Representing the past


Nostalgia is a feature of our fast-moving world and the current Year of Craft taps into our penchant for things hand-made, non-branded and authentic, but such concepts are not as clear as they seem, writes GEMMA TIPTON

WERE YOU one of the millions who bought shiny, designer things during the boom? And if you were, how do you feel about them now? Now that the future appears to have let us down, it seems as if we are moving back towards a comforting idea of the past. New but old-fashioned sweet shops are popping up all over the place, and people can’t get enough of gardening, baking, shabby chic and books about picturesque ruins.

Neatly packaged as lifestyle choices and shopping opportunities, the past is the new future and, if things were more difficult then – without mobile phones, the internet and luxury brands for all – at least we know our ancestors and our younger selves survived it.

All of which makes 2011 an interesting year to be the Year of Craft. Occasioned not as a response to the recession but in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Crafts Council, it has brought exhibitions and events to the whole island of Ireland, and internationally, ranging from local craft fairs to conceptual exhibitions stretching the boundaries of what we might have imagined craft to be.

One of the flagship exhibitions, Modern Languages, first seen at the Galway Arts Festival during the summer, is now on at the National Craft Gallery, Kilkenny. The exhibition curator, Katy West, asked craftspeople to look again at Ireland’s vernacular traditions, and reimagine them for today’s world. The results of this range from the usable to the purely conceptual.

Deirdre Nelson’s Aran 0.5is an Aran jumper, bought on eBay, unpicked and reknitted to become something far more fetching to today’s tastes. Meanwhile, Nao Matsunaga’s strange ceramic beast with little wooden legs, Shelter with Multiple Legs (Beach Animal), is a reinterpretation of that once-common coastal sight of men walking a currach to the sea.

On the surface, these objects take skills and ways of living that are rooted in the past and give them a new relevance. The chunky Aran sweater becomes a fashionable garment, while the currach finds its place as a decorative object, now that progress has rendered the original obsolete. But appearances are deceptive, the Aran sweater as we know it is a relatively recent invention, created in the 1930s to meet a growing souvenir market. Prior to that time, the islanders wore heavy grey ganseys.

As Eleanor Flegg points out in her highly perceptive essay, which accompanies the exhibition, “the concept of authenticity, given a good hard shake and held up to the light, is utterly inappropriate to the vernacular tradition,” because, she writes, “authenticity implies something that is fixed”. All traditions started somewhere, and all are subject to change.

If craft is no longer purely utilitarian, and is – as with this exhibition – presented in the manner of contemporary art, what are we looking for when we are looking at craft?

One of the attractions of a popular conception of craft is that it is something that is timeless, even if that is a myth. We may also be seduced by the fact that an object has been handmade.

In this way it becomes a touchstone not just against our more recent antipathy to big name brands, but also to an older anxiety about objects, an anxiety defined by Walter Benjamin in 1936 (just as the “new” Aran sweaters were being knitted), in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”

Paradoxically, as high-end craft is increasingly presented in the exhibition spaces and contexts of art, fine art practices are moving away from those of craft.

At Modern Languages, Laura Mays has taken a basic Ikea Stefan chair and remade it in different guises. The Rocking Stefanputs two of the chairs together to make a rather attractive rocking chair, while Stefan 4adds corrugated cardboard, creating a marvellous beast of a chair that seems to be growing a life of its own.

Anyone who has ever tackled a piece of Ikea self-assembly will be familiar with the desire to get it right, coupled with the nagging fear of ending up with something entirely different. There is also the satisfaction, on conclusion, that you did it yourself . . . But when artist Gareth Kennedy looked at Ikea and traditional making as part of his Ikea Suite, a work in process 2010-2011, the art lay in the idea, rather than the making. Ikea Aran Lobster Potssaw Kennedy take an Ikea lampshade, originally made in Vietnam, and bring it to Inís Oirr, where the island caoladoirí (basket weavers) made it into a lobster pot. In art, making is no longer significant, in craft it is still everything.

This is underlined by the fact that the Crafts Council prefers to use the term “maker” over the more generally used “craftsperson”, emphasising the vast gap between those objects with designer names and brands, and the crafted pieces promoted by both the Crafts Council and Year of Craft.

How we understand, experience and see craft is also influenced by how we relate to the world around us. In his 1951 book, Voices of Silence,André Malraux wrote that “a large share of our art heritage is now derived from peoples whose idea of art was quite other than ours, and even from peoples to whom the very idea of art meant nothing.”

Perhaps this is at the heart of craft, and our present need for it is based on the meaninglessness that brands have come to represent. We may be less well off, but we are also less naïve; back in the 1970s, when Gloria Vanderbilt’s “designer jeans”, one of the first celebrity brands, were launched, few believed that they were the brain child of Indian designer Mohan Murjani, and that Vanderbilt’s contribution essentially boiled down to receiving a cheque for use of her name.

So the idea of authenticity, even if not always appropriate, is at the heart of our new connection to craft. This, however, raises the question; given the myth of the Aran sweater, what is authentically Irish? What might the Irish vernacular look like?

One of the strengths of Modern Languages is the fact that the makers are not all Irish and not all living in this country, so we get different views on the subject. London-based Nao Matsunaga is originally from Japan, and so it is perhaps inevitable that what struck him about a currach being carried from shore to sea was not its purpose, but how incredibly strange it appeared. Barbara Ridland was born, and lives and works on Scotland’s Shetland Isles, and her work in this exhibition, Finns-Mythical Creatures, while nodding toward traditional Irish woven straw techniques, feels even more alien than Matsunaga’s currach.

Ikea is definitely on the makers’ minds, however. It appears again in Nelson’s Deposit, an Ikea duvet, made precious with edgings of Kenmare lace. Perhaps that is what we are looking to craft for – a sense of the precious and the intimate in a sea of the mass-produced. Apart from Nelson’s remade Aran sweater, and her touches of lace, the most “Irish” of the exhibits, is a pair of blankets, woven in Studio Donegal, by Scotland-based Canadian artist Ciara Phillips, working with weaver John Heena.

Phillips’s background is closer to fine art than any of the other makers in Modern Languages, so it is telling that hers is the work made in collaboration, rather than crafted solely by herself. And even though the blankets are recognisable and attractive, it is a bit of a push for the curator to describe them as exploring “various possibilities within the limits of the blanket’s form”.

So back to that question of what Irish vernacular is: Flegg describes the vernacular, the native or common idiom of local expression, as “in a sense, the reject pile”.

These are the forms and expressions of form that haven’t made it into the canons of fine art and literature. “The vernacular,” writes Flegg, “is tainted with the stigma of the old and unwanted.”

Both Modern Languages and Year of Craft seek, with varying degrees of success, to reinstate the unwanted, to reimbue the hand made and the traditional with a sense of the vital, the valuable and the precious.

And, as the recession continues, there has never been a more ready audience for that message.

Modern Languages is at the National Craft Gallery until January 12th 2012,,

Year of Craft highlights

Joe Hogan’s amazing collaboration with fashion designer Joanne Hynes at London Fashion Week. Baskets finally get to the catwalk.

Crafted Creatures at the Ark – letting children in on the magic of making.

Portfolio 2011 – showcasing some of the best of the best. Frances Lambe’s work is particularly sublime.

And the less successful . . .

Craft Fairs stretched the length and breadth of the country throughout the year, showing the huge variety of making, but emphasising the need in some instances for a little more quality control.

Modified Expression, the exhibition where makers responded to literature, was good to look at but ultimately demonstrated that artists and craftspeople need to pay more attention to what each other has been doing for years.