Sunday, 20 February 2011


“British Art Show” at the Hayward Gallery, “Modern British Sculpture” at the Royal Academy of Art, “Part I and II of Newspeak: British Art Now” at the Saatchi Gallery. British, British, British… The fact that three major London exhibitions have all recently focused on “Britishness” is striking. Is this the emergence of protectionism in Arts or a need to define the British national identity in a globalised world? I don’t pretend to answer this sensitive question but it is worth pointing out that something definitively seems to be happening. Aiming at “Thinking Through Things” as a French artist living in London, attempting to define a nation’s identity through art objects is a theme that fits well in my blog. This question is also in the spirit of the times, not only in Arts but in other aspects of life, as testifies the major debate launched last year by the French government on national identity and what it means to be French in a country that has become increasingly multi-cultural (Interestingly, this debate largely backfired as people initially supporting it in polls quickly changed their mind under the pressure from the media who criticized the government for stigmatizing foreigners).

But back to the main subject: is there such a thing as British Art? This question was the title of a series of talks at the Saatchi Gallery in November 2010. The abstract of the talk was: “With the opening of Newspeak: British Art Now at the Saatchi Gallery, and the British Art Show 7 at Nottingham Contemporary, the question of British Art is once again in the spotlight. Both exhibitions include a host of radically divergent artists connected by ‘Britishness’. Does this tag reveal anything more than shared geography? Artists Hew Locke and Barry Reigate, and journalist Louisa Buck, discuss the problematic concept of British Art as a coherent context for artistic production. Is there a particular British sensibility, style or technique discernable in contemporary Art produced in the UK today? Or, have we reached a point at which the idea of a national artistic identity has broken down leaving a multiplicity of artistic forms and languages?”

This debate of what makes the Britishness of Art has even led to a project called "The Great British Art Debate" a partnership between Tate Britain, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, Norfolk Museums & Archaeology Service and Museums Sheffield, supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund, and by the MLA’s Renaissance program. The home page of this project’s website states: “through this site and a series of events and exhibitions nationwide, we invite you to explore and debate ideas around Britishness and Art. Four galleries are working together to use historic British Art collections to explore questions about nationhood and identity today”.

This website includes a debate section (available on Facebook, Twitter and Youtube) where one can read posts about questions such as: “Is the idea of British Art a British fantasy?” Martin Myrone, a Tate curator wrote: “Yes, but then again Britishness is a British fantasy! We like to think that we can detect essential British characteristics in the paintings and sculptures which happen to be produced here - but I think of it as a ‘Birds of Britain’ question… yes, there are plenty of sparrows in Britain, so sparrows are a very British bird, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get sparrows elsewhere…”

Andrew Bryant, a regular writer in the Tate website, also asks very relevant questions in one of his posts: “What is British Art? Is it Art made by artists born in Britain? Because a lot of British artists live and work in Berlin or New York or in other places. Is it Art made by artists who live in Britain? A lot of those artists aren't British by origin but they live here and produce work here. Is it a certain style of Art, or Art that deals with particularly British topics? I wonder what the reason is for defining Art by nationality in any way. Perhaps British Art is a falsely manufactured 'brand' that makes us feel like we are all one happy nation when actually there are massive sections of the population who are increasingly left out and excluded. In fact, if there's one thing that defines Britain it must be diversity, both cultural and economic. Does British Art reflect all of this difference or are our social inequalities reinforced because of a lack of artists from social groups other than the white middle class?”

I think that the idea of the Bristishness of Art actually leads to more questions than answers. But then, maybe we should be more interested in having the debate than obtaining answers? Let’s see how the exhibitions previously mentioned have tried to deal with the subject.

Here is an extract of the “Modern British Sculpture” exhibition from the Royal Academy website“Through [exhibited] works, the exhibition examines British sculpture's dialogue within a broader international context, highlighting the ways in which Britain’s links with its Empire, continental Europe and the United States have helped shape an Art that at its best is truly international in scope and significance […]” The exhibition provides a view onto this period of modern British sculpture without attempting to be comprehensive or definitive in its treatment of the subject. As such, it represents a point of view about the work of the period and seeks to highlight certain ways of looking at sculpture by thinking about its relationship with the wider world.”

