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  • Writer's pictureBen Browton

The whys & wherefores of the Chinese Plastic Display Oranges in my work...

This account begins with the Chinese Display Oranges that I started to purchase in early 2020, and that have appeared in my work subsequently. As I recall, the first five that I bought were from ebay from a Chinese supplier, but as the pandemic took hold in March 2020,I had to buy them from a seller actually located in China via ebay as the UK stockists had run out of supplies.

In January 2020 I experimented by wrapping the Chinese Plastic Display Oranges with fishnet tights fabric, which led to reminiscences on my part of the coloured glass fishing floats encased in hemp nets that were popular home decoration items in my childhood and to the commercial sales of oranges in net sacks.

This also provided a kind of eroticism to the Chinese Plastic Display Oranges, and how the woven black fishnet fabric clung tightly to the pitted slightly shiny fake skin of the oranges, and how the green stem of the plastic orange reminded me of a nipple sitting atop the globe-shape of the plastic orange.

Stuck at home during the first part of Covid lockdown, I tried some configurations using a Chinese Plastic Display Orange;

Later, I added a black vinyl band decorated with metal studs and then made some experimental photographs using a lightbox, odds & ends and also two inkjet prints...

After the more severe restrictions of the first UK lockdowns, I ventured out (on deserted trains) to my studio to continue my experimentations.

In retrospect, I now see that many of these experimentations would be deployed later in the Inklings series of artworks that I began later on in 2020.

Inklings 2020-21; Works in progress in my studio

Around the time of the exhibition in 2021, 'On the road of sea stars', I had a notion that the Chinese Plastic Display Orange could be fabricated on a far larger scale, and this large work could form the centrepiece of a potential community festival, exploring themes around migration and international trade (after all, oranges are pretty much always imported into the UK from other countries) and that my large orange sculpture could be sited somewhere on the seafront in my home town of Hastings, as if it had washed up on the tides from some far away land.

It could also stand on a position raised above the sea as if scanning the horizon for a potential enemy attack, echoing the coastal war defences that are sometimes still in existence along the East Sussex coastline, whether relics from the Napoleonic wars, or looking out for Luftwaffe bombers during the Second World War. Coastal towns are vulnerable to potential invasion, whether by aggressive armies or currently migrants in inflatable dinghies.

This led me to provisionally entitle the project 'Drift'. I went down to the beach in Bexhill in July 2020, and experimented with seeing how the Chinese Plastic Display Oranges would behave in sea water and the incoming tide...

It was fascinating to see how these objects changed with their interaction in a natural environment, away from the studio, and with the action of natural light and the active reality of a public space.

I then had a notion to try to site one of these Chinese Plastic Display Oranges in coastal settings, and I spent an afternoon cycling down the coastline from Hastings and setting up the Chinese Plastic Display Orange in various locations.

Back in my home office, I began to research the frameworks around the commissioning of public sculpture. At the time, my home town of Hastings had an active policy of encouraging the siting of artworks along the seafront, and so I felt there could be a positive reaction from my local council to a proposition to fabricate and install an iconic large sculpture on the seafront. I submitted a basic proposal to the local Arts Officer, and sought the advice of a previous Arts Officer in mid-2021, having found a possible location for the work:

I also looked into funding the project via the Arts Council of England, Hastings Borough, and locally The Foreshore Trust, to be accompanied by workshops and a festival locally to launch the installation. I unsuccessfully also applied for an art business accelerator grant to develop the project. However and inevitably, I hit a large stumbling block with the local council. This stumbling block was the Planning Department (😖). Despite my enthusiasm to pursue my project, I realised that it would require a huge amount of beaurocratic time; feasibility studies, health & safety considerations, consulting local residents, commissioning, modelling & fabricating, installing and ultimately de-commissioning. I would need a small team of people to manage the project, and the process could easily take three years or more devoted only to this project. I decided reluctantly to shelve my 'Drift' project, and to perhaps return to it at a later date, depending on where my subsequent life and career took me.

Meanwhile, back in my studio I was preparing for the 'On the road of sea stars' exhibition at Zuzushii Art Laboratory, Hastings, in collaboration with the artist Madi Acharya-Baskerville. I completed the final Inkling for this exhibition, Inkling #8

At this point, the word 'FANCY' that appeared in this work took my work in a new direction, and compensated for my disappointment over the 'Drift' project being a thing too big to develop for the moment.

After a difficult time in my personal life dealing with close family bereavements, I returned to my studio in mid-2022. The Chinese Plastic Display Orange then reappeared in two significant works, one eventually dedicated to the memory of my deceased father;

Homage to The Sperm (One Small Noah)

And the other, which began as my studio reproduction/homage of a wonderful near Eastern terracotta female figure dating to the 3rd Millenium BCE I saw online, and eventually became this fully-fledged artwork;



Well, there it is and this is my summation of all the above - the pleasure in acquiring a prosaic item on a spontaneous whim in the first instance, an object that led my mind in various different directions, resulting in new interpretative possibilities: what nourishing joy the humble Chinese Plastic Display Orange has brought to my practice. Intended as a display item, I have been able to multiply it's inherent displayness to a greater metaphorical intensity, and none the worse for it.

Ben Browton 16th February 2023

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