Disruptive craft in contemporary art: ‘A quilt is an art object when it stands up like a man’

‘Kalba’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

There is a craft inclination in art that can put people at unease. It ebbs in popularity. Three years ago at an event at the ICA I was speaking to a sculptor who, when asked if they were still working on the same body of work, replied oh no, they only wrote now. It was one of several similar encounters I had, and whilst it can be common to move away from art after art school, we all seemed embarrassed that we had once been making. This idea was enforced by artists like Katrina Palmer, who moved from installation and sound sculpture, to published texts and plays. I’ve since been told in turning-point tones that Katrina Palmer is making objects again. 

The ‘Live Form’[i]of an object – the awareness of its having been made that survives in its visual seams or pressed shape – provides a hook for us to lean into and place ourselves and our ideals into. What survives is its becoming: with ceramics there’s an oozing; in textiles there’s a fray – from fricare meaning ‘to rub’, or affray meaning ‘to disturb’. This threat of active non-existence also carries the possibility of the object to exceed itself and its boundaries in our direction, and that is how we lose ourselves in it, how we are alienated towards it.

I came to what I had seen as a domestic – craft – lean in art exhibitions over the past two years with discomfort. As something that was looking inwards, I saw it as concurrent with millennial pastel: the rise of ‘millennial pink’, Pantone’s colour of 2016, adopted by luxury and high street brands. These shades’ strong relationship to the market spoke of home at a time of growing consumer and environmental crisis, in a way that felt soft and obfuscating. If this were to be my only reaction to the rise of craft objects, I would miss the uncanny through this tenderising and the addendum to the actuality of domestic.

Images and news reports of disasters such as the industrial fires in Karachi in 2012 cemented textile manufacturing in the UK’s mindset as gendered and racialised to little or no effect, with fast fashion still being the norm, and no alternatives providing solutions to those workers manufacturing in dire conditions. This is not an issue for artists to solve any more than it is one for all of us. To make works strongly linked with craft, however, is to work with a highly political, capitalised object: ‘in the context of early twenty-first century discussions about the supposed evaporation of handmade things, it is essential to ask questions about whose handiwork, exactly, is at issue: some is vastly undervalued but central to the mechanisms of capitalism, while some is triumphed as ‘revolutionary’ and posited as a form of economic refusal.’[ii]

‘Sprout’, MH Sarkis. Image courtesy of the artist.

MH Sarkis’ art, headlined as ‘rugbiotics and techstyles’ on her website, sits with the tech that is embedded in contemporary textiles manufacturing. ‘Motherboard’ uses rug pulling that invites touch to produce soundscapes. This interaction between user and object grounds ‘use value’ in the work. Blurring the distinction between high art object – with its own frame of cultural and economic capital – and low craft object (all rugs are interactive) as useable, potentially affordable, readily available and anonymous. In returning to the familiar object in her work, we then find it other.  Keying in to the human interest in creating artificial life forms whilst using internal, bodily colours, and referring to her work as ‘born’, rather than made, forwards the procreative, domestic narrative of gendered making. The crisis of self in a technologised legacy, with AI seen as both technologically vulnerable and threatening, unravels in tendril-like forms. Its corporeality, with titles such as ‘Medium Rare’, troubles the separation of object and self further. Sarkis’ work expresses a feminist speculative futurism: envisioning a ‘soft power’ that presents objects with the capacity to respond to those around it, it is as if the work exists in a received, technologised future. Her work cuts an oppositional narrative through a feminised craft medium.

Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

The value of craft in art and its association with women’s work, as ‘taught by women aimed at men’[iii], is something of a cliché. Anne Carson has written about silence, evident as catastrophe, as a confrontation of cliché. It’s a kind of noise that exceeds– as an answer to, or evasion of – the sense of a question that merely seeks affirmation[iv]. In Lindsey Mendick’s show The Ex Files, work pushes its forms and bursts into kitsch – an excess where the narrative that the work is taken from, here a breakdown of a relationship, is repeated back in fragmented surfeit. A standard and contemporary office is strewn with ceramic smashed marmite jars, disembowelled t-shirts and a textile, bi-corporeal, headless, self-fucking office chair sprouting an arse, legs and heels. The walls are covered with ceramic post-it notes, hand-written. The glazing techniques strongly ground the work in the twentieth century, where it can move in and out of relatable nostalgia and memory. Being within temporal reach and within the mundane, it has a greater scope to move through its cliché. The blurring of domestic and office environment, ornament and textual creates boundaries to then seep through, embodying the ‘Live Form’ that is emphasised through explosive objects and the detritus of a has-been relationship.

‘You’ll Have to Pay for That’, Lindsey Mendick: The Ex Files, ceramics. photograph by Corey Bartle-Sanderson, courtesy of Castor

When we use kitsch there is a risk we snub or fetishise what we deem as ‘low’ culture. However, the choice of what is deemed low can also be a political act: the refusal of an excluding notion of success, as queer theorist Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure explores. Art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson voices the artist Harmony Hammond’s claim that in existing between public and private, ‘ “the instability of textiles” … in some instances might be felt to be queer – that is, how they propose different sorts of bodily orientations and create volatile interfaces between public and private selves’ [v]. Of course there is no universal in this, and the crux is in who chooses what. 

The Live Form and frayed bodies of Mendick and Sarkis’ work goes across the boundaries of high and low. As shifting narrators, they disrupt our reading of these bodies through hazed and broken memory and speculative futures. These haptic and seeping qualities confront the cliché of the gendered body within craft- they move in a constant, disruptive unanswering of the same tired question. 

Words by Katrina Kelsey


[i]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p74

[ii]Jenny Sorkin, Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, University of Chicago Press, 2016 p10

[iii]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

[iv]Julia Bryan Wilson, Fray, p28 

[v]Anne Carson, Variations on the Right to Remain Silent, artandcrap.com/ensayos/anne-carson-variations-on-the-right-to-remain-silent/

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