, an earnest young Chinese man who could speak some English asked me to tell him “what it was about”. To counter the question, which I had heard repeatedly before, I asked him “what he felt it was about”. After standing in silence for some considerable time, he said “I can see that in the reassembly of everyday objects into the insides of the human body and in the descriptions of the issues that accompany the work; the exhibition is suggesting that the thing which is broken is inside of us, it is within our own thinking toward the world”. I could not have put it better myself.




Students: Jianyu Chen, Jin Song, Xin Meng, Cong Zhu, Xuefei Li, Tiange Wang, Ting Jiang, Irvan Shayne Ward,Tao Gu, Ranqi Liu, Yuying Li, Chuyao Zhou, Junli Zhang, Rebecca Sherlock, Lauri Uldrikis

Tutor and Translator: Amy Ping Yan