Object as Muse

Object as Muse
A Crafts Council Touring Exhibition
The Discovery Centre, Winchester
August 8 – October 19, 2008

One object from the Crafts Council’s permanent collection of 1400 objects, Julie Cook’s Asentamiento Dress (2006), here acts as muse for six other artists. Cook’s dress is “designed to cure the physical, spiritual and emotional ills of contemporary life”. A set of instructions for use accompanies the display: “1) lift over the head and secure the neck with the knotted string 2) take up the secret arm position 3) to reset the body apply the internal silk poultice to your solar plexus 4) allow catharsis to take place and lift the skirt when you want to dance”. The language of these instructions cleverly captures the emotion of the object, which on first viewing runs the risk of being underestimated. It also sets a poetic tone that is central to Cook’s work and shared by the most engaging responses on display.

Tamsin van Essen’s eloquent ceramics, for example, communicate with a similar tone of poetic inquiry. Scars (Suture), made specifically in response to the exhibition theme, is the most literal response in her Medical Heirlooms series. With its stark industrial staples securing torn earthenware the work is, ironically, the least intriguing because of its heavy-handedness of meaning. David Birkin’s untitled photograph from his Confessions series makes an articulate contribution. With “tape recorder in place of priest and camera as a mechanical witness” Birkin documents the act of confession. The length of the photographic exposure is linked to the time of emotional exposure – the time it takes to speak the confession into the tape recorder. This data is then destroyed and we are left with an image that obscures the speaker’s literal identity but embodies a sense of hiding and guilt that the act of confession is meant to expose and forgive.

Susie MacMurray, celebrated for her installations that often engulf an exhibition space, here exhibits Gauze Bandage a delicate pen and ink drawing that continues the atmosphere of poetic inquiry apparent in van Essen and Birken’s pieces. In contrast, Arabel Lebrusan’s Mantilla, Traditional Spanish Headscarf is the most decorative work in the exhibition. The silver filigree mantilla refers to Andalusian culture, the same that inspires Cook in her naming of the dress, but these connections are not clearly explained in the gallery text. The wild card entry in the show is Dunne and Raby with Michael Anatassiades huggable atomic mushrooms that “de-sensitise those afraid of atomic attack”. The “do not touch” sign next to the brightly coloured cloth mushrooms felt like an old joke against the white cube, even if an unintended one. The Craft Council website notes that the contribution is a film by Dunne and Raby with Noam Toram, and the gallery guide mentions hideaway furniture, suggesting that a late change of plan may explain this awkward inclusion.

Overall this exhibition is successful in its ability to bring together the crafts under a theme, rather than divide along material boundaries. Text is integrated by inviting the poet Colette Bryce to respond to Cook’s work, securing a place for writing as craft within the responses. Each artist has also contributed a statement explaining the relationship of his or her work to the muse piece. These texts are insightful, but may have been strengthened by the further inclusion of an independent written voice to tease out connections between the response works.

A DVD recording Cook’s “Duende: A Time for Healing” series shows the Asentamiento Dress being worn. The dress is by far the most intriguing of the objects depicted in the video and would, for the purposes of this exhibition, have benefited from its own lengthier recording. Similarly, it would have been helpful to see more than one of Birkin’s photographs in order to appreciate his working method, which is explained by the artist in the accompanying text but difficult to read in a single image.

Regrettably, on the day of my visit the exhibition was plagued by technical problems. Cook’s DVD was not running, nor was the audio version of Bryce’s poetry. There are also moments when the work on display feels a little rushed. Apparently some artists selected existing pieces to exhibit, while Bryce and MacMurray created entirely new work (van Essen made an additional work for an existing series). I wonder if the invited artists may have been given short notice to develop a response to their muse? In other cases, simply a little more on display would strengthen an interesting curatorial concept.

Crafts Magazine (Nov./Dec. 2008: 68)