About Jivan Astfalck

I was born and grew up in Berlin, quite some time ago… luckily in the western part of that divided city. After finishing school, much to the despair of my parents, I was not interested in anything. Fate rescued me with an apprenticeship to become a goldsmith. Many, many years of hard work later, having moved to the UK, I did my MA in the History and Theory of Modern Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design and practice-based PhD in Fine Art at The University of the Arts London. I combine my studio practice, which I exhibit internationally, with teaching as the MA Course Director at the School of Jewellery and Senior Research Fellow at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, both Birmingham City University. This year I have been awarded a professorship by Birmingham City University; my chair is for Jewellery Art and Design. I am interested in using contemporary hermeneutic philosophy, literary theory and other appropriate thought models as tools to investigate narrative structures embedded in body related crafts object. In my view, the convergence of crafts, design and fine art practices is conductive to extending the theoretical vocabulary and map out new territories where crafts practices contribute to cultural production and dissemination.

An invented nostalgia

Stating in his preface to The Art of the Novel that the world of theories is not his world, Kundera approaches the polyphonous nature of fiction as a practitioner.[1] He explains that ‘in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Tereza is staring at herself in the mirror. She wonders what would happen if her nose were to grow a millimetre longer each day. How much time would it take for her face to become unrecognisable? And if her face no longer looked like Tereza, would Tereza still be Tereza? Where does the self begin and end: You see: Not wonder at the immeasurable infinity of the soul; rather, wonder at the uncertain nature of the self and its identity.’[2] Not using words as material, but stuff, David Clarke allows salt to grow on silver vessels, to change the silver and to ultimately transform the vessel’s identity. The object, while embodying a change of identity towards the unrecognisable, can be seen simultaneously as past, present and future.

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

David Clarke, silver vessel and salt

He says ‘The conservativeness of the discipline really pushes me to become more creative, challenging and playful. It is essential to keep this discipline alive and forward thinking. Combining other materials such as salt and lead has been important to really attack the silver physically.’[3]

Rather than relating to abstract thought both the writer and the maker express their interest in the action, in the situation itself. They assert that in creative engagement reflection changes essence, it becomes part of the realm of play and of hypothesis.

Artistic works, informed by abstract ideas, are not in themselves the illustrations of those ideas. ‘Imagination’ Kundera says, ‘which, freed from the control of reason and from concern for verisimilitude, ventures into landscapes inaccessible to rational thought. The dream is only the model for the sort of imagination that I consider the greatest discovery of modern art’.[4] Rather than creating a fusion of dream and reality, Kundera uses what he calls ‘polyphonetic confrontation’, novelistic counterpoint to unite philosophy, narrative and dream within the ordered unity of his stories.

A perfect example to illustrate this is Tarkovsky’s film Nostalghia.

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The image[5] I use here is the last screen-shot from the film, an exquisitely crafted scene that re-values utopian dreams and their failure, melancholically examining the decay, detritus and diffident survivals of historical modernity – a metaphor of loss and an attempt to visualise utopian nostalgia.

Palimpsest of creation, form, narrative, disintegration and re-integration stand in stark contrast to Modernism’s ideal of the purified form and autonomous object. They allow forms of the past to emerge and to coexist, sometimes as fragments or ruins, alongside a riot of other references (including those of modernism), while searching for a new sense of identity and meaning – like I saw emerging from the layered cosmos of ornamentation in this stunningly impressive graffiti from Metelkova in Ljubljana, Slovenia by an unknown artist.[6]

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[1] Kundera, M. (1986) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[2] Kundera, M. (1986: 28) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[3] http://www.caa.org.uk/exhibitions/coming-soon/david-clarke.html

[4] Kundera, M. (1986: 83) The Art of the Novel, New York: Grove Press

[5] The strange line in the middle of the image is because I had to scan the image from a book – so much for the usefulness of the web…

[6] Metelkova is an internationally renowned alternative culture community in the centre of Slovenia’s capital. A self-declared ‘Autonomous Culture Zone,’ Metelkova Mesto occupies the former ‘Fourth of July’ military barracks originally commissioned by the Austro-Hungarian army back in 1882 and completed in 1911. The space consists of seven buildings and 12,500m2 – making it a sort of city within a city – comprising a former prison, several clubs, live music spaces, art galleries and artist studios.

http://www.ljubljana-life.com/ljubljana/metelkova

Utopian resistance

Traditional craft: manufactured nostalgia or grass-roots resistance? implies a methodological dichotomy, which I find frustrating. I can see the point that for the purpose of historical dissemination ‘traditional, with modern form’ (like, for example, in the title of Nicolette Makovicky’s essay in the last issue of Journal of Modern Crafts), is it modern or not, modern or post-modern or any other box, can be useful. But I do not think that creative practitioners care very much, they always practice in the present. Their studios are full of visual ephemera from across cultures and times; they do not read like historians, they read as artists, responding to currents that might be wildly dissimilar, contradictory even – they meander with intent.

