241 Things

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241 Things

The Dutch term ambacht originates from the Latin words ambio for ‘around’ and the verb agere for ‘to lead, to bring’, meaning craft or craftsmanship. Originally, it carried the meaning of messenger, herald or servant. Much later, it was no longer used to mean the person who carries out the service, but the service or handwork itself. Craft thereby reveals itself to be primordially related to the execution of practical functions. That is why nowadays, craft is often given the label ‘applied art’, as opposed to free art.

What we can learn from other cultures is that a radical separation between art and craft does not exist everywhere. When a craftsman of the Dogon Tribe in Mali carves a mask out of wood, it is not about whether it turns out to be beautiful or ugly. More important is if the resulting image aligns itself to tradition.

Charioteer of Delphi

The correctness of a representation is thus superior to the aesthetic experience thereof. Finished masks are kept in places we find irreverent, in dark corners of houses or deserted caves. The masks are reserved for ceremonies and festivities, and are only art objects insofar they are used. Afterwards, they devolve into an insignificant object.

Craft, then, entails animation. An item that has cost hours of work to make becomes valuable by the function that is assigned to it. In the Western context, however, the beauty of craft lies in the many hours invested in the making. But what a man can make, can basically also be made by machine. It differs from the mechanically fabricated object in that the human hand bestows it with a soul. Islamic carpet weavers are most aware of this. They attach major importance to the small errors in their carpets – as only God does things perfectly.

‘God’ can here be read as the concept of perfection, as it is also manifest in mass production. Instead of the detachment caused by a lack of understanding as to the origin of a given object, a human glitch draws a thing closer to us. The reverence for products that are perfect in their sameness, makes way for the urge for proximity. We want to grasp objects in their uniqueness.

What I believe to be most important about craftsmanship is that it makes us aware of this animation. Like a mask receives a spirit during a dance, so does spiritedness form the basis of each craftwork. The idea of this primordial leading around is not far away here, namely circumventing the mass production and technical progress and being led to the spirited and more humane world that has slumbered for so long. Leaving aside specific crafts and techniques, understanding this fundamental idea is paramount.

In these simple, handmade objects lies a humanity that has been little visible for a long time. It is this humanity that has been transformed into an aesthetic. Opposed to that is the icy detachment of the machine-made.

I can understand the carpet weavers. Something entirely flawless, made with or without the help of computers and machines, is very hard for me to personally relate to. When I do things by hand and small mistakes occur, (because a colour does not turn out the way I had hoped, for instance) only then does something become real. It is the peculiar fact that something that you’ve made with your own hands can be more magical than something that shows inhuman perfection.



Mud - mother of all materials? Dirty and unscrutable.
Ceramicists lovingly/jokingly refer to their material as mud and admire both its ability to be formed into an object and likewise to crumble.

“Uit de klei getrokken” (translates from Dutch to: drawn from clay) is an intriguing rudimentary cup and saucer set. The designer, Lonny van Rijswijck, used various sorts of Dutch clay. Thanks to the baking process, variations in colour and texture are made visible. A pale yellow hue from Limburg, a shiny brown from Utrecht, Brabo terra cotta. It’s these differences that, according to the creator, visualise the “impressive but unpretentious similarities between origin and identity”

As an artistic concept it’s exceptionally effective. In terms of functionality and form it’s not quite as successful. In other words, the concept materialised through tableware raises a legion of issues. Not in the least by its material.

Set, Lonny van Rijswijck

A cultural and historical interpretation:
In Items 1993/2 I asked Benno Premsela, authority on design, about possible reasons for the – at that time – undervaluation of Dutch designers. Premsela had already given up hope. How could this country of “redistributors of sand and mud” match themselves to countries like Italy and Finland? Needless disdain! Clay is derived from mud that despite it’s simple image, might be the mother of all materials.

