Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Making and Meaning: Craft in the 21st century

Doomed if you do …

The title of the exhibition Making and Meaning: Craft in the 21st century gave me pause to consider what it means to be living in a time that should by some predictions resemble a world not too dissimilar to that of Buck Rodgers and his shiny-white-robot-filled-universe or the even grittier and more terrifying confines of Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey. As a child I was led to believe that these alternative futures were not only possible but inevitable. So it is with some disappointment but ultimately an overwhelming sense of relief that I have not had to endure a post-apocalyptic event or the hugely anticipated interaction with alien life-forms. As a species we have indeed made significant advances in the last 300 years, yet in the scheme of things it appears as if very little has changed. Technology and science have progressed at great speeds and with art and cultural pursuits rarely out of the mainstream we could be forgiven for thinking that we are in the throes of a renaissance period. However, the difference between the time of papal extravagance and now is that the arts and in particular the contemporary visual arts have become somewhat self-referential and appear to lack the sense of innovation and invention necessary for any phase of significant advancement. An exception to this observation is that of contemporary jewellery practice.      

New Zealand has had a dynamic craft, and in particular, jewellery history since the onslaught of the 1960’s craft movement. The sector has moved from strength to strength in a relatively short period, and developed into a robust and extremely critically aware community. As New Zealanders, our apparent isolation has led us to develop an unassailable sense of unjustness and low self-esteem, traits which have both helped and hampered our progress on the world stage. As a post-colonial nation we are fiercely competitive, while simultaneously self-deprecating. So it seems astonishing that we have managed to develop and sustain a group of makers who are savvy, analytical and confident enough to be able to completely disregard the narrow confines of stereotyped parameters.

Another of our more contentious hangovers is cultural identity. Along with many other nations in the world we are torn between imposed colonial traditions, which have now become fully ingrained societal frameworks, and our indigenous obligations.  New Zealand has developed a rather unhealthy Oedipus complex in its relationship with the British motherland. This has become simultaneously a symbol of the only recognizable genealogical heritage for many New Zealanders and one of tyranny and deception for the indigenous Maori population. This dichotomy poses an inevitably convoluted dilemma which has both influenced and confronted New Zealand jewellers and artists alike for decades. Into this morass of controversy and political correctness have come two makers who have responded to this question of culture from what many would consider opposing perspectives, but share surprising similarities in their approaches to the unavoidable question of identity.

Warwick Freeman is a jeweller of distinction. He is quick to distinguish himself as an individual voice that intuitively responds to his cultural environment yet there is an obvious awareness of how he interprets and manipulates the symbols he employs. It is a form of semantics that is ever present in his work.

Freeman’s practice grew out of the burgeoning craft movement of 1970’s New Zealand, a time when, like much of the rest of the world, social, political and economic change were having a huge impact on how we as a nation were positioning ourselves in an international context. From this developed a number of initiatives which were to pave the way for craft practice to become a sustainable reality in a small, isolated and seemingly backward society. One of the most significant was the establishment of Fingers Collective, formed by a core group of jewellers who had come to the discipline via routes other then the traditional formal silver or goldsmith training. This group was initially influenced by international makers with a more modernist approach including the work of Kobi Bosshard who immigrated from Europe in the 1960’s, but this was to change significantly in the coming years.

In the 1980’s came a veritable flood of craft and design courses offered by technical institutions which were to reach their heady heights in the 1990’s. Their popularity began to decline post-millenium with the onslaught of inter-disciplinary ‘design’ courses which encouraged the breaking down of discipline specific definitions and challenged the 19th Century fine arts division with other forms of the visual arts including jewellery and other craft practices.   

Prior to this the 1980’s spawned two significant exhibitions: Paua Dreams and Bone Stone Shell which would act as catalysts for craft and more predominantly jewellery to become more visible, and would later be entrenched as diviners of the archetypal symbols of our cultural identity. Both these exhibitions were pivotal in establishing a code of response that was to typify New Zealand jewellery for the decade that followed. The primary element of these events was the use of natural materials, in particular the use of paua (abalone shell) and pounamu (jade) as valid jewellery materials which sat outside of European jewellery traditions. The jewellers that participated in these exhibitions, including Freeman, were in effect reclaiming cultural territory through materials which had only been associated up until this point with the unadulterated consumerism of the tourist trade or the dusty displays of museums.

