Gabriel Solomons


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April 13th, 2016

Being Franz Kafka

I can’t confess to being a huge Kafka Fan, having only read Metamorphosis 20 odd years ago and letting most of his other celebrated books such as The Trial and The Castle pass me by. But such is the iconic nature of the man – the term Kafka-esque is now part of common parlance – it often feels like I know far more about him than is actually the case.

What I did know about him was that he was deeply troubled and conflicted; a tortured soul who threw his lot into writing at a young age with an unflailing compulsion to let his thoughts spill onto the empty page, often as diatribes against a society increasingly governed by de-humanizing bureaucracy and mechanization. This and his own sense of isolation and feelings of inferiority – due in part to a fractious relationship with his overbearing father – would become consistent themes in his work, as would his relationship to Prague as both an intellectual and a Jew.

His was a light that burned fierce but brief as he died of Tuberculosis in 1924 at the age of 40, and his work – while lauded and celebrated today – was often reviled or simply ignored when originally published.

In an effort to find out more about the man, I visited the Kafka museum in Prague which sits beside the Vltava riverbank not too far from the Charles Bridge.

The exhibition designers have succeeded in creating a disorienting and slightly unnerving experience; using sound, lighting, visuals and props in imaginitive ways to tell, first, the story of Kafka’s formative years as a youngster growing up in Prague that later led him into literary circles and, second, more thematic content tied closely to his most famous novels.

I’m not sure if it was their intent, but the whole thing – set over two floors – feels like a journey through the man’s psyche – as if we’ve entered through a tiny hatch directly into Kafka’s head, quietly creeping around a dimly-lit ‘innerscape’ uncovering clues to Kafka’s enigmatic imagination.

The sound of bleating crows pierces the general stillness and a constant brooding drone can be heard as you navigate your way around the oddly shaped rooms with their skewed walls and low ceilings. A series of exhibition cases on the top floor contain book extracts, photographs and letters while more general information and intermittent quotes – in both Czech and English – are found dotted about on wall panels. Video screens show abstract short films more as atmospheric filler than to inform, but are effective in contextualizing Kafka’s thought process – particularly his love/hate relationship to Prague and how he saw the city as both an oppressive prison and the place that gifted him the many opportunities he had as a writer. As a direct reference to the time spent by Kafka in his administrative role for an insurance company, two rows of large black filing cabinets take up an entire room upstairs and a maze-like corridor on the ground floor. These black caskets strongly embody the stranglehold that this job would have on Kafka’s life and which forced him to relegate writing to his spare time.

An ominously lit wood paneled staircase leads down to the ground floor which includes – amongst other things – a model of the elaborate torture and execution device featured in the 1918 story In the Penal Colony, a selection of book covers and more lengthy analysis of the author’s key works.

Non Czech readers are at a definite disadvantage with this exhibition as so much of the original material is only partially translated. Kafka’s letters and diaries hold the key to so much of his pain, frustration and creative process – so not being able to read them in their entirety means that I was only getting glimpses of a picture rather than the picture as a whole. Space obviously limits the application of too much wordy captioning and signage, so it’s best for any English visitors to buy the exhibition catalogue for a fuller insight.

Categories: Architecture Design Film Photography

September 28th, 2015

Object Lessons

During a recent trip to Zagreb for a conference, I finally got the chance to visit a museum that i’d read so much about and was keen to experience for myself.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, a permanent memoriam to ‘temporary union’ is a unique place. Not simply due to its collection of seemingly trivial objects, but because a museum dedicated to such a collection has become a pilgrimage site for visitors from around the world.

Set up following the real-life break-up of founders Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić in 2006, the museum’s exhibition of personal objects donated by ordinary people snakes its way through six or so rooms, each loosely based on a theme. Poetic interludes by the likes of Mary Oliver are sparsely and discreetly applied on walls to remind the visitor of the importance of connection and inevitable separation.

The objects themselves are accompanied by texts in both Croatian and English that range in length from a few words to essay long diatribes – some humorous, others tragic but all are honest testament to each donor’s feeling of sadness and loss.

A stuffed animal is positioned next to a cheque book or a roll of film and all are displayed respectfully on illuminated plain white risers or wall mounted cabinets. Minimal decoration is used as a thematic device such as the discoloured tile backdrop in the “Resonance of Grief” room which includes a bottle of conditioner, heroin testing kit and an axe violently impaled into a plinth. While some donors are clearly confident with their ability to weave a well told (and written) story, I found some of the strongest pieces accompanied by fewer words. One object in particular – a fairly kitche ceramic frog ornament found in the room dedicated to family relationships – simply has the following heartbreaking caption:

‘Mom left when I was 3, this is one of the few Christmas gifts she has given me’

While some objects speak of shared interests or commemorate events such as the broken glasses used each year to celebrate a couple’s anniversary ritual, others suggest that trouble was on the horizon from the get go. The boy who mistakenly thought that his gift of a Galileo thermograph would capture his beloved heart’s affections eventually has it added to the scrapheap of doomed romance as his Taiwanese ex-lover simply states: ‘WTF! Could that be the kind of birthday gift a 20-year old girl would expect?!’

An unused stun gun given as an odd gesture of protection, a can of love incense which in the words of its doner ‘Doesn’t work’ and a wedding dress that symbolizes failed promises – all are physical testimony to relationships that fizzled, burned out or broke apart.

