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3 November 2011

The pilgrimage to London and the power of making

I have been saving writing this post all week in anticipation of my long over due visit to London. So yesterday I finally got the chance to go, I awoke at 6.30 to catch the bus then after a few tube stops and a walk later I had, at last, made it to The British Museum. Hooray!

Ironically I had made the pilgrimage to see 'The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman' exhibition by Grayson Perry which is pretty fitting to the theme of the exhibition in which a lot of the content has come from Perry's own pilgrimage on a motorcycle (which features in the exhibition) around Germany with his childhood teddy-come god Alan Measels. The exhibition itself is a combination of the personal and imaginative works (which isn't just the ceramic pots he is well known for) created by Perry alongside artefacts from the British Museum collection. I've written a bit about this before in my last post as I am a particular fan of all things art and museum related, however it was great to go and see the exhibition and what I thought was particularly clever and successful about it was the way it was sometimes difficult to tell apart the museum pieces from Perry's own work. That's not to say that Perry had tried to make his work look too deliberately 'old' the works he has made are much more about borrowing some of the craft and style from the museum artefacts. The result is that from afar they look like museum pieces but on close inspection they are made up of very contemporary themes or imagery. Those of you who have seen his pots will know what I mean. Perry himself describes, "There is also a mystical resonance to the word craftsman. He is crafty. A trickster, a sorcerer, an androgynous shaman communing with the spirit world, a member of a secretive guild holding his alchemical secrets close to his chest."

Based on my own experience of working with a museum, I found reassurance in what Perry had to say about how he selected which museum objects to put into the exhibition by choosing ones that visually appealed to him. He asserts his role as an artist and not a historian so he did not choose things which had a prestige to them because of their historical significance, as 'an expert in looking' he choose the things which had a resonance with him. I find this reassuring because I had a similar decision to make where I was learning and finding out about the people and history connected to these wonderful tools I was looking at, but I was more interested in what the tools looked like,i.e their form/shape/texture. Those qualities are what drew me to certain objects over others, I only wish I had had more conviction in asserting this reasoning in my work instead of trying to search for meaning for meanings sake. I think that what this exhibition gets across really well is that it is ok to 'just be an artist' without all the complicated conceptual tags and Duchampian waffle; that you can just do what I always thought an artist was meant to do, 'make things' and in this case make them very well. Not to say that the show is a void-less un-meaningful thing because its definitely not, its easy to make the connections between the style of the museum pieces and Perry's contemporary counterparts which are full of personal meaning and narrative to Perry's own imagination.

I'm really pleased I went to see this exhibition it has reminded me not to become carried away into research or searching for meaning in my work and should stick to what I know is more important and that's the making.

Talking of 'making', no trip to London would have been complete without a visit to the V&A and specifically to see the 'Power of Making' exhibition.
Now, if I was a design student then this exhibition would be so brilliant, so inspiring and so useful. I cannot stress how good and important it is that anyone studying in any of the design fields goes to see this exhibition. Why? This doesn't represent craft from a commercial point of view far from it, it is much more creative, personal, social and cultural in demonstrating how great design and high quality craftsmanship can have an impact on everyday things. Some of the pieces in the show are fun and seemingly ridiculous, for example a brilliantly made life size crochet model of a bear, a lamp shade made in the shape of the owner's fingerprint, a six necked guitar, to a high-heel guitar (that plays a tune when the wearer flexes their leg). The majority of the pieces in the exhibition throw the idea of 'form following function' out of the window. They are pieces of art in their own right. You don't need to know anything about fashion for example to know that Susie MacMurray's pin dress (yes, a dress made entirely out of pins) is not meant to be worn (it would be far to heavy and probably slice its wearer to pieces just trying to put it on), it's an artwork. Titled 'Window Dressmaker' there is much to be admired at the skill involved in making or winced at from merely looking at the piece, but there is also meaning to be read into what a dress entirely made of pins has to say about femininity to give one example. And that is the nature of the entire exhibition, it is full of the weird and the wonderful, familiar objects reinvented using new materials and techniques. The traditional techniques of craft are given a contemporary twist, so the materials present in the work remain largely the same as what they always were but the tools in which they are moulded have advanced, for example 'Bloom' (a ceramic) by Michael Eden is a complicated form of interlocking lines that cross over and make the form of the pot to such a density and complexity that the most accomplished ceramicist could not make it by hand using traditional methods, but with the aid of computer technology new possibilities are opened up as to what can be achieved. It's exciting! Anyone for a surfboard made from cardboard? A ceramic eye patch? Or how about an embroidered surgical implant? Its this sort of innovation and creativity that the arts, in the broadest sense of the word, are all about and I think this show really celebrates that. Craft isn't only about function or purpose; it's about skill and creativity as well. The objects on show here might not be the most 'practical' in their physical usefulness, but what they have to offer in the way of usefulness in how they make us think, question and relate to materials, people, world around us and objects is priceless. And that truly is the power of making. Plus you'd have to be an emotionless cyborg not to be impressed at the skill it takes to carve the letters of the alphabet in the lead on the tip of a pencil (as in the image below, by Dalton Ghetty).

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