Sunday 28 December 2008

Lotf'allah mosque, Esfahan, Iran

No one with an interest in ceramics should allow themselves to die without first seeing Esfhahan.

Friday 19 December 2008

Viva Viva

I'm shocked to find it's more than a month since I wrote for this blog. Much has happened. I've been in Iran, discussing a planned solo show in Esfahan in 2009, in the Iranian month of Ordibehesht, which runs from April 21st - May 21st. There will be much more on this soon, and more about plans for The C Word's second year, which, coincidentally starts at about the same time as Iranian New Year, mid - March.
Meanwhile, I want to tell you about a remarkable, ambitious, and to the best of my knowledge, unique exhibition I saw on Sunday 14th December, the last day of it's two-week run.

Viva Viva

In a giant concrete bunker under the Marylebone campus of the University of Westminster, opposite Baker st. Tube Station and Madame Tussaude’s, lies P3. It’s one of London’s newest art spaces, and certainly one of its biggest. If Tate modern resembles an airport, (which it does), this is the aircraft hanger. It’s brutal though, the sort of place that General Pinochet would have singled out for particularly ghastly torture sessions.

Undaunted, however, the turbo-charged visionary that is Zemirah Moffat, spun into action and delivered an astonishing exhibition of flickering, glittering screens, colour bars, soundscapes, language trails and lovingly bound, printed volumes, all in the service of the practice-based PhDs in Audio-visual media.
The idea itself was eccentric to the point of insanity – it would certainly have seemed so to the average, art-world curator.
‘I’m going to curate a show of practice-based PhDs in audio-visual media from the last 20 years. It’s a show about knowledge. The centre piece will be a library with all the doctoral theses bound in orange on the shelves so that the audience can read them.'
YAAH RIGHT, drawls the west-end curator, adjusting her velvet hair band, and hastily doing up the top button of her Harvey Nich’s silk blouse. A doctoral thesis sounded mildly threatening–she wasn’t going to take any risks.
YEAH RIGHT, sneers the cool cat curator, tossing his thinning mane, grease landing in a fine spray on a nearby wall – consults his blackberry, ‘we’ll just close the gallery for the two weeks it’s on shall we?’ Collapses with laughter at his own side-splitting wit.

I wont pretend it wasn’t overwhelming, intimidating almost as you descend the concrete bunker and encounter the numerous screens, but bit by bit, they separate out and become individual pieces of work. The vast space is generous, you could arrange yourself comfortably and settle into each work, absorbing the particular nature of the ‘cinema’ venue, or the tv screens, the still photographs suspended from the ceiling, or the computer screen tucked up next to a pillar, or the several screens forming a whole installation. Ear phones allowed me to sink into John Wynne’s ‘Hearing Voices’, work on click languages from the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, which attended to all my personal obsessions, and for which I would cheerfully have settled in for the night.

Screen work rarely does well in a conventional gallery space, so perhaps this most emphatically not white, not cube, demonstrates that very different kinds of spaces are needed for such work to thrive. The most significant thing though was the constant humming presence of the research, the building of knowledge through experiment and writing, the integrated relationship between the written thesis and the art work, which, probably for the first time, were allowed to appear in the same venue at the same time, so the viewer/ reader/ audience could encounter the whole, rather than the fragmented, disassociated parts. This was an extraordinary adventure which demanded much from its audience and delivered more. I’d love to see something like it in the Hayward. The public are quite capable of coping with a bit of hard-core thinking, if only we’re given the chance.

Monday 17 November 2008

Rebecca Fairman, 2008: Cold Comfort

Cold comfort is a very simple work, a collection of small, square, imprinted and slightly cushioned hollow tiles, arranged together on a child-sized iron bedstead to resemble a patchwork quilt. The bed is placed in a dimly-lit, cell-like room, with a curved ceiling like a tunnel and with one entrance and no windows. It’s a forlorn sight.

There is a palpable sense of sorrow hanging in the dimly lit rain-soaked air. It’s impossible not to think of Jane Eyre or the Princes in the tower. It has a theatrical, film location quality to it which gives it a contemporary feel but simultaneously recalls images of Dickens’ characters and Victorian London, in the ‘produced’ sense.

Fairman has very successfully introduced devices of melodrama to the work through her use of lighting and of the damp, dark cell. She has kept the visual qualities simple and in so doing, has allowed the ceramic quilt on its bed to communicate what Jorunn Veiteberg has called, ‘craft’s affective side,’ The patchwork quilt, both as an image and as a thing, and here it’s used as both, is steeped in cultural memory. It is an archetype of craft and a recognisable object which can speak to a wide and culturally diverse audience. Fairman uses it to generate very personal, intimate meaning, but one to which audiences can and did respond.

Fairman has used craft practice as the central agent of narrative in this work with considerable agility. The cold hardness of the ceramic ‘quilt’ is the tactile surprise which works, not least because you can pick up each piece, turn it over in your hands, and know how hard it is. In so doing you encounter the imprints of fine lace, embroidery, bits of doilies and so forth which are the pieces of female biography, the domestic memorabilia from which quilts are made. Quilts, traditionally, are made from ‘leftovers’. There is a class aspect to their story: the very wealthy didn’t need to bother too much with patchwork quilts. There are ‘posh’ quilts, made from new fabric, but overwhelmingly they’re ‘backyard’. Cold Comfort deploys a down-home, domestic, useful and traditional craft form, to generate a new, contemporary narrative, which suggests that the genealogy of this work is closer to feminist art from the 1970s and 80s, than to modernist craft pottery.

Fairman took this piece to some local woodland and was surprised at how much the public, especially children, took to it and wanted to get involved in some way. ‘One child was clearing all the leaves away because she didn’t want this beautiful thing to get dirty.’ Left on it’s own in that kind of environment, it might quickly look like a murder scene and would be too visceral, for me anyway. Cold Comfort is at its strongest when it is interactive. Fairman was wise to avoid a white cube, gallery environment which would have made it very stagey. The brickwork of shunt and of basement room in her house allowed the ‘affective’ side to do its work.

