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Art

Look, no hands

Until recently, hands and craft have been inextricably linked. But artists are turning to new technology with stunning results. Emma Crichton-Miller reports.

October 13 2009
Emma Crichton-Miller

A velvet revolution is under way in the applied arts. Imperceptibly, so that we have hardly noticed, a Berlin Wall between creative factions seems simply to have dissolved. At this year’s Collect, the Crafts Council’s international art fair for “contemporary objects”, and again at the exhibition for this year’s Jerwood Contemporary Makers, the borderline between what might strictly be called designed objects – devised by one person, using a range of sophisticated digital design technologies, and manufactured possibly by teams of others or even, heaven forfend, by a machine – and the true hand-crafted object conceived and realised by one artist, had just vanished.

Perhaps the most potent emblem of this new détente is an exquisite piece of glass. Geoffrey Mann’s Flight Take Off (£25,000), from his 2008 Long Exposure series, on display at both events, is a gorgeous object. Alongside Flight Landing (£25,000), from the same series, it ripples with forward energy. Your heart recognises the sinuous flutter and flow, the trajectory of movement the objects capture, but your head cannot quite fathom what is being depicted. It is only when you face the objects end-on that you see the outline of a bird – a feral pigeon. Yet, even then, it isn’t obvious what they represent – is it the bird itself or the flight? The body in motion or the shape the motion leaves in the air? The answer is, in a sense, all these things. Tellingly, both objects were part of an installation at the Jerwood called Solid Air. “I wanted to materialise motion, to touch the ephemeral,” says Mann.

The source of our puzzlement, however, is not just conceptual: it is also partly due to the fact that we cannot think how the thing was made. For Mann, a 3-D designer by training, has recruited and turned to his own ends a number of advanced computer technologies to realise his conception. His means include cinematic stop-motion animation, CAD (computer-aided design) technology and rapid prototyping. In fact, the only familiar, craft-like element of the process – the glass kiln casting – was accomplished at the Lhotsky Studios in the Czech Republic, with the artist communicating his desires to the highly skilled team by e-mail.

As this glassware pushes artisans to the limit of their expertise, so the project as a whole stretches the limits of our current definitions of craft and design. It challenges the outdated binary opposition, inherited from John Ruskin and William Morris, that posits handicraft on the side of angels and technology as the curse of modernity. And it shames us out of any fetish of the human touch, with its intense poetry.

For Mann himself there is no issue. “I came up with the idea – that is my specialism,” he points out. This is not to say, however, that he has no regard for the particular qualities of different materials. During his MA at the Royal College of Art he immersed himself in the material expertise of others around him – the ceramicists, the metalworkers, the glass artists – quite happy to be, as he puts it, an “astute generalist”. His own skill lies in his use of the computer – “I realised I could use a computer as a potter uses a wheel” – and he is driven by the desire to use it to push materials beyond what could ever be achieved by conventional hand processes.

The other piece in his installation at the Jerwood, Nocturne (£15,000), is a beguiling rendering in nylon of the flight patterns of a moth. An earlier version, Attracted to Light, is already in the Design and Architecture Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Undoubtedly, part of the allure of these objects is the mystery of their making and it is partly to protect that allure that Mann only makes one or two of each version. “In theory, I can make a lot of waxes [from which the objects are cast],” he says. “But I don’t. I get bored.” Rather than his interest lying in an overtly digital aesthetic, these objects have the creative potency of unique art works – each made once on the swell of an original idea. Commissions range in price from £7,500 to £25,000, depending upon the audacity of the conception.

Computer-aided design is, of course, not new. It has been around for more than 50 years, is heavily used by designers in the aerospace and car-manufacturing industries, and is a core tool in 3-D design courses across the country. It is only in the past 10 to 15 years, however, that craft makers have begun to see its potential. When joined together with the family of computerised technologies known as rapid manufacturing (that can build 3-D objects), these tools open up new terrain for the exploration not just of materials but also of ideas.

Michael Eden, a potter for 20 years, explains: “Because I was part of the studio pottery movement, everything was focused on materials and processes – it was so sensual and seductive, handling the clay and the slips. All other aspects of my life – my interests in history, in geology, in natural history, in current affairs, in walking the dog – were left out. Digital technologies enable me to include all this, to create a narrative. They seem to awaken another side of my brain.”

Eden’s magnificent Wedgwoodn’t Tureen (from £2,500), with its non-fired ceramic coating in neon pink, acid yellow and black, and his wonderful A Rebours (£7,000), inspired by a Sèvres vase in The Wallace Collection, are the result. Besides the sheer beauty of these unusable objects, their wit and historical resonance and the way they question what objects are and mean, lift them into a different creative realm from conventional ceramics. Eden believes, however, that his deep tacit knowledge of materials makes a difference to what he is able to achieve – “even though I am staring at virtual 3-D images on a screen”. He is also clear that there is no point simply reproducing what you can achieve by hand. “The elongated holes in the vessels, for example, are achieved by projecting the images from above – that just wouldn’t be possible by hand.”

