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.