Cold Comfort was exhibited at Shunt, November 2008 and previewed at the artist’s house in Bermondsey.
Fairman is also part of the Buff group, featured earlier this year on The C Word.

Sunday 9 November 2008

The Parlous State of Publishing for Writing about Ceramics.

This post will appear in three parts. it is about the vexed question of how to write and talk about pots, about ceramics, about craft and about art. It's also about where and how publish what we do write. Part one is below. Parts two and three will appear later this week. They're in the pipeline - I'm working on them. There may be another section discussing examples of art-speak, pot-speak, Ceramics' emancipatory inheritance and Ceramics' mythic imaginary - these last two are a bit connected but not entirely. Ready?

Part 1: A moderately short story about writing a book review

Alice was eating toast and marmalade and feeling rather pleased with herself. She’d been sent a big fat glossy, expensive-looking book to review, at least that’s what she thought she had to do. Confrontational Ceramics was the title. She settled down for a quiet morning’s reading – the sort of reading you do with a pencil, note book and those mini post-it notes in different colours for marking special pages. Just for a moment, she felt really quite important. Gradually, as the morning passed, storm clouds gathered, as the sordid truth slowly dawned. The beautiful fat glossy book was dreadful. Dreadful in every way. The text was ghastly - it was only an introduction and then some mini-introductions but, even so, they were enough to put you off the whole thing - and the rest of the book was made up entirely of pictures with something called, ‘artist’s statements’. These apparently were where the artists were allowed to try and bully you into thinking what they thought. Well Alice jolly well wasn’t going to be bullied. She threw the beastly book across the room, and went and consulted the Cheshire Cat. She was, after all, expected to write about the thing. What was she to do?

Well, she wrote the review and let’s just say that, in the process, she learned that it was almost impossible to write a negative review which wasn’t inherently depressing and as unreadable as the book she objected to. She sent it off and it was politely returned. She tried again. It went back and forth for weeks.

‘Try writing about the ‘work’ instead of the text,’ growled the white rabbit, fishing out his gold pocket watch and snarling about academia, while Alice, almost in tears by now, meekly agreed but also snarled. She berated the parlous state of publishing and wondered how to review ‘work’ she hadn’t actually seen.

Then a neighbour publication, ‘Sopra Nova Glittery Handwork’ published its review of the bestial book, and Alice noted that it was written by a Patrician White Patriarch with a very Proper Pottery Pedigree. She also noted that he’d made exactly the same complaints as she had. The White Rabbit emailed: he too had noticed that Alice’s objections, (yer honour) had been upheld by the senior Prefect with the Perfect Pedigree. Alice tried not to feel too smug, and suppressed the ‘I told you so’ that threatened to jump out of her mouth. She wrote the new review, but the bestial book didn’t get any better.

Alice still doesn’t know if the Parish Council Pottery Newsletter will publish the new version or the old version or an amalgamation of the two, or nothing. She still isn’t sure if the senior prefect’s review has somehow made her’s more palatable or not. The White Rabbit seems somewhat mollified, but you can never be sure with rabbits. They take fright easily.

It had been a funny morning. Alice felt strangely satisfied and yet something was still bothering her. The Cheshire Cat still hadn’t uttered. So she thought she’d go and see the Red Queen just to see if she had anything to say on the matter.

Sunday 2 November 2008

Ending International Feminist Futures? (??????)

Say, what? ---

I was puzzled by the title too but, undaunted, high-tailed it off to Aberdeen, gorgeous, graceful, granite-grey city, glistening sea-side, stately trees and rushing, shining river, bright winter sun and magnificent (eat yer heart out Cambridge and Oxford), magnificent university campus, and had a whale of a time at the conference above named.

What's in the Name?

First things first, why Ending? It’s all in the question mark, of course. It seems that some feminist academics are engaged in one of those quasi-apocalyptic moments, a bit like the art world gets into about every ten years or so, when a bunch of people produce manifestos or articles or similar saying ‘the end of art?’(craft/global capitalism/ celebrity/ religion/ life/ the universe – delete as applicable), and organise endless conferences, seminars, happenings, etc to discuss the matter and generally create much carbon emission.

'Hell No!'

So, I added my carbon footprint to everyone else’s and went and said, ‘hell no,’ along with all the other speakers and everyone there who said, ‘hell no’ too. This was in fact the last of four conferences, which, I now suspect, were convened chiefly to say a monumental collective, ‘hell no’ very loudly. And we did. There certainly wasn’t any sign of feminism ending, quite the contrary; there were a great many new beginnings, much growing of small, feminist bean sprouts. Oh and some splendid making of cheese cakes.

'So then what happened?'

The genesis of the four workshops/conferences was something to do with International Relations, although this conference was hosted by Marysia Zalewski and the University of Aberdeen’s Centre for Gender Studies and School of Social Science. There was an IR tinge to most of the papers, but not all. It was admirably varied, quite a bit of cultural studies, some media studies, a very cool genomics meets eco feminism via science fiction joint paper, a study of how women were pictured by Communist Poland and then by the Solidarity movement ‘women tractor drivers to Solidarity women’, I talked about Shattered. Actually, I talked about Traffic, which is one the pots in Shattered, (see website), and there were several papers which were either about trafficking or touched on it somewhere. A Dutch woman talked about feminist Egyptian (documentary) Cinema, (that one was really fascinating,) a Turkish woman, talked about the construction of Turkish masculinity through compulsory military service, also fascinating. Cynthia Enloe talked about post-war Iraq and post-wars going back to the First World War and how feminists need to intervene in these situations and in how the stories are told. She produced the quote of the conference in my estimation: ‘Widows make people very nervous.’ Too bloody right they do, you should see what they’re doing in Iran.

'And What Else?'

Some papers were very esoteric, exploring much chewy, involved, quite abstract theory, others were more like discussions of a much bigger research project. It provided an immensely diverse overview of feminism at work in the academy and of feminists, in every imaginable discipline, bringing their feminism to scrutinise and - in the case of IR in particular – almost reinvent it. One of the most imaginative and highly successful strands to this event was the part played by artists and some students from Gray’s School of Art, who curated a show of their work. An artist called Merlyn Riggs was doing participatory work. We all had to bring something which was indicative of us and she photographed the things for 'The Museum of Me'. She introduced the work saying, 'My work is about 'Me, Meals, and Menopause,' -(she was responsible for the cheescake recipes). She's also been working with women in a drop in centre and with women in the Sottish Parliament. Alex Brew, another of the artists, has been working with images of men,'Why don't women objectify men?' she asked. She's written an excellent piece for The F Word which is linked to her website, here.

