Neil Roberts

Brennan, Anne,


Object, Review, #4 1994/95. pp. 10 - 14

Anne Brennan

At its best, Symmetry is an absorbing excursion into the discourses and pleasures of making, says ANNE BRENNAN. At its worst, it taxes craft’s conventional discursive forms to the limit.

At the moment in which ‘Symmetry: Crafts meet kindred trades and professions’ arrived in Canberra, the most recent round of Australia Council Professional Development grants to individual artists had just been announced, and the angry response of both visual artists and journalists to the equity policies of the Australia council were loud in the air. I had been brooding on the paradox that, at precisely the moment when craft theory has never been more buoyant and lively, the same funding body which has enabled so much good writing and curating in the last seven years has had to implement a funding equity policy: a policy to encourage craftspeople to apply for funding which, by rights, has always been available to them. I found myself having coffee with a painter friend who commented that it was a shame that another painter had not received funding – something she thought was particularly unfair in the light of the successful applications from people who might be considered production craftworkers.

I had never thought of my friend as particularly prejudiced about forms of practice, so I asked her why. She considered for a moment, and then said that she thought it was inappropriate to fund practice which was simple about ‘making things’. She was not, she assure me, against the funding of craft specifically, but didn’t I agree that the most interesting craft was ‘intellectual’ rather than functional?

The moment was an interesting one for me, because, in my swift ‘No!’ I realised several things: Firstly, my views on craft practice has changed substantially in the last seven years. Back then, I would probably have agreed with her that experimental modes of practice were the only appropriate forms of practice to fund, and that craft practitioners needed to take a leaf out of the book of artists if they were to dislodge themselves from the nostalgic impasse into which they were in danger of sliding.

I realised that my seven years of writing on the crafts had substantially altered my position on craft practice: I have become sensitive to the meanings inherent in process and object, and deeply suspicious of the dichotomisation of hand and mind which often accompanies attempts to discuss these processes. I realised, too, that in the practice of some craftspeople dedicated to the notion of production, I was seeing some of the most interesting discourses emerging; discourses which were moving away from the ‘experimental’ visual arts model, and alluding to other cultural models, other histories, which also have relevance to craft practice.

At the same time, I wondered where all of that writing was being read? Certainly not, it appeared, by my artist friends. Who have we been addressing all these years? Most importantly, of course, we have been addressing ourselves to craftspeople. This is healthy, and it has been crucial that we perceive these theoretical developments as intended principally for the interest and extension of craftspeople, rather than as a strategy for justifying craft to the critical hierarchies of the visual arts. On the other hand, craft practice is part of a broader visual culture, and as such, one expects that a certain amount of what is written will be received and digested by practitioners in other fields, in the same way that a painter is likely to pick up and read Photofile, or a photographer will interest herself in debate about installation.

In fact, such critical overlaps to occur. Narelle Jubelin’s work owes a great deal to groundbreaking feminist work on the ambivalent relationship with the condition of femininity and the practice of embroidery; Fiona Hall has in recent years alluded to both ceramics and metal practices in her work, and Paul Saint’s recent excursions into basketmaking and ceramic vessels also refer to and comment ironically upon certain craft practices. However, all of these artists position themselves firmly within the centres of visual arts practice, and would not feel at home in a craft show like the Tamworth Fibre/Textile Biennial, for example. Conversely, it would be difficult for a textile artist addressing the same theoretical issues surrounding embroidery as Narelle Jubelin, for instance, to be invited to participate in the Sydney Biennale, as Jubelin was in 1992.

This kind of development could be used to imply that craft is vulnerable to critical plundering on the part of the visual arts in ways which silence its specific meanings and practices. Indeed, such an argument could be levelled at the work of Jubelin, Saint and Hall. However, if we are to maintain such a position, we are placing ourselves in a position which robs us of the ability to participate in, and enjoy the works of such artists. More importantly, we are committing ourselves to a rather powerless and unattractive position for craft: a sort of ‘craft as victim’ mentality, in which craft workers are doomed to permanent self-justification, and a kind of territoriality about ideas and processes which will leave the practice of craft as marginalised as it ever has been.

At the same time, it is undeniably infuriating to hear someone like my friend utter such a chestnut about craft practice as though no-one had been saying or writing anything about the meanings inherent in the processes or artefacts of craft for the last seven years – whilst at the same time accepting without question the assimilation of such theories into their own practices.

Symmetry, then, arrived in Canberra at an apposite moment for me, since it seems to articulate many of these theoretical problems and preoccupations. It could be said that this exhibition has been the golden child of the funding and entrepreneurial bodies responsible for its inception. Certainly, it could not have received more loving attention from its devoted father, curator Kevin Murray.

