Only Human was a themed show which clearly bore the mark of its curator, Martina Margetts, the Royal College of Art's Research Fellow in the Applied Arts, a scholar with a predilection for the post-modern and a fascination with the contentious fine art/craft borderline. Her aim, more broadly, was to 'trigger conversations about what it is to be human at this millennial moment'.
While some critics found this particular view from the edge of the era gloomy, I found it, if not exactly uplifting, very moving and very human. The breadth of humanity was implied in the diversity of the nationalities of the contributors, and the astonishing variety of media employed. The British, Czech, Dutch, German, Haitian, Norwegian, Mexican American artists used video, painting, photography, digital print, installation, found objects, clay, sequins, tapestry, glass, metal and couture and recycled clothing to address the body as a psychological, rather than a physical entity. In dealing with the subject of figuration as such for the first time in the Crafts Council Gallery, this exhibition highlighted the all-pervasive interest in the body that has been such a feature of the art world in recent years. Margetts justified inclusion in a Crafts Council show of such a range of media by focusing on each contributor's gift for making things: 'In their virtuoso handling of material and process to realise an idea, each exhibitor, in my view, extends the language of craft.'
With much of its remit now subsumed into the Arts Council and the Regional Arts Boards, the Crafts Council itself is struggling to find an identity, and there are those who would be challenged by such a view, arguing that the venue is inappropriate for such a show. In a recent interview in Ceramic Review, the new director of the Crafts Council, Janet Barnes, was equivocal on the subject, arguing on the one hand that 'there is something to do with the quality of the material that defines a craftwork that doesn't necessarily define an artwork something physical', while acknowledging the need for the crafts to be 'part and parcel of visual culture': 'In fact it's because they're dealing with film and installation and live work and all the visual arts that we become part of that remit. I think there's a strength in that. Our responsibility doesn't end. We have to make sure that our issues are being addressed.'
In response to the recent critique of the number of 'themed' shows, the y2k exhibition programme for this year kicks off with ripe, the first of three exhibitions in the '3Up' series, focusing on the work of three 'rising stars' in each. So is the Crafts Council Gallery to become merely another contemporary art gallery, or should it retain a distinctive 'craft' remit?
The Crafts Council's director of exhibitions, Louise Taylor, bemoans the resistance of the contemporary art press to covering Crafts Council shows. The Crafts Council shop stocks Art Monthly and Contemporary Visual Arts, but readers will not find a review of Crafts Council shows in their pages. Press coverage for Only Human was limited to the eclectic mix of the British Medical Journal, The Lancet, Time Out and the Journal for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers. Attendance figures are static, despite the fact that 40 per cent of visitors are first-timers. While morale among Crafts Council staff is low, Barnes maintains a positive view, insisting that the recent changes will allow the Council to take more risks. Time alone will tell watch this space!
To return to Only Human. The show was divided into three sections, 'The Self and Culture', 'The Self and Others' and 'The Inside Self'. Upon entering the gallery one was confronted by two versions of the Pietà. The imposing physicality of Philip Eglin's oversized Madonna holding the (smaller) dead body of Christ contrasted with the disembodied eeriness of Ersébet Baerveldt's video, in which the artist struggles to destroy/resurrect a life-sized clay figure on a shrouded table. Accompanied by Andy Warhol's 'Dracula' soundtrack played backwards, the film evoked a myriad of myths from Prometheus to Frankenstein via the crucifixion and the Golem. Eglin uses the ceramic language of Meissen porcelain, Staffordshire pottery and Italian majolica to produce religious figures graffitied with images of the sins of man, ranging from the Kama Sutra to a mugshot of Divine Brown. The message, 'Hape (sic) you like Holland', scrawled on the back of the piece in a child's hand, was a touching reminder of the humanity of the maker who produced the work while in residence, away from his family, at the European Ceramic Work Centre in s'Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands.
The architects, Ushida Findlay, used the gallery space in a creative way, placing a considerable number of works without compromise in terms of space and light. To the right of the Pietàs, continuing the theme of religion in a multi-cultural secular age, an aisle of sequinned Haitian flags mixing Christian and voodoo iconography in a gaudy, distinctive style, lead up to Michael Lucero's raffia-skirted Angola Carolina, as if to an altar or shrine. The ceramic head, based on Afro-Carolinian face jugs, is covered with cockroaches and a barcode, evoking a more contemporary existence in New York, where the artist, descended from the earliest Mexican settlers, now resides.
