Tag Archives: visual art

The Unknown Craftsperson in Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

The Fine Line section of Unexpected Pleasures

Unexpected Pleasures is an extraordinary achievement. Curator Susan Cohn has gathered together more than 200 key works reflecting the international scene of contemporary jewellery. This mass of work is surprisingly digestible. Rather than arrange them by country or historical movement, she has offered a taxonomic system that maps the creative energies at play in individual pieces.

These ‘idea clusters’ are quite different to the more reductive classifications that might otherwise be found in museums, based on materials or techniques. For instance, ‘Logical solutions’ attends to the creative dimension of componentry in jewellery works. The propositional nature of such groupings engages the visitor more actively than those based on academic criteria.

There’s much more that can be said about the exhibition as a whole, but I would like to respond to one of the specific challenges laid in the section titled A Fine Line. This closed installation at the centre of the gallery functions as the ‘navel’ of the exhibition, identifying the ‘origins of contemporary jewellery today’ in Art, Design, Fashion and Craft.

Practically, this is an opportunity to feature iconic works, such as Annie Alberts’ ‘Necklace’ made from paper clips that prefigures more experimental work to come. More generally, this contextualisation locates contemporary jewellery in a broader kinship system of creative arts.

This is by no means a neutral context. There is a clear value system at work in the way these origins are presented. While works by artists such as Alexander Calder are celebrated, Art as a framework for jewellery creates a remove between the artist and the work. Artists are seen to create jewellery as mostly a secondary concern, akin to merchandising. This distance from making applies to Design as well, though the designer is more comfortable the process of production:

A designer with the ability to create effective jewellery has the sensibility to understand industrial objects with a certain sophistication.

Fashion includes elements of art, design and craft, but it has the additional capacity to engage with sub-cultures in which individuals adapt clothing to create their own identities.

The final origin, Craft, is presented as ‘problematic’. The text argues that it is better to avoid the word in order to overcome ‘ultimately futile questions about the allegedly nostalgic connotations of craft.’ Parallel to fashion, this origin is presented as ‘vernacular self-expression in the anthropological sense.’ There’s a certain unresolved tension here between making and empowerment that prompts further consideration.

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

Unknown artist, Rirratjingu active 1990s, armband 1993, made from feathers

In the book accompanying the exhibition, craft is illustrated with a Bella Herdsman’s pendant from Birkina Faso (1976) and a photo of an ash-covered Dinka elder (1976) wearing a necklace of Dutch beads and smoking an elaborate silver pipe. In the exhibition itself, craft is represented by an armband from Arnhem Land (1993). We see craft through these works as something distant from Western culture.

While the craft section does state that making is relevant to contemporary jewellery, it is positioned in the exhibition as something performed by those ‘other’ to our culture. There are precedents for this. Primitivism has been a key influence in contemporary jewellery, particularly in our corner of the world with Peter Tully and Warwick Freeman. But this primitivism has been mediated by the artists themselves, rather presented as museum pieces.

So what’s happening in this return to ethnography in contemporary jewellery? Maybe it’s progressive. This return could be seen as part of a wider concern to give indigenous arts themselves a platform. Rather than have white artists represent non-Western cultures, it is better to give a voice to those who belong to those same cultures, as in the emergence of a new generation of Aboriginal and Maori jewellers. However, the works identified as ‘craft’ in Unexpected Pleasures are anonymous, so there is little opportunity to enfranchise non-Western artists.

The other side of this is the implied detachment of contemporary jewellery from craft. I think there are two currents at play here. The first is the exhibition’s resolutely cosmopolitan approach. While there are some references to place, such as the Dutch collar of Paul Derrez, contemporary jewellery is represented here as a relatively placeless activity. It is perhaps a sign of maturity that it, like other disciplines such as science or architecture, is presented as an autonomous profession which prizes originality above political correctness. The framework of Craft is at odds with this specialisation. It tends to be more location specific, reflecting traditional skills and local materials. Craft’s implied responsibility to place has potential to compromise creative freedom.

This is a different case for Craft than the one which Robert Baines would make in criticism of the exhibition. Baines champions the discipline of skill and tradition in contemporary jewellery. I would argue that skill does have a link to place. The logic of outsourcing in late capitalism has helped us overlook this.

