20 May to 18 June 2011

Ruth Allen, Keiko Amenomori-Schmeisser, Avi Amesbury, Sean Booth, Debra Boyd-Goggin, Margaret Brown, Sarit Cohen, Matthew Curtis, Linda Davy, Rozlyn de Bussey, Judi Elliott, Dianne Firth, Anna Gianakis, Craig Harris, John Heaney, Ruth Hingston, Belinda Jessup, Ian Jones, Elizabeth Kelly, Valerie Kirk, Simon Maberley, Joy McDonald, Anita McIntyre, Paull McKee, Elizabeth Paterson, Martine Peters, Marli Popple, Phoebe Porter, Catherine Reid, Gilbert Riedelbauch, Barbara Rogers, Luna Ryan, Julie Ryder, Harriet Schwarzrock, Amanda Stuart, Blanche Tilden, Nancy Tingey, Annie Trevillian, Monique van Nieuwland.

Sean Booth, Pulchella Light (detail), 2011, aluminium, meranti, plastic, steel, 240Vac light fittings

Uncontained By Anne Brennan

Uncontained. I have been thinking about this word for days. Mostly I have been thinking about how it is not possible to think about uncontained without considering contain. That, and what these words might tell us about craft and about the work of the thirty-nine accredited professional members in this exhibition.

Contain: to have in it, to comprise, extend over or measure, to include; to exercise control.

To think about craft's histories since the nineteenth century, at least in the West, is to think about boundaries, which of course are integral to a definition of containment: boundaries between the hand and the machine, boundaries between domestic and public spaces, boundaries between cultures, boundaries that define aesthetic hierarchies, boundaries that establish certain gendered paradigms. Sometimes, it seems, attempts to describe what craft might be have seemed nothing more than a litany of boundaries designed to contain it, to tell us what it is not.

And then there's the way in which the verb contain is intimately connected with that archetypal crafted form, the vessel. Indeed, it is the word that above all defines a vessel's irreducible underlying principle: for what is a vessel if it is not a material boundary that isolates - contains - a portion of space?

Again, learning a craft seems to be all about containment, not to mention the exercise of control or discipline. The acquisition of skill is always a series of encounters between the boundaries of what there is to know and what we can do. Anyone learning to throw a pot or solder a piece of metal will know that feeling, the way in which the simplest process seems to be hopelessly entangled in a list of things one mustn't do, things one only learns by not getting it right … the clay was too wet, the metal overheated … start again.

In other words, sometimes learning a skill seems to be nothing more than a long litany of mistakes.

But something interesting happens when, at last, enough things have been learned, have literally been incorporated so that the gestures of making bypass conscious thought. Then we feel that sense of mastery, of control, which, at its best, allows us to make what we have learned our own, to move beyond skill's literal application to another kind of state: one in which we both recognise the limits imposed by our material or our practice, and are not bound or contained by them anymore.

Which brings me to uncontained. The dictionary, I find, is unforthcoming. It tells me helpfully that it is an adjective, and that it is defined by its prefix un-, that brutal little syllable of negation. It does not give me a definition, but it does give me a couple of etymological uses of the word, and these interestingly open up certain ambiguities that lie within the meaning of uncontained.

One, a quote from a seventeenth century translation of Homer, delivers the word in all of its negative aspect: as something out of control, excessive, even as something threatening to the idea of order. The other, from the nineteenth century Romantic philosopher Emerson, refers to his worship of "uncontained beauty". Here, the connotation is joyful, synonymous with freedom from petty restraint, and with the natural, the authentic and the individual.

The anxious ambiguities that lie at the heart of the meaning of uncontained also find their way into discourses about craft and design. In the nineteenth century, Ruskin, in his essay The Nature of Gothic, pitted two systems of ornament, the Gothic and the Classical, against each other. The Classical, he argued, was a pagan and servile form of ornament, executed by craftsmen who played no part in its design. In its mathematically precise and rational, contained form it aimed for a kind of perfection, which, as Ruskin saw it, was intrinsically blasphemous, since perfection was the sole prerogative of God Himself.

The Gothic, on the other hand, was the free, organic creative expression of the illiterate stonemasons who built medieval cathedrals. Each stonemason was free to work on their own within the larger parameter of the cathedral structure itself. Under this system, cathedrals were an accretion of the work of individuals, and became a sort of organic hymn to the Creator.

The Nature of Gothic was, of course a parable about the evils of the Industrial Revolution, designed to celebrate the virtues of the handmade and the life of the artisan craftsman in the face of the rise of the factory and the alienation of labour. In a supremely Romantic gesture, Ruskin pits the notion of control and containment of Classical ornament against the uncontained and spontaneous outpourings of his anonymous medieval stonemasons.

Sixty years or so after Ruskin's essay, Adolf Loos wrote his ironic essay Ornament and Crime. He argued that society (by which he meant fin de siecle Viennese society) had evolved to a point where ornament was no longer useful, and should logically disappear. He linked ornament to uncontained expression, too, but in a pejorative sense. Ornament, he argued, was the outpouring of primitives, the degenerate and the criminal classes: in other words, those who had no useful role to play in the new societies of the future.

Loos' essay is now a hundred years old. The first machine age has passed, along with the conditions that shaped the first discourses on craft and design. Nonetheless, if Ruskin or Loos were able to be transported into the gallery of Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre, there would be plenty for them to recognise: forms and materials that sit squarely within the paradigms of craft such as ceramic pots, handwoven cloth, glass vessels, metalwork. What they may not always be able to perceive is the way in which, concealed in these objects' form and substance, is the legacy of a range of new technological opportunities: objects designed using CAD programs, laser cut forms, digitally produced prints or weaving patterns, for example. These are technologies that as recently as forty years ago were unimaginable, and yet allow us to invent objects that acknowledge the legacy of the past, whilst turning their faces to the possibilities of the future.

In these works, we are able to discern something that is sometimes forgotten in the rush to define and contain ideas about craft on the one hand, or to liberate and "un-contain" them from hampering and restricting definitions on the other. Craft has always been a flexible idea, shaping and reshaping itself according to the historical, material and intellectual conditions of the times in which it finds itself. Perhaps this is best put in Gilbert Riedelbauch's five-word artist's statement for Uncontained:

"Traditional but open to change."

Anne Brennan is an artist, writer, and Head of the Art Theory Workshop at the Australian National University School of Art