Young Artists Put Wind in the Sails of Norwegian Crafts
‘Most people probably think of a craft artist as that lady with strange clothes and only one earring’, says Trude Gomnæs Ugelstad.
The executive director of Norwegian Crafts serves coffee in handmade ceramic cups in her office. The night before, with Norwegian jewellery art around her neck, she stood before a decked-out audience at the Norwegian Centre for Design and Architecture (DogA) in Oslo, on the occasion of the magazine Bo bedre’s design award ceremony, and handed out the prize for ‘This Year’s Accessory’. The list of nominees for the prize has never been longer, said the master of ceremonies, in contrast to the first years when the organizers had to look internationally to fill the categories. Now the jury can pick and choose amongst a welter of Norwegian designers and craft artists.
‘We’ve returned to wanting things we can touch and feel’, said Ugelstad that night.
In the office she elucidates:
‘The need for unique, handmade objects is a reaction to our being swamped with mass-produced things that have a history we know nothing about.’
As leader of the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts (Norske Kunsthåndverkere), which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and now also as director of Norwegian Crafts, Ugelstad consistently argues that craft-based art should receive its deserved position, both nationally and internationally, on par with painting and other forms of visual art. Much of her time is spent convincing government bodies to allocate funds to the field.
‘Yesterday we had another meeting with the Ministry of Culture. It takes a long time for people to gain an understanding of our field. Most people still think of craft art as colourful gifts a book club gives to new members.’
Craft art to prestigious galleries
The journey from distained applied art to highly regarded fine craft has followed a rough path marked by political tugs-of-war. In the 1970s a large group of craft artists broke away from the organization Landsforbundet Norsk Brukskunst (national association for applied art) in order to gain recognition comparable to that of other visual artists – and to win the same rights. Since their practice was creative and they were not merely copying someone else’s patterns, they argued that they had the right to apply for government work grants, just as did other visual artists. In 1975 the Norwegian Association for Arts and Crafts was founded.
‘The Association has worked deliberately to safeguard the concept of craft art, even during periods when it could seem passé. The strategy was to present this type of art in high-quality museums and galleries at home and abroad’, says Trude Gomnæs Ugelstad.
And it has worked: Galleri Format, Norway’s flagship gallery for contemporary crafts, participated in the exhibition Collect at the Saatchi Gallery in London in 2014. When Revelations Fine Craft and Creation Fair opened at the Grand Palais in Paris in 2013, Norwegian Crafts was invited as the guest of honour. Norwegian Presence – an exhibition produced through collaboration between Klubben, Norwegian Crafts and Norwegian Icons, which was held during the Ventura Lambrate fair in Milan this year – was so popular that Oslo Design Fair (Norway’s own trade fare for design and interior décor) wanted an exact copy.
‘Craft art has received much more professional attention’, says Jørn Mortensen, rector of Oslo National Academy of the Arts (KHiO), speaking in his office in the former sail-cloth factory in Oslo’s Grünerløkka neighbourhood.
‘This turn towards the material based and towards handicraft is not restricted to the field of craft art. You see it at large international exhibitions such as dOCUMENTA and the Venice Biennale. I think it has to do with people being tired of the digital expressions that lack a sufficient degree of aura’, says Mortensen. He continues:
‘There’s an obvious political aspect to this, in any case for some people. Does it benefit the planet to transport to Norway things made all the way over in China? Can the logic there be defended? Probably not.’
Mortensen himself was the primus motor for changing the name of KHiO’s department for ‘Visual Art’ to ‘Art and Craft’.
‘Many people felt they had returned home, since the new name relates to the former Norwegian National Academy of Craft and Art Industry’, says Mortensen.
‘But no conservative ideology underlies the name change; rather, there’s a desire to explore what handicraft can signify in an expanded sense. Secondly, it’s important to underscore that we’re talking about art – art and craft’, he adds.
‘Applied art has been scorned’
Applied art. Craft. Visual art. For many years these camps stood in opposition, but now the boundaries between them are being erased.
‘Applied art has previously been scorned by craft artists; they struggled to distance themselves from the concept. They tried instead to have their work be seen as visual art, because that has more status, which results in more money’, says Marianne Zamezcnik, director of the art festival Oslo Open and curator for the Norwegian pavilion at the Revelations fair in Paris.
She thinks many people still struggle to define craft art.
‘One problem with craft art is that there are few theorists, and everyone is too focused on talking about what it is in comparison with visual art. You end up always talking about status.’ She continues:
‘Moreover, people forget to talk about craft art’s distinctive qualities. Why do we create this type of art today? It’s is physical, and it’s closely related to the world we live in. It consists of things we can use. This also gives it a clear and strong potential.’
This article was first published in Aftenposten K magasinet, October 2015.