Symmetry has been well funded by the Visual Arts/Craft Board, its tour has been managed by AETA, it has been magnificently publicised by Melbourne’s Ian Potter Gallery, and is impressively well documented in its stimulating and provocative catalogue. In addition, Symmetry has been attended by innumerable satellite seminars and exhibitions and spectacularly well covered by the mainstream press. At last count, it has been reviewed in all of the major newspapers, and received substantial ABC Radio National coverage on both David Marr’s Arts Todayprogram and Phillip Adams’ Late Night Live.

Such coverage is an impressive feat for any exhibition. In the context of the crafts, it is almost unheard of, and if some of the rhetoric surrounding it is to be believed, it is possible to view Symmetry as a groundbreaking exhibition: the first theorised craft exhibition, if you like.1 In view of this, it is interesting to note that, in spite of its braod coverage in craft journals and the mainstream press, not a single visual arts journal has undertaken to either review or discuss it. Whilst Kevin Murray is disappointed that the exhibition has failed to attract the attention of critics who might be prepared to read it from fresh perspectives, he sees too much dwelling on the subject as detrimental.

Symmetry proposes a set of relationships between practices which address vocation and creativity in their broadest sense. It intersects and links visual culture with the notion of trade or profession. As such, he sees himself as removing the practice of craft from the visual arts model and aligning it with other forms of cultural productivity. To spend too much time fretting about the response of visual arts critics to the exhibition is, he believes, to configure craft as marginalised victim to the critical criteria of the visual arts.2

However, whilst Murray’s anxiety to keep discussion surrounding Symmetry constructive rather than competitive is understandable and indeed desirable, it is not as easy to keep discussion of this fact completely silent when reviewing it. After all, no matter how much we might think it’s a good idea to be contextualising craft in terms of other models, craft has borrowed many of its discursive modes from the visual arts, and such modes are a tacit part of Symmetry’s strategy.

The fact that the project has taken the form of an exhibition, for example, and that its venues are all regional galleries, university galleries and regional arts centres, says something specific about the way in which both curators and organisers want to position the exhibition. We cannot avoid the fact that, if Symmetry is interested in addressing other forms of practice outside visual culture, it is also interested in making this fact heard and having it addressed squarely within the centres of visual arts practice.

That a fair section of its potential critical audience has not addressed Symmetry points out the continuing problem of how to place the new craft criticism. Is it enough to rethink the practice of craft within the more established discursive frameworks of the visual arts – through its journals, the practice of reviewing, through catalogues and exhibitions, for example – or should we be looking for new discursive frames of reference as well? I would like to suggest that Symmetry is a rich but flawed project within the frameworks of craft criticism, but that it is an invaluable project for assisting us to think through some of these issues, its weaknesses being just as valuable in this respect as its strengths.

Kevin Murray sees Symmetry as a ‘cultural dinner party’, as a sort of conversation between practices.3 In doing this, he engages a number of crucial and problematic craft discourses: central to these are the issues of the role of handskills in contemporary western society and the pleasures of skill. An exhibition which does this is long overdue, yet a curator prepared to pick his way through the minefield which either of these issues represent within the framework of contemporary visual culture is brave indeed.

The question of the role of handskills is particularly problematic, since it is so hard to theorise without falling into the trap of either nostalgically re-working notions of craft, or assigning to it a kind of prettifying, affirming role with no intellectual or conceptual teeth of its own.4 Either position inevitably places the theorist in the unglamorous position of being seen as reactionary, quite part from the danger of being seen to reinforce the hand-mind split which lies at the heart of so much mythification of visual practice.

Murray’s strategy for dealing with these problems is interesting. He chooses to align certain craft practices with professions and trades whose own handskills are being superseded by technological innovations. Thus, the mythical sensitive hand of the surgeon is increasingly being replaced by a TV screen and a laparoscope; the skills of the typesetter in a newspaper printery are being replaced by the computer; the live performance of a jazz band is enhanced and manipulated by digital recording techniques; the hot-bake bread shop offers food technology solutions in the service of a predictable product which keeps, replacing the more unpredictable and organic processes of the artisan baker.

In doing this, Murray allows contemporary craft to be viewed as a practice undergoing change, rather than a nostalgic and irrelevant relic on the one hand, or a fetishized practice on the other. In aligning craft with other trades and professions, he also allows us to see handskills as ubiquitous, if invisible practices in contemporary society, a useful antidote to the tendency to either romanticise handskills, or to debase them.

Murray engages the viewer not just through the exhibition itself, but through a number of other discursive devices designed to flesh out the issues at hand. He has accompanied the exhibition to each of its venues, speaking publicly about its rationale, and showing slides of his research material and Symmetry’s satellite exhibition ‘Tools of the Trade’, held in the Craft Victoria Gallery.