Mixing It Up
It would be truly revolutionary to see planets art, craft and, especially, ceramics, following suit. Unfortunately ‘interdisciplinary’ on planet craft just means including different media, for example textile art mixing with digital media, which you might think was part of how textile/fibre art was developing in digital times anyway, but apparently this counts as interdisciplinary. Not in my book it doesn’t. That’s just visual art behaving as it should. The Crafts Council is consulting on good practice in the crafts, fostering ambition, that sort of thing. I’d suggest this was an excellent example of good practice I’d like to see imported into craft practices.

'Now What?'
Conferences are an extraordinary opportunity to listen to things we don’t normally listen to and meet people we wouldn’t normally meet, this one particularly so because of its interdisciplinary element. Academic departments are often entirely separate from one another, even within a single university, which limits the spread of knowledge because people can’t easily learn from each other. A truly interdisciplinary event such as this can capitalise on the broad dissemination of research which results from the mix and make a real contribution to the building and sustaining of knowledge in that it brings new ways of understanding the issues that arise within our own disciplines. I want to encourage the visual arts and craft institutions that I’m involved with to be much more interdisciplinary in their approach particularly to the dissemination of our work and research. Neither academia nor the art/craft world are particularly well disposed to this kind of interdisciplinary high-jinks, and this conference was an object lesson in how to do it.

Thursday 30 October 2008

Connecting Cultures: Relaunching the collections at Cartwright Hall, Bradford

Cartwright Hall is one of those stately, Victorian monuments to wool, civic pride, ambition, wealth and paternalistic duty which graces many a small, middling-sized and large town in Northern England. It was purpose built in 1904 to house the art collection of one Mr. Lister, local wool magnate, and continues to function as a magnificent museum and art gallery. It was recently refurbished and the collections were re-curated and displayed thematically, which has allowed the historic collection to meet and mingle with the contemporary collection in a way that brings new meaning to both and probably new audiences too.

About the Collection
Cartwright Hall’s contemporary collection has never been ‘medium-specific,’ the collection was not either acquired or organised according the material from which the work was made, such as metal work, ceramics, textiles or photography, but rather according to narrative and meaning. At one time there was a ‘transcultural collection’ which focused of arts from the Indian sub-continent and on contemporary South Asian and diaspora art. It then expanded and the collecting policy became an early exemplar of ‘diversity’ in art acquisitions. The result is probably one of the most interesting public collections in Britain. Ok, I’m biased, I have work in it, but mine’s a very early work, don’t get too excited. It’s the mix and now the arrangement of the works that is so successful. Some wonderful, classic Orientalist works sit alongside contemporary work exploring migration narratives where they can quietly or noisily comment on each other without much need for interference from clunky curatorial text telling the audience what to think.

Connect, the current exhibition
The relaunch of the collections and of the current exhibition, ‘Connect,’ was followed by a short symposium on contemporary museum display in which seven of us, with work in the collection, opined as eloquently as we could on the matter of public collections. ‘Opportunity or risk?’ was the question posed and which we were asked to address in our three-minute presentations. All of us emphasised the opportunity, I think only two of us discussed the risks. I’d welcome the chance to be in more collections of this sort, the risks of having your work sanitised and intellectually vandalised by the sort of craft curators who really want to discuss only your provenance, authenticity, medals and firing temperatures are fewer I think. That said, I wouldn’t mind the chance of risking that either, but since most ceramic collections are, alas, absolutely material-specific and concentrated on the modernist, truth-to-materials drone, I don’t think I’ve got too much to worry about - unfortunately.

Good Practice
Thinking about good practice, Cartwright must also be held up as an example with their young ambassadors project. This is an outrageously audacious attempt at commandeering disaffected, callow youth, locating their art-lover within and then, as if that wasn’t enough, asking them to set about developing their teenage and early 20-something pals into sophisticated, eloquent and articulate gallery-goers too. The astonishing thing is that it’s working brilliantly. These kids are going to be holding forth about neo-modernist, quasi-de-Waalian, late 20th century handle-less pale-ware, before you can say ‘cylinder’. Can I cope?

Monday 27 October 2008

Origin, The London Craft Fair, 2008, part 2

Quote of the week, or possibly of the moth:

“My star customer at Origin was someone who owns Edmund de Waal's wall of pots
but feeds her children off my tableware.”

This from Linda Bloomfield, she of the delicate pink interiors.

So Origin 2 was, well, altogether more upbeat than week 1. If we consider the Crafts Council’s stated aims, one of which is to create a viable economic infrastructure for the craft sector, then this was an unqualified success, as far as I could see. It would be a truly ground breaking achievement if countable numbers of makers could generate a sustainable living wage from making and selling their work, assuming that’s what they want, without needing to be from a class or family background which is able to provide a trust fund, or help with the mortgage, or similar, to keep things afloat. The acid test of this is if a critical mass of women from non-moneyed backgrounds can achieve that even if they are single, or have no obvious access to money. Then you know you’ve got an infrastructure not just a sprinkling of exceptions, or a group of people who’ve netted higher income partners. If they can achieve that, I’ll be cheering them to the rafters, however ‘naff’ ore over perfect the craft is.

Thursday 9 October 2008

Some Pictures of Pots in Origin

Decided to show the pictures separately, not sure why, but the lengthy review of Origin is the post below. So, from the top, we have, Helen Beard's Meadow. Helen is one of very few who illustrate pots, in fact she may be the only one. The point is she deploys pictorial space a sort of pot perspective. The Meadow needs to be seen as a vast group to be the meadow she envisages. Origin isn't the right space for it, but here's hoping she finds somewhere.
Next is Katrin Moye. Some of her pots have rich brown insides, like those seaside souvenirs.
Next is the weird knitted cups. Imagine drinking out them. These are made by Annette Bugansky. She had some quite pervy zip up ones as well.
Alinah Azadeh's 'crafted space' is next. Such a relief to the eyes and to the psyche to find something BIG, light and airy.
And finally... Sun Kim's mugs. Gorgeous. She doesn't seem to have a website. If I find one, I'll add it.
This is a tiny sample of over 100 exhibitors. I did take more photographs but they're a bit fuzzy. Battery running low I think. Off to the sunshine to recharge my own batteries.

