Joan Key questions the apolitical nature of many visual art projects involving community collaboration through craft.
My writing on the subject of craft was really limited to a certain period, around 1994-2000 and reflected particular discourses of that period about craft in the art gallery, which was the subject of the ‘Craft’ exhibition shown at Richard Salmon Gallery and Kettles Yard. In current practice such issues are less contentious because strategies engaging craft are more dispersed into a wide range of cross-generic fine-art practices. Even so, some residual observations may be relevant.
The communal ethos of makers/making craft artefacts can suggest a social context of the works’ production as a subtext to the work of art. At the period in which the Craft essay was written, I was thinking along these lines in an unpublished seminar paper about the Hohenbuchler Sisters’ work, seen in London at the ICA and at Camden Arts Centre around 1996. The communal aspect of the Hohenbuchler’s ‘sisterhood’ and their collaborative work with institutions lent a positive and attractive aspect to their practice, in spite of a darker side to the sisters’ therapeutic narratives. More recent examples could be Anthony Gormley’s clay works, ‘Field’ or Ai Wei Wei’s porcelain Sunflower Seeds, shown to popular acclaim at Tate Modern Turbine Hall and recently the subject of a purchase for the collection. The idea of community draws in viewers of such projects, not only as viewers of the artists’ work but as interpreters of the social construction that produced the work. The imaginative elaboration of this wider nexus of productivity may even be encouraged in documentation within the exhibition, as with this year’s exhibition of Alighiero e Boetti’s embroideries, Mappa Mundi, at Tate Modern.
Such histories of working collaboration may never be perfect. This was clear in the exhibition, also this year, at the Courtauld Institute, of ‘Working Papers’ drawings by Donald Judd which formed part of the history of his interactions with the professional metal workers who fabricated his sculptures. Judd’s historic example demonstrates the importance of understand the specific relation of the individual artist to collective productive practices. Craft’s relation to art-work offers opportunities to consider such issues, including contracts and conditions of employment, as questions to be made transparent within Fine Art. But the more general concern about this strategic and at times didactic approach to presenting craft in the art gallery is that art galleries contain their own historic narratives, and craft’s positive ethos within these contexts may not leave sufficient space for the viewer to consider such issues but supply ideological and methodological suggestions with too immediately positive certainty: the therapeutic relation in the case of the Hohenbuchlers exhibition ‘We Knitted Braids for Her’; creating projects that enhance local communities in Gormley’s widely toured exhibition of clay figurines; or engaging with positive aspects of volunteering in Maria Nepomuceno’s work currently on view at the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate,
Nepomuceno’s work is a case in point. Publicity about this exhibition suggests the beauty of the traditional Latin American craft techniques this artist employs: ‘woven forms made of rope and straw, along with beads and other objects, often in fiesta-bright hues, resonate on a fundamental level’. This presents a happy, mythic picture, both inclusive, ‘from the genetic to the cosmological’, and spiritualised, emphasising symbolic interest in spiral systems and natural rhythms. These works tend to support a primitivising Western anthropological account of the communities and work-histories of Latin America. Nepomuceno’s textile structures also resonate with forms and practices developed in historic feminist works relevant to celebration of the generosity of histories of women’s domestic textile labour reminiscent of the quilting groups of North American women in the nineteen-sixties, in the way a collective, the Maria Nepomuceno study group of volunteers and craftspeople, continues to extend textile productivity during the course of the exhibition, out of the museum and into the sea.
The gallery text invites the viewer to relax with Nepomuceno’s work ‘whether spreading across the floor, rising up or suspended like hammocks, the works’ relationship to the body is key’. The cultural relevance of craft and body may be strong but should be treated with caution. An apolitical benevolence in small scale art-world models of production may give permissions in wider but not unrelated contexts. The question ‘who is the artist or the maker’ can imply hierarchies, and opportunities for understanding the internal dynamics of craft and art collaborations be lost.
Joan Key’s article for 5.2 Readymade or Handmade is available for download.