In the centre of the gallery an installation by Natasha Kerr, Otto's Surgery, evoked poignant memories of the lives and deaths of family members triggered by the gift from her mother of an album of family photographs. A pair of shoes beneath an empty hospital bed, images of the dead man and shelves groaning with leather-bound books and a battered box of Scrabble, elicit different memories in each viewer, underpinned by a common experience of the remembrance of things, and persons, past.
A comment in the visitors' book on how the exhibits had inspired a questioning of traditional notions of beauty and their relationship to the human spirit bore testimony to the success of the show. The Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer's extraordinary animation Dimensions of Dialogue made compulsive viewing. Figures are created (out of clay, household object, vegetables) and dissolved back into their component parts, the domestic scenarios deal with the breakdown of personal relationships in the context of a repressive communist regime, but are familiar to all. The universality of the themes, expressed in such a variety of media, created in a multiplicity of cultural contexts is overwhelming.
This said, I found the words of photographer Nick Knight, whose images of disabled people wearing specially constructed garments by Alexander McQueen for Dazed and Confused are a striking feature of 'The Inner Self' section, served as almost as a keynote for the exhibition: 'We are asking people to reconsider what they think of as beautiful. We want to share a feeling of social inclusion rather than exclusion a human approach, breaking down barriers.'
Lucy Brown's Squeeze, an impossibly skinny red dress woven out of a recycled size 18 polyester nightdress, spoke volumes about female body image, as did Dana Zamecnikova's Women/From the Past Until. A full-colour image of Madame Pompadour, digitally etched into glass, was sandwiched, front and back, with grubby, grey, dowdy shadowy figures of a working woman. Emma Woffenden's glass casts of fingers and baby arms, placed on the glare of a neon lightbox, distilled physical human features in an emotionally charged way. Mah Rana's recycled second-hand gold wedding rings were used to create Duchampian still lives redolent with sexual tension: a male and female kettle conversation piece; a toothless gold comb lying impotent next to a bushy hairbrush. Hazel White showed work that played games with our categories of materials and dimensions, flipping from 2-d to 3-d. A computer-generated image of Defence Mechanism No.1 featured three silver among a row of virtual spikes protruding from a female spine, a gold-cast belly-button inserted in the abdomen of a photograph of a naked torso, and Virtual Frock a torso clad only in projected squares of light.
During my visit a group of schoolgirls were full of excited enjoyment as they sketched and discussed the work on display. Prompts from their teachers facilitated their understanding of the themes. They were asked to think about issues of gender, religion and ethnicity, which had already been addressed in class, and to choose three things that they liked and say why, in relation to these concepts.
While the Crafts Council lost its remit for national education to the Arts Council in the recent reshuffle, it has retained its gallery education officer, Sarah Mossop, who commissions teachers' notes and organises programmes of events, including education open evenings and presentations by makers, critics and curators, to support each exhibition. My observation of the visiting school group confirmed my opinion of the high standard of Mossop's largely unsung input into the exhibition programme.
Audience development and access are currently major concerns of the Arts Council. While the Crafts Council can clearly attract new audiences, the challenge is to develop and maintain them, with a programme of shows articulating current debates in the crafts. Only Human has succeeded in triggering a number of issues; it is a pity that the debate is limited to a few periodicals and a handful of school visits and higher education seminars.
1. M. Margetts, Only Human, Crafts Council Catalogue
2. A. Orient, 'Ready, Steady, Go', Creative Review No.181, Jan/Feb 2000, p.22
3. A. Orient, 'Ready, Steady, Go', Creative Review No.181, Jan/Feb 2000, p.22
4. L. Taylor, in conversation with the author at the Crafts Council, 5 January, 2000
5. Information based on reviews forwarded by Crafts Council PR Agency, Joanna Scott, 7 January 2000
6. Statistics taken from Orient, A, 'Ready, Steady, Go', Creative Review No.181, Jan/Feb 2000, p.22
7. N. Knight, Only Human, Crafts Council Catalogue, p.14