As far as the “British Art Show” was concerned, curators Lisa Le Feuvre and Tom Morton smartly avoided to define British and Britishness, a concept that has worried many of their predecessors, by opening up the exhibition to any artist working in Britain or any British artist working abroad. Tom Morton encourages us in his catalogue essay to imagine Britain as a “geographically and psychologically unfamiliar place”.

In fact, both of them failed to convince me about Britishness in Art: could it be that no tangible sign of a national identity can possibly be found in a globalised western contemporary Art, end of the story?

I can’t stop thinking about the series of thematic exhibitions held at the Saatchi Gallery in the past few years: “The revolution continues: New Chinese art”, “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East” and “The Empire strikes back: Indian Art today”, where a strong sense of identity and shared concerns transpired, particularly in the excellent exhibition about the Middle East: the majority of artists exhibited there live or were born in a censored society and their works speak about fear, daily constraint of freedom and one should admire their bravery. Some of them had to conceal their identity, some had to show their work in secret and others refused to have their face revealed in photographs. In this exhibition, I truly felt the impact of the lack of freedom and the censorship in almost every artwork, an urge to use Art as a protest, and that, to me, created a very strong sense of identity. Well, I’m not sure this is the kind of sense of identity the thinkers of Britishness in Art have in mind…

So, is there such a thing as British Art? This is an interesting and perhaps controversial question to which I will leave everyone come up with his/her own answer...

Being French and living and working in London as an artist, I can only feel and empirically confirm that there is a “je ne sais quoi” about Britishness in Art. The network of Art and Design schools, associations, government support, galleries, museums and public spaces dedicated to Art, Craft and Design where people work together and exchange ideas leads to the emergence of a community sharing some specific characteristics. Do I feel British or French when I create jewellery? This is a tricky question. Well, I belong to the British Craft community, having studied here, having exhibited in British Galleries, being a member of British associations. My network is mainly British, and I write my blog in English…

The only thing I can say with certainty is that as far as cheese and wine are concerned, I remain French to the core!

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Grant Gibson portrait in CRAFTS magazine by Karen Caldicott

I am an avid reader of the magazine CRAFTS. I was very lucky to meet its editor Grant Gibson at a private view at FLOW Gallery in London and when I timidly asked him if, for once, he would agree to be interviewed instead of interviewing people, he very kindly accepted.
We met at the Craft Council and I asked him questions raised by some articles of the last CRAFTS issues. I would like to thank him again for his time and his approachability.

Are the journalists writing for CRAFTS magazine artists themselves?

It is a combination, really. Some of them are professional journalists, some are academics, few are makers (we would like to have more), but I think it is important in my opinion that we have a mix. The most important thing is actually that there is knowledge and that it reads well, so that we have a mix of ages and backgrounds.

How do you choose the artists featured? Do you try to create a balance between the number of established artists and newcomers?

Because we cover craft in its broadest sense, we try to get a mix between newcomers and established names and a mix of disciplines as well. We try to give the reader a sense of the variety and dynamism that exist within the sector and we try to mix it up and it is me who chooses. It means taking the wildest possible numbers of displays and people. You constantly try to publish things that you hope people will want to read.

Crafts Magazine almost has a monopoly of publishing on craft in the UK. As a consequence, do you feel that you have a responsibility in the craft world as your magazine, in a sense, sets the trend?

I think that regardless of whether we are the only craft magazine in the market (there are other ones but generally more specialised, e.g. on textiles, ceramics,...) you do feel a responsibility just by publishing something. You have a responsibility regarding people who are reading it and to the sector you are representing. So, yes it is a heavy responsibility, but it has been made easier by the fact that a lot of good work is going on and you have to reflect that and talk about it... and critique it as well because I think any discipline needs criticism to improve.

In your editorials, you often refer to government policies in the field of craft. In the last issue, there is a good example with “The age of the Craftsman”, an article by John Haynes, the current Coalition's minister of state for further education, skills and lifelong learning. Are you not annoyed by the lack of action and the seemingly stagnating situation?