Wednesday 8 October 2008

Origin, The London Craft Fair, 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,
The C Word has important news to announce:
Sun Kim makes proper mugs with HANDLES! Yes, it’s true. Maker of very fine porcelain tableware, she did her stint in atelier de Waal, and emerged unscathed. None of that dimpled beaker business, so popular among makers of whitish ware. You can lift one of her mugs to your lips, and slurp your tea without fear of burning your hands, dropping the mug or waiting so long to touch the damn thing that the tea’s now tepid and undrinkable with a milk slick on the top. Yeucccchhhhhhhh.

To business then…
There is no doubt that under the auspices of Rosy Greenlees, the Crafts Council has become vastly more professional. Whereas the old Politburo spawned the Chelsea Craft Fair, which was a King’s Rd version of the annual church bazaar, so the New and Improved version has produced Origin which is altogether more Knightsbridge. It kicks off in a big white glistening tent in the Somerset House courtyard, next to Waterloo Bridge, in London, with fat carpets underfoot and every ‘stall’ a polished white or grey sort of cabin with plinths or whatever is required. You can plug in your laptop and play on line backgammon all day if you want.

As to the craft, well I didn’t see Chelsea after about 1985, and yesterday was the first time I’ve seen Origin, but ‘a source’ told me that they’d brought many new, younger makers this year. Gone, apparently, are most of the ‘old guard’. I’ve no idea who the OG were, but they’ve gone anyway, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. For better or worse, Origin now represents the newyoungupandcoming glitzy professional designer-makers. Origin is a shiny, glittering shopping mall and it meant business. It is unequivocally the commercial, commoditised end of craft, Greenlees’s ‘sector’ at work.


So, like pushing an elephant up a long flight of stairs, you push craft up market and, all being well, the makers can, at last, earn a decent living. So everything is polished and ‘well made’ to the point of self-parody. It has to be, this is the ‘gold standard’. I have no idea if the strategy can work. It depends on the buyers understanding that they must pay much higher prices than they would for something which may well look quite similar, from Habitat or Cargo, but is in fact mass produced. Anecdotally at least, it can work. Chris Keenan designed some work for Habitat, and someone came to his stall at Origin and said, ‘Oh, I’ve got the one from Habitat, now I want one of the real thing.’ So, if this version of craft can project an idea of ‘authenticity,’ the ‘Original’ in fact, then the strategy could be a winner.

Class again..
The risk, and it could be a big risk, is that pushing it up market will just make it look, well, upwardly mobile, 'pretentious,' as someone, (Grayson Perry) once said. You see, you cant ever get away from talking about class when it comes to craft. If it goes posh, and people can actually earn a living without starving in the winter, it's called 'pretentious', in other words it's 'jumped up', 'got idea's above it's station.' The makers are s'posed to be peasants for godsake. Not earning a good wage. God's bread, whatever next, muttered the colonel, snorting into his port. My hunch, especially in the light of the global banking crisis, is that the top end will work, but I’m not sure about the knitted socks. By top end, I mean hand made, very high quality silver tableware, for example, well-crafted, contemporary design. I’d buy it. Portable wealth d'you see. Ceramics sits right in the middle. I’m not even going to try and guess.

Too much craft for the content
What i'd really like to see, is a move away from the insistence on 'well made' or rather, dare I say it, a more sophisticated understanding of what constitutes 'well made.' At the moment it's still stuck, as it ever was, in the 'too much craft of the content' rut. Most of the objects I encountered were just too ordinary to tolerate being blisteringly well made. Their material perfection just couldn't be justified by the banality of the object. So, what I'm really saying, is I want to see more substance and less craft. But this is not what Origin is about. I am in the wrong place.

Crafting Space
So much for the stalls, there are other things at Origin too. You could say it’s trying to be all things to all people. Hidden in dark nooks and crannies in the liminal spaces between the stalls, there are pieces of art. You can tell, because they’re on their own in dark spaces with carefully, self consciously written, curatorial flannel accompanying them. For all I know, these might be fabulous, immensely interesting works. If only one could see them. I wanted to like then and be happy they were there, god knows, for these I am certainly the designated audience. But they felt more like craft's dirty secret than convincing art moments. And as all good C Worders know, Craft is in fact Art's dirty secret. There is also an ‘interactive’ space. At first I thought this was a highly imaginative piece of audience research and was well impressed. I was wrong, it was an interactive textile work – which could still work as audience research but I don’t think that was the primary purpose. There was a big wire cage with ribbons woven into it on which were written the answers to questions such as: ‘what did you buy and why does it interest you?’ ‘Who are you giving the object to and what do they mean to you?’ and ‘Describe a gift you’ve received and how its changed your relationship with the giver.’ Find out more here.
The interactive project worked better than the art nooks. It was much more central and open and also inviting because you could sit down. They should have provided tea though. It was based on the old Persian poetry sharing thing, so tea should definitely have been there – or wine perhaps.

The Jury's still out...

For those of us who love craft because we relish its lowly status, its down-homeness, its folksyness, and we use that to explore a host of related ideas and tell all manner of low down tales, then Origin is a Big Yawn. It is mesmerising, busy with people and objects, and, once I’d got round it all, stupefying. But it isn’t meant for me. It’s meant for the people who go to Dorothy Perkins on Saturday, or Harvey Nichs on Sunday. For Craft readers who know London, but haven’t been to Origin, it’s like a turbo-charged CAA (Contemporary Applied Arts,) but more Bond St. than Oxford St, more Harvey Nichs than Dotty P, but both, I assume, are the intended market. The thing that I did feel sad about was that I couldn’t think of a single thing, that I really wanted. I was left with no feeling of desire or covetousness. I reflected on that for about half a day, and then remembered Sun Kim’s mugs with their silky satiny matt glazes, and their proper, properly placed, handles. So, just one thing then.

