‘Velvet’ 2006 by  Mårten Medbo; Photograph: Mårten Medbo, 2006

Taking Time

An Idea of North, Ken Eastman and  Dawn Youll, ceramic,  22 cm x 1.2 m, 2009 (photo: Richard Battye)

An Idea of North, Ken Eastman and Dawn Youll, ceramic, 22 cm x 1.2 m, 2009 (photo: Richard Battye)

Taking Time: Craft and the Slow Revolution
The Waterhall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
17 October - 4 January 2010 (then touring)
Reviewed by Emma Crichton-Miller

In accord with its title, this exhibition has been two years in the making, accruing a great deal of explanatory writing, a veritable river of thought, behind it. By claiming shared values with the Slow Movement, it has become an ideological show; and the dramatically altered economic and political landscape even make it topical. Curated jointly by Helen Carnac and Andy Horn, a maker and academic and the former director of the publicly-funded educational charity Craftspace respectively, it’s vibrant with a shared excitement about what craft can be today, what it signifies and how
it can be displayed to suggest new and unexpected meanings, evident in all
the writing and the interviews with the makers involved. The danger has been that the exhibition would somehow fall short of all these beautiful ideas – or, worse, would illustrate them with mind-numbing exactitude. Instead, what has been assembled somewhat chaotically, in this huge but rather unforgiving room, is by turns moving, impressive, gorgeous, curious, elusive and enchanting – and never less than thought-provoking. It complicates and enlivens the debate; indeed, at times it simply silences it, with beauty.

As soon as you enter, you are aware that you are not being invited to make the conventional quick appraisal of individual objects. On the left, an anarchic tangle of coloured yarn draped at head height tempts you to join in the making of Garland 21, under the supervision of artist Shane Waltener and dancer Cheryl McChesney Jones. The steps involved in knitting and knotting mark out a dance, and you might be embroiled there for a while. On the right, a set of blank luggage tags tied to a metal coat rack request you write a comment. This too will take time. And here of course is the point: to stop and think, to look beyond the object – to consider the story of its making and the hinterland of ideas, people and situations it points to. Fortunately, given the calibre of artists inspired to join Carnac’s and Horn’s adventure, there is much to think about. Many of the projects are devised especially for this show; others have been chosen as fitting with its overall philosophy. Gary Breeze, for instance, is showing his beautiful carved rendering in slate of a text from the unpublished diary of 14-year-old Anne Gathorne-Hardy, dated 9 January 1926. A brief moment in time, a day in the life of a young girl freighted with a special love and knowledge of now-obsolete sailing ships and boats, is honoured by this painstaking and permanent transformation into stone. Beside this we are introduced to fashion designer Rebecca Earley’s ‘upcycled’ shirts, her passionate anti-consumerist collaboration with other designers to rescue old polyester shirts using new textile techniques and technologies. While the shirts themselves are pretty and inventive, it is what they represent – this joyful revivification – that matters most.

Neil Brownsword too has built his practice on the tender rescue of the unwanted: for this leg of the show he shows his Salvage Series, the magnificent installation first seen at in Clare Twomey’s mima show Possibilities and Losses. Lavishly reglazed discarded fragments of industrial ceramics are distributed beneath a diptych of films showing on the one hand, skilled craftsmen and woman at work, practising the hand-skills they have given their 10,000 hours to, and on the other the destruction of the industrial buildings that once gave the potteries their identity. (As Taking Time travels the country it will lose and garner contributions, itself evolving through time.)

In contrast with Brownsword’s elegy, Sue Lawty’s Calculus appears simple at first. From a distance you see a painting made up of many differently sized dark dots, arranged in grids with overlapping areas of smaller or larger dots. As you approach you realise that these dots are in fact tiny stones, picked from the beach and sorted individually by hand to take their place in this beautifully choreographed march past of the ignored. As well as the stones themselves, you marvel at the thousands of decisions involved in making the work. The meanings proliferate. Did you know that calculus is Latin for small stone? And that the branch of mathematics it names is based on the summation of infinitesimal differences?

The community project Time in Print opens your mind in different ways: these seven richly patterned lengths of wallpaper result from a collaboration between designer Linda Florence and members of the West Midlands Caribbean Parents and Friends Association, based in the National Trust property Wightwick Manor. They are glorious in themselves, and in the sheer pride in the achievement of the various participants – but the true value of the project lies in the many connections forged between the makers, the craft technology and the particular context of the project – the Arts and Crafts interior of the Manor, under the aegis of the National Trust’s ‘Whose Story?’ initiative.

Paul Scott and Ann Linnemann have collaborated on one ceramic exchange, Ken Eastman and Dawn Youll on another; Heidrun Schimmel’s meditative hand-stitched lines and Matthew Harris’s memory-soaked printed textiles offer different perspectives on taking time. Some projects hold you for longer than others, but all open out different ways of perceiving and enjoying craft – and if so inspired, you can even join in.

For the exhibition’s blog and details click here.

Emma Crichton-Miller is a journalist and television producer specialising in the arts