The Meaning of Things | Craft Victoria Virtual Exhibition
A virtual exhibition at Craft Victoria looks beyond the surface of the objects that surround us.
In these overstuffed days when department stores stock mass-produced macrame wall hangers, and Marie Kondo has transcended personhood to become a verb (as in, "I Marie-Kondo-ed the f--- out of that jumpsuit" ), it could be said that our relationship to things has become a tad cavalier. Thankfully Craft Victoria's latest exhibition has arrived to cure us of our consumptive malaise.
The Meaning of Things is a digital "wunderkammer" , a collection of objects from makers and appreciators presented along with the stories that give them meaning. The exhibits range from the exotic to the everyday, with all stopping-off points in between. Human beings have always made things: we keep items because we are sentimental, or they fulfil some need, or they provide hope or comfort. This exhibition shows how objects can make, shape and change us.
Executive director Bryony Nainby conceived the project to commemorate Craft Victoria's 50th anniversary. "Over that time there's been thousands of people involved in the organisation, so we wanted to do something open to everybody. We deal with objects every day and what stands out is how attached people can be. We wanted to explore those emotional connections. It doesn't matter if the object is humble, it's about the story that goes with it."
In his influential 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" , Walter Benjamin introduced the concept of "aura" , stating that historical works have an ineffable, even magical quality that comes from the fact of their uniqueness. This extended to craft objects, and was strongly linked to ritual and tradition. Benjamin argued that when a work was reproduced it lost its authenticity and its authority. "Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be."
The objects in The Meaning of Things exist in the time and space of their particular story. Many have been passed down; traces of the personal worlds of their owner (and past owner/s) are, as Nainby puts it, "embedded and carried forward" .
Melbourne artist Liz Jones presents her father's drill and drill-bits (in a Capstan tobacco tin), along with one of her early works, a map of Australia made from vintage linoleum "salvaged from the nature strips of Brunswick" . Using her father's tools becomes a way of remembering him, while the map - which speaks to cultural history - has the added personal history of being purchased by Jones' mother in an early show of support. "After she died I decided to bring it back home."
Victoria Mason's object is a doll, "The Tattooed Sailor in Love" - it is enchanting, dreamy and surreal. The doll was made by the much-loved , much-missed Melbourne artist Sandra Eterovic, who died unexpectedly in 2018. To Mason, her sailor is like a "time-traveller who lets me know that she's still here sending out love" .
Objects as memory machines, objects as portals: for those who study material culture, the concept of the object as timetraveller is more than a metaphor. Political theorist and philosopher Jane Bennett coined the term "thing-power" , defining it as "the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle" . Thing-power , simplified , "emphasises the shared material basis, the kinship, of all things, regardless of their status as human, animal, vegetable, or mineral" .
I think of thing-power as a generative power - for how many times have we looked upon an object and imagined its biography? An object "transmits" to the viewer, sparking memory and prompting their own associations. The viewer can extrapolate or amend or distort the story to their own specifications .
In the case of Andy Wong's paintbrush rack and brushes, discovered in a country op shop for $10, the empty space created by the object's unknown provenance becomes a site for story-creation , as Wong imagines its maker. "I like to imagine it was a hobby painter, an old guy painting model trains or plains." (I like to imagine it was made by a teenage girl with super-strict parents who painted in secret, and, well, this story could go anywhere ... )
Artist and writer Josephine Mead submitted her 65-year-old mother's wedding ring. The photograph is stark and simple, a broken ring in an open palm. The story? Mead's mother is an ICU nurse. She needed to remove her jewellery in the wake of COVID-19 , but the only way to get her wedding ring off was to cut it. The object is now changed in appearance (and functionality), but it has also acquired a new story, one inextricably linked to this strange, unprecedented time.
Sculptor and jeweller Diane Beever's remade Victorian horse is another timetraveller . On first submission the object's biography was brief. Nainby asked for more information and was rewarded with "this whole huge story, a saga, about sailors making things on boats to pass the time, and the young third mate nearly losing his life in a canoe ... " The rocking horse was found, drowned and missing vital bits. It was rebuilt at sea by Captain Geoffrey Beevers in the late 1970s using "maritime materials" such as decommissioned life jackets, leather, hemp twine and oakum.
The Meaning of Things exhibition was to be physical, with the objects on display in Craft Victoria's Melbourne gallery space, but COVID-19 precipitated a remagining. For Nainby, the silver lining is an extension of her vision. The move online affords the opportunity to reach more people, to invite rolling submissions and create a dynamic, changing display.
Nainby hopes the exhibition will ignite curiosity in its viewers and provoke further interest in the handmade. "What I'd really love is for people to be moved emotionally by pieces that they see in the exhibition, to then think about their own objects and consider the value that they place on them, to consider if they can attribute value in ways they perhaps haven't thought about before."
Craft is no longer the province of the daggy homebody. Since the early 2000s it has become reactivated, revitalised. The yen for all things artisanal may have arisen in response to our increasingly tech-heavy lives, but technology has also enabled its proliferation, from skills-sharing in the craft blogging community to sites such as Etsy, Folksy and Made it, that cut out the middleman and empower the maker. Yes, there is the inevitable depressing commodification of craft, but there is also this: a gentle reproach, a reminder of the purpose, function and joy of things made, remade, long-held and beloved.
❊ When & Where ❊
Date/s: Thursday 21st May 2020 - Saturday 18th July 2020
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❊ Web Links ❊→ The Meaning of Things | Craft Victoria Virtual Exhibition
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