If Dr. Seuss and Antoni Gaudí made a sculpture together, it might look something like “Garden Object,” which is on display at Rice Gallery. It’s actually created by the London-based design studio El Ultimo Grito. The designers behind it, husband-and-wife team Roberto Feo and Rosario Hurtado, are Spanish, as was Gaudí, and had never heard of Dr. Seuss until they had their daughter, who was born in London. Seuss would have loved “Garden Object,” however. The installation snakes through the gallery like some vividly patterned, many-legged llama-esque creature with long, curving and arcing necks. Visitors are invited to sit on the creature’s back(s), from which little round tabletops grow, surfaces perfect for a laptop or someone’s lunch.
The bulk of El Ultimo Grito’s Rice Gallery installation was created with bubble wrap, packing peanuts and tape — the kind of cheap materials you can pick up at any Office Depot or dive for in any office-building Dumpster. It took five days to create, a surprisingly short period of time for such a large object. (Most projects for the all-installation-art-all-the-time Rice Gallery take two to three weeks to put in place.) Feo and Hurtado started out with an armature of two-by-fours resting sawhorse-like on low legs made from one-by-twos. They then swathed it in bubble wrap, threw in some packing peanuts and wrapped it all with packing tape to flesh out the sticklike structure into engagingly lumpy forms. The sculpture’s legs are anchored to the floor with gaffer’s tape in neon colors, creating goofy, duck-like feet.
The final skin is formed through layers of round, waterproof stickers adhered over the sculpture’s surface. The stickers have optically radiant stripes in blue/orangey red — as well as blue/black and red/pink — combinations, and they visually ignite the sculpture with masses of crosshatched lines while providing a sturdy waterproof skin.
El Ultimo Grito did a similar but smaller-scale project that even survived outdoor conditions in a public square in Mexico City. The stickers on the Rice exhibit were printed by a local company that normally produces labels for industrial applications, including for use on chemical drums. The finished structures seem durable; Feo told me about an installation they did for a recycling festival in Poland that withstood the weight of two drunken policemen climbing on it. The designers aren’t control freaks, and they welcome interaction, even in the construction stage. Passersby helped construct the piece in Mexico City, as well as the one here.
In the Rice Gallery installation, some of the creature’s necks end in tiny video projectors, while others end in flat white circles that video is projected onto, images of tiny hummingbirds hovering as if trapped in an alien garden.
“El Ultimo Grito” roughly translates as “the last word,” and according to Feo and Hurtado, the phrase was once used to describe something ultra-fashionable or modern, but is now used only ironically. El Ultimo Grito is internationally known for its humor and quirky and eclectic output. In addition to work like the sprawling free-form installation inhabiting Rice Gallery, Feo and Hurtado have created delicately fabricated objects like Imaginary Architecture (2010) — elaborate blown-glass sci-fi-looking “architectural models.” They have also ventured into children’s furniture with Micro (2006), a bright red multi-legged object that could be a stool, a table or some kind of beheaded toy animal. (According to the designers, it hasn’t been a big seller.) They have designed clothing, such as a shirt called The Revolution will not be televised (2001). A fashion/political statement, it consists of a black T-shirt with three bullet-like holes in it. The black layer can be lifted over the wearer’s face to create a ski mask-like hood — the wearer peers through the holes. Text on a white shirt underneath reads “peace.” And the quotidian is not beneath them; their 1998 brainstorming is a toilet-paper holder/magazine rack. The unconventional studio was awarded the London Design Medal 2012.
El Ultimo Grito’s first environment using bubble wrap and tape materials was called Griffin Soho, a monthlong popup shop/showroom on Carnaby Street in London designed for the clothing label Griffin. Feo and Hurtado needed something large-scale and cheap to build out the empty space for the month. The designers transformed the cardboard and packing trash from neighboring businesses into an all-white, dreamlike environment. They developed the wood/bubble wrap/packing peanut/tape formula and covered it with white stickers to create an organic-looking, otherworldly space, complete with clothing hung on or stretched over the wonky forms.
There is something very appealing about El Ultimo Grito’s approach to its installations. It reminds me of building cardboard-box houses as a kid, creating something big and free, with your own two hands. Theirs is a low-tech, handmade effort coming out of a design world in which products are usually finely finished and industrially fabricated. The Rice Gallery installation required almost no tools; a saw, a drill and wood screws were the arsenal. There is a lot of impressive public sculpture and installation art out there, but rarely do you think, ‘Wow, I could do something like that at home!’ The designers’ simple but visually dynamic construction is inspirational rather than aspirational. You could make an extra couch out of the Christmas-morning trash pile if you wanted.
Feo and Hurtado did something similar when they made a temporary move to Berlin and needed a table for their studio: They simply took their piles of cardboard boxes and packing material and made one. It’s the kind of thing that seems perfectly obvious when you’re a kid but that you forget about when you become an adult. Feo and Hurtado are giving permission to grown-ups to reclaim the improvisations of childhood.
It’s really refreshing to see something that is visually interesting and unabashedly fun. El Ultimo Grito’s installation straddles design, art and architecture, but the artistic couple aren’t the kind of people to worry about labels or genres. They just want to make amazing things, any way they can.