Outside of Europe, mud also has its uses: like in the bogolans, clay paintings from Mali, where imposing structures are built using clay. During Mali’s celebration of its independence in 1960, the need arised to swiftly produce festive clothing. The Malinese rediscovered the bogolon techiniqque with which mud was used to print patterns in deep black onto fabric. As a result, yearly competitions were held to determine which region made the most exquisite bogolan. In the seventies, Malinese artists and fashion designers began to seriously apply bogolan. Besides deep black, brilliant white prints were made.

Chris Seydou Mud Decoration Dress
The fashion designer Chris Seydou presented his winter collection in Paris in 1979 with bogolan shawls and headwear in Keith Haring-like motifs. The Nigerian fashion designer Alphadi broadened the bogolan spectrum with blue, green , and even pink. By the time Seydou died in 1994, bogolan had achieved the same status in Mali as batik had in Indonesia.
Chen Zhen, World in out of the World, 1991
Back to the source, mud. For his installations, the French-Chinese artist Chen Zhen (1955-2000) covered rubbish with a layer of mud. By covering these objects from our world of the disposable, Chen removes all technological glamour and in turn, deculturalises them. The mud erases the purpose of the objects and allows them to return, purified, to their origin in , to their heart and soul.

“I don’t care it’s muddy there/it is my house [...] My heart cries out for muddy water.” – Bessie Smith

Muddy Water

Bessie Smith and her Blue Boys, Muddy Water, A Mississippi Moan Parlophone 78

There is a particular and usually unmistakable characteristic that certain objects, clothes, dishes, tools, and even words have in common: being self-made.

Alone or with others, one has decided to cast so much attention to a self-made thing so it forms a closer relationship to it’s maker than any other found, bought, or given object will. (Similairly, a self-formulated thought, formed with the same sort of attention, will take a more permanent hold in your head than a thought read and borrowed.) The French philosopher Bachelard touches upon this in his “Poetics of Space”: objects that are cherished achieve a higher degree of reality than objects that leave one indifferent.1 Self-made things are especially easy to cherish. They represent the loving attention of the mind and hands. That which leaves you cold does not exist. That which you cherish remains.

The amount of attention directed to a work determines value: a self-made photograph is dearer to you than a photograph you stumble upon in a book, despite the fact that, objectively seen, it’s a better photograph. For that same reason, a fire burning in the hearth is so very pleasing, because it requires more than just an automatic turn of a knob to heat the room.

Without going so far as to sat that reality is “fluid,” we cannot deny that how we experience reality is malleable, and thus, fluid. By making something by yourself, whatever this may be, you are forging a connection to it. This natural attachment can serve as a compass in a world that is mostly industrialised and anonymous. A person can easily lose contact with himself when their wardrobe, household items, and vocabulary are completely interchangeable and in favour of fashion, because self-made individuality is our anchor in the world. Those who cannot choose are without anchor. One’s soul can be reflected within material. (Or is the individuality mentioned in fact merely a step towards the state of the truly wise, who go out to sea without an anchor, and maybe even without a ship?)

Compared to the endless ocean of the universe that surrounds us, even art is too small. Regardless, artists self-make with all their might, resulting in little islands. Joost Conijn (1971) for example, made his own wooden car fuelled by wood, and even flew his third self-made airplane to Africa. Iona Hoogenberk (1982, writer of this article) built a house by herself, small but real, existing for one night, only to break it down brick by brick, tile by tile, with the same attention as directed towards the construction of it. It was a sweet house, self-made and self-deconstructed. The unique combination of imperfections attributable to the self-made cannot be bought, and is charming. The self-made stool is comfortable, despite the crooked light; the apple pie is delicious, even if it’s undercooked. That which is not interchangeable becomes a part of you.

Like so many other things, the own experience here is the most important thing—and to gage subjective quality the degree of self-madeness is the best indicator.

1Bachelard, Gaston, The poetics of Space, The Classic Look at How We Experience Intimate Places, Boston (Mass): Beacon Press 1994 (1958), p. 68.