Sunday 28 September 2008

Crunching Credit, Ceramics in the City, Confrontational Ceramics, and the Collapse of global Capitalism.

Jackpot!!! A veritable treasure chest of C words to add to the ever-expanding list. Ceramics in the City is now affectionately known at C in the C and Confrontational Ceramics, a vast glossy tome, was sent to me by Ceramic Review, with a request to review the book in 1000 words. With this request I have gladly complied, and I can let you know, in advance of publication, that my review is almost 900 words longer than the text of the book. Ok, slight exaggeration, but suffice to say, it’s yet another of those unspeakable survey books, packed to eaves with hideously glossy pictures and littered with ‘artists’ statements,’ each more turgid than the Journal of Psychiatry.

American Acronyms

So, lets get back to the Credit Crunch. Now it seems that this phenomenon has not yet hit Hackney. Almost everywhere else in the world in now affected: 11 banks in the USA have gone bust, 2 in the UK, President Bush will henceforth be known as the Supreme Leader of the Union of Soviet Socialist States of America, and Maggie May and Donald Duck are building a straw-bale barn somewhere near you where they will swim in the local WAMU and lay AIGs. I’m sure I shouldn’t be so flippant but what else can one do?

Ceramics in the City

Getting back to Hackney, this is where the Geffrye Museum is located, in Kingsland rd, and where the eighth outing of Ceramics in the City bustled with buyers who did, by all accounts, buy. I didn’t get there this year, but I have this information on good authority. All the makers I’ve asked so far have told me it was very well attended and business was brisk. Although results varied for each maker, all have said it was better than most other years. This event took place on the 19th, 20th and 21st of September, the weekend after the announcement of the take over of HBOS by Lloydstsb, which will result in the loss of at least 140,000 jobs and an almost complete collapse of the stock market. Add to that the nationalisation of Northern Rock, near collapse of Bradford and Bingley, rescued by nationalisation, the loss of thousands of jobs when Lehman’s went under and you wonder how it is we’re still selling anything at all. So, encouraging though C in the C’s results obviously are, I am wondering if we shouldn’t all be diversifying – into what I haven’t quite decided, but all imaginative suggestions will be considered.
Just checked google for the spelling of Lehman’s, and found a site, also called Lehman’s in Ohio, which sells butter lamps (ok, oil lamps, but they can easily be converted) and wood burning stoves. I think we might be on to something here.

Lasting vs Disposable
So why are people cheerfully buying handmade pottery at this time, when most of us are facing a winter without heating because we can’t afford the bills, a great may people will be losing their jobs, still more are paying higher interest on their mortgages, others paying higher rents because of competition in the private rented sector because, if you’re on a modest income, you haven’t got a hope in hell of getting a mortgage, and so on? Perhaps longevity is suddenly appealing. Hand made tableware is the very embodiment of the polar opposite of both disposable and conspicuous consumerism. I emphasise handmade tableware because this is what C in the C showcases, arguably, better than any other event I can think of. It also showcases the domestic side of craft, immensely elegantly. The Geffrye is the Museum of the domestic interior, so domestic pottery sits particularly well here.

Terraced Industries

C in the C is a nest of urban potters, many of whom are Londoners. They are experts in ‘old fashioned’ skills such as throwing, (colloquial pottery expression: it means making pots using a potters wheel) and this in itself is unusual these days. Many work full time as potters. They are running what used to be called ‘cottage industries.’ These have now migrated to the city and become ‘terraced industries.’ I suspect such industry could not survive economically in rural areas. Caveat here – Nick Membery is bucking this trend. He has a sophisticated internet selling mechanism, which none of the terraced industry potters do, as far as I know. So I guess his is really, ‘small industry.’ So, in our upside down world of Socialist America with its nationalised banks we can add smart terraced industry migrating to the country, to rural Wales in fact, and peasant industries thriving in Stoke Newington. Now all we need is Serbia to become the world leader in Islamic banking and England to win the world cup. Then I’ll have to go out and buy a new brain, the old one isn’t going to cope.

And Finally...

So, just to acknowledge the last C in the title of this post, are we witnessing the Collapse of global Capitalism? It’s got to be a change in the old world order, surely. I have a feeling it’s not going to be a very comfortable one. I’ve got used to my creature comforts. I’m getting the shed tarted up this week. Just in case a proliferation of C words is the only jackpot I’m going to win.

Monday 15 September 2008

Tottenham Flower Show, 2008

After all my proclaiming that a Tottenham Flower and Produce Show would be a very fine thing, if only someone would organise it, I find I’m behind the times. Someone has organised it. It started last year. Imagine my excitement. No more that 30 metres from my very own front door, September 13th, 2008, was the very flower show I yearned for, complete with tents, band, (wonderful Irish dance music), and tea tent.
The exhibition tent was THE BUSINESS. Packed to the eaves with enthusiastic citizens anxiously awaiting the announcement of the first prizes, the trestle tables fairly groaned under the weight of sponge cakes, loaves of bread, fruit pies, chutneys, jams, honey, knitted and crocheted items of many kinds, quilts, bunches of herbs. Eat yer hearts out sour-faced estate agents, police, taxi drivers and all you other miserable sods who always run Tottenham down at any opportunity! Come and see what we can make! There were donkey rides, a dog show and the paddling pool was clean and glistening for Tottenham’s youngsters. The tea tent was a bit small and understaffed, but the teas and cakes were the best I’ve had in years. Sorry Wootton, you were outclassed I’m afraid. We even had a broderie-anglaise table cloth for the communal trestle table. So there!