A reason to publish that text by John Haynes was that I am very intrigued by how the craft world will respond to it. But it‘s there and in print now, and in 4 or 5 years time we can have a look and see what happened. There is a piece coming from Tanya Harrod in the next issue that is a response to it and we will see. But the reason to put it in here was that I went to the talk he gave at the RSA and I think it is fascinating that a government talks about craft. And it’s not just him there who is talking about craft: there is Matthew Crawford’s book (The Case for Working with Your Hands), an article in GQ and on one level I think it is very positive that the government talks about the word "craft", a word that has had some negative content, particularly in this country.
I'm not saying it is my job to include everything that John Haynes agrees with, but the magazine in general should be a forum for opinions, and what we are trying to do is reflect a diverse range of them. It seems quite important at the moment to see what the government says, and it is my duty to reflect that.
This is also the reason why we have published the text by Mike Press “What craft has given us” in the magazine's "Archive" section. This piece was written in 1997 when the Labour government came to power when we had all this optimism, a lot more optimism than there is at the moment.
But yes, further education is still having distinct difficulties, so the reason to publish those pieces is basically to show a kind of diverse range of opinions.
And we are very lucky because we have 30 years of very high quality magazine and great writing behind us. 

Is the UK particularly hit by the crisis in education? And how will it affect the craft sector?

Yes, I think there are issues and they will emerge in the years to come, and we will see what kind of makers we will produce. I have attended a couple of recent addresses and the position is “I love the arts, I love the crafts, I love culture but we have to cut in terms of funding”. We are in a very particular moment and decisions have been taken in the arts all across the board. When I arrived here 3 years ago, what struck me most was that the craft sector was rather similar to design in the mid 90’s. There are a lot of extremely talented people doing fascinating work who don’t get the recognition that their talent deserves. What we are trying to do is highlight as many people as we can.
Now, about the changes in education, craft is very affected because it is a quite expensive thing to run, you know, with the tools and equipment… But I went to the London Design Review last week and this sector is also talking about funding issues. We will have to see how that affects the quality of the production of craft and design arts in the years to come. I don’t think it is going to be very positive.

At the moment, books, articles, surveys often sing the praises of the "one-off", the hand made, its beauty and the satisfaction it brings, but it seems that design and art are the main benefactors from this trend: design gets "crafty", and art is rediscovering materials and techniques associated with craft.  However, the true makers of original, hand made and unique objects do not seem to really catch up. Why?

I don’t know. I am wary, to be honest with you, of categorizing stuff, I don’t like it. But I think it’s ultimately to the benefit of the craft sector that the art world and the design world are reconsidering the roles of making. Let’s take Ted Noten for example: do we call him a designer or a craftsperson? How do you define him? He is exhibited in COLLECT, but he has also been profiled in design magazines.

Nowadays, the word craft is overused in many situations; do you think it harms its significance and what it represents?  (I am referring to articles such as "The beauty of the bike" or Tim Clement’s portraits of London makers). Isn’t the meaning of craft becoming more and more confused? Perhaps we should use another word, like Applied Arts?

Here is my take on this: I think in the past the sector has been too lost worrying about terminology. So I think it is going to reach out to the broadest possible audience and make people appreciate the skills that go into the things that are made. And my feeling is that they have to worry less. The bike is an interesting story because it was really about broadening this magazine and looking at "making". The bike story is about things beautifully made. In this country, in the past 15 to 20 years, we have moved away from "making" but I think it is important that we re-emphasize its importance. Now, one could spend time debating whether this is craft or not craft, but it becomes counterproductive. So I am reasonably laid back by definitions.
And what we are trying to show in the magazine, (and what Sennett’s book was about) is how notions, ideas of craft seep into everyday life or the things we use, or the things we are sitting on…  That intrigues us and I think we must, from time to time (not all the time) broaden out and investigate that a little bit. And that is why we are doing that.

The resurgence of interest in activities like knitting seems to be part of this Zeitgeist moment. But is it doing any good to craft or, on the contrary, is it a caricature of what people think it is? Can everybody become a craftsperson?