Warwick Freeman
Sentence Various Dates

Gina Matchitt, a contemporary Maori maker, diverges from this formative view by engaging an indigenous perspective. Matchitt utilizes the icons of western popular culture and subverts them to take on a Maori focus. In this way her work connects with the dilemma of appropriation by claiming corporate and religious identities and imposing on them a reformatted Maori brand.


Gina Matchitt
Kiwi Mo Heihei (Kiwi for Chicken) 2005

Although trained as a jeweller, Matchitt has moved beyond the parameters of this sometimes limiting discipline to make works which utilize the stuff of the everyday in a way which is restricted only by her ideas. Her practice responds to an understanding of a cultural position as Maori and underpins her ability to move from craft maker to artist which can be seen in works from Geyserland Hotel (2004), Where Everyone Gets a Bargain (2005) and E kare, you’re so colonised (2007). Matchitt does not view herself as having moved completely beyond jewellery, but considers it only as a means to communicate her ideas. Matchitt is comfortable traversing diverse media which supports her position in the contemporary art sector. It is not an issue for her of art versus craft as she has emerged from an education which encouraged an understanding of an art practice beyond the confines of definitives. While this approach reflects her education and individual perspective it also marks the primary divergence between Matchitt’s and Freeman’s practices.


Freeman’s unabashed use of the title ‘jeweller’ reflects his acknowledgement of a historical tradition which spans thousands of years. He engages with these traditions in every aspect of his practice, and references the craft movement which has helped to shape the foundations of contemporary jewellery in New Zealand. Freeman is adamant that his work is well and truly entrenched in the culture of craft. He is first and foremost a jeweller - a maker of jewellery - regardless of the labels and associations that may be projected onto his work due to his representation by a significant contemporary art dealer. Yet he is also fully aware of the effects that his decision to show in a gallery has on his practice. His work is not only considered by some to have reached the elite heights possible in a small centre like New Zealand, he also now has achieved a fiscal level unattainable by most in his field.


The positioning of both makers’ works is a strategy of markets in which wearability and function give way to the freedoms of installation and sculpture. It is also an opportunity to indulge in indepth conceptual territories not always appreciated in the fickle tastes of jewellery consumers but encouraged by the collectors of contemporary art. A number of other makers have also made this shift including Octavia Cook, Areta Wilkinson and Joe Sheehan. Freeman, although comfortable in his place within craft, has not limited the context in which his works can be read. Matchitt has also embraced her art persona with open arms and feels no sense of loyalty to prescribed definitions or titles.  


Matchitt and Freeman have produced works which use symbols and icons that can be read as references to a particular New Zealand identity, be it intentional or not. This language of signs, although created locally, is nevertheless recognizable on a global scale with all the implied connotations and multiple meanings inherent with common cultural symbols. It is the ambiguity of both makers’ works that allows for their practice to be read on an international scale and beyond the confines of the craft traditions they have grown out of.


Over the last five years there has been a proliferation of craft-related practice featured prominently alongside contemporary art in a number of major exhibitions. It appears that few contemporary curators see a distinction in current art trends between craft and fine art arenas. With the advent of indie-craft events and artists becoming less afraid to relate stories from their own family craft traditions it is no surprise that the craft vs art debate has receded. However there are still some residual issues which question the ‘craftsmanship’ of these new practices. It is not in question that these works respond to historical traditions, but the emphasis is on conceptual territory as opposed to technical expertise. Freeman and Matchitt have managed to avoid this discussion through the nature of their specialist training and the particular sensibilities they both explore in regards to cultural identity.


It seems miraculous that in this phase of immense technological advancement we are still in a state of reconciliation in regards to many issues. The materials and approaches may have altered but the underlying messages still remain the same. In the 21st Century we are still struggling to define who we are and how we fit into an ever changing world. Rather then being more comfortable as part of the global village we now endeavour to make ourselves distinct from those around us. As a society we have a tendency to divide everything into categories and box them within prescribed boundaries in order to make them more accessible. Although makers such as Matchitt and Freeman appear to shift easily between parameters they are still subject to the same issues of stereotyping and the connotations that subsequently arise. It would be easy to make associations between their approaches. Both have made jewellery, show in dealer galleries, respond to specific cultural perspectives, and come from New Zealand. We could even be forgiven for calling them New Zealand jewellers or contemporary artists but neither title suggests the complexities and immense depth associated with their individual practices. It begs the question as we now move into a time of relative change and expansion for the craft sector and its practitioners: how do makers transition beyond the definitions of the past? The craft vs art debate may well have been put aside for the time being but if that were the case then why do we still persist in using this kind of terminology?

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