Urban or Rural?
If Wootton is really a suburb, what does this make Tottenham? Is it an urban village, is it also a suburb? I don’t think either description fits. To me, Tottenham feels like a small town which has somehow got itself muddled up with London. The show is in its infancy and has a few ‘teething problems’ – such as the too small tea tent - where are the WI when you need them? I have high hopes however. I suspect it will be a much bigger do twenty years from now. I’d like to see much more participation from some of Tottenham’s newer populations, such as the Kurdish ladies I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, who do the magnificent sewing. There is something about this kind of occasion that provides exactly the right context for craft, in the sense that it becomes ‘home craft’ again and, in an instant, all that craft agonising is removed.
So, in keeping with that spirit, the C Word is awarding ‘best in show’ again and, on this occasion, it goes to the woman who made the knitted shopping bag out of those beastly blue carrier bags that every corner shop uses – she’d knitted the bags together. BRILLIANT!!! I loved it. Pictures above. So that’s it for this summer. The C Word is back from holiday and open for business from now on.
See you very soon with a short comparative review of two shows which opened on September 11th, Richard Slee at Barratt Marsden, and Elspeth Owen at the Hart Gallery.

Friday 5 September 2008

Cabbages and Quilts: The Wootton Flower and Produce Show, 2008.

Cabbages and Quilts: The Wootton Flower and Produce Show, 2008.

Ra tatataaaaaa, drum rolllllll, ratatat, dum diddle dum diddle dum dum dum. Intermittent strains of brass band music twirl around tents and idling teenagers, village elders and passing visitors, all of whom milled about the glistening green lawns and drifted in and out of immaculate white tents at this year’s village flower show. If ever there was an act of faith, a testament to optimism it was this. A rain drenched, wind swept, dripping cold August had put aside one fine day, Saturday 30th, for Wootton’s annual extravaganza of cabbages and cakes. Apples and preserves, cable knitted cardies, quilts and roses, all expertly assembled, jostled for position on their tables, and were justly, or unjustly, rewarded. An incident over the gladioli was duly calmed, the wasps sought refuge in the prize-winning cake, and everyone delighted in the glorious sunshine which bathed the tents and lawns and gardens all day.

So here it is, an authentic village flower show, which, as far as I can see, is still pretty much as it was 40 years ago, when I won first prize for a painting, aged 6. No one’s gone out of their way to insist in its unchanging state. It just hasn’t changed. Of course the people have. I’ve drifted off to London and the village has been almost entirely repopulated but the flower show still has runners and beets and marrows and carrots and ‘garden on a plate’. My niece made a mangrove swamp one year. She’s still feeling misunderstood because she didn’t win a prize. She’s 21 now. The ‘home craft’ is still astounding. It doesn’t seem even slightly naff to me, not in this context. It’s quite at home here. The exquisite smocking is for someone’s new baby, the tea cosies are for teapots, the quilts for someone’s bed, the knitted cardies will be worn, the wooden toys played with. I know, it all sounds too idyllic, but it is true. I don’t quite know how it is that people have the time, but the work is here to prove it. They’re not trying to make a living from it, which helps, but it’s all made for a purpose.

This should not be mistaken for ‘rural’ craft. Certainly Wootton is a village and is in ‘the country’. It is, however, a suburb in character, but one that is detached. It is one of the wealthiest areas in England now and its economy is entirely urban. No one goes to work in the village. Everyone who lives there works in neighbouring cities. The place is deserted during the day, apart from the school – ah ha, so there are teachers who work in Wootton, and as very small number of people who come to clean houses and maintain gardens. So Wootton flower and produce show is a product of urban – not always wealth, but stable income - combined with a mixture of creative domestic activity, good gardeners, - and these are the ones cared for by the owners, not paid gardeners, - and an industrious spirit – oh and a touch of neighbourly competitiveness. Tottenham flower and prod show would be very similar. There are enough people with a stable income to fund the creative domestic activity, a wealth of domestic skill, and we even have the ‘country’ house, - Bruce Castle – which can compete with any in the land – and we have the 400 year old oak trees. It would just be a more multi-cultural that’s all.

As to craft, village craft vs. gallery craft, well – craft it seems becomes a problem requiring scrutiny, only when it departs from the flower show and from that use/comfort/decoration mix to something that either questions itself and what it’s doing in an industrialised society or when it is used as a medium to explore ideas which are part of its habitus, probably, but not part of it usual or original social role.

This seems like a good place to leave this post which serves, I think, as a good introduction to the next series of posts which will talk about Ceramics in the City, Origin and so forth, as well as a fond farewell to the summer holiday – such as it was.

Thursday 21 August 2008

The sequined insurgents

And CAmel two three - and to the LEFT - and HIP circle, bottom OUT, half circle and SHImmy - and DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM diddy DUM, and CHEST, imagine you’re cleaning the windows with your bosoms - and other way - reverse tumble dryer - lovely - and chest-snap, snAp, snAp, and on-the-spot camel – reverse camel - fanny-over-the-fence and ShImmy. How was that? Any questions?

‘No,’ we mutter meekly, barely able to keep the pace never mind clean the windows with our bosoms. These, it may surprise you to learn, are all the highly technical terms for belly-dance moves bellowed out by the doyenne of Arabic dancing in Britain, the formidable Josephine Wise. This is just a taste of her class, which includes a ‘shit in the woods’ and ‘throwing up camel,’ among other choice examples of dance instructions. Weekly classes ended in June and, just as we were all getting fidgety, August came and we packed up our jangly hip scarves and high-tailed it off to Tring Park to a once-stately mansion, deep in the heart of suburbia, where the JWAAD annual summer school shimmies into action.

JWAAD, according to Wise, its director, is the biggest and most respected school of Arabic Dance (aka belly-dancing) in the UK. The summer school attracts eager students from all over the country and beyond for a week-long extravaganza of extremely high-octane, sequined suburban camp, with intensive classes, starting at 9.00am, and culminating in a string of performances and a fancy dress party with more performances. Oh and there are some more performances on other nights, because no one can quite resist strutting their stuff on stage or showing off their sequins. Btw, 'suburban' is often used a pejorative term, not in this case, it's a simple fact of demographics and probably economics.

