Thursday 28 September 2006

Clearly, our hypothetical curator needs a hand

There was a great response to the recent hypothetical offered to Craft Almanac readers, featuring the curator who was presented with a recommendation for an exhibition of design that introduces the appearance of handmade into the manufacturing process. In the end, the majority of respondents (68%) recommended that the curator accept the director’s recommendation of Hands On. However, their reasons were quite varied and told a story about some of the very interesting differences of opinion in the world of contemporary craft.

The issue raised intense reactions. An anonymous respondent called it 'THE question for contemporary craft.' Rick Clise saw the same trend in other labour-intensive arts: ‘In the sculpture world there are now "digital stone project" factories that use 3d milling processes from CAD files to carve stone in ways not possible by hand.' Natalie Holtsbaum saw it as timely, ‘Using modern technologies to investigate human interaction with artefact is a way to show exactly where our culture is currently at.’ Tony Dyer thought it reflected a ‘Diversity of approach’.

Some saw it as an inherently interesting exhibition. The Sydney artist Ruark Lewis states, ‘I think there is a 'craft' in everything.’ Michelle Towstoless declares, 'I am into the wholist experience.' S.Brooke-Roberton compared it to the debate on Artificial Intelligence. Sophia Holm offered the pragmatic advice that, ‘In the world of art and craft it is important to seize every opportunity.’

For some, it is an issue that goes back in time. 'As was the case in Early Christian Art, (with the church as a vehicle for guilds), contemporary artists such as Koons and Piccinini? employ artisians/ crafts people to construct their artwork.' (Rick Price). Lene Kuhl Jakobsen made reference to the Hans Christian Andersen tale 'The Nightingale'. For the Tasmanian ceramicist, Hermie Cornelesse, 'The imitation crafted object is not a new thing, for example in the production of ceramic - the old crazed look.' Melbourne glass artist Pam Stadus was 'of people’s front fences which have been made to look like nature.'

The Melbourne Bakelite jeweller Marcos Davidson rallied everyone to support the exhibition in his distinctive language, ‘defenetly by my director, and the rest of the propellor headed yes people cloging the hallway's here ! so to hell in a handmade hay cart...hey ho lets go.’

But more pervasive was the pragmatic argument that allowing Hands On into the gallery would offer the 'thin end of the wedge', allowing craft issues to gain entry.

Tricot Monte saw it as an opportunity 'to re-ignite rigorous critiques and dialogues b/w audience and critics via relevant questions such as ...why are the cutting-edge designers interested in objects with imperfections that imply a hand-made process?'

For some, the inevitable failure of this exhibition would be a healthy demonstration of its impossibility of industrialising the handmade. 'This exhibition will reflect the fact that technology that is divorced from the human hand cannot capture the very elements of the hand-made that it is trying to achieve.' (Leonard Shapiro) Brian Keyte drew on his own experience: 'As a former Mechanical Engineer(now potter) I know there will always be a difference to the keen eye.'

Many went further than the two choices offered, and suggested that the exhibition be complemented by one of objects made my real human hands. 'I would recommend but then suggest that the gallery perhaps consider a comparative body of work that is actually hand made, then ask the public to respond.' (Julia Raath) For Kriston Terbutt, it would 'create a point of comparison and interest for audience and artisan, a guessing game of what is and isn't "hand made".' ‘The probable price differences would also be more easily explained when the public could see the (hopefully) marked benefits of the "real thing"!' (Caroline Mornement UK Craft Galleries Guide) Anne Aldis thought it would ‘challenge a technology that brags that it can fully imitate the human contact.’ For Ken Free, 'No matter how well designed, "manufactured" hand made is contrived and ultimately will be judged as fake by the discerning eye. Daniela Zimmermann and Fiona Parry-Jones proposed it be called Hands Off.

There were a few (8%) who would reject the exhibition outright, 'In my opinion it would be false.' (S Hall). Jane Suffield drew on her experience as an Interior Designer: 'I am presented with a similar dilemma all the time - laminate that looks like wood, plastic that looks like marble with no truth to the actual material used. The products are never convincing.' The Queensland ceramicist Shannon Garson saw this an unfortunate trend: 'There are plenty of commercial venues for design and industrial products designed to reference craft are not craft, and are often misleading in our craft ignorant culture.'

The UK jeweller Jivan Astfalck was the most blunt and advised the curator to resign: ‘The fetishisation of technology came to a dead end by the point (mid 90s) when it was available in most higher education/research institutions.’

While there was a healthy diversity of opinion about Hands On, what came through was a strong support for craft values across the globe. As Lorna Gerard wrote, ‘All creation comes through our hands.’ Ingrid Hindell proclaimed, ‘Craft is the only way left for people to take pride in and own their own creations.’ And Bronwyn Pratt- Goldsmith complained that ‘too many fine artisans are now passing away without passing on their skills.’

Solidarity to the person who called out from the wilderness, 'I am a curator of a contemporary art museum with a passionate interest in contemporary craft!’

Most state galleries are still beholden to very outmoded ideas about craft, seeing it as a bastion of sentimentalism. Let’s hope that these hypothetical ideas might someday venture into reality.

Hands On is the first in a series of craft dilemmas. Subscribe to Craft Almanac in order to participate in future discussions. For all the responses, go to

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