The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft

In his book Thinking Through Craft (2007), the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Glenn Adamson argues that craft in the twentieth century functioned as a repository for all that visual arts defined itself against, such as amateurism, skill and pastoralism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can now see craft beginning to come out of that closet. Like a rabbit being swallowed by a python, it is slowly being absorbed by the visual arts.

In 2001, Ricky Swallow’s exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art introduced ‘craft’ into Australian visual arts as a performative notion. Since then, craft has added a celebrated dimension to many artists’ work, including that of Fiona Hall, Maria Cardoso and Louise Weaver. The appropriation of knitting into DIY culture has also provided artists like Renee So and Kate Just with a new context in which to work. Internationally, the recent publication By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art by Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro features visual artists employing craft techniques particularly as a medium of intimacy and personal meaning.

So while visual arts has brought craft into the mainstream, what role remains for the specialist potters, jewellers, weavers, glass-blowers and wood carvers? Many hold out in noble pursuit of their craft, but others seek a place in this new order. Some seem to have abandoned the workshop altogether in order to socialise their production, taking on the paradigm of relational art. In this way, the worlds of craft and visual art appear to converge. Visual art seeks to ground itself more firmly in making, while craft divests itself of traditional materials and spaces.

Craft and relational art might seem an uneasy fit. In his manifesto Relational Aesthetics (1998), for instance, Nicolas Bourriard decries ‘craftsmanship’ as a means of excluding audience. But new possibilities can be found in the relational craft of Vipoo Srivilasa. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Srivilasa moved to Australia in 1997, soon finding himself sharing a Melbourne studio with David Ray and Stephen Benwell. While very different from each other, each of these artists express a baroque effervescence that contrasts greatly with the sober modernism elsewhere. Using gold lustre and bright glazes, Srivilasa created fantastic creatures from realms of popular toy culture, Thai mythology and coral reefs. But to move from craft to contemporary art spaces posed a different challenge: ceramics need to leave the shelf.

Last year artist and curator Aaron Seeto, Director of Sydney’s Asia–Australia Arts Centre, Gallery 4A, struck a deal with Srivilasa: he would show his suite of ceramic hands if Srivilasa could think of a way of directly engaging his audience. In response, Srivilasa included a clay exercise for visitors to contribute to an underwater sea of coral reefs and fish. Beyond the gallery, they programmed ‘Taste – Touch – Tell’, a series of dinners in the homes of private individuals where Srivilasa would serve Thai food in specially prepared crockery.

The dinners went stunningly well. Srivilasa developed a 105-piece setting for a seven-course meal which he himself cooked. As a way of experiencing ceramics, it was more choreographic than curated. Guests were given a wristband on entry. They were free to select their own plate for the first course, on the underside of which was message of fortune. Food was passed clockwise to duplicate the direction of Buddha’s walk around the stupa monument on Buddha’s Day. The next course was served up in bowls: ‘Best Wishes Soup’ contained symbols of fortune at the bottom. The meal was interrupted with a simple clay exercise as guests were taught to make pinch pots.

In many ways, Srivilasa’s work parallels that of his Thai compatriot Rirkrit Tiravanija, who became famous for Untitled, his 1992 work that transformed a New York art gallery into a restaurant providing free meals for visitors. But the two Thai dinners are quite different. While both artists resort to the kitchen, Tiravanija offers meals in the gallery without rules or price, embodying the spirit of Andy Warhol by surfing the Manhattan art scene in a way that made space for its anarchic sociability – ‘to consume without being owned’. By contrast, Srivilasa’s seems a more commodified experience, carefully controlled to focus on the things and their cultural context. How the two artists have since taken their contrasting anarchist and programmed approaches reveals much about the alternative paths of relational art and craft.