Speaking to someone the day after about the reasons why we both felt elated at the end of our visit rather than cynical or morose, it struck me that at the heart of the museum’s existence lies a cathartic ‘letting go’ of something meaningful and symbolic for each donor – a gesture of ending to allow for a new beginning.

While some of the stories may be depressing and, by nature of the museum’s title suggest heartbreak, the donation of each object to the museum is anything but. Rather than a selfish act of opportunism, it could be said that each donation is a selfless gesture affording the viewer a chance to connect emotionally with his or her own pain or suffering. A problem aired is a problem shared after all, and similar to the way in which Princess Diana’s death seemed to open up a public channel of grief in the UK – objects in the MoBR offer a quiet and contemplative space to mourn our own fractured past.

This quasi-religious subtext may explain why the museum, which has had a travelling element since 2008, chose as one of its venues the Oude Kerk (Old Church) right in the middle of Amsterdam’s red light district in 2013. The Organisers of that particular exhibition – the workgroup “Art and Church” – went one step further by choosing objects that related in some way to stories being told in Biblical readings at the church in the run-up to Christmas.

As with other of its temporary residences around the world, the museum has a committed and active group of regional ‘ambassadors’ who curate each show based on objects collected from the local community.

This global network of passionate advocates for the museum is helping to ensure its survival and is testament to the universal appeal of a place dedicated to telling extraordinary stories by ordinary people. The unpretentious nature of their endeavor is what makes it such a success in my opinion, as museums traditionally tend to be quite alienating or stuffy by way of their ‘look but don’t touch’ policy. The MOBR also has a no touch policy, but the objects displayed are by no means precious artifacts of historical or monetary value in the traditional sense. Each object is rather a signifier of a commonplace human experience – that of the ‘death’ of love. While some would argue that this in and of itself doesn’t merit the establishing of a museum – I would counter that this is exactly the sort of thing that a modern museum should be about.

The acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk suggested as much when he opened his Museum of Innocence in 2012, as both an accompaniment to his novel of the same name (published in 2008) and as a declaration of love to his home city of Istanbul. He too believes that museums should celebrate the individual strory and feels strongly that ‘…our daily lives are honourable – the details of our gestures, our words, our smells, our sounds, our objects, are worthy of preservation.’

In an age when technology and the proliferation of ‘smart’ cities seems to be divorcing us from real human interaction, a museum such as this refocuses our attention on an essential human need – that of emotional connection through shared experiences.

Objects are inherently evocative and many of us define ourselves by the things we work, play and think with. We invest energy, time and money in choosing gifts for our loved ones and so each of these objects subsequently ‘hold’ meaning to ourselves and others. They often embody a time and place, acting as conduits of good and bad memories that help us to compose our life’s narrative.

The everyday nature of these ordinary objects are often far more meaningful that anything we may find in a traditional museum, and is therefore another reason to be thankful that the Museum of Broken Relationships exists.

The museum provides a place for anyone and everyone to share their stories of heartbreak and loss – safe in the knowledge that visitors will empathise with their grief rather than judge. Morbid curiosity may bring many punters through the door, but a profound sense of connectivity is more likely to be what is taken out – as was the case when I exited into the fading light of a breezy September evening in Zagreb.

Categories: Design Education Uncategorized

July 6th, 2015

Project updates July 2015

It’s been a lively last few months, with new personal projects helping to break up the work routine. Photographer Martin Tompkins and I have worked together since the early days of Decode magazine back in the early 2000′s. Our first proper collaboration was for a book project we developed following a US road trip he and I took, along with my brother and two other friends, in 2003. The result was a limited edition hand-made book and accompanying exhibition at Bath’s Michael Tippett Centre called ‘Everything In-Between’. We collaborated again in 2013 on Havana Street Style, a book that documented Cuba’s burgeoning fashion conscious inhabitants in all their exuberant glory.

After a few beers recently, we got chatting about what to do next. A simple solution was agreed on to attempt a few quick outcomes that would test out new creative techniques. Nothing too precious and involving very little deliberation. The first project produced is a 12 page newspaper printed using Newspaper Club – an online service that allows you to produce limited numbers at a pretty affordable cost. Having never used the service before, there was an element of trial and error as we were using high density color for the photos taken. We were pretty pleased with the final result although the limitations of the process are pretty apparent as color quickly fades on newsprint.


All the photographs were taken during a one night walk around the city of Bath. We had it in our minds to show the city in an unfamiliar light – creating something ethereal and otherworldly. My response to the photographs was then to consider how typography and simple narrative could work alongside and help to compliment the imagery. All of the main typographic illustrations are bespoke forms inspired by the likes of Wassily Kandinski and Alexander Calder – formal yet modernist.


The words chosen for each illustration helped to then thread a simple narrative about ‘Night’ which in turn led to me choosing the Police’s song ‘Bring on the Night’ as both a title for the newspaper and the lyrics used as secondary running heads.

This first outcome has got us excited about doing some more experiments, so now all we need to do is find the time to devote to future projects. A tricky proposition as day-t0-day work needs to be prioritized but the will and enthusiasm are definitely there.

Creating these typographic forms also inspired me to have more of a play with words, so I had a crack at another approach using elongated crossbars, bowls and arms.

The full newspaper can be viewed at the Newspaper Club website:

Categories: Design Photography

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