The second current is the exhibition’s attempt to celebrate the wearer. This is critical to an exhibition which has the capacity, in an unparalleled way, to open up the closed circle of contemporary jewellery to the broader public. Unexpected Pleasures is cast initially to fit the National Gallery of Victoria, which has never before offered a survey exhibition of contemporary jewellery. Craft in this context provides a more internal framework of skill and mastery best understood by the makers themselves. It thus has potential to alienate the broader public.

At the other pole, the exhibition must satisfy the interests of the London Design Museum. A natural framework for Design is to consider contemporary jewellery in terms of its role in everyday life. How does jewellery affect the way people behave in the street? Certainly, the works in Unexpected Pleasures can be read in terms of user experience, such as the framing neckpieces of Gijs Bekker and Otto Künzli. But could this go further? The majority of works are still made primarily for exhibit rather than use. We don’t see work than has been subject to the additional discipline (or compromise) of the market.

Ironically, the one contemporary jeweller who seems to embrace this element of design most fully is Susan Cohn herself. The necessary absence of her work in Unexpected Pleasures is one of the few weak points.

Unexpected Pleasures is likely to prove a seminal moment in contemporary jewellery. It shifts the focus away from the subjective experience of the maker to the desires of the wearer. While this seems a necessary move, it leaves making itself in an uncertain place. Its association with indigenous culture is perhaps a holding position, acknowledging the presence of Craft while separating it from mainstream practice.

This lack of resolution opens the potential for a counter move. The alternative is more about treasures than pleasures—jewellery as a means to forge new and recovered collectivities.

MONA–the Museum of Old and New Art (and craft)

The new MONA in Hobart provides an interesting perspective on the place of craft in contemporary art museums. This $80m museum hosts a collection of contemporary art worth around $100m. It is certainly the high end of culture, though the collector’s generosity has welcomed the public to view it for free.

One of the distinct elements of MONA is the way is eschews curatorial objectivity. The personality of its collector is evident throughout.

The walls are completely free of text or labels. Instead, visitors carry around iPod devices that pick up your location and offer information about nearby art works. Digging down, visitors can learn more. One button offers ‘art speak’ by a curatorial expert and the other titled ‘gonzo’ offers purely idiosyncratic takes, often by the collector, David Walsh, himself. For instance, the Clacoa work by Wim Delvoye features Walsh’s speculation that humans are merely hosts for microbes and will eventually be replaced by machines such as these. Sometimes audio is also available, featuring Walsh’s maniacal laugh as he draws inspiration from the work in question. They have to be a highlight of the museum.

David Walsh occupies a complex position, at once both distant from normality and a popular hero. There are two other figures who he can be compared with.

Glenn Gould was a revered pianist known particularly for his interpretation of Bach. Like Walsh, he is know to have a kind of Asperger’s (a mild version of autism) associated with great feats of mental construction, partly enabled by their disconnection from the world of normal human feelings. Gould’s Asperger’s is not only evident in the obsessive control over the recording process, but also the stray humming that accompanies the piano. Most of us are conditioned to screen out the personal stream of consciousness within from the public performance without. Similarly, MONA is marked not only by its complete control by the collector, but also his unedited free associations on the works.

There is something quite refreshing about this. Our state museums have become so beholden to government interests and marketing, that individual vision rarely surfaces. Though it may seem dictatorial to privilege one person’s vision at MONA, it helps that it is so perverse. A bad leader can be good for democracy.

In this, Walsh also resembles the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg. Like Zuckerberg, Walsh has made his career from algorithms regarding human behaviour. As famously portrayed in the film Social Network, Zuckerberg is also an ‘arsehole’ whose success seems premised on his nerdy quest for revenge against the girl who rejected him. Yet, it is Zuckerberg’s very fallibility that frees the millions of Facebook members from the implied duty to follow a leader. It’s hard to imagine Facebook being as successful if Bill Gates was its founder.

While there is no reason to believe that Walsh has a similar ignoble background, he is hardly a self-consciously upright philanthropist. Accordingly, Walsh’s taste does not come across as authoritative, and more often prompts disagreement. The iPods cater for such responses by offering each visitor the opportunity register their ‘love’ or ‘hate’ a work (there is a rumour that if too many people ‘love’ a work, Walsh will take it away to storage).

The other refreshing part of MONA is the eclecticism of works on display. The collection started as a museum of antiquities, so it is peppered with exquisite works of classical craft, such as a glowing Egyptian faience bowel. To enhance the museum experience, Walsh commissioned a number of local designer-makers such as Pippa Dickson to make unique benches; though their aesthetic license leads them to be mistaken for works of art themselves. And there are a number of a craft works from a variety of media, naturally including Melbourne jeweller-taxidermist Julia deVille.

