Shared interests

different visions
Crafts Council of Queensland Gallery, Brisbane

Writings of a metalware exhibition occupy uncertain territory in a contemporary journal of the visual arts. Editorial space is appropriate, however, not because these objects represent a kind of 'functional artwork', but because ideas which interest the contemporary visual arts community are also often current with theorists, practitioners and writers involved with craft, design and architecture. While mindful of the distinctions between these disciplines, there is nevertheless a shared engagement with the broader terms of reference of cultural practice-with new technologies, new social structures, the new consumerism and increasingly with ecological issues.1 Shared Interests, Different Visions, an exhibition of contemporary metalware, offers a positive point from which to consider some observations about the place for the practice, exhibition, and publishing, of craft and design in Queensland.

Shared Interests, Different Visions exposed objects by nine craftworkers and designers at the Crafts Council of Queensland (CCQ) recently. Curated by Brisbane-based metalsmith, Sandra Appleby, the exhibition was the first product of the CCQ's Crafts Curator Traineeship. CCQ Director Johanna Watson initiated the scheme to provide a curatorial training program and to increase the quality and quantity of craft exhibitions. This first exhibition generously embraced diversity within the ranks of craft and design practitioners, consciously making room for "different visions ". This might superficially seem at odds with a sense of coherence, but it is diversity which challenges notions of 'craft' as a homogeneous form of practice. Languages and physical structures construct an understanding of visual arts practice, for example, as finely differentiated. But 'craft' is commonly viewed as an homogeneous zone, its practitioners collectively identified by their 'otherness' (usually in relation to arts practice).2 The persistence of this categorization is remarkable. Key writers have acknowledged the boundaries defining craft practice as being historical and cultural constructions.3  And a positive recognition of these boundaries, and the development of a sense of independence, has been recognised as a step towards dismantling hierarchical relationships with the arts.4 In this context, Appleby's concern with showing the diversity of craft practice is critical, and her exhibition successfully exposes varied expressions of what it means to be a contemporary metalsmith. Durability, quality, environmental sensibility, and a commitment from the practitioner to making a living from their practice, were also guiding concernsin Appleby's selection of works.

Larger scale works in the exhibition included Russell Hall's ripple iron lamp and chaise, David Atkinson's steel bench seat and hall table, and Gary Lay's forged sculptural lighting designs and table. Hall is recognised in Queensland principally for his architectural practice, however his ripple iron furniture and lighting designs have been gaining increasing attention.

Three exhibitors, Lisa Foote, Catherine Large and Victoria Royds, share a background in jewellery production and worked to a smaller scale. Catherine Large showed sets of swizzle sticks which, with fine finish and detail, took on the presence of very precious, personal tools. Lisa Foote exhibited sets of anodised, aluminium serviette rings and toast racks, finished in dull gold or silver. The form and finish of these suggested that their use might invoke pleasure and celebration in daily routines. Foote also showed two vases, but these, along with Victoria Royds' limited edition, sterling silver spoons, seemed less at ease in this company.

The items which had most potency, in the exhibition's context, were those which most clearly reflected a willingness to negotiate with other players in the "culture of industry".5  Heron Fielder, Julie Lembryk and Marc Harrison, for example, showed a clear interest in full scale and serial production. There is a role and space for "different visions", including makers of one-oils or objects suited only to very limited production. However, the practitioners prepared to engage with other producers and manufacturers, and to explore a wide range of techniques and technologies, are perhaps best placed to negotiate the demands of the predicted emergence of a new consumerism and its integral eco-design concerns.

