DETAIL: Toots ZYNSKY 'Pennellata' 2004, 'Filet de Verre' fused and thermoformed colour glass threads

THEME : Intro | Materiality | Narrative | Structure | All |

The language of Craft

For the past 130 years the philosophies, virtues and processes of craft have occupied art, craft and design theorists, writers and practitioners alike. The promotion and celebration of craft as an alternative to what was seen by many critics and design reformers in the late nineteenth century as debased industrial manufacture, brought numerous expressions into the language of design and decorative arts. The numerous sites of this dialogue included the Arts and Crafts movement in the United Kingdom and the United States, and its subtext in the various expressions of national romanticism in northern and eastern Europe, in kunsthandwerk in Germany, in skønvirke in Denmark, in the nuances between bijutsu-kogei and mingei in Japan, and in the widely disseminated ideas behind vackrare vardagsvara[more beautiful things for everyday use]1 in Sweden. Such discussions helped to focus attention on craft as a way of thinking across the spectrum of art and design, moving the word itself from a verb to a noun, and the practice from its traditional anonymity to celebrated individuality through the personal interpretation and interrogation of its potential.

Seeking to locate craft practice in the broader discourse of contemporary arts, craft writers and practitioners have engaged with its theories and language, opening new avenues of critical inquiry and debate. Investigating the relationship between theory and practice has given many artists working in craft media new ways to understand their work and to articulate it to a wider audience. Equally persuasive and pleasurable for such audiences is learning to experience and understand the tacit language of the crafted object as it presents itself to the realm of our senses, and interacts with our preconceptions and experiences of the world of things and materials.

This strategy of persuasion defined the concept of Transformations. The exhibition is a celebration of the recent work of eighty-five Australian and international artists working in the area of studio craft. All are forging new expressions within the fields of glass, ceramics, textiles, wood and metalwork, and through a variety of materials in furniture, jewellery and sculpture. The work of international artists most prominent and influential in these fields is seldom seen in Australia; this exhibition offers visitors a chance to encounter their unique and compelling objects that challenge our perceptions of design and function, and the meaning of the materials they use. Such works reveal the creativity, skill and imagination of the contemporary craft practitioner in the negotiation and articulation of materials, structure, and production technology; the passionate expression of the languages of abstraction, narrative, design and ornamentation; and the skills that transform materials from the everyday to the extraordinary. The work of these international artists is shown with that of Australian artists engaging with similar themes and concerns.

The artists whose works have been selected for this exhibition are among those leading their fields of practice at the turn of the twenty-first century. The Australian exhibitors have been selected from those whose practice has demonstrated strong conceptual and technical development over the past ten years, among them practitioners whose work, while well known, is seldom seen in the international context that this exhibition provides.

The modern concept of individual studio craft practice took root in Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Initially it reflected and built upon the ideals and philosophies of the Arts and Crafts movement before acquiring meaning as a strand of modernism. The studio craft resurgence from the early 1960s reflected broader conceptual and technical explorations in all media by craft artists in North America, Europe and Japan.2 International work initially started to gain currency in Australia through publications and exhibitions, then as a result of visits and workshops, and later from the experiences of Australians who had begun working in studios and with artists overseas. While there is still a lingering perception that studio craft is something of a new movement in the context of contemporary art in Australia, its strong development over the past forty years has resulted in a vibrant and diverse range of practices. These have positioned Australian artists to become active and influential participants in international dialogues about directions and developments in craft and design.

Beginning in the early 1970s craft organisations and government funding agencies, such as the Australia Council Crafts Board and later the Visual Arts/Craft Board, offered networking and financial assistance for visits to Australia by overseas artists, often in the form of workshops, residencies and lecture tours coinciding with the inclusion of their work in survey exhibitions.3 A number of the artists in Transformations undertook such engagements and have had a significant influence on craft practice in Australia as a result of their visits. This exhibition of recent work creates a bridge to their earlier work that has remained in Australia, adding to that known through the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, and state and regional art museum collections. Such artists include Giampaolo Babetto, Michael Brennand-Wood, Alison Britton, Dale Chihuly, Edmund de Waal, Arline Fisch, Warwick Freeman, Yasuo Hayashi, Ritzi Jacobi, Hermann Jünger, Jun Kaneko, Albert Paley, Wendy Ramshaw, Gerd Rothmann, Michael Rowe, Helen Shirk and David Watkins.4 Many artists built enduring networks with the Australian artists who hosted them or who worked with them during their visits, facilitating subsequent opportunities overseas.