Dr Jo Turney’s article “Fashion victim” was talking about examining why knitting has become fashionable and suggesting that it is a fleeting thing that will fade because “real” craft is tricky and it takes time (10,000 hours according to Sennett) and skills, whereas those knitting groups are mainly media things. We published it in the magazine because it is an interesting point of view and what we are trying to do is have an essay or an opinion piece in each issue. If something is going on which is craft related which has gone out, left the sector and is out there floating about and has become popular for whatever reason, then I think the magazine has an obligation to examine it, which is what it is about.
Anyway the notion of people being more interested in “how to make” and “why to make” is something that should be encouraged because the way you are arguing it seems to me that the craft puts up this wall and you can’t be a craftsperson until you have studied hard or spent your 10,000 hours… The Bike guy for example is a consumer, he is a buyer. He wants to buy a bike and he wants to buy a bike made by the best people in the world, and I think we should be encouraging that because if he thinks about a bike, he might then think about something else that is hand made and belonging to “the craft world” by your definition. So, I think it is important that the magazine tries to drag as many people in and popularize the subject.

So, is everything related to "making" benefiting the crafts world?

The notion of people reconnecting with "making", how things around us are put together and made is very important. We can take that into food, there are parallels with campaigns by Jamie Oliver to encourage people buying food from a cellophane package and to understand what it is and what they have in their plate. I think this notion of increasing the knowledge and understanding of the things around us and how they get into our house or into our workplace is a good thing and will benefit the applied artists, as you call them, in the long run.
It is a long-term view  but not very original as Sennett earlier broke the ground with his book. I took the job when it was published and I was intrigued by the level of debate but slightly wary of the fact that it was quite internalized: people from inside the sector talking to each other and not looking out. Yes, to my mind this notion of looking outward can only benefit the sector. The craft sector needs to reach out.

Is it a direction where you want to push the magazine?

One has to be careful with that because people are in the main buying the magazine because they want to look at beautifully made objects. It is a subtle question of balance: you try to introduce this notion of where craft is at the moment in a slightly different way, but you don’t turn the magazine into that entirely because it is not what people want to read. As a magazine editor, you need to give the readers not only what they want but to push them along with you into thinking about other things.

Mike Press in 1997 advocated a challenge of craft education and describes the craft graduate as a creative and critical thinker who researches and reflects using hands and brain in tandem. Don’t you think this reflection in action is underestimated in our society?

It is why the Sennett book is so important for a wider understanding of how the "thinking through your hands" can influence the way we work, and Matthew Crawford makes a similar point in his book as well. It seems to me that this notion of provenance of hand making is really important (and I don’t see it as a Zeitgeist moment, as a Zeitgeist moment will move on), and I tend to feel that more and more people will become more and more interested in where things are made, how they were made, and this presents craft with quite a big opportunity. Even global brands, such as Coca Cola, jumped in the bandwagon and in their advert last Christmas were showing people working in the factory, making the drink. This is no coincidence because they are witnessing the way consumers begin to think, and they want to get in on that. The important thing for craftspeople is that their voice gets heard, so it is not just global brands like coca Cola or Levis leaping on that trend. The craft world must seize that moment.

Don’t you think we are losing time and energy trying to define the concepts of art, design or craft? Don’t you think that perhaps objects speak for themselves?

It seems to me that categories are created up to a point by medias because they need definitions, but also by auction houses because works dubbed as "fine arts" can add a few zeros to a price tag. In all the magazines I have done I have never tried to spend a lot of time defining categories (in Blueprint we did everything from interiors to architecture, photography and films). Some people will always categorize things and some won’t. In Glenn Adamson’s book “The Craft Reader” there is an interesting section devoted to that argument but I feel that this debate has run as far as it can go and from a personal perspective, I don’t really think we must spend a lot of time on it in the magazine. The boundaries are dissolving but I think there is still some way to go.

What are the next directions for CRAFTS magazine?

