Saturday, February 02, 2008

Elemental Connections + Making Matters Symposium

From R.A.U. Feels' Owen Sound Art Review

The following is the second instalment of a three-part recount of the symposium
Making Matters: Sustainability and Craft Practices held at the Tom Thomson Art Gallery January 19, 2003.

Arlene Gehring, "Elemental Connections"

Independent Canadian curator and writer Arlene Gehring focused her attention on a recent exhibition she curated at the Ontario Crafts Council. Mounted between September 27 and November 12 2007,
Elemental Connections: An Exhibition of Sustainable Craft brought together artists and craftspeople from across the country whose work makes use of naturally-occurring, handmade and, in one sense or another, renewable materials. A comprehensive list of the artists that took part in the exhibition appears below.

One of the first things Gehring pointed out was the range of approaches artists in the exhibition have to the whole idea of craft. Elemental Connections did not privilege only the aesthetically- or conceptually-innovative. Sure, there were works that blurred the presupposed boundaries between craft and art, either by using recognized craft materials in non-traditional ways or by producing traditional craft objects in unorthodox ways. And many of the contributors clearly thought and made not only outside established traditions of craft production, but some also embraced both suggestive and subversive themes. With the stark and precise presentation sense of a true-blue ornithologist, Tara Bursey ( fashions physiologically-correct replicas of actual bird wings using onion skin. The wings at once seem to flutter against the paper they are mounted to, and to stain it. Chantal Gilbert's ( Bestioles series, in which she mounts her handmade pocket knives onto armatures resembling insect bodies, merges exquisite craftsmanship with a kind of sci-fi feminist-surrealism to produce irresistibly threatening fetish objects.

But Bursey and Gilbert's contemporary and thematically-driven use of craft methods and materials were not the only approaches witnessed in
Elemental Connections. Given the underlying premise of the exhibition - craft demonstrating the knowledgeable interaction between the artist's hand and naturally-occurring and renewable media - there was, for Gehring, no reason to exclude craftspeople working in what she called "older traditions." By older traditions she was referring to those whose work reflects the unsullied application of established techniques - bowl-turning, or weaving for example - toward producing the mostly functional objects commonly associated with those techniques - bowls, baskets, etc. Examples of such works in the exhibition included the turned burl-bowls of Don Stinson and the woven kelp-gourd bowls of Anne Boquist.

However, most of the pieces stood somewhere between the unorthodox and the older traditions, incorporating both. The corn dollies of Daniel Kramer, for example: woven since Antiquity out of the last sheaf at the end of harvest as a way of containing the field's spirit, corn dollies were then ploughed back into the earth the following season to ensure prosperous harvest the following year. Seen today, they resonate as at once a sort of harbinger of potential environmental collapse and also remind us that powerful symbols can come from the most modest of means.

Apart from the craft and art work she introduced, my interest and curiosity was piqued also by a two-part claim Gehring made (which was subsequently reiterated by the symposium's keynote, Eric Nay). Gehring stated that an ideal "common cause" exists among craftspeople to produce objects that are environmentally sustainable. She then went onto say that, at its root, "craft production is inherently about environmental sustainability." I was, at first, confused and incredulous; was she saying that there are no craft methods and materials that are ecologically invasive or detrimental to the biosphere in some way? The very fact that craft materials cannot always be obtained locally, and that some materials and by-products are notoriously toxic seems to cast doubt on this assertion. Or was she simply speaking comparatively, in relation to the world of industrial manufacturing?

What I think Gehring meant when she linked craft necessarily to sustainability was that, considered at its anthropological root, craft knowledge is fundamental, basic, essential: it is a knowledge gained from working with one's own two hands on and with the earth. In other words, it is a knowledge embodied, and therefore a knowledge borne from the body's interaction with the direct and immediate environment. With this sort of knowledge comes a keener sensibility about the value of resources.

At least I think that's what Gehring meant.

This sounds well-and-good, but it also makes me a bit uneasy. Gehring is not simply offering a contingent definition of what craft happens to be; she is making an aesthetic value judgement about what good craft ought to be. Or rather, she is building the ethical obligation to make craft environmentally sustainable into the sensual or aesthetic appreciation of the craft object. Given her understanding of what craft is, any object manufactured in ways, or using materials, which contradict the sustainability clause is simply excluded from the possibility of being good craft. Are we really ready to exclude all objects made using some form of petroleum by-product from the pale? What about inherent toxicity of some of the materials inherent to particular craft traditions? Moreover, would it be possible to draw hard-and-fast lines between things made by hand and those disconnected from the hand? I couldn't help but feel that what Gehring was trying to offer up with
Elemental Connections was a radically puritanical understanding of craft. This is not necessarily a negative criticism of either her or the exhibition. The pieces and the curatorial selection of those pieces seemed exquisite. I'm more intrigued than anything that someone has the wherewithal to insist on a necessary connection between the value of something as craft, and the way that something was produced.

Elemental Connections
included work by Anne Boquist, Tara Bursey, Karen Cantine, Joanna Close, Paul Gray Diamond, Phyllis Erwin, Mary Fox, Chantal Gilbert, Andrea Graham, Vivienne Jones, Daniel Kramer, Nancy Latchford, Ryan Legassicke, Julie Lockau, Les Manning, Kirk Mceathron, Catherine Paleczny, Bernadette Pratt, Ann Schneider, Don Stinson, Ione Thorkelsson.

Pictured: Tara Bursey, Wing Study- House Sparrow, onion skin and adhesive on paper (2007)


Sandra Wilson said...

Hi Tara
Enjoyed reading this post. I have recently started my own blog and am trying to explore similar issues

Sandra Wilson said...

Incidentally i think the common cause both speakers are referring to is the fact that craft and sustainability both arose to directly counter the mechanistic worldview - based on Descartes and Newtons philosophy that all things can be explained by mechanical principles! I have argued elsewhere that Craft & sustainability by contrast are founded on an Organic worldview that puts the emphasis on relationship with nature rather than control. This also shifts our attention away from individual intentions (eg to not work with toxic materials) as in a mechanistic worldview towards working with materials in a way that enables objects to emerge. Still trying to articulate the distinctions between intention and will....
Appreciating your posting of these issues.