Walsh has no political ties to craft. He is clearly not trying to be representative of art media. The only element that seems to guide his selection is personal appeal. So given this context, it is reassuring to see that craft quite naturally finds a place among contemporary art. Walsh’s freedom releases him from the hierarchy that besets many state museums that associate craft with amateurism as opposed to the genius of the lone artist.

The MONA experience is huge. The architecture is revelatory. It takes at least two days to see the collection on display. In all this, craft is a relatively incidental feature. But if you put together all the craft works on display, you would have a respectable exhibition in itself. That alone is a reason worth visiting MONA.

Fair’s fair, but there’s also an art to partnership

A recent forum on the Fair Trade model for creative industries proposed that something more is needed to promote equitable cultural partnerships.

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The forum ‘Fair Trade for Creative Labour’ at RMIT’s Design Research Institute explored the regulation of cultural production through accreditation formats like Fair Trade. Speakers included Associate Professor Tim Scrase (Wollongong University), who has published widely in the plight of artisans particularly in India, Linda Chalmers (Oxfam Australia) who product manager for the largest Fair Trade business in Australia dealing with world craft, and Associate Professor Donald Feaver (RMIT University), who specialises in the new field of translational law. This was an unique opportunity to think both critically and constructively about how creative producers in the Global South work with designers and artists from the richer countries.

Tim Scrase began with a strong critical perspective on schemes like Fair Trade. He invoked the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’ to describe a process whereby the meaning of a product is taken out of the hands of the producer. He expressed scepticism of Fair Trade as a system that creates ‘rigmarole’ and doesn’t address the inherent inequity of a market system.

Linda Chalmers was able to respond by describing the Oxfam model. She admitted that the purpose of the trading arm is to make money. But she distinguished this from corporate model where profit flows to shareholders. Instead, it is the producers who benefit. For Chalmers, overarching concern is the broader Oxfam goal of poverty alleviation. She informed us that they currently have 23 shops in Australia which last year sold works to the value of $11m. They represent 100 producer networks from 30 countries. When Oxfam engages with design, it is usually on a philanthropic basis and the designer does not receive any benefit. Part of the partnership is for the designer to pass on their skills so they are no longer needed. Linda advocated for Fair Trade as an evolving system that offered the best deal in working with producers.

Donald Feaver presented a typology of Codes of Practice. He argued that purely internal Codes rarely work. But as globalisation is extending supply chains, it has become increasingly important to find ways of ensuring common standards from beginning to end. Because these extend beyond national boundaries, the development of these codes has been largely beyond the scope of individual nation states, and has instead become largely a private concern. Feaver spoke particularly of the development of a code for CIBJO, the world jewellery body. This provoked much animated discussion about whether a private organisation could be the best vehicle for an ethical code.

The ensuing discussion highlighted a divide between the Fair Trade model and the ‘high end’ of the market. The textile artist Samorn Sanixay spoke about being approached by an exclusive design store to stock her product made in Laos. On being a given a price for her scarves, they responded that they were ‘too cheap to sell’ – their customers would only buy these if they were triple the price. She queried how Fair Trade could reach this end of the market.

The discussion identified a current limit to the Fair Trade model in how it deals with creative products, such as ‘designer goods’ or art works. Fair Trade has been identified particularly with agriculture where the primary focus is worker’s wages and conditions. In creative products, there are less easily measured values such as authenticity and intellectual property. Standards for these differ between and within cultures.

At the moment, there are important moves within Fair Trade to accommodate these issues. For instance, the draft Sustainable Fair Trade Management System has a provision:

6.5.4 Where the Organisation produces direct copies of existing designs that have not been produced by its own designers, it obtains and retains documentary evidence that the copying of a design is agreed upon by the original designer or producer group.

Fair Trade is providing an important base on which supply chains can be made equitable. But as the forum’s discussion identified, there can be problems with a system of accreditation which enables retailers to tick boxes without critically appraising what’s happening on the ground. This is not a problem with Fair Trade per se, but with the limits of an international and necessary bureaucratic structure.

