Technological Enchantment by Tanya Harod

Essay in response to the exhibition ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’ at the V&A in association with the Crafts Council 2008 -2010

Susan Collis, ‘The Oyster’s our world’, 2004, wooden stepladder, mother of pearl, shell, coral, fresh water pearl, cultured pearls, white opal, diamond.

V&A intro
‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft brings together the work of eight contemporary artists who place craft at the heart of their practice: Olu Amoda, Catherine Bertola, Annie Cattrell, Susan Collis, Naomi Filmer, Lu Shengzhong, Yoshihiro Suda and Anne Wilson. …All the artists are preoccupied with the everyday as a subject. Mundane or familiar things, like a paint splatter on a dust sheet, a human breath or a weed pushing up through a crack, are presented in playful and unexpected ways. …Together, these eight artists suggest new directions for the handmade in the 21st century. They have found ways to transform the ordinary into artworks that are truly extraordinary.’
Spectacular Craft – V&A website

Harod is describing how the practice of ‘craft’ has worn many guises, historically and geographically and how the perception of ‘craft’ has adapted in turn. Exploring how craft has been viewed relative to fine art practices and within various models of society such as renaissance and post-industrial, she builds a picture of how the act and method of ‘making’ the ‘technology’ and it’s relative importance changes with the times. Specifically looking at the way the ‘making’ is viewed as a kind of magic or ‘enchantment’ of material culture. The title derived from Alfred Gell’s 1992 book ‘The Enchantment of Technology’

Interesting points:

Virtuosity – linked to the degree of skill or technique involved in crafting artefacts. Devalued in a way by the development of mechanised reproduction that presented us with perfect forms without skilled human agency. Quotes Phyllida Barlow: ‘We are competing with materialism that is on such a gigantic scale. There is a giant global industry of objects and how does one compete with that’. Virtuosity is perhaps perceived of differently at different times. The renaissance aesthetic prized the conceptual and intellectual virtuosity of the painter over the mechanical labours of the sculptor, which is just as well as it was common for the renaissance painter to direct the painting of a masterpiece rather than actually paint it.

Hot and Cold Objects – Phyllida Barlow’s hot and cold Objects. Hot being handmade by private ritual method and that can ‘repulse through its desperate need to attract’ and cold being industrially manufactured and seductively sleek objects that ‘demand our attention and love’ … I would not necessarily agree with this. On a personal level I can easily find mass-manufactured objects repulsive. It is true to a certain extent that the sleek, designer look for say, domestic objects as an example has come in and out of favour since the development of modernism in our society. In terms of value or desirability the ‘Scandinavian style’ can now be purchased in your local supermarket, so to some will not be the paragon of design and innovation it once was.

There’s Dignity in Craft. The sociologist Richard Sennett thinks that Globalisation and post-industrial capitalist structures have eroded the value of labour so that now in the age of short term contracts and the disposable workforce, an individual’s sense of personal worth and dignity has also been eroded. He believes we live in a world where we are endlessly assessed and judged. He says ‘The best protection I am able to imagine against the evils of invidious comparison is the experience of the ability I’ve called craftwork’. Maybe there is some truth here but craft is certainly not without a degree of comparison and judged values between makers and between craft makers and other artists. 

The Medium and the Message. The 2001 ‘New Labour’ show at the Saatchi set medium (e.g. Grayson Perry’s ceramics, Enrico David’s MDF routings) against message. ‘Ceramic vases about child murder’ and ‘cosy stitching and the emptiness and anomie of modern living’

Gell’s Technological Enchantment. Harod talks about Alfred Gell and how he was inspired as much by a matchstick model of Salisbury Cathedral at age eleven as he was by the artist Marcel Duchamp. ‘ Melanesians, schoolboys and art-loving anthropologists’ ‘All respond to the enchantment of technology’ (The Technology of Enchantment’ 1992). Mimesis, replication and trompe l’oeil are here described as one of the means of ‘enchanting’ the realities they represent. The artists in ‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’ have sublimated everyday crafts, forms or objects through the re-presenting of them in skilful, crafty and unexpected ways. I see the objects or forms here as developing an alter-ego, an alternative reality, where they are imbued with a value in contradiction to that they would normally represent to the viewer. A world where inconsequential paint splatters on a stepladder become precious, intricate, purposeful and labour intensive inlays of pearl, opal and diamond. Investing meaning and value in works of art or craft is not a new artistic device but fundamentally present. From prehistoric pre-linguistic times when a cave painting may have conceptualised the great hunt and inspired success from daubs of pigment, to this particular re-invention of material culture, artists have been creating alternative realities, imaginary or possible outcomes from the mundane. It’s what artists do.


References and further reading:

‘Out of the Ordinary: Spectacular Craft’
Edited by Laurie Britton Newell with essays by Glenn Adamson and Tanya Harrod.
V&A Publications (2007)
Beyond Aesthetics: Art and the Technologies of Enchantment
Christopher Pinney (Editor). Berg Publishers (2001)

Spectacular Craft – V&A website

Out of the Ordinary Spectacular Craft in the Telegraph

Saatchi’s ‘New Labour’ Show reviewed by AN

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