I prefer a different methodological engagement when I am in need of ordered structures and an understanding that makes sense, however fraudulent and in flux. Aesthetic experience, in my view, is constituted within the hermeneutic continuity of human existence and can therefore only be appropriately discussed in this wider framework.[i] Categorisations like craft, design and art are rendered useless when considered as being characterised as intuition, indeed as a world-view, Weltanschauung – literally an intuition of the world. This does not simply mean that creative practice justifies its own claim to truth over and against scientific knowledge, insofar as the free play of imagination tends towards ‘knowledge in general’. It also means that the “inner intuition” in play here brings the world – and not just the objects in it – to intuition.[ii]

Gadamer stipulates that hermeneutics are to be understood in a comprehensive way, including all of art and its discourse. Like every other piece of text artistic work needs to be understood within such a context.[iii] Ricoeur concurs when he is saying ‘to imagination is attributed the faculty of moving easily from one experience to another if their difference is slight or gradual, and thus of transforming diversity into identity.’[iv] With regards to the meaning of creativity he points out that there can be no praxis, which is not already symbolically structured in some way. Human action is always figured in signs, interpreted in terms of cultural traditions and norms. Our narrative fictions are then added to this primary interpretation of figuration in human action; so that narrative is a redefining of what is already defined, a reinterpretation of what is already interpreted. The referent of narration, namely human action, is never raw or immediate reality but an action, which has been symbolised and re-symbolised over and over again. Thus narration serves to displace anterior symbolisation onto a new plane, integrating or exploring them as the case may be.[v]

The work I have chosen to exemplify the necessity of such a shift in theoretical and critical dissemination is W(E)AVE by Elana Herzog and Michael Schumacher, made in 2006.

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The work consists of deconstructed woven fabrics such as found bedspreads and carpets, all bringing different traces of histories of origin, use and aesthetic qualities into the work. The material work is interlaced with woven discrete audio events, comprised of sound waves and sound recordings of the making process.

The accompanying text from The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum,[vi] where the work was exhibited, tells us that ‘Herzog will transform the gallery in which the exhibition will be presented with a series of newly constructed walls. These walls, and those that line the gallery’s perimeter, incorporate reinforced gypsum panels, which, when exhibited, are installed flush with the surrounding walls.  Found textiles are attached to these panels using thousands of metal staples. Parts of the fabric and the staples are then removed, and sometimes reapplied, leaving a residue of shredded fabric and perforated wall surface in some areas, and densely-stapled and built-up areas elsewhere. The structure of the image is thus generated directly from the weave of the fabric. The progressively dematerialised image, articulated by metal staples and fabric residue, seems to be simultaneously emerging from and disappearing into the wall. During the period when Herzog was working on many of the panels included in the exhibition, Schumacher visited her studio with his recording equipment. The sounds that Schumacher captured include Herzog stapling, sweeping, and drilling, in addition to her dog Tanner chewing on a piece of wood. Back in his studio, Schumacher incorporated elements from these sounds with synthesized sounds, such as sine tones, and more traditional instrumentation, including piano, cello, and violin. Processed in his computer using Max/MSP software, the sound was organized into eleven discrete channels, in what Schumacher describes as a grid metaphor. Presented on eleven speakers dispersed throughout the space, the composition will evoke a “grid” or weave of audio experience unfolding through time.’

What I find important in the work itself, and in the text that frames the work, is that both describe the action that generated the work, a ‘presentness’ of making, the fantasticated[vii] image of crafted intuition.


[i] Gadamer, H.G. (1960: 169-171) Aesthetische und hermeneutische Folgerungen: Rekonstruktion und Integration als hermeneutische Aufgaben, in Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen: Niemeyer

[ii] Gadamer, H.G. (1986: 164) Appendix: Intuition and vividness, in The Relevance of the Beautiful and other Essays, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[iii] Gadamer, H.G. (1960: 169) Aesthetische und hermeneutische Folgerungen: Rekonstruktion und Integration als hermeneutische Aufgaben, in Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen: Niemeyer

[iv] Ricoeur, P. (1992: 127) Personal Identity and Narrative Identity, in Oneself as Another, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

[v] Ricoeur, P. (1991: 469) The Creativity of Language, in A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination, Valdes, M. J. (ed.), Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf

[vi] http://www.aldrichart.org/exhibitions/past/weave.php

[vii] I borrowed this beautiful word from Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses

Embedded Resistance

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

Collect, London (May 2009)

For the first time Collect was staged at the prestigious Saatchi Gallery, off the King’s Road, in a beautiful open and airy space, away from the usual places where crafts are encountered, exhibited, sold and sometimes bought. This Collect was hailed as being exhibited in a place of ‘fine’ (or other) art, therefore rated equally etc. etc. etc., a marketing ploy that played on all the usual insecurities. I will leave the more journalistic evaluation and celebration to others and focus on the dynamics that involve the crafts as a practice of meaning.