The idea of consumerism is changing. Designers once worked around the symbolic appeal of objects but today we are all more sensitive to the dimensions of consumption .. . There is now the need to build a new culture where objects are more deeply related to our existence as we confront the reality of environmental limits 6

These emerging new conceptual and social parameters for craft and design practice in the 1990s must impact on the way in which craft and design objects are exhibited, documented and discussed. Design history as a recognised discipline is relatively new, and craft and design exhibitions have often been reviewed by art historians and critics.7 At times, the result has been a focus on the work's visual impact, at the expense of its context and its development from idea to object. One result, for craft, is that it "has been constructed as a marginalised practice, a process which has discouraged theorists from addressing the issue of craft as cultural practice ... Craft has been defined in order to secure the identity of art ... “8 Design historian and curator Craig Bremner suggests that the same "polarising pattern" has frustrated meaningful interaction between the realms of 'design and 'industry'.

Just as we do not exist in isolation but in a complex context, so too do the products of industry .. . As we repeatedly perform those actions which attempt to give some meaning and value to our lives, we do so increasingly with industrially produced objects or images. Therefore objects, in particular industrially produced objects, are caused to perform beyond their general prescribed function ... they must begin to permit the consumer to express the complexity of life in a modern industrial culture.9

Bremner's case parallels Susan Cohn's plea that we:

... consider the potential the crafts have to bind people together through social rituals, to create (or perhaps recreate) a culture of connectedness, where daily tasks and routines have significance, give pleasure and reinforce social values.10

An emphasis on issues of identity (as 'art', 'craft', 'design', 'industry') stifles the types of concerns raised by Bremner and Cohn, and obscures other valid issues-the developmental rationale for an object, its expressive and conceptual 'function', possible methods of production, markets and promotion.

Exhibition and publishing exposure for craft work has also been affected by a focus on identity issues. Appropriate exposure is critical if craft workers and designers are to sustain their practice. Like other 'products' in our cultural systems, the viability of craft practice relies on the productive interplay between publications, exhibitions, collectors, curators and, in some cases, manufacturers and markets. The more opportunities Queensland craft workers and designers initiate for exhibition and exposure, the more they'll be written about and collected, and the more they secure for themselves a livelihood and a valid place within directional debate about our culture, and the objects with which we surround ourselves. Apart from specialist dealers and galleries such as that run by the Crafts Council of Queensland, there are few public or private galleries or museums in Queensland which prioritise ideas about craft, design and architecture. In some cases, the exposure of these disciplines is mediated by an interaction with visual arts practice, by collaborative ventures or by 'cross-dressing' disciplines.11 Engaging laterally with these disciplines cannot be achieved by positioning them exclusively 'in relation to' visual arts practice. Do galleries and museums see craft, design and architecture as areas with which publicly funded, cultural spaces should concern themselves? Regardless of the answer, craft and design practitioners could more actively seek appropriate exposure for their work and develop distinctively new ways of achieving this exposure. Shared Interests, Different Visions indicates that there are professional practitioners with the commitment and drive to mark out their own space, for their own disciplines, on their own terms.

notes: 

1. Julie Ewington speaks of recognising the boundaries between art and craft practice, in order to recover a positive, independent position for craft. Quoted in S. Rowley, ' Mind over Matter? Reading the Art/Craft Debate", West, Vol1 , No. 1, 1989:4.

2. ibid, 4-6.

3. ibid, 4.

4. ibid. 4-7.

5. Craig Bremner uses this term. C. Bremner, The Australian Chair, ex. cal., RAIA (NSW Chapter), Sydney, 1989.

6. This comment is from the flyer for the 1993 Design Winter School held at RMIT , Melbourne, in July. The 'new consumerism' and 'eco-design' were focal issues discussed by key international designers at the school.

7. K. Robertson, "From Cherry Ripes to Big Dippers", Australian Book Review. (Review of Tony Fry, Design History Australia, Hale & lremonger, Sydney, 1988.) Robertson is critical of the approach to design adopted by some art historians.

8. Rowley, op cit . 7.

9. Bremner,. op cit.

10. S. Cohn, "The Crafts: on their own terms", P. Timms (ed.), The Nature of the Beast, Craft Victoria, Melbourne, 1993: 24.

11 . Ideas about these disciplines are often exposed through collaborative projects, but much less frequently in their own right.