Craft in Context: Inheritance and Environment

Crafts 2014.
Cecilie Tyri Holt take a look at exhibition making and craft

The perception of a work of fine craft is strongly marked by the accrued status that craft artists have fought for and received. Nevertheless, the work is also marked by its immediate exhibitionary environment. The question is – what is it that most shapes a work’s expression: inheritance or environment? Does the perception of a work of fine craft benefit from being challenged, or will its expression be too much marked if, in this process, it ends up in a bad environment?

In a review of the exhibition Craft 2014 (KODE, Art Museums of Bergen, 19 Sep. – 14 Dec. 2014), the newspaper Morgenbladet’s art critic Sigrun Hodne writes that she has ‘never – ever – seen a worse exhibition design than that made for the 37th annual exhibition of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (NK)’. When art is removed from its traditional white cube, the viewer’s relation to and reading of the works is challenged. NK’s annual exhibition tends to transpire in relative silence; it does not generate much discussion except amongst insiders. This year, however, many people have voiced opinions about the exhibition, since the selected works’ environment at KODE, rather than being a white cube, takes the form of an urban landscape covered with tagging.

«The environment forms the reading of an exhibition, but how great an influence should it have?»

Martino Gamper: Installation view, design is a state of mind, Martino Gamper: Turnaround 2011 (Teak, coloured veneer, block board with maple edges)

Shelf context

In spring 2014, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London, the designer Martino Gamper curated the exhibition Design Is a State of Mind. The space was filled with various types of shelving designed between the 1930s and today. It contained design classics and unique shelving by the likes of Ettore Sottsass, Charlotte Perriand and Giò Ponti, but also shelving systems from IKEA. In combination, they demonstrate the way we present, archive and organize our property. Gamper filled the shelves with objects selected from his friends and colleagues’ private collections.

What struck me when visiting Gamper’s exhibition was that my perception changed during the visit. At first I moved from object to object, up close and observing, then I stepped back. Only then did I notice the shelving systems. The presentation. The exhibition architecture. The environment in which the objects were presented, which in many cases consisted of shelving systems that were artworks in their own right. The environment forms the reading of an exhibition, but how great an influence should it have?

Also this year, Marianne Zamecznic curated the degree show for students earning a ‘Master of Visual Art’ at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO). She focused on the idea of mediating craft art by challenging the students to make their own degree shows. This resulted in the establishment of an artists’ group and the presentation of over thirty projects in a range of contexts; everything from lectures, church masses, models, meals, radio programs and journal articles to exhibitions. At Galleri Seilduken (KHiO’s gallery), the students did not present the works themselves, but representations of the exhibitions they had already made – so-called avatars. In this way, the exhibition mediated the exhibitions, instead of the students’ works. Zamecznic’s strategy triggered both positive and critical voices through its focus on the problems of mediating craft art. Is the public’s ability to encounter, experience and interpret an artwork best achieved by presenting the work itself in a gallery space, or by presenting a representation of it?

«the students did not present the works themselves, but representations of the exhibitions they had already made – so-called avatars»

Installation view, the degree show for students earning a ‘Master of Visual Art’ at Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO)

Demanding context

Morten Skjærpe Knarrum and Jonas Norheim (Morten & Jonas) have made the much-discussed exhibition design for Craft 2014. They say they are used to seeing craft art exhibited in neutral environments. The idea underlying their design was to put the works in an urban environment:

‘This should emphasize the objects and give viewers a tool for reflecting over qualities and expressions they wouldn’t normally notice. This exhibition requires that you use a bit of time on each individual work. It’s important to trigger engagement and discussions about mediating art’, they explain.

The question is whether Morten & Jonas, in developing their concept, the aim of which was to create discussions and engagement, have taken into account what the involvement of a completely different creative expression adds to the exhibition, or what emerges when tagging and works of fine craft are combined.

Øystein Hauge, in his review of Craft 2014 for the newspaper Bergens Tidende, castigates the exhibition design:

‘I would gladly have spoken differently and focused on to the objects in the exhibition, which actually point to a more penetrating, contemporary discourse. But my judgment in BT concerns the screechingly discordant mix of impudence and competence. It rids the exhibition space of all seriousness. Tagging or graffiti as visual culture holds contemplation in contempt. I think most of us associate it with a subversive lifestyle. An attitude of protest. Here there is no belief behind it. No revolt. Only décor. An over-obvious agenda. A saucy wish to create an atmosphere of confrontation. Instead, the designers expose their incompetence. As if they know neither what is important nor what is expected.’

Installation view, Crafts 2014
Installation view, Crafts 2014

«It’s important to trigger engagement and discussions about mediating art»

Morten Skjærpe Knarrum and Jonas Norheim (Morten & Jonas)

Forms of presentation become conventions
Nina Malterud, ceramicist and former professor and rector of Bergen Academy of Art and Design, describes Craft 2014’s exhibition design not only as banal but as a hindrance to the works:

‘The exhibition design introduces maximal turbulence. I sense a desire for sensationalism; as if to say to the participant/viewer: ‘Now you’re scandalized, you haven’t seen this before’, and this irritates me. I don’t think the banal exhibition design corresponds with the seriousness and complexity of the selected works. The imitated tagging, which appears similar to a kind of window décor, dominates the room. The designers’ concept is carried out at the expense of the artworks. This, I feel, is an unacceptable prioritization for this type of exhibition. Those who contributed works to the show didn’t have any knowledge of the design concept until after their part of the project was finished, so it’s unclear where the professional responsibility lies.’

Malterud asserts, however, that for all art forms, it is imperative that they be challenged through new presentational forms and contexts:

‘Over time forms of presentation become conventions. And even though conventions can serve a purpose, new forms must be tested out. An exhibition-design concept must be developed in relation to specific possibilities, the time available and the location. What is ‘new’, however, is always discussable: total revolution or small displacements?’