Designers like Samorn Sanixay seem to be wanting something in addition. The issue of cultural sensitivity was raised as critical in developing partnerships with traditional producers. It’s difficult to imagine any system of accreditation being able to cover issues such as appropriateness of designs used in different contexts. This requires trust and openness between the guest designer and host community. A well-built relationship has the potential to involve producers more creatively in the process of product development.

There seems a need for an extension of the Fair Trade system which enables critical reflection on the issues involved in collaboration. This would both set out important principles in how partnerships are developed and provide a conversation where individual experiences could add to a collective wisdom. In addition to the minimal standards for accreditation, this could pose aspirational goals for ideal practice.

Fair Trade is certainly one of the most significant developments this century in the promotion of world craft. It’s enabled hundreds of craft cooperatives to find a market for their work and assured consumers about the benefits of their purchase to producers. It’s currently in a state of rapid evolution as it tries to keep step with ever expanding expectations of a Fair Trade model. Could we imagine a Fair Trade art? That’s a question still to be answered, but it is likely to involve more than fulfilling accreditation criteria. What might that be?

This conversation will continue next month at the UNESCO workshop on craft-design collaborations in Santiago. Craft Unbound will continue to feature examples of artists, craftspersons and designers working across the cultural divide. As they straddle rich and poor worlds, heritage and sustainability values, their stories deepen our understanding of how the world fits together. In the future, we can begin to identify what these principles are.

One possible place to start would be with Nelson Mandela’s advice, ‘the first thing is to be honest with yourself’.

Art and artisans: the debate we had to have

I’ve recently taken up an honorary position as Adjunct Professor at RMIT University in the School of Art. On Wednesday night, I was asked to give a keynote in that capacity at a symposium entitled ‘Art & Globalization: Urban Futures and Aesthetic Relations’, organised in association with the Global Cities Research Institute. The lecture came at the end of a fascinating day—the breadth of papers showing the advantage of the college system at RMIT which enables dialogue between fields such as visual arts, architecture and landscape design. My paper followed a number that  reviewed the field of public art in response to growing democratisation. The very animated discussion at the end was particularly significant, and deserves reflection here.

My paper presented many of the cases featured in Craft Unbound within the context of visual arts. While product development is usually seen as a combination of craft and design, it is increasingly found now in symbolic spaces such as an art galleries.

In modernism, the boundaries that separate art from life are continually tested—from Duchamp’s readymade to more recent relational art that turns an art gallery into a restaurant. In recent times, such boundaries have been seen as increasingly political, particularly the divide between Global South and North that underpins the economic basis of the art world.

When we view such work, we not only judge it according to how it pleases us, but also the meaning it seems to have for those involved. Such work can forge new relationships that test our preconceptions about the possible relationships between North and South.

Danius Kesminas’ Punkasila project, for example, provides an alternative to the conventional path of Western artist who seeks to honour pre-modern traditions. Something as foreign as punk music may be seen to engage local Indonesians in a high-spirited collaboration. Whether we approve of that, or not, it gives us an alternative path to consider. Art gives us this space to experiment.

Some of the discussion that followed the paper expressed scepticism that an Australian artist working with a traditional artisan could ever be in the interests of both. An alternative strategy was raised in the work of Spanish artist Santiago Sierra, who exposes power relations through spectacles of humiliation where, for instance, he pays workers to move a heavy rock between A and B without reason. For some, such work is seen as more honest about the power relations—it calls a spade a spade.

This debate was important. It was a rare opportunity to air this scepticism in a public forum. My response was that we need to question our tendency to assume that art which involves the Global South must exclusively be a matter of revealing injustice. This is certainly not to deny that such injustice exists, but to allow for a point of view from the other side that does not want to play the role of victim. This is to assume that an artisan, or artist, might want the opportunity to create new works, get to know a foreigner and earn some money. This reflects the new confident voices from the Global South emerging around the Kyoto Protocol.

So how can we be sure that such collaborations have meaning for both parties? What stops such collaborations being used to gloss over real inequities? In the case of coffee, we have the Fair Trade label to give us confidence that our purchase does good. It would seem very important now to engage in research that found meaningful ways of reflecting the points of view of all involved. This is what’s currently in development with the Code of Practice for Craft-Design Collaborations.

The discussion revealed the very important role that an institution like RMIT can play as an academic forum in which to critically discuss trends emerging in cultural production. I am grateful to the audience who raised these issues, and hope we can find ways to inform this dialogue in the future.

As they say in Laos, ‘If you like things easy, you’ll have difficulties; if you like problems, you’ll succeed’.