In my view, we need to be aware of the significance of the craft object as a commodity and at the same time explore the it as a dialogical device of differentiation and of meaning. In accordance with other theoretical thought systems, significantly semiology, we might regard the object as a sign, a sign by which human beings, individually or in groups, communicate or attempt to communicate. This applies to a lot of cultural manifestations like clothes, advertisement, food, music etc., and of course crafts are no exception. The object functions as a sign regardless of the maker’s intention, and it does so whether it has been mass-produced, is a one-off piece or a conceptual work. The reading of the object as a sign becomes especially interesting in cases where the maker is aware of the linguistic sign function of the object and integrates this awareness into his/her own artistic practice. These makers often develop work methodologies, which on a conscious level attempt to take control over the sign function of the object and intentionally play with the possible readings of the work.

The crafts practitioners I focus on engage in the development of creative working methodologies that enable the re-construction of signs and their creative and social function. Autobiographical and historical narratives need to be integrated into a process of making and desires need to be managed. This does not lead to the representation of the surrounding world ‘as it is’; it is primarily an artificial field of signs, which can be manipulated—a cultural artefact. It leads to an approach to artistic production as a tactical game of significations.

The structures and dynamics of culture production involve the crafts in a ‘double take on a double take’. Craft’s initial resistance to mass-culture makes it all the more attractive as a commodity. A market situation is generated where crafts has to simulate itself to be economically successful. Every maker knows how hard it is to sell objects that remain outside the standard territory of commodity signification, and so to achieve artistic autonomy.

Contemporary crafts practice occupies a curious place. On the one hand, we find mass or batch production, which simulates the machine-produced, repressing one-off creation in favour of simulating variation. This side of crafts is often considered successful practice because it works economically. On the other hand, we find crafts practice, which denies machine culture and nostalgically celebrates the hand-made, despite it being often economically unviable.

Crafts like every other art form needs curators, gallerists or project developers, who are creative themselves beyond the economic viability of their businesses and who are empathetic to the artist’s project and development, who are interested in cultural dissemination, view making as a relevant reflective language, or simply are easily bored by too much sameness. Only in such working relationships can makers resist becoming the makers of their own brand and can afford to remain creatively inquisitive and evolving. The other option would be to evade the gallery system altogether and to engage with other more guerrilla tactics to get one’s work seen and appreciated.

In polite Collect, Hans Stofer’s Off my Trolley stood out with an imagined soundtrack of The Clash. His piece of resistance was ‘in your face’, using punk and scatter-art strategies, a piece of work where nothing more needed to be said – the piece was the message…

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…only in the context of Collect, it was one of the pieces that offered a resolute, if deeply nostalgic,  counter-position and resistance to the sameness of contemporary crafts commodity.

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

detail from Hans Stofer’s 'Off my Trolley', crucifix made from Swiss cheese

On the other side of the scale, Collect 2009 seemed to have lost the domestic, functional and delightfully usable, being replaced with ever more ‘modern’ table-sculpture. No question, some of these are simply impressive in application of skills, exploration of materials and scale. But objects of a more humble nature and objects that emerge from crafts practices that resist commodification seem to be difficult to bring to this audience. Given that the galleries that show at Collect are selected (apart from the fact that they need to be in a position to be able to afford participation) for the creative output of the artists they represent, the question arises if we are encountering another circle of homogenisation in the appreciation of objects – a collectively shared belief, a taste, of what constitutes ‘good’ crafts. Like all culturally established hierarchies this is difficult to resist, fundamentally non-contemporary and counter to maker’s passionate investment in artistic experimentation.

I am particularly mindful about the impact this might have in the creative practice of emerging makers who are only in the process of finding out what it is they are doing. The most frightening result I could think of would be the simulation of accepted appearance at the price of a self-reflective and critical practice, as difficult as this might be to bring to the attention of an appreciating audience.
On my way back from Collect, walking through London’s nightly streets, I saw these richly decorative historical crafts objects reflected in the window of one of London’s most cutting-edge gallery and found this image more eloquent than any of my words could possibly be…

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night

jivan-astfalck-walking-through-the-night