Why Are You Here?

Joanie Lemercier: La Montagne (800x800x800x800cm), paper/projection, 2017.
Lars Sture on the 2017 Cheongju Craft Biennale.

«You know, like I don ́t want to be nosy, and we all got our reasons for doing what we do with our lives, but I wonder – everybody here on the block wonders – why are you here? »

`Richard ́, a local resident, talking to Tim Rollins about the Group Material Gallery on East Thirteenth Street in New York (1981). *1

Norwegian Crafts curator Lars Sture was the advisor for the latest edition of the world famous Korean biennale, giving critical feedback about the main exhibition to the organizing committee. The following text, written by Sture, is taken from the catalogue of the 2017 Cheongju Craft Biennale.

Why Are You Here? is a fundamental question, suggesting as it does that we each must respond to an imperative to examine our purposeful relationship to the places we choose to be, to act and to live within. The question is as applicable to the Cheongju Craft Biennale as it is to its participants, the artists and makers and its local and international audience.

A Biennale funded by the public, whether in Europa, America or Asia, whether in a metropolis or in the periphery, exists because society - through its politicians and governing bodies - have deemed it important or worthwhile. Based on cultural values of the government and as a political decision, a biennale might have been given a complex task; to educate, to enlighten and to enrich the life of the public, but also the task to promote the area, to give its city a window to the world, to entice tourists to visit and businesses to settle.

Why are you here? is a provocative question, that in the context of a biennale has an inbuilt opportunity for everyone involved to reach out to the world, inviting artists, academics and professionals in the field to think about the idiosyncrasies of the answers, and in a constantly changing reality, not only to consider each individual point of view but also what binds us all together. In his essay on Super-diversity (*2) Tariq Ramadan describes this as a chance to take us to the very heart of a shared point of view; “of the common object observed and to grasp the diversity of points of view via the essence of their similarity.” 

Being a mediating cultural and social institution on a grand scale the international biennale has the mandate to be a significant critical conveyor of opinion. With this in mind, the commissioners, organisers, the directors and the curators are given a unique opportunity to reflect on and to set the agenda for the here and now and for the future. The biennale can be part of the “market”, an instrument of economics and capitalism where the visitor is offered simple entertainment, but also; being such a significant public space, the biennale is an ideal place for artistic pluralism and cultural diversity, and can be a distinct platform for social, political and ethical engagement. 

Sung Soo Kim collaborating with Song Chan Kim: The Octagon x Cosmos, Stainless Steel/Projection mapping, 2016/2017.
So Dam Lim collaborating with Eun Kyu Kim: Shape of Memories x Fractal Cosmology. Ceramics/Projection mapping, 2017.

On the basis of its past, the 10th Cheongju Craft Biennale ́s main exhibition is mirroring the challenges of the contemporary and considering craft ́s opportunities, suggesting ways forward. "What is crafts?" asks the directors and curators of the 2017 Cheongju Craft Biennale. They do not attempt to give us a definite answer to the question, focusing instead on some of the issues most prevalent in the current discourse around craft.

As a point of departure for the exhibition, the curators are reflecting on what they describe as the “subtle cohabitation of craft and art”, looking at the proximity of the disciplines both from historical and contemporary perspectives. The curators are questioning what to many is a defining factor of the field, asking, “are crafts still crafts when they are free from the past?”, examining the discipline ́s close ties to its own tradition and history. Against this backdrop, the curator-team is asking “Where are the digital generation ́s hands heading?”, looking at possible future scenarios in crafts.

The results of the curator team ́s reflections are laid out in a vast exhibition that is divided into four sections. The first section, Universe: 7 spaces, presents us with 7 spatial installations by as many artists that all set out to investigate both primary elements and materials in one way or another; fire, light and liquid, minerals, wood, paper and textile. The Universe: 7 spaces could be read as 7 independent art installations that together is mapping the primeval elements inherent in crafts.

The second part of the main exhibition, Time in Craft, covers all disciplines in the field. Together, the artworks in the section is an attempt to illustrate the variety of expressions and techniques that artists make use of within contemporary crafts. Including objects and installations, films and performances, 16 artists are showing work that could not have been made without advanced technologies, suggesting how crafts continuously are reinventing itself and being aligned to the contemporary through the acquiring of new knowledge.

Section three is an investigation into the meeting of two seemingly different disciplines in what the curator-team has labelled Aesthetic of Craft/Aesthetic Relation. 8 media artists have each been invited to collaborate with a craft artist in a project that has the ambition to unearth hidden aspects of the craft object. Based on a dialogue between the two, the media artist has been mapping the work of the craft artist. Through projections, images and sound, the craft object(s) is undergoing a transformation that is brought to life in installations attempting to expand the potential for meaning. The collaborations take different shapes and formats: in some of the installations light, image and sound become an integral part of the craft object, while in other instances adding one or more layers to the work.