«I don’t think the banal exhibition design corresponds with the seriousness and complexity of the selected works»

Nina Malterud

Curatorial specialization

But to return to Hauge’s review in Bergens Tidende; he describes works of fine craft as ‘high-quality artworks as far as most people are concerned, yet not completely on par with their own era’. He also claims that craft art is in a psychosis, culturally as well as socially:

‘There are opposing camps. On one side we find an insistence on a materialistic aesthetic closely connected to everyday practices. On the other side, an insistence that the works be read through the lens of contemporary art. Those who stand in one camp are outside the other – and vice-versa. If you choose to exhibit craft art as contemporary art, this becomes just one strategy amongst many. A way of working. Neither freer nor more contemporary than the context affords. In the contemporary art scene, what matters is to understand and wield language. For craft artists, what matters is to repair it.’

In saying this, Hauge distinguishes between craft art and contemporary art. A relevant question in this context is whether curators and exhibition architects should relate differently to the presentation of craft art versus other visual art forms, and whether some of them should specialize in the field of craft art.

‘Yes, mediation is an art, regardless. All professional fields need professionals, especially those that are in the process of eroding’, says Hauge.

John Raustein, jury chairman for Craft 2014, disagrees with Hauge, arguing that it is unnecessary to operate with two approaches to presentation – one for craft art, another for other forms of visual art.

‘Many works in Craft 2014 are also read as contemporary, conceptually-strong works of art. A steadily-increasing number of craft artists are working at the intersection between craft and conceptual art. The works are thus defined according to the context they are exhibited in. But I agree that one should have special knowledge about craft art, if the aim is to safeguard its qualities and essence’, says Raustein.

«If you choose to exhibit craft art as contemporary art, this becomes just one strategy amongst many»

Øystein Hauge

No division

KODE’s curator Trond Indahl was involved in the process of launching Craft 2014. His view is that, in principle, no distinction should be made between the presentation of craft art and other forms of visual art:

‘In 2013 I co-curated the exhibition Wet, Wild and Beautiful at KODE, where we presented oil paintings and ceramic works alongside each other. We emphasized presenting the works as of equal value, side-by-side, without hierarchy, in an experimental exhibition that we ourselves deemed successful. In the field of art in general, we should seek to develop good curators and exhibition architects. My experience is that there are too few people who have experience with exhibition design, and deep insight into it. At KODE, we’ve on several occasions initiated design competitions in connection with larger exhibition projects. Sometimes this has been successful; other times it’s been difficult to get good and creative solutions to exhibition design’, says Indahl.

Well-thought-out presentation

Nina Malterud asserts that it is wrong to treat craft art as different from other forms of visual art in the exhibitionary context:

‘All presentations need careful artistic and conceptual consideration. Underlying a presentational form, there must be a main idea, consideration of the character of each and every work, their robustness, and so forth. Fine-tuned material qualities, which exist in craft art as well as in other types of art, must be taken into account when the works are mounted. Collective exhibitions incur different challenges than solo exhibitions, since the interests of each participant must be taken seriously whilst simultaneously being subordinated to the interest of the whole group.’

It is obvious, she says, that the field of craft art requires more in-depth experience, greater awareness and more critical discussion:

‘There’s a need for curators and exhibition architects who have both experience and humility. I believe also that craft artists, there where they reign, to a far greater extent must take responsibility for the space, furniture, light and shadow around their works, and gain qualification so they can develop specific exhibitionary forms that strengthen the potential of their works,’ Malterud concludes.

«In the field of art in general, we should seek to develop good curators and exhibition architects»

Trond Indahl
Installation view, Crafts 2014

The works’ essential nature

Morten & Jonas argue that if curators and exhibition architects specialize in craft art, an unnecessary gap will emerge between the various art-disciplines. The focus should be on the works, the room, and the mediational intentions for the specific exhibition.

Elisabeth Sørheim, NK’s director of programmes, is positive to the idea of there being a different approach to the presentation of craft art contra other types of visual art in the exhibitionary context:

‘Yes, I think many possibilities lie within craft arts’ essential nature. Maybe there are unused possibilities, which an exhibition architect or curator can lay hold of. But I don’t necessarily believe in curatorial specialization. To recognize the works’ essential nature – that, I believe, is the key to facilitating the public’s engagement and interpretive experiences. This concerns both oral and written interpretation, and also the purely physical shaping of the presentation’, says Sørheim.
The anchoring of qualities

It all boils down to an attempt to elucidate a quality or attribute by presenting it against the background of inheritance or immediate environment. Should the qualities of craft art be elucidated using an approach involving inheritance and the history of fine craft, or should a new environment be used to form an independent, timeless expression? To see Norwegian craft as being rooted in 1970s agitation and containing strong references to functional art is a perception that probably will soon die out. The generation after us lacks the same interpretive horizon and will probably see craft art as more distanced from its inheritance than we see it today. New generations can come to interpret craft art as having a more autonomous expression, or perhaps ‘naturally’ related to design or other forms of visual art.

In the field of biology, inheritance and environment are understood to influence all organisms, and to define the difference between one thing and another. It is interesting to translate this theme to the field of craft art. By ‘breeding’ curators and exhibition architects who specialize in developing different environments and contexts for the presentation of craft art, we will probably end up cultivating the differences between craft art and other types of visual art. The question is – do we want to cultivate the similarities or the differences?

According to Øystein Hauge, craft art is a professional field in the process of deteriorating. Are we hindering Hauge’s apocalyptic prophecy from being fulfilled by taking one step away from inheritance or by presenting it in a challenging environment?

This article is also published in Norwegian in Kunsthåndverk 4/ 2014 - the Norwegian journal for crafts and design.