Crafts and Objecthood

Editorial for Norwegian Crafts Magazine 4/ 2012: Materiality Revisited

On 16 September dOCUMENTA (13) closed its doors. This exhibition of modern and contemporary art, known as the ‘100-day museum’, is held every fifth year in Kassel, Germany. Today it is considered to be a unique phenomenon within exhibition-making, and among the most important art exhibitions in the world. Growing out of the Federal Horticultural Show, documenta (lower-case ‘d’ intended) was started by art professor and designer Arnold Bode, as an attempt to reintroduce the modern and contemporary artists whom the Nazis had considered entartete (degenerate).

The thirteenth edition of the exhibition was on display from 9 June to 16 September and divided between more than 30 venues, not the least of which were Karlsaue Park, the local train station, Orangerie (the museum for astronomy and the history of technology), Neue Galerie, documenta-Halle, Ottoneum (the natural history museum), and Documenta’s main exhibition space called Fridericianum. The whole city of Kassel was turned into a magnificent spectacle of art through contributions from more than 300 people – not just artists, but writers, philosophers and a diverse group of theorists and scientists. The show attracted more than 860,000 visitors. In addition to the exhibition in Kassel, dOCUMENTA (13) had venues outside Germany: in Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo and Banff.

«The exhibition approaches objects as quasi-subjects, unfolding the histories that have shaped them and that they in turn have shaped»

Alex Farquharson

What makes documenta an exhibitionary phenomenon is its critical and political investigation into contemporary culture and its simultaneous attempt to discuss concepts related to exhibition making. Freize d/e’s editor Jennifer Allen considers that what makes documenta special – and different from biennials – is the existence of a dialectical relation between each new documenta and the one that preceded it (i). Throughout the history of documenta, different models of curating have been investigated, and there has been a sustained effort to include an increasing number of female and non-Western artists. If you consider the show ‘a laboratory’ for testing possible models for the social world, as Helen Molesworth suggests in frieze on documenta (ii), and in light of the anti-hierarchical politics of contemporary and post-modern art, it seems logical that the show should attempt to build down power structures between men and women and between the West and the rest of the world. These power structures are also evident in the artworld.

In a press release, artistic director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and her team stated that dOCUMENTA (13) ‘was dedicated to artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory’, and that these are ‘terrains where politics are inseparable from a sensual, energetic, and worldly alliance between current research in various scientific and artistic fields and other knowledges [sic], both ancient and contemporary’. Curator and art critic Erlend Hammer describes Christov-Bakargiev’s curatorial project as re-establishing the curator as subject.(iii) He claims that she has ‘managed to establish something close to a parodical reincarnation of the all-overshadowing, dominant curatorial figure from the 90s.’ But he seems to think this is something positive, although there is no coherent concept to be found in the exhibition. In interviews, Christov-Bakargiev has stressed that she wanted to ‘make a meaningful cultural project without concept’, because she considers that an overarching concept would overshadow ‘the work of culture’.(iv) Hammer seems to think she has succeeded.

However interesting the aspects of curating may be, and however interesting the political and critical aspects of art, I mention dOCUMENTA (13) here for another reason: the exhibition deals with objects and materiality. As Alex Farquharson, director of the art centre Nottingham Contemporary puts it, the exhibition introduces ‘the biography of objects’.(v) He goes on to state that ‘Objects in dOCUMENTA (13) – the majority of which are the work of artists – are primarily valued for their encoded social, political and cultural relations, even when they are singularly authored. The exhibition approaches objects as quasi-subjects, unfolding the histories that have shaped them and that they in turn have shaped.’

«Christov-Bakargiev’s project is in many ways perfectly in tune with the approaches today discussed as “speculative realism”»

Daniel Birnbaum

This interest in the object-world and the understanding of cultural objects as loaded with ‘social, political and cultural relations’ is something I find important to address. Taking a short detour through documenta 12, artistic director Roger M. Buergel addresses the modern distinction between ‘fine art’ and craft as something ‘misleading’ that he ‘wanted to overcome’.(vi) Meanwhile, the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Daniel Birnbaum, states in Artforum that the ‘psychoanalytic language’ used by Christov-Bakargiev ‘here collides with the idiom of a new, object-oriented philosophy that wants to liberate us once and for all from anthropocentrism and consider instead what the catalogue calls the “inanimate makers of the world.”’ In fact, Birnbaum asserts, ‘Christov-Bakargiev’s project is in many ways perfectly in tune with the approaches today discussed as “speculative realism,” with its ambition to rid our thinking of the obsession with that historically overemphasized relationship between a perceiving subject and a known object.’(vii)

The reason for mentioning all this is that it appears that the two last documentas have found a renewed interest in the material world; the contemporary artworld has been preoccupied with ideas since the 1960s conceptualists put forth their platonic view that the material world is a lesser world than the world of ideas. In this issue of, curator Line Halvorsen discusses the same tendencies from a local point of view. Invited to contribute to the catalogue for the annual Craft exhibition in the Museum of Decorative Arts in Oslo, Halvorsen, in her essay ‘Something Tangible with an Aura’, reflects on how materials have come to play an important role in today’s contemporary art practices. Her essay is published here in full. Like this editorial, Halvorsen takes dOCUMENTA (13) into consideration when presenting evidence that materiality is being valued anew. She concludes that ‘the genuine and handmade aspects of art become important. Things produced in a context of calm, in-depth study and material presence show endurance.’

«the genuine and handmade aspects of art become important»

Line Halvorsen

In his infamous essay Art and Objecthood (1967),(viii) art critic Michael Fried addresses Minimalist Art, which he calls ‘literalist art’, as ‘a new genre of theater’, and he considers that ‘theater is now the negation of art’. With the concept of theatricality, he dismisses that ‘literalist art’ holds qualities as Art. Pure art should be about the object per se, not the relations between the object and the beholder. Fried describes, maybe without knowing it, a transgression from the authoritarian art-object of the Modernism described by Clement Greenberg, to a fragmented, multifaceted Post-modernism. From Fried’s description of relations between the object, the world outside it, and the viewer, one can (retrospectively) sense the relational aesthetics of Nicolas Bourriaud.(ix)

What Bourriaud describes in his book Relational Asethetics (Eng. 2002), is ‘a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space’.(x) And often these artworks contain no objects that have any meaning per se, since they are merely functional objects or ‘props’. The theatricality that Fried feared in the sixties had become a full-fledged art form by the early nineties. The role of art today is, according to Bourriaud, ‘no longer to form imaginary and utopian realities, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real, whatever scale chosen by the artist’.(xi)

Considering crafts – which are’s primary concern – it would seem as though the concept of ‘an aesthetic of relations’ re-introduces the aspect of the functionality of objects: not primarily a design-functionality, or a functionality per se, but what could be seen as the objects’ functionality as vehicles (or vessels) for ‘encoded social, political and cultural relations’. In for example the works of Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist Bourriaud mentions frequently, the traditional art object is absent and is replaced by a social situation. Tiravanija had his breakthrough in the early nineties with works such as Untitled (Free). For this work, which was exhibited at 303 Gallery in New York in 1992, Tiravanija created a functional kitchen within the gallery walls and served Thai curry. The kitchen – the pots and pans, the oven etc. – is not valued as an ‘installation’ or object, but most certainly has an important function for the social situation it enables: the making and eating of Thai curry in the gallery.

The objects thus obtain meaning through their use and, recollecting Alex Farquharson’s words on objects in dOCUMENTA (13), they obtain meaning through ‘the histories that have shaped them and that they in turn have shaped’. A crafted object holds an interesting ‘biography’ from the start. Usually it has a starting point in the material and, even though an idea or a function will precede the actual making of the object, the object itself is made when a maker, designer or manufacturer forms the material into something tangible. The hands-on experience, the ‘battle’ between maker and material, is an important aspect of the crafted object. The ‘fingerprints’ of the maker connect the object to a subjectivity; the object is thus the expression of an individual (in most cases). An equally important aspect is how and what the object communicates.

«the aspect of use and function turns the crafted object into a ‘vessel’ for action, for being in the world and for relations»

‘Arts and crafts appear to be more closely related to the museums of anthropology and ethnography, this is because they are objects that are indexical of both everyday life and of collective thinking, which means they are social objects’, Juan A. Gaitan states in a discussion with Christer Dynna published in this issue of The term social objects once again makes me think of Bourriaud and the aspect of relations. Gaitan continues: ‘I think I’’m pointing to the tension between craftsmanship for craftsmanship’’s sake and craftsmanship as a way of life, and as a way of responding to life, to life’s everyday needs, and to the visual material produced in response to these needs, be it announcements, advertisement, posters or protest signs.’

‘Craftsmanship for craftsmanship’s’ sake seems to be related to the art that Michael Fried is putting forward as ‘pure art’. While ‘craftsmanship as /…/ a way of responding to life, to life’s everyday needs’ seems to be closer to the ‘theatricality’ that Fried is condemning in his article, the aspect of use and function turns the crafted object into a ‘vessel’ for action, for being in the world and for relations. Even in studio-craft, which may be more about the object as an (aesthetic) object, the use-value is implied, and it is illustrated in this issue of by an article about the porcelain works of Sidsel Hanum. She has made vessels ‘so big, you can take a bath in them’, as art critic Lars Elton puts it. You wouldn’t however actually take a bath in them, as that would probably destroy them. But the functionality of the objects is here present on a mental level, as indicated by a possibility to function as something.

«To stretch the horizon of practice beyond the limits of the art world, an artist needs an element of design. Relational craft brings design into the aesthetic process»

Kevin Murray

In his article, Elton reflects on the rifted surface of some of Hanum’s works, saying ‘the expression was of a self-harmer, someone who abuses his or her own body in an effort to deal with psychic pain’. Elton thus reads a psychological dimension into the objects – resembling the ‘psychoanalytic language’ Daniel Birnbaum touched upon in his review of dOCUMENTA (13). And as the exhibition’s artistic director herself implies, objects have multiple layers of meaning – social, historical, biographical, relational, and more.

Adjunct Professor Kevin Murray from RMIT University, in an article humorously called ‘The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft’, writes that Rirkrit Tiravanija ‘attempts to bring politics into the realm of the personal through handmade process.’(xii) Murray is however critical to how Tirvanija uses artisan labour to make his conceptual work; ‘as a work in itself, it reproduces the classic relationship between artist and technician as reproduced in brand name artists such as Jeff Koons’. The artworld is a hierarchical and limited space, he reminds us, where the artists use the artisans’ skills to build their own brand. He urges us instead to consider relational craft: ‘To stretch the horizon of practice beyond the limits of the art world, an artist needs an element of design. Relational craft brings design into the aesthetic process.’ Furthermore: ‘In its recognition of skill, relational craft provides a framework that troubles the cultural boundaries of art.’

I’m not sure I recognise design as the most important aspect craft can offer, but I like the idea that relational craft can provide ‘a framework that troubles the cultural boundaries of art’. And I think it is time to rethink what skills, materiality, technique, tactility and ‘objecthood’ signify. Minimalist art introduced a new way of thinking about the relation between viewer and object; taking crafts’ relational aspects into consideration may introduce a new thinking about the relationship between user and object.

i Frieze on documenta: ‘Interview: Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev and Head of Department Chus Martines talk to Jennifer Allen’, Frieze Publishing LTD, 2012.
ii Frieze on documenta: ‘From the Archive: ‘Hidden Agendas’ by Helen Molesworth, Frieze Publishing LTD, 2012, first published in Frieze issue 109, September 2007.
iii Erlend Hammer: Et vakkert sinn,
iv Frieze on documenta: ‘From the Archive: ‘Agents who Came in from the Cold’ by Naomi Smolik, Frieze Publishing LTD, 2012, first published in Frieze d/e issue 1, Summer 2011.
v Frieze issue 149, September 2012, pp.s 150-154.
vi Frieze on documenta: ‘Interview: Artistic Director Roger M. Buergel talks to Jennifer Allen’, Frieze Publishing LTD, 2012.
vii Daniel Birnbaum: Documenta 13, Artforum October 2012
viii Michael Fried: Art and Objecthood, essays and reviews, 1998. Originally published in Artforum, summer 1967
ix Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Aesthetics, Les presses du reel, 2002
x Ibid.
xi Ibid.
xii Kevin Murray: The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft, Art & Australia Vol 47 No 2 Summer, 2009