Jealous Saboteurs (review)
Growing up in Cape Town during the final years of apartheid, I was regularly taken on school trips to the South African Museum where the infamous “bushman diorama” depicted Khoisan people in the Karoo desert.
A popular stop for children, it aroused our curiosity and encouraged us to imagine the adventures of people dwelling in the veldt as a point of difference from our own ’normal’ lives. Decades later, I felt a hot embarrassment when I learnt the diorama was the result of a de-humanizing project where casts were taken from African farm workers and prisoners to record what was seen at the time as natural history specimens. These casts were fashioned to look like stereotypically ‘native’ characters and placed in a constructed landscape based on a nineteenth-century painting by English artist Samuel Daniell. A belated 40 years after its creation, the diorama was finally replaced with a display that told its own story as a self-reflexive confession.
Such a noxious conglomeration of mistreatment, misrepresentation and fantasy is no longer tolerated within and beyond post-colonial discourse, but the memory of this kind of museum still stirs in adults who began to learn about the world in this way. Would most of us, for example, admit the thrill of being face to face with an Egyptian mummy in the safety of a museum, despite the fact that it is not ours to see? This allure of the mysterious, the magical and the Other—even as the ethics of representation continue to change so rapidly in the twenty-first century—is captured in Jealous Saboteurs, the first survey of the work of Francis Upritchard.
Spanning almost twenty years, this exhibition reveals a series of meticulously presented, semi-chronological installations that run clockwise from its introductory text. This informal guiding premise leads the viewer across five galleries, unfolding gatherings of objects, creatures and characters that exist across and in between chapters of human history. There are no white lines, plinths or barriers in sight. Instead, warmly coloured, hand-crafted tables, shelves and cabinets found and re-purposed, or designed from scratch, act as bases for Upritchard’s smaller sculptures. These “plinths” delineate the gallery spaces with Inokuma rugs, armature figures on architectural stands, monkeys and sloth creatures (stretched out to twice their natural size and made from second-hand fur coats and women’s gloves). Every aspect of this exhibition is placed with absolute precision, dividing the three-dimensional planes of the galleries as if the golden ratio has been applied. Overall the various installations create an atmosphere that disregards the white cube and invites the voyeur in us to move in a little closer.
The exhibition’s introduction (and its only body of interpretative text) acknowledges that Upritchard “draws on a diversity of art and craft traditions and often collaborates with artisans,” but also, that her works “often look like artefacts and her shows recall museum exhibits … rife with allusions to elsewhere and elsewhens. They interweave references to archaeology and anthropology, to modernism and hippiedom, to nostalgia and futurism.” Assemblages of found objects such as sporting equipment, mathematical compasses, hats and West German ceramics are re-purposed into quirky looking talismans. A scrawny, shabbily clothed mummy laid ceremoniously on a shelf; a black stocking-skinned armature figure about to squeeze her own nipple Hannah (2016)—and watercolour paintings of miscellaneous “native” women—Holding Titties and Melons (2015)—all spark the conscience: but most controversial within a local context are George Dunford and Samuel Horwell (2015). Here, Upritchard has scrambled andre-interpreted mokomokai (preserved heads of Māori, traded during a period of war in early nineteenth-century New Zealand) with plaster and pantyhose as the heads of their European colonial counterparts. Jealous Saboteurs distinctly melds multipleperspectives, which at times sit ill at ease with each other. Installations such as Traveller’s Collection and Sloth in a Cabinet (2003) evoke the dusty corners of a seasoned explorer’s study or the altar of a superstitious believer, while sculpted figures such as Tourist and Jockey (2012) read like sketches of a presumptuous imperialist crossed with the imagination of a naive child.
Upritchard traces her intrigue with making to her own childhood in the 1970s and 1980s at the height of New Zealand’s studio craft movement. As a result, a significant part of her practice involves collaborating with those who are able to produce the furniture, fabric, ceramics and jewellery she cannot. In Jealous Saboteurs, Upritchard acknowledges the tables and cabinets made by Martino Gamper, the rings by Karl Fritsch that adorn her sloths and human figures and Tarzan Brown Urn (2016) by Nicolas Brandon that acts as a canvas for her images.