His tendency in speaking about the exhibition is not to be didactic, but to address the curatorial matter of the show in an organic way, anatomising the poetic allusions and quirky associations which have informed his choices. We learn of the countless dentists who make jewellery in their spare time, or the urologists who are keen trout fishermen, taking pride in making their own flies. We hear of the heart surgeon who takes special pains over the final stitches of an operation because they are the first thing his patient seens, his signature as it were. We learn also that part of the brief to artists working on Symmetry was to think about envy: to think about what the companion trade had to offer which theirs did not. Thus, through his anecdotal approach, Murray is able to enliven the tacit agendas at work in handskills, making pleasure and desire part of his curatorial discourses.5

If Symmetry’s satellite activities have provided an absorbing excursion into its curatorial implications, the exhibition itself represents something of a disappointment. It appears a little lifeless, even forlorn at times, certainly bereft of the energy and seduction of Murray’s discussions, or the beautifully conceived catalogue. This problem seems to me to be due to several factors, some of them inherent in aspects of the work exhibited, some of them inherent in the weaknesses of the project itself.

Murray’s proposition can only be realised within the exhibition as far as the artists themselves are capable of participating in it. Inevitably, this is achieved more successfully by some than by others. Partly, this is due to the fact that some of Murray’s curatorial connections work better than others, partly it is due to how resourceful the artist has been in realising the brief and responding to the logistical limitations of a travelling exhibition.

Murray admits that some of his curatorial connections had their beginnings in certain poetic responses – the disjuncture of flesh and metal, and the soft, vulnerable space of the oral cavity suggesting the connection between jewellery and dentistry, for example; the shared fleeting, improvisatory heated moment and the common connection of breath suggested glass and jazz. Certainly, the connections seem to work best when they are sufficiently close to allow commonality, but elusive enough to permit a sort of poetic disjuncture.

For example, Neil Roberts’ Cryonic Quintet is satisfying on all levels. His glued-together assemblages of cheap, op-shop cut glass objects have a witty improvised quality about them; their shared, glittering surfaces bespeak a sense of repletion, of a note or phrase taken up and repeated through the suite of works.

Moreover, Roberts has considered the complete context of his works, and used this problem as an opportunity to extend the metaphoric connections of his brief. Responding to the need to make the context for the works completely self-contained, he stands the pieces on a collection of stools, which are arranged on a small floor supported by inverted beer glasses. The allusion to a stage, to the boozy intimacy of a jazz club and to the players’ instruments inverted on their stools whilst they take a break are made with a light touch which never threatens to tip over into slavish illustration of the curatorial connections. Murray’s analogy works well here precisely because it enables Roberts to exercise the same kind of poetic licence, and at the same time hold open and keep visible both sides of the equation.

Similarly, Susan Cohn’s collection of chillingly precise attachments to mouth braces play out the uncomfortable associations between flesh and metal inherent in Murray’s connection between dentistry and jewellery. The attachments are mounted behind brushed steel frames, which are inset with small black-and-white close-up photographs of an unfortunate victim (the artist, I think) having her braces installed. Cohn works through the association in a detailed way, allowing her anxious images, with their juxtaposition of grinning mouth, vulnerable flesh and the detached, cool, implacably precise technology of the objects themselves to move deftly between the studio and the dental surgery without over-illustrating either.

The work of both Cohn and Roberts is also successful because both are able to take their brief as a conceptual starting point within the concerns of their own practice, and then extend it in new ways. Cohn’s recent work, devices for altering the configurations of the face, lead logically into the preoccupations of the mouth objects; Roberts, although no longer technically a glass blower, is able to bring to the installation his current preoccupation with the found object whilst still alluding to his origins in glass.

Other links work less successfully. The connection between cabinet making and surgery, for example, seems a little too pat to be interesting, and seems to fall into the category of connection which might have been made with someone’s work already in mind. Martin Corbin’s small cabinet fabricated out of a dismantled kitchen chair, for example, is an example of what he makes as a matter of course. Beautiful as it is, it seems to me that his work fits felicitously into the connection between cabinet making and surgery because of its reconstructive element, not because Corbin has in any way used the brief to interrogate some aspect of his practice. The curatorial link disappears into the finished object, so that only the object remains, with none of the dialogue between work and proposition which enlivens the work of Roberts and Cohn. Ultimately, the connection operates purely on the level of analogy, rather than exercising any kind of transformative function.

On other occasions, the possibility that the curatorial link has been made to accommodate a particular practice works well. It is hard to imagine that Murray could have made the connection between journalism and textiles without being aware of Catherin K.’s work. K.’s long, bannerlike tapestries are woven from torn strips of the Guardian Weekly. They constitute dense compactions of text which are woven in such a way that they spell out random words and sentence fragments drawn from the torn strips of newspaper which form the fabric’s warp and weft. They play between text as a form of public communication and private source of meaning, the tension between the slow, built up process of weaving and the instantaneous and disposable nature of the newspaper are nicely played out in these works.

Thinking about why the exhibition feels less satisfactory than the satellite evens in the Symmetry project, I can only conclude that it is because the kindred trades and professions of the project’s title which Murray addresses so enthusiastically in his talks and in the catalogue, and which enliven his rationale so much, are curiously absent in the exhibition itself. It is the objects which hold sway in the gallery, sometimes silencing the flow between the rationale and the outcome of the project.

At the core of the exhibition is a discourse about the pleasures of making, and of skill. The floortalks and seminars offer an opportunity for some of this to emerge. Murray’s obvious pleasure in having watched a skilful surgeon perform open heart surgery, our own excitement in seeing a truly skilful baker deftly turn out leaves of mountain bread, the pleasure of looking at a collection of lovingly-maintained ivory-handled surgeon’s tools, obviously assist us into the matter of the exhibition itself. However, the frustrating thing about trying to address the question of skill or the contemporary role of handmaking is that they are fleeting processes, swallowed up in the substance of the completed object, so that the exhibition feels somehow muted and silenced by the weight of its outcomes.

Significantly, the objects in the exhibition work best in the context of the catalogue. Murray has chosen to have the work photographed in the contexts of the workplaces of the trade or profession alluded to in the curatorial link. Thus, Roberts’ work is photographed in Bennett’s Lane Night Club in Melbourne, amidst the drum kits, music stands and speaker boxes of its small stage. Catherine K.’s work is stretched across the top of the enormous printing machine in the Herald-Sun factory, a site which gives the work more punch that the polite walls of a gallery, and lend extra piquancy to its emblazoned text Impatience is a mortal enemy. The catalogue gives the work the opportunity to disrupt expectations, to become activated by their unexpected contexts, rather than to obey the slightly bossy expectations of a gallery.

The fact that Symmetry works best in its documentary forms suggests that craft criticism would do well to rethink its discursive processes. Much of what craft theorists and critics seek to elucidate is only partially possible through the conventional forms of exhibition and article, since so much of a craft’s processes are ultimately invisible in its final form.

Having experienced the pleasure of Kevin Murray’s lecture and the floortalks by two artists which accompanied Symmetry in Canberra, I am beginning to think that the project might have worked better in a format which accommodated its loose conceptual flow better. A publication, a kind of extension of the present catalgogue, which incorporated some of Murray’s research material and the voices of the tradespeople and professionals who represented the other half of his analogy, would be a fascinating document. Similarly, a video or documentary would have provided a more fluid discursive space for Murray’s project to unfold.

Finally, however, we have to address Symmetry in its actual form, and it is always easy to suggest how a project might have been when it is finally born. At its best, Symmetry represents an absorbing excursion into the discourses and pleasures of making. At its worst, it taxes craft’s conventional discursive forms to the limit. Perhaps this is the best thing a project like Symmetry could hope to achieve at this particular moment in craft history in Australia.

’Symmetry: Crafts Meet Kindred Trades and Professions’, organised and toured by AETA on behalf of Craft Victoria, was first shown at the Ian Potter Gallery, University of Melbourne, 30 June – 30 July 1994. It then toured to Port Pirie Regional Gallery, University of SA Art Museum & Canberra School of Art Gallery. In 1995 it will tour to regional galleries in Gladstone 18 January – 4 March; Tamworth, 31 March – 28 April; Ipswich, 6 May – 11 June; Mildura, 27 June – 27 July; Warrnambool, 3 August – 3 September & Shepparton late-1995.


1. See, for example, Jenny Zimmer’s review ‘When the practical and creative cross paths’ in The Age, 5 April 1994, which describes Symmetry as ‘…major contribution to the future quality of crafts practice and to our understanding of contemporary craft issues’.

2. Kevin Murray, private conversation on 26 October 1994.

3. Kevin Murray at Fringe Forum, Canberra School of Art, 27 October 1994.

4. See, for example, Peter Dormer’s article ‘The Ideal World of Vermeer’s Little Lacemaker’ in J Thackera, ed. Design After Modernism, London, Thames and Hudson, 1988.

5. Kevin Murray, Fringe Forum, Canberra School of Art, 27 October 1994.

Anne Brennan is an artist and writer on the visual arts and crafts. She teaches part time in the Art Theory Workshop of the Canberra School of Art, where she recently completed her MA in Sculpture. She has written for a number of journals, anthologies and catalogues, and most recently contributed to the catalogue for Textiles From the Edge.