Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) – life stories told through the objects that shape experience


Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) is the brainchild of the autistic artist Sonia Boué. On exhibition at OVADA in Oxford from 30 March to 28 April, NUNO is an ongoing artistic program that explores the way that we use everyday objects to store our memories. Review by Deborah Caulfield

installation with glass tank

Lung Tonic by Hugh Pryor, 2019. Photo © Stu Allsopp.

We’re accustomed to seeing objects in art. Think Frida Kahlo’s corset, Tracey Emin’s bed and Tony Heaton’s Invacar, to name but a few. But the Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) exhibition is not, in any sense, a display of art objects, more than an array of artists’ personal belongings.

Under the banner/underpinned by principles of inclusion, NUNO explores the use of everyday things – like bottles, handbags and wool – to store memories. By keeping collections of precious things, we create histories of love and loss, happiness and grief.

However, objects that hold meaning for us may appear to others as mere stuff, junk even. And when it comes to stories, it’s all in the telling.

Every and each one of these stories is interesting; deserving of an audience and wonderful in their own ways; poignant, incredible, some heartbreaking …

I was deeply moved by Patrick Goodall’s Sleep of Reason, a ‘conversation piece’ as it’s referred to in the excellent and helpful booklet accompanying the exhibition. The central motif, and pivotal point is a headrest from a dentist chair. A length of thick old rope, heavy, and frayed at one end, floats like a flailing body, helpless, hanging by almost-invisible wires, so it appears to be hovering, weightless, two feet off the ground, which is carpeted in waves of cinematic, magnetic tape.

mixed media assemblage

Sleep of Reason by Patrick Goodall, 2019. Photo © Patrick Goodall – mixed media assemblage

The story behind the piece is both personal and universal … life as a delicate balancing act, enabling (so-called) contraptions that constrict, entrap, hold us suspended in fear … This was my interpretation, as someone dealing with PTSD due to childhood trauma, much of it due to medical treatment that saved my life, or so I was told.

Or maybe it reminded me of the years I spent on a plaster bed, 8 inches above the mattress, a pile of pillows under my head, feet dangling into the void …

This is the thing with stories; they resonate.

I was drawn to Jenni Dutton’s Absurd Sewn Selfies and Self portrait With Portals exploring ageing through the use of assemblage. The work pulled me in close and I spent quite a while looking … inches away from the work … up close and personal is how I like to engage with art. Jenni’s stitching is incredible, as if sewn not with thread but breath, so soft and delicate … her fascination with broken dolls, life passes by, we go with it …

Two portraits of a woman, holding a dolls head

Absurd Sewn Selfies by Jenni Dutton, 2019. Photo © Rupert Mardon – textile work

NUNO is a feast of an exhibition and needs a good couple of hours, maybe more, of attention. I stayed all afternoon and gorged myself… the exhibits and personal stories told by fourteen artists through live performance, installation, video, sound, textiles, photography, sculpture, assemblage, and the written word, with some stand-out commentaries on social change and fascinating insights into the project as a whole.

Overall, however this was a difficult exhibition to access. OVADA operates in an old semi-industrial warehouse and the space was uncomfortable and cold. In terms of the exhibitions aim to be inclusive the subtitles were good, but a lot more thought could have gone into welcoming disabled visitors through the use of audio guides, accessible seating and a wheelchair accessible toilet, for example.

The NUNO project brings together two networks, both created by Sonia, WEBWorks and Museum for Object Research in a spirit of inclusion, equality and mutuality which, sadly, did not translate into an accessible and inclusive experience for this disabled art-loving visitor, despite the warm welcome I received from Sonia.

Neither Use Nor Ornament (NUNO) is an extensively documented project. Arguably the process, and reading about it, is itself the project, the product, the concept if you will. The Museum for Object Research is a resource and showcase for artists whose work with objects forms the core of their practice as showcased as part of NUNO. WEBWorks is a peer support and mentoring group of autistic and neurodivergent artists.

To find out more about the work of Sonia Boué visit