“Set” Credit: Gean Nort/Courtesy Volume Gallery

What’s in a set? The question’s so blunt that it doesn’t seem worth dwelling on. A theater director might think of a production’s set design, and move on. A mathematician might remember someone’s work in set theory, and move on. But architect and UIC professor Ania Jaworska won’t accept such simple answers. In her solo exhibit at Volume Gallery, “Set,” she implores her audience to pause and ask again: “No, what really is in a set?”

The show features eight objects. Each item consists of cylinders and slabs, all lacquered a slick black. Jaworska’s collection appears to be clear and crisp, free of ambiguities. Gradually, the ambiguities begin to emerge. Behind the black lacquer is not some uniform material—it’s wood, fiberglass, aluminum. Most cylinders stand erect, though some are bent into a shape that resembles macaroni noodles. Most slabs are stiff, but some, taking the form of cushions, are curled up, wrinkled, and folded.

Some of the pieces immediately register as furniture. The four cylinders that balance a slab with rounded edges are the legs of a table. The four cylinders balancing one bent slab are the legs holding up the seat of a chair.

Some objects’ functions are less apparent. In one work, a single slab balances 49 thin cylinders. More than domestic furniture, it resembles a microscopic cross section of a freshly shorn cheek. (When I viewed the exhibit, the gallery owner wrapped one cylinder with a tape measure, then nodded and returned to his desk.) Eventually, and only with deliberate consideration, could anyone call this object a coffee table. Another flat surface is pierced by 13 scattered cylinders; it looks like something used to ward off evil spirits. I initially thought two cylindrical pillars served some symbolic purpose, like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the gallery owner walked over, pointed to the surreptitious hinges, and opened the pillars to reveal black, lacquered shelves. “See?” he told me. “It’s a cabinet!” (The cylinders flashed from monolith to cabinet and back to monolith again. )

What’s in a set? Why does one object belong to the set of things called “a table”? What magical quality does this one item have that others lack? The moment Jaworska prompts her audience to ask these questions, the set she’s created expands the idea of what “a table” is. Leave the gallery space, and the door to the street now looks like a lacquered cylinder affixed to a slab. Step outside, and the floor that creaks under the weight of one’s legs becomes a slab that creaks under the weight of two cylinders. In “Set,” Jaworska hasn’t just created furniture, but a different way of viewing the world.  v