It is less about subject matters and more about how one reaches people. I am reasonably comfortable with what we cover and the way we cover it, and we are quite fortunate to have some very good writers in the craft sector. If one looks at the art or design world, there is a lot of debate about the quality of criticism, so we are lucky to have some very good critics for this magazine and it’s a pleasure to publish.
In my mind the next challenge is trying to get the word out to as many possible people as one can. How to encourage more and more people to subscribe to the magazine but also to think about craft in the making.

How is the magazine doing in this recession climate?

We are doing OK. In the middle of the recession, it has been a tricky time for magazines across the board but we have done all right, which I think shows that there is more and more interest in the subject.
I was slightly nervous when I made my first editorial 3 years ago, and I made it quite clear I wasn’t Glenn Adamson or Tanya Harrod. I have been writing about design and architecture and there is a bit of crossover, but what really struck me about the craft world is that people are very welcoming and seem to really enjoy having somebody from the outside coming in. They are happy to absorb external influences and that can only be to its benefit. It has been a genuine joy to edit CRATS magazine.

Last issue of CRAFTS magazine

Sunday, 6 February 2011


My first post about Jewellery…Where to start as there is so much to say? I will begin the series which a theme that is core to my work: jewellery to signal one’s identity. I am perfectly aware I might state the obvious but sometimes it is worth putting together quotes, writings or projects about a theme and see what kind of picture is coming out of it.

I will start with the (not so obvious) question: why do we wear jewellery?
An attempt to classify the reasons we wear jewellery can be found in the paper written by David Poston in November 1994 to accompany the Craft Council’s exhibition: “What is Jewellery”?
According to his survey, we wear jewellery for:
·      Status
·      Alignment
·      Self
·      Spirit
·      Imposed identity
·      Functional purposes

The full map is the following (mind map made from David Poston’s paper)

In her Manifesto for Schmuck 2009, Marjan Unger makes another engaging description of the main current incentives for the making and wearing of jewellery:
·      “Jewellery as a signal to express one’s identity in a turbulent world dominated by globalisation
·      Intimacy, jewellery as a tool in personal relations and body adornment
·      The pure pleasure in decoration, including the simple shapes, the sensitive combinations of colours, the manifestation of joy in jewellery
·      The expression of things that matters in life like political or moral statements, care for materials, humanity […]
·      Memory […] personal meanings […] to remind of times forgotten…”

Lin Cheung confirms that when she says in the book “New Direction in Jewellery II” (Black Dog Pub Ltd, 2007): “Common to all the reasons why the women chose the pieces they did are thoughts about suitability, flattery, appropriateness and inappropriateness; who they are, what they do, who they want to be, their interests and what they say and want to say about themselves”. (p. 21). If we refer to David Poston’s map, Lin Cheung seems to locate the wearing of Studio jewellery as a mix of “self”, “status” and “alignment”.

This view seems to be shared as well in the cultural theorist Ted Polhemus’s lecture at the Koru2 International Contemporary Jewellery Symposium (see klimt02 website)  : “no human society has never been found which has no ornament (by which I mean simply some objects worn on or attached to the human body)... it is our unique inclination to decorate, adorn and transform our bodies which makes us special...”. He then explains that the meaning of ornament was inevitably social in nature “ a visual symbol of one's culture” and that in our post-modern world “our need is to find ornaments ...which visually advertise that which is special, unique and distinctive about us as individuals...a style statement”.  He thinks we live today in a world where there is unprecedented choice, a kind of “Supermarket of Style” and that the solution to the question “how do I find people like me?” is emerging in translating “our personal values, beliefs, visions and dreams into the language of style”.

Jewellery is a way of expressing one’s identity but we can even go a step further: it might be a kind of language as well. Actually, Polhemus says that the “most fundamental and most indispensable function of all forms of adornment is visual communication”. And “to decorate the body with found or specially crafted objects is to transform it into a meaningful system- a language”. Comparing the wearing of adornment to a language is an interesting view. Tim Dant in “Material Culture in the Social World” (Open University Press, 1999) states “we express ourselves as part of this society through the way we live with and use objects. Material culture ties us with others in our society providing a means for sharing values, activities and styles of life in a more concrete and enduring way than language use or direct interaction”. Clothes, and by extension jewellery, are so close to our body that they “become an extension of that body, an outer layer or shell with which we confront the social world”.
Both Ted Polhemus and Tim Dant speak about a visual language, a way of standing out from the amorphous mass and of confronting the outside world with objects (jewellery is one of them) people choose to reveal something about them. For Tim Dant, this is even a more concrete and enduring way than direct language.