Over the past forty years, the expansion of tertiary training in craft-based artforms has involved practitioners in the wider concerns of contemporary art, and has brought new expectations for the role of craft skills in interpreting and articulating them. It has done so through the focused work of individuals who have developed their practice with the knowledge that their work is valued as an alternative to a plethora of look-alike manufactured products.

In choosing to work within the constructs and disciplines of craft-based practices, artists and designers align themselves not only with the rich narrative of human history, but also with the language of invention and technological exploration. Over time social and industrial revolutions have turned on the development and use of specific materials. Responding to necessity and fuelling desire across cultural and economic barriers, designers and makers have interpreted the possibilities of new ideologies, materials and manufacturing technologies. Great centres for processing, manufacturing, design and distribution sprung up around craft practices and have attracted designers, artists and craft specialists for centuries, connecting industrial towns and local craft traditions with metropolitan ideologies concerned with design and fashion. Many of the artists in this exhibition have gravitated to such places to connect with and learn from those great traditions, and to integrate something of that spirit in their practices.

Increasingly, however – in a world connected less by geographic destination than by technology, ideology and invention – artists and designers, theorists, technologists and commentators work in fluid dialogues across cultures. Their work draws from many of the currents that activate society: the semiology of craft; real and virtual global sub-culture and counter-cultures; the place of craft skills in the construction and nurturing of kinships and family; retrospection, fantasy, satire, desire and subversion; the ethics and consequences of the production, processing and disposal of materials; the recycling of materials of all kinds; and the allure of new materials and imaging technologies. All are connected through the sheer pleasure of creating and working with materials that are sensual, intimate and visually engaging.

It is a paradox that while we have become a society with an ability to quickly assimilate new technology and find value in a plethora of new types of functional and decorative objects, we are doing so with a diminishing framework of understanding of the history and development of design and the decorative arts. We rely increasingly on advertising and celebrity endorsement as a substitute for the understanding and discrimination that comes from direct experience. For many, such experience of significant unique craft works is rare, resulting in a limited comprehension of the rich cultural, formal and material values that such objects represent. While such values can be interpreted in the context of the visual arts, they may also be understood by considering them in the framework of performing arts. The understanding of dance and music suggests ways of interacting with crafted objects and the unseen ‘performer’ behind them. We can consider and enjoy these objects by engaging with the shared concepts of spatial organisation, time, rhythm, body control, and the confidence and skill in the use of tools and instruments. By engaging with the nuances and performance of materials, the framework of tradition and the theatrics of presentation, object makers can heighten our experience of their work.

Transformations encourages visitors to encounter the eloquence of crafted objects as mediators of space and experience, and to consider the place of craft skills, traditions and values in an increasingly dematerialised, yet regimented, culture of consumption. The works exhibited and illustrated in this catalogue are drawn together in the themes of narrative, materiality and structure, creating settings in which unique crafted objects give form to innovations in the use of materials and technologies, offer commentaries on nature and the urban environment, express personal narratives, and reflect regional identity.

An examination of the works in each section of the exhibition reveals connections across a diversity of work practices, approaches to materials and personal backgrounds. The disposition of the works in the exhibition offers a complex set of relationships where the meaning of one can be inflected by our experience of others. Objects accrue meaning in the landscape of our own imagination, despite the juxtapositions and relationships suggested by their placement in a particular exhibition.5 These objects resonate in the dimension of the sensuous, triggering associations that draw us into a potentially haptic, intuitive relationship with them.

Narrative, the exhibition’s first section, explores translation, transience and memory as points of departure for a variety of visually complex narrative objects. They employ metaphor and realism to invite an exploration of cultural resonance, mythology and our relationship with the natural world.