The last part of the exhibition, Embrace, might be considered the resolution, where tension is released. Films are screened by 30 + projectors on all four walls and the carpeted floor, and melodic harmonious piano music is filling the vast space. The fragmented film footage of artists and master craftsmen in their studio settings are juxtaposed with film footage of nature scenes and urban landscapes. The space has been created for the audience to contemplate on the question that is the starting point for the exhibition and the different aspects that the previous sections bring to life; what is craft, what is its tradition as well as its future and further; the history and possible futures for Cheongju Craft Biennale. 

Janet Echelman: Line Traveling Through Space and Time (detail). 760x1530x500cm, custom braided fiber, recycled nets, 2016.
Yangyang Dong: Encouraging Each Other to be Dedicated to Farming, Cotton/Silk/Wool/Sheepskin/Dogskin/Peacock Feathers/Animal fur/Clothing, 2017.

We are leaving the ideas of modernism behind and entering a reality that Zygmunt Bauman called ́liquid modernity ́ in which the world is defined by its fragility and temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change; “To ‘be modern’ means to modernize – compulsively, obsessively; not so much “just to be”, let alone to keep its identity intact, but forever ‘becoming’, avoiding completion, staying under-defined. Each new structure which replaces the previous one as soon as it is declared old-fashioned and past its use-by date is only another momentary settlement – acknowledged as temporary and ‘until further notice’.”

And Bauman goes on: ”What was some time ago dubbed erroneously 'post-modernity' and what I've chosen to call, more to the point, 'liquid modernity', is the growing conviction that change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty. A hundred years ago 'to be modern' meant to chase 'the final state of perfection' -- now it means an infinity of improvement, with no 'final state' in sight and none desired.” (*3)

We live in a world where our lives are defined by technology; how we go about our daily lives are often determined by technology. And we find ourselves defined by data, we live somewhat a parallel digital life that is forever stored in clouds; everything we would ever need to know about each other is all there. The current state of this high-tech, digital world is one of constant change, and as the main exhibition of the 2017 Cheongju Craft Biennale suggests, craft not only can but is changing with it. In crafts, newfound technology may not have become the sole medium through which artists are expressing themselves, however, new technology continues to find its way into studios. It is being utilized as a tool, laser-cutting machines and 3d printers are no longer alien objects to artists working in metal, ceramic or textiles.

The curatorial team ́s underlying motive is a mutual cross-fertilization between what is generally seen as different disciplines, craft, design and fine art. Rather than highlighting the differences, the 10th Cheongju Craft Biennale suggests an axis through an expanded visual art field where artists work freely rather than defining boundaries between different disciplines and geographies. The artists work across all media and formats within crafts, arts and design. However, what they all have in common is an investigative approach to the narrative where materiality and technique are the main supporting elements in each of the individual stories that are being told.

Could it be that to be able to keep its distinctiveness, the craft object, whether material or not, need to offer a reference to the body of craft culture and its history? Shouldn ́t the craft object challenge the perception of its own culture as a time-witness or historical relic through content and meaning firmly planted in the here and now, the contemporary?

Often, the artworks that captivate and moves us, are the ones where the medium is not concealed but a main component of the message. It is an artwork where the multiple relations between the artist, his/her skills, ancient or high-tech, and craft tradition are being activated to communicate with critical vigour a personal point of view.

Within the parameters of constant change, of discontinuity, the need for structure remains a constant but it is a constant whereby structures may become obsolete and new ones appear. We are continuously influenced by new impulses and with it new expressions in crafts emerge. Nevertheless, the typical and – I believe – the most important constant characteristic of craft is the reference to tradition and to culture, to the way we live our lives. The inherent skills, the knowledge of material and technique, as well as its proximity to the everyday has not become obsolete but remains one of the defining reference points in relation to our common Craft heritage.

*1 Conversation Pieces – community + communication in modern art”, Grant H Kester, UCLA Press, 2004 

*2 On Super-diversity – Reflections 2, Tariq Ramadan, Steinberg Press, 2011 

*3 Liquid Modernity, Zygmunt Bauman, Polity press, 2000

Further background reading:

Rotterdam Dialogues: The Critics The Curators The Artists, When is a Biennale a success? Witte de Witte Publishers, 2010. ISBN 978-94-6083-017-4

The Biennial Reader, Bergen Kunsthall, 2010. ISBN 978-3-7757-2610-8 Craft in Transition, Jorunn Veiteberg, Kunsthøgskolen I Bergen, 2005. ISBN 82-8013-051-9 Shopping in Jail, Douglas Coupland, Sternberg Press, 2013. ISBN 978-3-943365-86-3

The uncertainty Principle (chapter; Reanimate: Rebecca Warren), Martin Herbert. Sternberg Press. ISBN 978-3-95679-001-0 

Sung Hong Min & Sarah Kim: Rolling the Ground. Collected Frames and Furniture/Mirror/Projection mapping/Sound, 2017.