The Art of Chess

What is it?

A travelling exhibition of fifteen chess sets commissioned by London gallery, RS&A, that has visited Milan, Reykjavik and, most recently, the Bendigo Art Gallery. The chess sets are part of an-ever growing collection designed by international artists including Barbara Kruger, Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama.

The inspiration of the RS&A collection can be traced back to Marcel Duchamp and his close friend, Man Ray, both 20th Century artists well known for their love of, and artistic dedication to, chess. Their chess set designs, together with those of Max Ernst, Joseph Hartwig and others appeared in the archetypal 1944 exhibition, The Imagery of Chess. RS&A was established in 2001 with the intention of recreating this exhibition in the modern era, commissioning artists with powerful and distinct voices to design sets that would reflect the values of a society half a century on.

What do we think?

The exhibition is engaging, humorous and thought-provoking, with each artist re-imagining the qualities of chess in unique and surprising ways.

Italian Maurizio Cattelan, for instance, populates the black and white pieces of his highly figurative set with individuals he admires and despises: Adolf Hitler and Cruella de Vil as the black king and queen, and Martin Luther King and Jesus as the white. Englishman Alastair Mackie has built an exquisite specimen table with each piece crafted of an insect encased in rich amber: flying insects for white and ground-based insects for black. Look close enough and ants, flies, mosquitoes and a large scorpion all make an appearance. Paul Fryer’s set is a tribute to Nikola Tesla, each piece a vacuum tube connected to an electrified board that illuminates those pieces still in play. The pieces of Kruger’s set utter either a provocation or a retort when moved that string together to form a semi-coherent dialogue that is as unique as the sequence of moves in a game. And Hirst continues his enfatuation with medicines by way of a set comprised of glass and silver bottles etched with titles such as Bishop Syrup and Castle Capsules.

It is clear that none of the sets are interested in simple playability, instead continuing in the tradition of the Fluxus artists of the 1960s that aimied to layer the act of playing with further meaning and nuance. In the case of Kruger, this additional layer is chance, an interesting counterpoint to what is otherwise an entirely ordered game; for Rachel Witheread and Paul McCarthy it’s personal experience, their boards and pieces copied and extracted from objects in their own homes; and for Gavin Turk it’s history, his contribution referencing the Mechanical Turk, a fabled 18th Century automaton that was the precursor to today’s chess-playing supercomputer, Deep Blue.

What did we learn?

Whilst we thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition, we were frustrated by one disappointing (though expected) aspect; the Do Not Touch signs plastered in front of every set. Whilst we understand the tricky responsibilities of a gallery with an art collection on loan and recognise that one is rarely permitted to touch gallery art anyway, we feel it somewhat counterproductive to have art applied to chess, the greatest of all games, only to have the sets locked inside glass boxes. To our minds, it was an excellent exhibition though one only half-experienced.

From my close contact with artists and chess players I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.
– Marcel Duchamp

2 thoughts on “The Art of Chess

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  1. For readers interested in learning more about Marcel Duchamp, check out this Artsy page dedicated to his work. There’s a collection of his works, article references and a biography.

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