In the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria there’s a scene that is, to many of us, very familiar – a trail of socks casually left on the floor. There’s a surreal twist though – the socks are huge, big enough to comfortably sit on. This is Recycled Woollen Island, created by Spanish architect and designer Patricia Urquiola in collaboration with Spanish furniture company Gan.

“The installation narrates a spontaneous, daily simple gesture; leaving socks on the floor at home,” says Urquiola. Each pair of socks is made up of the same design and size but is a different combination of soft, speckled colours – pinks, greys, blues and greens.

“We selected sober hues for the socks because the installation is thought as a gentle, welcoming space,” says Urquiola. The socks aren’t there simply to be looked at though – just like their inspiration, they have a practical application. They are there to be sat on, to be rearranged, to make visitors comfortable as they spend time in the space. Interaction is a key part of the project. “People are encouraged to move them around as if they were pieces of a soft puzzle … so actually the installation can change continuously in different combinations,” she says.

Urquiola always knew that her artwork was going to be displayed in the Great Hall, which sits underneath a grand stained-glass ceiling created by Australian artist Leonard French. She hopes people will use the socks to make themselves comfortable as they enjoy the “spectacular sight” of French’s work.

Beyond the practical application, though, as the title of the work suggests, the socks carry a message about recycling and waste – both literally and more subtly. Each sock features a band of text – and when asked how she decided what she wanted to write on them, Urquiola replies, “The main concept is upcycling, a good use of leftovers, leading to surprising results with zero waste. The writings on the wall and on the socks aim at making people think about this new concept of beauty.”

This idea extends into how the socks themselves were made from materials that would otherwise have been thrown away. “We’ve worked closely with our long-lasting partner Gan. They were the perfect partner for this project thanks to their expertise in working with felt and discarded wool,” says Urquiola.

The speckled appearance of the socks isn’t just an aesthetic choice. “The use of the terrazzo look enabled us to use fibres from leftover material. The padding is recycled foam and it contains 100 per cent recycled polyester bags … We couldn’t have used another material – the message of the installation is embedded in the material, it’s the final message of all.”

Urquiola has been working on this project since the beginning of 2020, along with Gan and Gan’s Women’s Unit – a group of women who live and work in rural India, who Urquiola has been collaborating with for the past decade. “The socks of the Recycled Woollen Island are made possible by [these] women and their craftmanship skills,” says Urquiola.

As a collaborative work spanning multiple continents, with designers, artisans and the gallery all in separate locations, Covid-19 presented challenges, especially when it came to logistics. “It was a project born during [the] pandemic, so you can imagine the difficulties we had to face!” Urquiola says. “We worked with different teams around the world, from Milan to Valencia and India all the way to Melbourne.”

Now it has all come together, she hopes visitors will enjoy the beauty and the simplicity of the socks, while also looking at waste – and its potential applications – in a new light.

“Upcycling is a concept I needed to apply in my work,” says Urquiola. “I believe that waste is a precious resource and either using technology or through the hands of a skilful artisan it can be transformed and we can obtain surprising results. The installation wants to underline this surprising effect, make people think about this new idea of beauty generated from waste.”

NGV’s Triennial is closing on April 18 and the NGV will be running extended hours for the final week. Friday April 16: 9am to 9pm, Saturday April 17: 9am to 6pm and Sunday April 18: 9am to 6pm.

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