Works in the second section of the exhibition, materiality, are defined by an expression of their material qualities, shown in objects where the transmutation and metamorphosis of materials is explored as a form of negotiation and performance. Artists in this section exploit the sensuousness and physical properties of materials, allowing their particular characteristics to speak.

The third section, structure, brings together works that are defined by a concern with the organisation of elements, through rhythm, reductiveness, balance and the nature of time. Other objects in this section can be understood through their relationships to space and light, or through the nuances of groupings, placement, and variations of forms, colour and texture.

In varying ways, each artist has addressed the inherent problem of aligning theory with the physicality of the work, illuminating their themes through virtuosity, and assured craftsmanship and design. In expressing abstract notions through physical objects, there is a danger that the resulting works may merely illustrate theory. The works in this exhibition avoid such didacticism with their assurance, engaging the viewer with their ‘rightness’ before their individual and collective narratives become apparent.

Even though a number of the exhibited works will remain accessible in the Gallery’s or other collections, the particular theatre of Transformations will never be recreated, and the dialogues and interactions between its objects and its viewers will exist in memory. The persuasiveness of these objects, and their orchestration of materials and articulation of skills, stimulates memory and the senses.  In doing so, their particular eloquence and language of craft provide ways for us to be transformed as we navigate between the known and the as yet unimagined.

With its continuous evolution and traditions of functionality, ornamentation and ceremony, craft has always reflected human experience. Through the skill and ingenuity of its practitioners, craft manifests in objects that help us navigate our way through our lives, offering us new ways to imagine being in the world. Our perception of the world is continually being reshaped through our exposure to fragmented visual information and discontinuous episodes, many stressful and destructive, yet others transcendent and inspirational. In a world increasingly dominated by commercial design and branding, and global industrial manufacture – where location and means of production are determined by economic rationalism rather than tradition – the practices of craft exist as signs of achievement and personal narratives that can re-locate us in time, place and experience.

Robert Bell
Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design


  1. This manifesto stemmed from the 1919 pamphlet Vackrare vardagsvara [More beautiful things for everyday use], by Swedish art historian and critic Dr Gregor Paulsson.
  2. This is a broad geographical description of areas of influence. While the reception of contemporary craft and design in Australia flowed through channels of known English-language design, applied arts, decorative arts and craft publications from the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Germany, it also arrived via lesser-known cultural journals and exhibition catalogues from Japan and a number of European countries. In many cases personal connections between Australians travelling, participating in conferences and working with artists in other countries were the impetus for more formally organised and officially funded later visits to Australia by those artists.
  3. The Australia Council Craft Board initiated, funded and sometimes managed a number of projects and exhibitions of overseas work in order to stimulate craft practice in Australia, while also arranging exhibitions of contemporary Australian work to travel abroad. The Craft Board’s extensive collection of 898 contemporary Australian craft works was donated to the National Gallery of Australia in 1980. The predominant late twentieth-century program for the combined exhibition of contemporary Australian and international craft was organised by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, in its series of survey exhibitions: International directions in glass art, 1982; Perth International Crafts Triennial, 1989; Design visions: Australian International Crafts Triennial, 1992; and Nature as object: craft and design from Japan, Finland and Australia, 3rd Australian International Crafts Triennial, 1998.
  4. For a fuller account of such visits see Robert Bell, ‘Meeting the outside eye: exhibitions, dialogues and training in Australia’, Object, no. 45, 2004, pp. 44–9.
  5. The relationship of works to each other in the exhibition is not repeated in this catalogue, where works are listed in alphabetical order by artist, within the three broad themes of the exhibition: narrative, materiality and structure.

TB Tina Baum, Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia
EKB Eugenie Keefer Bell, Senior Lecturer in Architecture, University of Canberra
BC Brenda L Croft, Senior Curator, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art, National Gallery of Australia
SE Sarah Edge, Curatorial Assistant, Decorative Arts and Design, National Gallery of Australia
MH Meredith Hinchliffe, Volunteer, Decorative Arts and Design, National Gallery of Australia and arts writer
Unless stated all other texts are by Robert Bell, Senior Curator, Decorative Arts and Design, National Gallery of Australia

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