The beauty of the archive lies... not in its visual impact but in its potential. The buildings in which archives are housed tend towards the invisible - they donʼt want to draw attention to themselves. This one is a recycled structure but others are anonymous sheds. Inside, those empty corridors, locked rooms, cardboard boxes and draped forms arenʼt giving anything away. Unless, of course, you interrogate them - and even then it is necessary to know what questions to ask.
Nothing of the face of Blythe House, except maybe its railings, its drawn blinds, its blankness, gives any clue as to its function. The slow reveal of a Concise Dictionary of Dress housed within this vast imperial archive involves being ﬁrst led into the building by a complex, disorienting route only to be taken out again onto its roof where you are retuned to the city, perched vertiginously alongside the ﬁrst exhibit, on the skyline. This moment of exposure is followed by a route that traces stairwells past redundant looking lift machinery and along corridors where there is the sense of the unknown hiding in unseen rooms. Visitors walk a contorted line around the building – pulled into a maze of doors that lock behind them. There is no doubling back here.
As the separate installations are encountered it is clear that there are rhymes between the exhibits and the objects in the archive. In the installation labelled 'Pretentious' the abstract sculptural shapes applied to a black dress talk to the elaborate carvings of vegetation on a wooden frame. In 'Plain', Tyvek wrapped forms mimic the shape of an adjacent object. On the ﬂoor are stacks of gargantuan unwieldy polythene covered sample books with stencilled dates - 'Spring 1954' - on the covers. Where does the exhibit begin and the archive end?
A hatch is opened to reveal a miniature room, its perspective compressed to create the illusion of distance. Associations rebound and echo through the tiny space with its two small porcelain figurines and single kid leather glove. Though this is the Dictionary entry for ‘Measured’ it could be for 'diamond', 'distort', 'empty', 'force', 'hand' or ‘pattern'. There are an inﬁnite number of parallel dictionaries here. Remember this is the 'Concise' version. Elsewhere a sign glimpsed in a locked cabinet reads 'spanners etc’. Is this a toolbox or an exhibit lying in wait? On the ground adjacent to 'Creased' (deﬁnition 2 – "The line designed by use") there is a concrete plate inscribed 'shield specialist – earth rod'. Another sign on a stair reads 'Control Room' with an arrow pointing upwards. Is that somehow an explanation for the whole installation, making text into space, drawing words into the service of form? But, of course, the beauty of the archive lies...
Calum Storrie is an exhibition designer and writer.