So where do Tiravanija and Srivilasa go from there? Tiravanija has restaged his dinners as well as putting his show on the road from Berlin to Lyon. Last year he commissioned Thai art school graduates to render photographs of demonstrations into drawings. As one would expect from a conceptual artist, Tiravanija gave over production to others, though the value of the work remained his. In August last year he brought two young Thai artists, Pratchaya Phinthong and Pattara Chanruechachai, to Auckland’s Artspace where they produced an unbound magazine based on spontaneous content. His work combines symbolic gestures with collective process, but it largely maintains the social limits of the art world.

Srivilasa has now taken this work back to Thailand. Following the lead of Janet deBoos, who now works with a ceramics factory in China, Srivilasa organised a residency for himself in Thai Celadon, a family-owned ceramics factory specialising in glazes based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. While there, Srivilasa had been struck by the fragmented nature of the factory where each worker is responsible for only a small element in the final product. He started hosting workshops which offered workers the opportunity to create whole pieces based on a monster theme. After the first workshop, it was clear that the resulting works would warrant an exhibition of their own. Launched in April this year at Pong Noi Art Space, ‘Monsters by Hands’ featured works with photographic portraits of each worker. Opening night was officiated by Princess Duangduen and by the end of the evening half the works had sold. It has already evolved into an annual event on an animal theme.

By contrast with Srivilasa, Tiravanija’s work seems more contemporary in its direct address of political themes. It attempts to bring politics into the realm of the personal through handmade process. But as a work in itself, it reproduces the classic relationship between artist and technician as reproduced in brand name artists such as Jeff Koons. Srivilasa’s relationship with the workers is more reciprocal. They have helped make his work, and now he is helping make theirs. It’s certainly a very different kind of reciprocity to that of Antony Gormley, who in Asian field, 2006, had 347 Chinese villagers make 192,000 clay sculptures.

The contrast between Srivilasa and Tiravanija touches on a heated argument about relational art. In 2006 Artforum published an extended debate between English critic Claire Bishop and American writer Grant Kester, with Bishop arguing that relational art has been too focused on worthy causes and that to be effective as art it needs to operate at the level of desire instead.[1] Kester countered that this simply reproduces the privileged role of artist in society.[2] In parallel fashion, Tiravanija breaks the rules, while Srivilasa breaks the rulers.

There’s reason to welcome an approach such as Srivilasa’s. As an art form that is based on an emancipatory logic, relational art seems to inevitably come up against the privileged position of art. Its very avoidance of commodification limits its access to those who are freed from the constraints of economic need. As the New York critic Jerry Saltz comments on Tiravanija’s gallery dinners: ‘I had an amazing run of meals with art dealers.’[3] The very anarchic values espoused by relational art can seem to reinforce its distance from the non-art work, mired in practical issues.

For the democratic aspirations of relational art, it may not be enough to give over artistic authority to a gallery crowd. To stretch the horizon of practice beyond the limits of the art world, an artist needs an element of design. Relational craft brings design into the aesthetic process.

The use of ‘third world’ artisans has become a significant feature of recent Australian art, such as Rodney Glick’s use of Balinese wood carvers and Danius Kesminas’s collaboration with batik artists in Yogyakarta. In both cases, the contribution of the artisans has a political as well as aesthetic dimension. In its recognition of skill, relational craft provides a framework that troubles the cultural boundaries of art. It seems the closet is roomier than we thought.

Vipoo Srivilasa: Roop – Rote – Ruang (Taste – Touch – Tell), Gallery 4A, Sydney, 14 June – 26 July 2008; Rikrit Tiravanija: Magazine Station No. 5, Artspace, Auckland, 6 August – 6 September 2008.

This article was first published in Art & Australia Vol 47 No 2 Summer, 2009.

[1] Claire Bishop, ‘The social turn: collaboration and its discontents’, Artforum, Feburary 2006, pp. 179–185.

[2] Grant Kester, ‘Another turn’, Artforum, May 2006.

[3] Jerry Saltz, ‘A short history of Rirkrit Tiravanija: Thai artist who cooks meals as installation art’, Art in America, February 1996, pp. 82–85.

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