Articles & Reviews
Book Review by Linda Sandino
Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London
Craft in Dialogue: Six Views on a Practice in Change
Love Jönsson [ed]
Cloth, 102 pages, 60 colour illustrations
The term 'dialogue' is used metaphorically in this engaging but theoretically somewhat tired book of six essays on contemporary Swedish craft by curators, writers and practitioners. Craft in Dialogue [ CiD ] is the outcome of three-year project funded by the Swedish Visual Arts Fund and its goal was to 'develop and investigate working methods for increased international exchange in the field of crafts' [p7]. Only two of its contributors, Jivan Astfalck and Kristina Niedderer, are based outside Sweden and all the essays focus on Scandinavian work with ceramics featuring prominently in all cases.
Design curator Henrik Most draws on Paul Virilio, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Michael Polanyi, and even manages to squeeze in a reference to Gayatri Spivak, in order to hammer home that 'craft will not knuckle under to feverish 21-st century technology' [p 27]. While it is always gratifying to see the handmade supported by the A-Team of critical theory, to English readers these debates are too dog-eared and familiar, having been a staple of contextual studies for many years.1 In a similar vein Jivan Astfalck deploys Baudrillard to ponder on the semiotics of craft in a consumer society. While this could be a fruitful path to pursue, it is a shame that the argument is so cursorily declaimed rather than fully explored, as is Kristina Niedderer's too literal 'Exploring the Expressive Potential of Function'.
Malin Vessby's 'The Handling of Materials' is an insightful account of the reinvigoration of traditional techniques such as sandcasting, as a reaction against Scandinavian modernism, in the ceramics of Sven Möller, and Jussi Ojala although he also considers the work of silversmith Jenny Edlund. Vessby draws a parallel between current trends and those prevalent in the politicised 1960s, examined in more detail in Pernilla Åbrink's 'The Silent Heroes' which discusses work by Britt-Ingrid Persson (Bip) whose ceramic sculpture Muscle Brain (1976) became for many years the symbol of Amnesty International. Åbrink points to the significance of organisations and groups in fostering debate and a sense of identity amongst practitioners in the 1950/60s and currently. Of particular note are Uglycute whose aims are to critique 'icon modernism', and WWIAFM [We Work In A Fragile Material], ten members who work individually but also as a group with a rotating leadership and who propose 'ten different ways of approaching crafts and related areas. That [sic] covers gadgets, texts, knick-knacks, objects, techniques, opinions and methods' [p 71]. Her essay ends with the work of artist/ceramicist Jakob Robertsson's symbolic reworking of modernist Stig Lindberg's porcelain set Berså [Arbour] as marking the end of Swedish welfare aims of the 1960s. 'Time', Åbrink suggests 'to burn up the ideals of the past and make room for new ones' [p 77].
Love Jönssen's intriguing title 'Life Among Things: the Continuous Present' is the starting point for a meditation on the temporal shift in people's relationship to objects which is now 'governed by appetites more than need' [p 83]. After a measured elaboration on the phenomenological significance of the vessel/jug in Heidegger's 'The Thing' , Jönssen examines works by artist ceramicists including Kjell Rylander, Anders Ruhwald, Gunhild Vatn, and Hertha Hillfon (amongst others) to map the shifting thematics in contemporary Scandinavian craft practice and their engagement with cultural and social issues: 'Artists bring up what is there, not what used to be there or what could be envisioned as forthcoming. What is configured in the representations of the thing world is a continuous and inescapable present' [p 90].
Jönssen's essay is a model of the integration of history, theory and critique providing an insightful commentary on practice and its objects. Nevertheless all the essays offer starting points for discussion about the nature of contemporary craft, and the parallels with the UK context is striking: the role of the handmade in post-industrial culture, functionality v symbolization, craft as the 'shifting signifier', craft as art, craft as cultural critique. In one area, however, Scandinavian practice seems less tortured: its relation to design, possibly since, as the historian Gillian Naylor noted of Swedish modernism its aim was to 'mass-produce in the spirit of craftsmanship'.2 So although craft tendencies in design have infiltrated UK design through the example of Dutch groups such as Droog, craft and design in Britain continue in an uneasy relationship.3
CiD is well illustrated though plates are at the back of the book rather than integrated into each contributor's essay. As sometimes happens with books about craft, there are additional decorative graphic intrusions: a decorative endpaper, unusual typographic titles and numbering as well as a humorous (cheesy) cover which omits the title only to be found on the spine. Perhaps this alludes to the complexity of craft as commodity but it subverts the serious intentions of the CiD project, which has on the whole cogently disseminated current debates in Scandinavian crafts and their context.
1. On the crafts see for instance John Thackara, Design After Modernism: Beyond the Object, London, Thames & Hudson, 1988; Peter Dormer, The Art of the Maker, London, Thames & Hudson, 1994; conference proceedings from Obscure Objects of Desire, University of East Anglia, 10-12 January, 1997, T. Harrod (ed), London, UEA/Crafts Council. back to text
2. Gillian Naylor, 'Swedish Grace ... or The Acceptable Face of Modernism', in Paul Greenhalgh [ed], Modernism in Design, London, Reaktion Books,1990. back to text
3. See 'Dangerous Liaisons: Relationships between Design, Craft and Art', Journal of Design History, Special Issue, vol. 17 no. 3, 2004. back to text
|Book Review by Linda Sandino Issue 7|