To illustrate those writings I have researched projects that could support those theories. And I found three specific ones (I am sure there are many others) that are perfect illustrations of what we could call: “read my jewellery (and you will know who I am)”.
First project is the artist Mah Rana’s one called “Meanings and Attachments: a photographic and written report of people and their jewellery.” It explores and illustrates the concept that the decision-making process that leads us to choose and wear particular items of jewellery is not solely attributable to the design aesthetic and monetary value of the materials used to create the objects themselves. I am particularly interested in her project as to me her work poses precisely the question ‘Why do we wear jewellery”? By photographing real people with their jewellery the answers are not theoretical. They are anchored in everyday life 
and try to understand people’s instinctive attachment to meaning in jewellery and its role as a social signifier. It is amazing to see how jewellery seems to reveal or to complete people’s personality. The choice of colours, shapes, sizes communicate about them: imagine the blond lady in the first picture without her necklaces and you will have a completely different reading of her personality.

Here are some pictures extracted from  Mah Rana website :

Mah Rana “Meanings and Attachments”

Another project attracted my attention as well: it was an exhibition held by the Dutch Gallery Marzee in St Andrews, Scotland: twenty four guests with connection with the region of Fife were invited to wear jewellery selected by the owner of the Gallery according to the description they made of themselves. The jewellery was therefore supposed to speak for those people’s personality, activity, and preferences. One of the guests, a poet and novelist, wore a brooch and “was happy that somebody looked at my work and responded with this piece. It says something about me. It reveals something to me about me as well.” (Marzee Catalogue, Organised by Fife Contemporary Art & craft, 2009). Another one said: “It’s just beautifully austere, minimalist. It’s just absolutely me. I love it”.
This project, somehow similar in the outcome (a collection of portraits of people wearing jewellery) is very different to Mah Rana’s investigation. It is not about the everyday jewellery people wear, but about choosing a piece of jewellery for people you just know by the description they made of themselves, to speak about them. A very interesting film showing interviews of the participants accompanied the exhibition (Marzee website). In this film you learn that people felt usually very happy with Marzee’s choices and that the jewellery always matched one of the personality traits. But when asked what jewellery they normally wear and why, you learn that the only jewellery that really matters for them are wedding rings, pieces related to an event or of sentimental value  (being given by somebody, or having belonged to a relative).
So for those people, the first reason to wear jewellery is usually sentimental but when offered to wear a statement piece that says something about their personality, they find the experiment very interesting and exciting. And that is why I find Marzee’s project so fascinating for the Studio Jewellery community as it gives the tastes of how it feels to wear “statement jewellery”.

Gallery Marzee’s exhibition catalogue, St Andrews, Scotland Organised by Fife Contemporary Art & craft, 2009

The last example I would like to mention is the “Read my pins” manifesto of Madeleine Allbright. Appointed US Secretary of State, she realised the power of wearing a certain kind of brooches for certain events. It started when she was compared to an unparalleled serpent by the Iraqi press when criticising Saddam Hussein and decided to wear a Victorian serpent pin for the next visit. She then started to play with her brooches and pins to suit her mood, her intentions and to use them to make political statements. 
Her collection of 200 eclectic brooches has been exhibited at the end of 2009 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York accompanied by a book written by Allbright herself. Her pieces, contrary to Marzee’s ones, are usually classical (fine jewellery with precious materials, stones and classical design) but what makes their statement is the connection made between the brooch’s theme and the event where she wears the piece. The jewellery becomes a powerful communication medium.
Madeleine Albright book’s cover: Read my Pins

So those writings, theories and projects put together give a very strong demonstration about the extraordinary power of jewellery to express someone’s identity. Read my jewellery and you will learn a lot about myself.

So next time you chose a piece of jewellery, try to keep that in mind…