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Collect 2020 at Somerset House: A Florid Display of Materiality

Walking into Collect feels a bit like having been shrunk down and thrown into a cabinet of curiosities. Spread over three wings, Collect is London’s craft and design fair. With works from 42 galleries, each representing several artists, as well as 12 independent artists on display, it’s an impressive collection (no pun intended).The work on display is highly varied, but certain elements seem to reoccur. There is a lot of colourful, almost psychedelic glass, there are monochromatic curvaceous ceramics, and there are mirrors. Within this, endless variations abound. In one of the first rooms, Whitaker Malem’s leather bodies hang around the space, floating suspended from wires in the ceiling. Two flank a striking female figure with a triangular head made from gold by Mark Brazier Jones. Interestingly, a focus on the anatomical is not pervasive through the show. What is though, and if there’s any thread that can pull through everything on display, it’s an idea of, and a striving towards, a sort of tenderness. All the pieces, from Eunsuh Choi’s Conscious Pot IX (a spindly glass tea pot with minute clouds sitting on it), to Jim Partridge and Liz Walmsley’s devastatingly heavy wood creation reminiscent of a watchmen’s chair from the middle ages, have a sort of poised elegance about them. They say ‘look’, ‘ogle even’, but do not touch.

Eunsuh Choi, Conscious Pot IX. Image taken by Maria Dragoi.

Speaking to Allyson Gee, the program coordinator for Craft Scotland, she tells me they have been exhibiting at collect for 3 years now. I ask her if she’s seen any trend in the works on show, and at least for her gallery, she answers that physicality and sustainability are now more important than ever. It comes as not surprise that recycled materials are popular this year, as are concepts around nature and ecology. There is a growing trend in consumers wanting to know where their product was sourced from, right down to the branch of a particular tree or the fur of a specific alpaca. This desire to reconnect with materiality is everything, and really at the crux of how we define craft. In the modern world of disposability, we have started to crave the intimacy of the handmade, the comfort it can bring to recognise embedded tactility. I was certainly not the only person to pick up on this. Over the four days it was open, Collect hosted a series of talks between artists, and I attended one called “Tradition Redressed”. The discussion was led by QEST chairman Nick Cran, and talk quickly turned to the necessity of materiality.

Steffen Dam, Jar Collection in Lightbox. Iona Wolff (Button Collective) ©

In their display case, Steffen Dam’s creations look like they belong in a science museum or gallery, but on my way out I spot one jar on a coffee table next to a cup of tea and a plate of glass sweets, looking totally like it belongs.

A key idea highlighted by the panel was the inextricable link between physicality and tradition. Annemarie O’Sullivan, one of the artists speaking and a basket weaver, says her work functions as a link between the past and the future. She recognises and that she is dependent on skills invented thousands of years ago, tried and tested methods of working. However, what enables her to innovate is the playfulness endowed to a practice that is tactile, that comes with manipulating a physical material. Alice Walton, a clay artist, sees her work in a similar way. She too is “interested in doing things you aren’t supposed to with a material”, in pushing clay to its limits to make the seemingly impossible. This duality, of simultaneous reverence and subversion of tradition, underpins what feels like a lot of modern craft practice. The materials most frequently seen are glass, metal, ceramic, clay, and thread, the foundations of most artisanal practice thousands of years. So the challenge that arises is to push familiar materials down untrodden paths. This physical practice requires the artist to develop a relationship with his material that goes beyond mastery through to the unexplored. It requires a lot of courage, and the tentative risk is part of what makes the work shown feel so intimate. A good example is the work of Daniel Freyne, an artist represented by Craft Scotland. He uses metal to create vases that look as if they were stoneware, from the shape down to the patina. His work is tribute to the tradition of blacksmithing, something he trained in as an apprentice.

This recurrent marriage of disparate concepts feels like a kind of art of its own, and it is easy to see why the distinction between art and craft becomes blurred. Certain elements need to be considered to understand the complex dynamic. It’s easiest to consider functionality alongside material technique. Speaking to one of the exhibitors, artist Matilda Kästel, she tells me she considers her pieces to be works of art. The biggest on display she calls “Snog Machine”, it is a dynamic sculpture in which turning a lever bashes two ferris wheels of squishy tongues against one another. Her other piece on show is a glass gun. For her, what links her to the world of craft is her love for her material, glass, and the playfulness of it. We typically distinguish craft from art for its functional value, but as more artists venture into subverting traditional materials, and traditional craftspeople push their functional work beyond the conventional, a once crisp distinction begins to disappear. Artists like Kästel are representative of the growing rupture in this binary understanding.

Lorraine Robson, Hit Me Shake Me Blow Me. Iona Wolff(Button Collective) ©

Lorraine Robson’s work is a startling demonstration of this. On display at Collect she has an installation piece, a black room with white hollowed out ceramic maracas suspended from the ceiling and attached to the walls. The work is dynamic and tactile, but the point has been to render something once functional, a musical instrument, into a new sort of object, one that is slightly phallic, in tune with the name of the piece, Hit Me Shake Me Blow Me. Speaking with Lorraine, she tells me that the piece was inspired by a visit to her mum who suffers from dementia. Robson had brought her a maraca, and when her mum used it it prompted her to be happier than she had been in years. This idea of an embedded tactility, a memory stored by the body, and how that can be subverted by taking away the function of an object, is a microcosm of the complex dynamic happening all over the show. By acknowledging not only tradition but function, and consciously using these associations to craft a piece that does not use them, but relies on them, is impossibly clever. Robson hands me an untethered maraca so I can look at it more closely, and I’m struck by it’s weird sense of normalcy. Despite its absolute impracticality, it feels heavy and smooth, like something you would want to use if you only knew how. I think this is the triumph of craft, it’s ability to integrate itself into the mundane, or to hint at it, gently poke it, in order to elevate it, sometimes at the cost of doing away with its original purpose.

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