TEXTS MARKING TIME
Marking Time is a commissioned text by Glenn Adamson who is Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England. This text accompanies the exhibition That was then... This is now.
That was then, this is now…
…such a simple sentence. And yet it captures much that there is to say about the history of craft over the past century. Discourse surrounding the handmade – particularly concerning its differences from industry – often takes the form of nostalgia, a yearning for the good old days when things were made in a human, and humane, way. Within this traditional narrative, modernity as materialized through the alienated labor of the factory, or for that matter dematerialized in the experiences offered on the internet, is positioned at a point called ‘now.’ Craft adopts the guise of another time, back ‘then’. It is rooted, historical, authorized by tradition. If these roles were to be personified, modernity would be a young executive, perhaps fresh out of university, and filled with ruthless ambition. Craft by contrast would be a kindly uncle or aunt, who might not have a finger on the pulse, but would be in touch with a better, wiser, slower way of doing things. Craft is precious in this familial sense. It is something that you may (or may not) be born into, but if you’re lucky enough to have a connection to it, you never want to let it go.
That was then, this is now!
Second thoughts. What I’ve just described – craft as the secure preserve of tradition – is all over. We don’t have to think that way anymore. A brief glance through this exhibition , or the gallery at the Hordaland Art Centre, confirms it. Craft no longer needs to be positioned as some kind of retrospective activity, rooted in a medieval or folk or simply imaginary past. It takes on new and strange forms, many of which are representative of modernity and its discontents. Craft today is being reconceived as a means of encountering the new – not in a spirit of resistance, but rather as a tool of discovery. In this sense a moment has passed, and a movement is over: the long period of craft revival and reform that began with the Arts and Crafts era, and continued in the studio work of the postwar decades. Even the fight of the 1960s and ’70s, that craft be taken seriously as a subgenre of fine art, has lost its force (since the idea that anything would be indigestible to art practice seems increasingly quaint and historical). The next revolution is a quieter one, and has happened almost without critical notice. It is an inauguration of the postdisciplinary and open-ended, without categorical hangups; it has been a long time coming, and now it seems to be arriving in force. Look for example at the work of Anders Ruhwald, whose objects seem to wriggle away from any attempt to categorize them. His ceramics squeeze awkwardly into corners. They play gently with aspects of function. Their hand-marked surfaces, buried under thick matte glazes, are obviously the product of great skill, but even so they come across as uncertain. Even the colors of the objects are hard to describe. Ruhwald teaches in America, and he was trained partly in the United Kingdom, but his approach still seems most at home in his native Scandinavia, where a combination of generous government funding and a tightly knit, hothouse atmosphere has led to an extraordinary cross-pollination of ideas and movements. After decades of flying the banner for upright modern design, Scandinavia has suddenly become the place to watch: a birthplace of the now.
That was then…
But let’s not get carried away: there is a sense of drastic change in the air, to be sure, and not just in Scandinavia. But insofar as craft plays a role in the contemporary avant garde, it is still grounded in very specific possibilities, which have a basis in the accumulations of past experience (even if these are often tacit, and impossible to tabulate). And so the artists on show here do look back. They do so with the eye of a scavenging magpie, throwing handmade and readymade elements together; but also with the eye of a connoisseur, attending to the exquisite details of their materials (whether they made them or came upon them by chance). Bjørn Båsen, for example, has combined pieces of vernacular woodwork, a painting, and a bit of cushion into a surrealist bricolage that suggests an ancient prayer – perhaps directed toward the concept of art. The jeweler Göran Kling, too, draws on a wellspring of iconography that is deeply rooted in history. On one level, he wants to set the wearer free of fixed symbolism –wearing jewellery is an act of self fashioning, and just because you wear a certain necklace “does not mean,” in his words, “that you need to have a particular relationship with dolphins, God or Mercedes cars.” And yet Kling, like Båsen, recognizes the power of such established images. The potential of craft, in the contemporary mode of the bricoleur, is to put this power in circulation, even as it is undercut or transformed through new contexts.
That was now, this is then.
But hold on a minute. Then and now, now and then. They don’t necessarily need to come in a certain order, do they? Craft is not only a matter of materiality. It is also a marking of sequences, of processes and procedures. And it need not be linear. Like a good exhibition, it can create space for reflection, in which different temporal structures happily co-exist. And so in this project, we find the work of Erik Hellsten, who has done a series of deadpan embroideries in which the crushing boredom of bureaucratic documents is captured through the painstaking replication of the text in thread. Then there is AnnaSofia Mååg, whose ceramics exhibit both the slow action of fire across the surface of the clay, and also the lightning-quick effects of cracking, slumping and bubbling: an aesthetic that is geological in its sense and scale. Craft does impose discipline: not in the accustomed sense (clay, fiber, metal, glass, wood) but in the sense of rigor. It is a temporal order, tightly structured, and thus susceptible to deconstruction.
…this is now.
But enough of this speculation. Let’s finally get right down to it. There is only the now: you cannot escape it. One can want to live in the past, or just reflect on it, but craft is ultimately a matter of objecthood, and objecthood is presentness. And so perhaps the best way to experience this exhibition is to look not back, or even forward, but to enjoy the richness of what is placed before you, the careful work of another person’s hands. And there is so much here to enjoy. Consider the work of Åsa Jungnelius, whose iconography ranges from cosmetics to pornography, a thrill ride through the varied landscape of pleasure. Or the jewelry of Pia Aleborg, which translates the everyday happenstance of suburban life into spry necklaces – incidents draped around the neck, seemingly at random but with a crazy sense of purpose. Taken in its entirety, this exhibition comes across as many discrete moments of discovery: many individual cries of ‘Eureka.’ The objects of Maria Johansson, which may initially seem to be the odd ones out because of their super-resolved, industrial design qualities, are actually a telling sign of the intent that lies behind this exhibition as a whole. These objects are placed before you, right now, and they want to reach out and touch you. In the end, whether they do this through sheer ingenuity and formal invention, as in Johansson’s case, or through the techniques of Surrealism, bricolage, temporal play, or direct imagery – these details don’t really matter. The point is that craft is still here. It is both rooted and avant garde, playful and profound, evasive and direct. It has many faces, and can be timed by many clocks. That’s the good thing about craft: it’s never too late.