Among the many fine qualities of belly-dancers, is the capacity to work extremely hard at their art, which they take very seriously indeed, while somehow managing not to take themselves too seriously. Performances included a sensational pastiche of a Nirvana- style, hard-rock, leather-clad, metal-spikes-round-the-neck, guitar-smashing, pelvic-thrusting-rock-hard-guitar-band, using plastic double-headed axes as guitars and complete with gormless rock chicks with dead pan faces who rounded off the performances by emasculating the front men with their plastic axes. Other outstanding performances included ‘Chav-Saidi’ –including seven-months pregnant ‘bride to be’ in lipstick-covered tee-shirt. This was a professional group, most of whose members teach as well as perfom. The saidi dance is originally a folk dance for camel herders and is performed with sticks, style and much jumping about. There were numerous beautiful graceful classic belly dances too, step forward and curtsey- Krystl from Belgium - and a particularly gorgeous one which seemed to be hybridising with some bharatanatyam moves (?) not sure, but imaginative mix of perfect moves, grace and humour. I have absolutely no expertise in this by the way, so I’ve remembered the slightly or very unusual ones. Next year I hope to able to comment a bit more lucidly on the ‘beautiful, graceful, classic belly dances.’

You may by now have gathered that I am a very fully paid-up member of the shimmying club. I don’t have the sequins yet, all in good time, for now I’m concentrating on improving my camels, arms-and-hands, and breathing, to say nothing of my hip-drops, chonks, figures of 8s - you do these with your hips, horizontally and vertically, Hagalla or Egyptian walk – that’s ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’ in Wise-speak, and all the other things I have to work on.

Shared, very manky, boarding school ‘dorms’ were transformed into glittering palaces of camp, eye liner, and sequined festivity by a combination of will-power and sheer good nature. Even ‘school dinners,’ for such they were, were wolfed down gratefully in school dining room on wooden benches before the next gruelling techno-belly-dance-fusion of leaping about and snake-arms session. Yes I did perform. Pictures will be supplied if I can get hold of any.

I didn’t quite master the double combination of cleaning the windows with my bosoms – that’s upper body going round vertically in one direction – moving separately but at the same time as hip circle going round horizontally in the other direction. But I’m working on that too. These gloriously descriptive phrases are now being rationalised or made uniform so that, as belly dancing moves inexorably into the cultural main stream, classes up and down the country will use the same instructions. So, sadly, I suspect we’re going to lose ‘fanny over the fence’ and ‘reverse tumble dryer,’ both of which I find very helpful, in favour of something less descriptive but probably a bit more technical. Ah well, I guess we all know what a reverse undulation is really. At least I think we do.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Waking up, produce update, coming soon, and reflections on the C Word

Yaaaaaaaaawn, streeeeeeeeetch, yoooooowl, stp stp stp. That’s better.
The summer holiday flower show continues. The garden is now so irretrievably out of control that I’ve given up, apart from mowing the grass in the feint hope that that makes it all look deliberate. Looking on the bright side, however, the produce is coming along splendidly. See above. Ate my first home grown plum today. Don’t know if those grapes will ever get fat and sweet, but I’m still holding out for a hot late summer…
The lilies were truly sensational, even if it was an all out battle with the lilly beetles, and the roses are still going strong as is the jasmine. The fox, it seems, has departed for now, and two wood pigeons, who live in the neighbours plum tree, are devouring the entire crop of the elder berry tree behind my shed. They’re so fat they can hardly move now. One of them actually had to sit on its bum and have a rest on my shed roof this afternoon.

That’s my mum with the goats by the way. We went to France and saw OTTERS! Yes real live swimming wild otters. Never seen them before. And a VAST toad sat on the door step to my bedroom every night, and, I fantasised, ate all the mosquitoes. My bedroom door opened on to a courtyard garden. ‘Weren’t you tempted to kiss him?’ asks my flat mate. I can honestly say the thought never entered my head. I liked him just fine as a toad.

So I’ve been reading and planning my next C Word posts, and, here’s a little bit about me and my work now, I’ve been planning my first ‘international’ show. Well, we’ll see if it really is. I’ve been invited to do a one person show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Esfahan, in Iran. I have decided to believe it really will happen, which means I’ve started making the work for it. I plan a trip to Esfahan in November, when I hope to get the contract. When that happens, I’ll be boring you to death about it. So enough of this for now. I just thought I should account for my absence in some way.

Books? Elif Shafak’s ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’, very warmly recommended, and ‘Thinking Through Craft’, Glen Adamson. This has been rather weirdly reviewed in my opinion. The two I read were critical of the number of what they called ‘art’ references. I’ve finished the first chapter, and, yes, he does meander about referring to craft practices in both art and craft. All I can say for now is that, as far as Ch. 1 goes, it all makes perfectly good sense to me. The main reason why I’d really recommend this book though is, first, that he’s really well read. There are numerous references to writers to such as Adorno, Derrida, among many others, - these have dominated so far – but the great thing is he explains what they’re saying as he goes along, so you don’t feel like a total dork if you haven’t read them. (I haven’t.) The other thing I REALLY like is that he doesn’t have a peg firmly clamped to his nose, which most art historians and especially craft historians, do. You don’t have to agree with everything he says, you can have a robustly juicy argument with the pages of this book if you wish, but at least you know you can cheerfully thump the table over a pint and somehow know it wont matter.

The ‘coming soon’ list which is usually in the right hand column is coming soon, next week sometime. There will be a post about my week’s summer school doing Egyptian dancing, then, with a bit of luck we’ll be into village craft, at the end of August, then the new craft ‘season’ kicks off with Ceramics in the City, 19th-21st September and Origin, 7th-19th October and so forth. Ah yes, I’m also trying to persuade a publisher to accept a proposal for a book about ceramics and feminism. I’ll keep you posted on that, to say nothing of my fantasies about an exhibition.

