Tools of the table


We used to prize our cutlery, even taking it around with us. Now, like crockery, it’s just another mass-produced item. A new show reminds us that tableware can be anything but ordinary, writes GEMMA TIPTON

CAN CUTLERY HAVE character? Is it possible to get excited about a fork? With their whiff of danger, knives are probably the most memorable occupants of the utensil drawer, and spoons perhaps the least. In TS Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock the narrator ruefully wonders whether he will ever “dare to disturb the universe” while realising that he has measured out his life “with coffee spoons”, the implication being that you can’t get much more boring than that.

Cutlery used to be more exciting, more special – so special, in fact, that people brought theirs with them, in personal pouches or boxes, when they went to dinner. Perhaps the downgrading of cutlery to the ordinary came with mass production, though its last hurrah as an object of fascination was with the advent of the dishwasher. While saving untold washing-up hours, dishwashers also relegated anything silver, or with a bone or wooden handle, to the dark and seldom-disturbed realms of Only for Best, with the result that our special things are no longer part of the everyday.

Like most everyday things, though, cutlery tells us a great deal about ourselves and about how we lived. The humble fork was once at the centre of a religious controversy: in the 12th century Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the few English people to use a fork, having returned from exile in Italy with the habit. Becket explained to King Henry II that the fork’s advantage was that it could be washed. “But so can your hands,” the king is said to have replied.

Later, clergymen began to argue against the use of the fork, claiming that only human fingers, created by God, should touch the food that God had provided. In France, Cardinal Richelieu had the ends of table knives blunted to discourage their use as toothpicks. A generation later, King Louis XIV banned sharp knives at the dinner table to prevent guests from stabbing one another.

If you’re ready to step out of the ordinary and see cutlery and other tableware anew, an exhibition at the National Craft Gallery, in Kilkenny, should provide plenty of food for thought. The objects in Utensil are anything but utilitarian, as the show’s curator, Angela O’Kelly, has invited craftspeople, artists and product designers to explore the form, function and fascination of what we daily put in our mouths. In the exhibition, artists and makers explore both the shape and structure of tableware and examine the way things can take on and reflect back emotional content through use. “I wanted people to go home and look at their own spoons again, and get out their plates and glasses, the ones that never get used,” says O’Kelly.

Some of the makers, such as David Clarke, have taken pieces of old silverware and re-created them as objects that make you wonder about what they once meant to us and how we have used them. Others, such as Kirsty Eaglesfield, make pieces that are simply beautiful. But people will bring their own histories and personal connections to the objects in Utensil, and if you’re not already feeling guilty about locking your best tableware away, Sharon Blakey and Ismini Samanidou’s Spoon with Shadow is a haunting homage to a set of spoons shut in a drawer for more than 50 years.

There is nothing humble or boring about the spoon in this exhibition, as the German silversmith Wiebke Meurer describes it as “an everyday object, always found in the same spot, picked up and handled over and over again. A ritual that lasts for many generations. The life and thoughts of the spoon’s owners merge with the object itself. The spoon becomes a storyteller.”

Geoffrey Mann takes the idea of the inanimate becoming alive through human interaction with Crossfire, a short film, and a set of strangely altered ceramic objects. Against the backdrop of the audio of a scene from the film American Beauty, in which an argument at the dinner table is taking place, the plates, cups, saucers and teapot are seen to absorb and be deformed by the waves of malice hurtling back and forth.

If the dinner table is a highly charged setting, whether for romance or for domestic disputes, it is also a battleground for manners. There’s a sense of being completely daunted by a table forested with glasses and cutlery: which to use? And will you be judged on your performance? Are fish knives a middle-class affectation? (Apparently, they are.)

Customs and dining histories are explored at The Whispering Table, an installation by the Berlin-, London- and New York-based design group TheGreenEyl. Originally commissioned for the Jewish Museum in Berlin, the piece consists of a table set with plain white plates and bowls. Sit down and lift them to your ear to hear stories about the symbolic meanings of food-related rituals.

As with “best silverware”, many families are also haunted by the spectre of the “good china”, the full matching set that comes out at Christmas (and woe betide anyone who chips a plate). Daring us to consider a different approach, the Belgian ceramicist Hugo Meert shows a sculpture constructed from cups, saucers and plates that must be broken apart in order to be useful, cleverly inverting the idea of art as perfect in its untouchable uselessness. In Bish Bash Bosh, one of my favourite pieces, Grant McCaig disrupts the idea of the plate that is so special it must be hung out of reach by attaching plates to the gallery wall with hammers. Smashing.

As with men’s suits, experimentation has proved there isn’t much you can do to improve on the basic form and functionality of knife, fork and spoon (unless you’re a devotee of chopsticks, of course). But, just like fashion and food, this exhibition is aimed at the senses, and some of its elements push craft beyond any sense of utility. This is craft in the way that molecular gastronomy is food: the ordinary taken beyond the realms of the usual, whether for a special occasion or just to make us taste the difference when we return to the everyday.

Utensil is at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny, from August 10th until October 29th

An extra spoonful: Other Kilkenny events

Dido & AeneasHenry Purcell’s opera is given a “rollicking, sexy, steampunk” treatment by Cork Opera House. Watergate Theatre, August 15th and 16th.

Darklight Film FestivalThe roving festival teams up with Cartoon Salon for a day of screenings, discussions and workshops. Set Theatre, August 18th.

Shakespeare’s Globe TheatreThe company comes to Kilkenny Castle Yard for the duration of the festival, performing As You Like It. August 10th-19th.

La MorraThe Spanish early-music ensemble performs Renaissance work. St Canice’s Cathedral, August 12th.

Polina LeschenkoThe pianist brings a quartet to perform pieces by Haydn, Chopin, Fauré and Ravel. St Canice’s, August 14th.

DánA promising 14-strong group of jazz and traditional musicians. St Canice’s, August 19th

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