These three makers have all had a conventional craft training as part of their education: Gamper—a designer and sculptor—began his career as an apprentice with a furniture maker in Merano before going on to study Fine Arts in Vienna and London; Fritsch—a contemporary jeweller— studied Goldsmithing in Pforzheim before his acceptance into the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich; and Brandon—a classical potter with an emphasis on spherical vessels— apprenticed with leading Czechoslovakianborn New Zealand ceramic artist Mirek Smíšek before starting his own practice. All three operate at various levels within the broad sphere that craft can occupy and find strength in their diversity as part of a wider collaboration with Upritchard called Gesamtkunshandwerk, which also includes the work of weaver Lynne Mackay, bronze-caster Jonathan Cambell, felter Pam Robinson, glass blower Jochen Holz, and woodturners Jan Komarkowski and Peter Wales. The title plays on the German word gesamtkunswerk (total work of art), and acknowledges the intrinsic value of crafted objects within art-historical narratives. Their creative morals are summed up in their manifesto-as-artist-statement on Gamper’s website.
We are interested in collapsing hierarchies that operate in language and value. We feel that we are making work with similar intuition, care and intent. Making and materials always comes first, and risk-taking is commonplace. We are all interested in taking found objects and changing them. Ideas and technique are just as entwined for all of us. We’re not sure that utility is always present in design and craft, and absent in art, yet that tends to be the way people distinguish between these different areas of work. We would rather people were more open to not thinking of art and design and craft as not separate, and to explore pluralism in art craft-design. Collaboration helps to drop distinctions and to push ourselves to learn from and inspire each other. We want to take people out of the daily routine of their craft and push them to new paths and new risks. To forget or unlearn convention. This is not a debate. This is just making things.
This way of thinking and working sheds a new perspective on Upritchard’s solo practice. Unlike many artists recently emerged from the Western fine art school model, she accepts that certain skills are needed to make objects well, rather than embracing a “sloppy craft” ethos. Her affinity for materiality may stem from her respect for craft; butmore importantly, how she incorporates it into her practice dismisses the hierarchies often enforced by the art world and brings weight to the reading of her work through themes such as identification, functionality and domesticity usually associated with craft theory.
Walking through Jealous Saboteurs, I can’t help being aware of contradictory feelings of wonder and unease I associate with my earliest museum memory of that diorama:that I am part jealous saboteur because I’m drawn to Upritchard’s work despite my own embarrassment of the times and place I grew up in. These beautifully crafted, curious installations are laced with cues and suggestions that are being contested within the non-fictional museum environment of the twenty-first century; however, Upritchard’s indiscriminate conflation of time, place, culture and race with a multitude of art movements and social discourses makes her work feel more of a musing than a comment on museum display, and less offensive than perhaps it “should.” While this may leave Upritchard’s work feeling problematic at times, it is also what makes it so compelling, giving us an opportunity to consider our own moral compass. Working through intuition and aesthetics, drawing from personal interest and spectacle rather than presenting any particular viewpoint, Upritchard invites us to consider this imaginary place she has created and the jealous saboteur that might lurk inside us all.
This review was written for The Journal of Modern Craft. To site it, please use: (2017) Jealous Saboteurs, The Journal of Modern Craft, 10:1, 91-96, DOI:10.1080/17496772.2017.1294328. To link to it, please use: https://doi.org/10.1080/17496772.2017.1294328
1 Charlotte Day and Robert Leonard, Francis Uprtichard: Jealous Saboteurs (Wellington: City Gallery, 2016), introduction.
2 Karl Fritsch, Martino Gampar and Francis Upritchard, “Fritsch / Gamper / Upritchard/Manifesto.” Gesamtkunshandwerk (2011), Martino Gamper website. Available at http://martinogamper.com/project/gesamtkunsthandwerk/(accessed December 7, 2016).
Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs, City Gallery Wellington, New Zealand Aotearoa, May 28–October 2016. Joint project with Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA) Melbourne, Australia and City Gallery Wellington.Curated by Charlotte Day and Robert Leonard. Exhibition firstshown at MUMA, February 13–April 16, 2016, and will also tour to Christchurch Art Gallery April 1–July 16, 2017 and Dunedin Public Art Gallery August 12–November 26, 2017 Exhibition catalogue: Charlotte Day and Robert Leonard eds. Francis Upritchard: Jealous Saboteurs, Melbourne and Wellington: MUMA and City Gallery Wellington, 2016.