Monday 7 July 2008

The C Word's Flowershow, Messy Tuesdays, Home Craft vs Gallery Craft and Taking a Break

The C Word is just going to take a short break from posh gallery craft to get back to a bit of the other sort of craft, home craft, which in my view, is the basis for all of this anyway. This is the C Word’s very own flower show. I have great ambitions about organising, or finding someone else to organise, Tottenham flower and produce show, but for now, it will have to be a private affair.
So welcome to the garden as it was about 3 weeks ago. This was one of its most abundantly flowery, sun-filled moments. Then it went dry and overgrown, and now, hurray for rain, its being replenished I hope.
We should really have a discussion here about ‘gallery craft’, ‘home craft’, ‘fine craft’ and maybe even craft blogs, but I’m going to pass these matters over to others for now. Take a look at an excellent craft blog called Messy Tuesdays, which has links to its host blog, I think it is, called Knitwit, which has numerous links to other knitting and sewing blogs, and the venerable F Word, here discussing the Messy Tuesdays concept. In honour of the MTs, I wanted to include the less than perfect pictures, but then I wanted you to see my roses at their best. So, the gaudy front garden picture is the messiest its going to get for this post, unless I tell you about the truly disgusting antics of my resident black birds when they eat slugs, (yes, I’m delighted about that bit), but then they smear the slug slime of which there is a surfeit, all over the path outside my back door. Then it rains, and reconstitutes itself as a soup of slug slime, then I go out in my bare feet to empty the tea pot over my strawberry bed and tread in the said slime and then it takes about 20 minutes of soap and scrubbing to find the soles my feet again, under a thick layer of slime. Surely there is some good use for this loathsome stuff – anyone?
The great thing about MTs and all those related interlinked blogs is that they talk craft in the domestic context, the home-made; that fine line between domestic comfort (or not) and oppressive ideal-home aspirations, in the presence of the empty tea-cups and the unwashed saucepans. I also want to talk village flower show craft, the village hall vs the art gallery. My village, Wootton by Woodstock, will host its annual flower and produce show at the end of august, so prepare to meet tea cosies to die for and a patchwork quilted allotment, as long as I can find the woman who makes these things and persuade her to let me photograph them. Meanwhile, enjoy the roses, and send in your slug slime recipes, but not too many, please.

Sunday 29 June 2008

Some thoughts on open studios and degree shows: Kingsgate Workshop Trust and University of Westminster

There’s a delicious anarchy about these events. Open studios herald the annual clean up. Kilns are pressed into service as giant plinths, bookshelves become display shelves, newspaper cuttings become exhibits and you find yourself wishing that galleries could find a bit of this make-do-and-mend spirit. The degree shows do their damnedest to conform, and some, unfortunately, succeed, but in most cases, and Westminster was no exception this year, the students are too varied and hopelessly ill-matched and the ‘galleries,’ for all their scrubbing and painting and hiding of sinks, are still studios really. Hooray. You can find work in something close to its raw state at a degree show and makers who are still able to enjoy the adventure, not yet cowed by oppressive art or craft world orthodoxies and, equally important, not yet constrained by the expense of producing work which requires big expensive equipment, or which needs to inhabit a large space.

Kingsgate Workshop Trust was celebrating its 30th birthday, showing off its new education building and generally strutting its venerable stuff. These are established studios and have the painty patina to prove it. There’s furniture, big stuff, in the basement with much whirring of machines and someone making extraordinary pink and blue chairs, and someone else making formica furniture for cafes and offices. These are proper, sleeves-rolled-up places, urban – what shall we say – terraced industries?

Kingsgate also hosted a glistening exhibition of their ‘emerging artists’, three of them, Olivia Horley, Jo Dawn and Anthony Luvera: Ceramics, Printed textiles/furniture, and Film/photography. It was the sort of show that flickers past in a couple of weeks and evaporates, except in memory, because one so wishes there were more shows like it. We don’t get shows that mix docu-photgraphy about homeless geezers with domestic tableware and printed textiles all ringing with bird-song. Can you think of a more perfect narrative to be huddled in one show? No? Me neither. But spurious categorisations and artworld gender-cleansing ensures that we are never permitted to contemplate the domestic as proper art.

Consuelo Siexas Radclyffe (Westminster)did all those astounding doll works, one pictured above, all the rest in the next post below. Working with child images is difficult enough, but dolls! You just couldn’t stop looking at them. In the past decade or so, much longer than that really, there has been a trend to portray children, especially girls, as somehow menacing or threatening, or just evil. It’s a deeply reactionary, Victorian obsession which, to put it absolutely brutally, is really about defending incest / rape, the right of the male patriarch, the paterfamilia, to practice ‘droit de seigneur’ with girls and young women with absolute impunity. The sensationally, revolutionary BLISS of this woman’s work is that she portrays her girls as deeply human and interactive, with each other rather than the audience. She’s not afraid of the complications of girlishness. They’re arguing with each other and gossiping and so on, but there certainly isn’t any misogynistic girl-hating / girl-blaming crap that one finds in mainstream artworld galleries where girls are portrayed as fiendishly sexual and the authors of their own destruction.

Mitzuyo Yamashita, (Westminster) makes little buildings and trees and then puts them all together into a weird city with giant plastic animals pacing down their otherwise deserted streets. These nightmare small towns really come to life when you photograph them. Never encountered ceramics like that before. They don’t usually like the camera much.

Claire Palfreyman did the transboybunnies. They’re hoodies really but they’ve sprouted bunny ears. We’re at Kingsgate open studios now, so Claire’s work is nestling in its clutter. Work which examines masculinity usually wanders off into transgender territory. I much prefer this trans-species approach. It’s funnier and also more affecting.

The stuff that looks like a thesis on tonal variation between white and slate-grey, like some kind of ceramic version of a highly complex but very spare quartet for obscure stringed instruments, that’s Sarah Scampton’s work. The strange looking form on top of the filing cabinet is a monument to Durer and something of a monument to Scampton’s relentlessly inquiring, probing and probably slightly obsessive mind. Those things that look like lengths of hose-pipe hanging up are actually fired clay and they’re hollow. I decided it was best not to think about it too much.

Now here’s what I love about ceramics, you can move effortlessly from urban transbunnyboy to pure maths with a hint of applied physics in a matter of a couple of studios, or from surreal, nightmarish, virtual photo-ceramics, some kind of liminal no-town, to infinitely real, conversational, brown-girls from not-rich Brazil, lots of them talking, doing, being, arguing, hanging out, avoiding boys, – and how often do you hear those voices? All this in one day and two venues. Show me any other artform that can do that and does it with such style! There aint one. And that’s a fact.

open studios and degree shows part 2 - now for the pictures