Although his pieces are now reproducible and could be tailored to specific customers’ needs, he doesn’t see himself as having sold out to machine manufacturing. “In a way, this post-industrial technology takes us back to the pre-industrial situation where a customer would order a specific, one-off item,” he says. “This adds to the rarity value.” Moreover, far from relying on the machine’s ready-programmed capabilities, “I wanted to use computer programs by making them do things they aren’t meant to do”. After all, the title A Rebours not only playfully alludes to the French novel by JK Huysmans, evoking fin de siècle decadence, it also translates as “against the grain”.

If Eden’s pieces deliberately set out to trump the hand and eye, Tavs Jorgensen, research fellow at University College Falmouth, is using these technologies to reintroduce them. As a trained ceramicist he dislikes the way commercial software directs and often predetermines the way objects look. “Creating with a CAD package is essentially a very static and calculating exercise, very far removed from the craft maker’s intuitive process,” he says.

Hence, as part of the 3-D Digital Production Research Group, Autonomatic, under Dr Katie Bunnell, he has adapted two ingenious devices – a G2 Microscribe digitising arm, which he uses as a free-hand tool, and a Shapehand Motion Capture Glove, originally developed for use in animation – to introduce greater spontaneity into the design process. A recent show of his fluid, almost floating bowls in glass (from £220) and ceramic (from £30) in St Ives showed how he can translate the flowing movement of the hand directly into the design. “I see these devices as a way of revaluing the use of hands,” he says. “I am looking at technology as a conduit rather than a tool. With these techniques there is no material resistance, which offers much freer expression.”

And if Jorgensen is in pursuit of creative freedom, one of his younger colleagues at Falmouth, Drummond Masterton, who was selected as a Jerwood Contemporary Maker last year, is after perfection. Of his time as an undergraduate metalworker in the 3-D department at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen, he says, “I was interested in precision and frustrated by my failures to achieve this by hand.” Fortunately, one of the pioneers of CAD/CAM technology in the UK, Gordon Burnett, was a tutor at Gray’s School. He was using these techniques to create aluminium clocks and introduced Masterton to the tools. “It was unknown ground,” recalls Masterton. “There were no peer markers about what you should or could do. I could experiment.”

He has always had a love of highly machined metal objects – “bits of aeroplane and bicycle” – and a fascination with “shine – the patterning of light and shadow”. Masterton now uses CNC milling machines originally developed to produce better helicopter blades to make startling one-off objects from shiny fine-grained aluminium and – as and when funding enables – sterling silver. These objects revel in precision, whether they are bowls reproducing the precise contour maps of mountain ranges, or beakers and platters finely decorated with complex 3-D geometrical patterns. All are unique and cost between £2,000 and £8,000.

“What I like about the process is that it is very hands on,” says Masterton. “I have to get the metal into the machine. Then, because the kind of cutting I am doing is very experimental, I have to establish testing methods, stopping and starting the machine constantly, working against its rules. Then there is still a lot of finishing and polishing to do.” It is an extremely time-consuming business and Masterton is only ever interested in making one example. “Once you have worked out how to do one piece, you want to do the next,” he says. “Each piece is a question, adding to a body of knowledge. My ambition is not to increase productivity but extend possibilities.” And the worst that can happen? “Sometimes I open the machine and find there is nothing [I can work with] there.”

If it is the machine gleam that draws us to Masterton’s work, it is the warm lustre of red lacquer that gives Kenji Toki’s pieces their appeal. Toki is a pioneer in Japan of what has become called “Hybrid Practice”. Trained in the venerable Japanese tradition of Urushi, or painted lacquer-work, Toki has been determined to experiment with the medium ever since his MA at Kyoto City University of Fine Art in 1995. A residency at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in 2002 led him to rapid prototyping, and an investigation into “how this technique can be applied and utilised within a craft and sculptural practice, especially in relation to Urushi work”.

Over the next few years he began to produce his exquisite one-off forms, their sensuous fluid shapes inspired by nature, transformed by the geometric wizardry of CAD and then printed out in photosensitive resin. What then happens, however, is that Toki applies his brilliant red lacquer by hand, bringing these utterly contemporary objects into the fold of an ancient art form (from about £300). For Toki, this organic finish is of a piece with the organic origin of the objects in nature’s own patterns. The technology is simply a means of production, another tool.

Just as every craft has grown through the developing dialogue between hand and tool, so computers have opened up another set of possibilities for makers. For the audience, the benefits are palpable. Into the world have come these highly desirable objects that tease us with their origins even as they seduce us with their beauty. They have an ethereal freedom from the hand that is as liberating for the consumer as for the maker. They bring craft out from the past into the front line of the avant-garde.

See also

Design