Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Power of Making at the V & A

While in London I went to see The Power of Making, a Crafts Council exhibition at the V&A. According to the publicity material, the exhibition 'celebrates the role of making in our lives by presenting an eclectic collection of over 100 exquisitely crafted objects.'

This description led me to expect a room full of finely handcrafted examples of work by extraordinarily skilled traditional craftsmen. While there was a very beautiful saddle and a section of drystone wall included among the things on display, on the whole I was disappointed.

The exhibition organisers appear to have been aiming to present crafts as trendy and 'cutting edge', rather than as a link to the past and to the wisdom of our predecessors. In accordance with this goal, the only hand embroidery allowed to appear in the exhibition is an example that includes swear words; the one piece of lace is in the form of a G-string;  of the two patchwork quilts, one is made from lengths of documentaries about feminism, while the other- which appears at first glance to be a more traditional kind of thing - has, for unfathomable reasons, been equipped with tilt-sensing wiring.

Many of the other exhibits are the products of technology rather than crafts skill: for instance, there is a dress that is made from a substance called 'Fabrican', which comes, as its name suggests, in a spraycan and which you use to create clothing by spraying it at yourself. There is also a jumper hanging in a case, which has blobs in it that were once holes; these have been mended not by darning but by something called 'Woolfiller', which is applied to a fabric and has microscales that grab onto existing fibres to somehow grow patches.

Of course, aesthetically, traditional crafts do often leave a great deal wanting, as the exhibition shows when it does occasionally let pure dexterity slip in. The cake that is included - in the shape of a very realistic baby - and the blindingly finely wrought but utterly kitsch examples of nail decoration demonstrate this clearly. The three-times man height figure of a gorilla made out of metal coat hangers that greets the visitor at the entrance is far more engaging. The trouble is it is hard to see in what way it represents craft. Similarly, the dress made of leather and covered in thousands and thousands of steel pins is a wonder to behold but, since its label declares that it cannot be worn and is in fact a sculpture, it is hard to understand where it fits in the context of craft.

I suppose it all depends on how 'crafts' are defined. For me and, judging by the comments on the Crafts Council's own site from the public, for many people, the word conjures up the idea of objects that are not sculptures or art objects but are either decorative or functional and whose manufacture involves slowly accrued skill of the kind that involves the uniquely human attribute of superb coordination of hand and eye. At least half the objects in The Power of Making exhibition do not fit this definition since they are, according to their information labels made almost exclusively with technological input rather than fine motor skill.  An object that is made using only 'mechanical engineering, electronic engineering, computer science and materials engineering' or 'mechatronics, injection moulding, machining, wiring, assembly and software programming' is not a crafts object, in my eyes. Nor is a shoe that is made by 'vacuum casting, spray painting, metal and plastic turning and circuit programming' or a lampshade made by 'selective laser sintering, rapid prototyping and stereolithography'. As for how a model of a dissected frog made from Lego can be said to be promoting contemporary craft, (the stated mission of the Crafts Council), that is anybody's guess really.

I suppose I of all people ought not to have been surprised by this exhibition though. After all, when I worked at the Crafts Council many years ago, the revelation that I liked hand-sewing patchworks was met with fairly universal recoil and disgust. 'Ugh, I hate doing things with my hands', was the response of one senior officer at the time. Clearly, not much has changed.


  1. It sounds like a most interesting exhibition even with its shortcomings

  2. You can see pictures of the stuff in it here, nurse: