Now that I am based primarily in Tasmania, it has been a pleasure to visit the cosmopolitan “mainland”, over the past few days. For example, I have just had a teatime chat with Dr. Dorothy Jones (b. New Zealand, based South of Sydney NSW; Jones writes on the links between postcolonial novels, needlework; she was a pioneer in gender studies 1970s-90s). Jones introduced me to some of the interesting critical concerns in the 2009 Joanne Turney publication entitled The Culture of Knitting [since 1970], ISBN 1 84520 592 8. Jones and I also spoke animatedly about the international Yarn Bombing and Knitted Graffiti ‘Craftivism’ movement!
So, for my final response to the theme: Revivalist or Renegade, I ask the reader/other bloggers, Is ‘Soft’ Crochet Craftivism an effective public art ‘sub-culture’ strategy-for-social-change? Does craftivism work to achieve goals for the environmental movement, Tasmania’s primary concern-of-the-day? Many citizens in Northern Tassie have been garnering national, if not international, press by rallying against the nebulous processes of implementation and the negative impact of the proposed pulp mill by Gunns Ltd. Corporation on the ecology of the Tamar Valley. Some of my art students and craftivism colleagues have been involved either directly or tangentially. (see Banner photo image).Even though artist-designer Melanie Kershaw is a staff member of Tasmania’s Wood Design Centre , she wanted to speak out against the logging. We spoke at the end of November. She went about making a seemingly innocuous crocheted hand grenade object (shown here). Kershaw said to me that she was responding to Melbourne Craft Cartel ‘s nation-wide ‘woollen weapon stockpile’ call (last August), which hopes to present a ‘vicious-yet-gentle and lovely’ community-engaged opposition statement to Gunns, as well as a Pro-Wilderness Society message. Visit Craft Cartel’s message to join “Save-The-World: Bang, Knit, Purl, KaPow!” campaign (fun, cartoonish tutorials included)!
Around the same time of year, Kershaw created a sedate ‘gratuitous’ crocheted-hamburger-object for the annual Tasmanian Design Award. When I asked her whether she was worried about public perception and, therefore, perhaps a type of sentimental ‘erasure’ of her ideas or serious intentions, (because of the almost-absurd incongruity between her 2 concepts)? Kershaw simply stated:
I like the medium of crochet, but I do not want to do knee-blankets, bed jackets and doylies… I learned this inherited skill from my mother and she learned from her mother…They used to sit around drinking tea calmly and talking about ‘the garden’ – how the roses are coming along and that sort-of-thing… But I wanted to do something meaningful; something contemporary in an ‘old-style’ medium. These two artworks operate in different genres, and that is ok.
I was a bit jealous of Melanie’s last remark: an off-handed au-fait enjoyment in her practice and in her ‘right’ to indulge in either ‘high fine art’ or ‘low-political public art’ practice if and when she chooses. This would have been an ‘open-ended luxury’ that might have worried high-brow ‘Fine Art’ artists of my generation. Creating, and ‘going public,’ in two widely-differentiated genres would have entailed considerable deliberation in ‘serious’ women painter and sculptor predecessors who would have been aware that their ‘gendered’ idealistic or political pursuits and ‘crafted’ concerns could be critiqued and ‘read’ as superficially decorative (lacking a depth of integrity), fluffy, sentimental or, even, simply dismissed as ‘mad’.
Kershaw’s sentiments about her art being ‘either’ are echoed in variously defined ‘knitting culture’ books out there: either the light-hearted: It’s my Party and I’ll Knit if I want to! by popular self-help writer, Sharon Aris, an entertaining adjunct to Joanne Turney’s serious academic epistle which positions knitting politically and historically within postmodernism and consumer culture, since the 1970s. (Turney is a senior visual and material culture lecturer at the U.K. Bath School of Art.)
A hasty visit to the Victorian and Albert Museum website helps position contemporary craftivism in terms of nineteenth century progress. Under the search terms ‘Knitting and Crochet,’ the website has approximately 15 entries and an Acknowledgement section. I reviewed ‘The Emergence of Crochet and Knitting in American Popular Culture from 1840 – 1876: The Hook and Book’ which links these crafts with the rise of Victorian ideals of ‘useful and silent’ femininity, and consumer, leisure culture (e.g. time freed up for more fanciful pursuits, because of the invention of the sewing machine in 1860, which made straightforward sewing and dressmaking less laboriously time-consuming).
When I left Dr. Jone’s home, after tea about the text and textile arts links, I ran into ‘Grace’, outside the Art Gallery of NSW. Grace, who stated that she is ‘not necessarily an artist’, holds a quiet day job: – that of The Gallery Attendant of Kaldor Public Art Projects, Art Gallery of New South Wales – at the site Tatzu Nishi’s artwork, directly in front of the gallery.
Grace responded to my question, ‘What are you knitting?’ by saying that she was a ‘Yarn Bomber!’ Grace was not concerned with the seeming obviousness of her task-at-hand: knitting. Grace was more concerned who she was – her identity as ‘a subversive avant gardist’, a Craftivist.
Therefore, I ‘read’ Grace as an unintended ‘performance artist’ who had subversively inserted herself, as Actor/ Actress, into Nishi’s artwork, and, therefore, I saw her as a subversive ‘Craftivist’. She was certainly a part of my journey, as a viewer, into Tatzu Nishi’s two-part site-installation, entitled ‘War and peace and in-Between’, in which he re-shaped the large-scale figurative 1923 bronze (public art) sculptures by Gilbert Bayes: ‘The offerings of Peace’ and ‘The offerings of War.’ Grace was sitting at the entrance of one of the two ‘housing-boxes’ scaffolding. By ‘doing knitting’ Grace was ‘speaking to me’: her activity allowed me to re-think the position of the lowly paid female domestic in and amongst two large-scale male creations. Performing quietly in the corner, at the entrance to Nishi’s domestic, but grand, bedroom, Grace’s silent protest was made-visible by her craftivism. Nishi’s art already comments on the domestic versus public juxtaposition, together with his concept of ‘The Colonial Grand Narrative made post-colonial.’ Yet, in my eyes, Grace empowered his artwork by performing the miniature. Therefore, her subtle craftivism made her role-playing in-situ more outrageously symbolic against-the-presumed-social-order-of artworld policies and procedures. If artist Nishi is asking the viewer to imagine a ‘fresh’ perspective, I suggest he might want to take a leaf out of Vanessa Beecroft’s provocative portfolio and re-imagine ‘Grace’ (as legitimate Performer) in his and Baye’s “rightful” bedroom (Installation versus Sculpture-on-Pedestal) setting? At the same time, I would ask Grace to re-define herself, as Artist-Provocateur and both Careerist/Home-maker .
I wonder where protest Craftivism will take contemporary art, when viewed, not only in ‘fun’, ‘youthful’ and ill-defined public settings by anonymous makers, but when Craftivism-for-social-change sets itself within high-brow contexts such as the seriously-minded ‘High Contemporary Art Practice’ at traditional museum locations around-the-world.
Forbat, Sophie excerpt from 40 years: Kaldor Public Art Projects Art Gallery of NSW, ‘Bending Perceptions: Everyday Scenes turned into Surreal Experiences’ in ‘Look’, 12/09 – 01/10.