Ireland treated to monuments of fragility with major exhibition on European craft

With Ireland chosen to host a major exhibition on European craft, we’re treated to everything from unconventional ceramics and traditional basket making, to the application of new technology, writes Carol O’Callaghan.

Ireland treated to monuments of fragility with major exhibition on European craft

With Ireland chosen to host a major exhibition on European craft, we’re treated to everything from unconventional ceramics and traditional basket making, to the application of new technology, writes Carol O’Callaghan.

Art is open to interpretation, the applied arts included, but can an exhibition about crafted design possibly have Brexit influences?

It’s not a thought to typically cross the mind when visiting an exhibition like Monumentality/Fragility, currently taking place across two locations in Kilkenny — the contemporary interior space of the National Design & Craft Gallery and the majestic medieval interior of Kilkenny Castle.

On the contrary, one would expect it to provide soul-soothing relief from day-to-day life, much like channel flicking from the stressed faces of Teresa May and Claude Junker to the mental chewing gum of back-to-back reruns of Friends.

It’s actually what Louise Allen, president of the World Crafts Council-Europe, event co-organiser, says in the publicity material which side-tracks from a potentially beautiful experience.

“As we navigate our way through uncertain times, this exhibition seeks to remind us of the fragility of our shared European community.

Hosting this exhibition at the National Design & Craft Gallery provides an environment for exchange and dialogue that contributes to our shared understanding of how culture can help to build community and bring cohesion.

It is a fine exhibition of new work by some of the most prominent craft makers in Europe.

Out of an initial application by 600 makers, 74 were chosen from across 19 countries as part of the European Prize for Applied Arts programme. Seven are Irish — basket-maker Joe Hogan, silversmith Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill, ceramicist Nicola Kelly, textile artists Caroline Schofield and Niki Collier, and jewellers Eimear Conyard and Annemarie Reinhold.

Ó Dubhghaill is a fearless craftsman, taking traditional silver-making skills and developing them with new technology.

Textile maker Caroline Schofield’s ‘Transitory’ wall hanging.
Textile maker Caroline Schofield’s ‘Transitory’ wall hanging.

His silver objects take the notion of a tulipiere, a vase used traditionally to hold or grow tulips. “In these two pieces I have used the form of a tulipiere vase as a starting point for this investigation of form and a reflection on the relationship between object and value,” he explains.

“Tulipiere are an intriguing example of specialised product design. They originate in the 17th-century Dutch tulip mania. I’m interested in them as monuments to excess from a time that parallels more recent fragile economic bubbles.”

Joe Hogan has spent the last 40 years making baskets from willow he grows in Clonbur, Co. Galway, often with found pieces of wood incorporated into the finished piece.

Tulipiere, a silverwork object by Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill, blending traditional crafts with modern technology, from the Monumentality/Fragility exhibition currently showing at the Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny and Kilkenny Castle.
Tulipiere, a silverwork object by Cóilín Ó Dubhghaill, blending traditional crafts with modern technology, from the Monumentality/Fragility exhibition currently showing at the Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny and Kilkenny Castle.

He explains, “I have tried to make a form with monumentality and yet it is from humble material. The ash wood could have been burned for fuelwood if it had not made its way to me.

"Now it has a second life for a while but nothing is permanent.”

A monumental stack of 512 porcelain cups refers to “the number of days my partner survived from diagnosis to death,” says maker Nicola Kelly.

“I have used the very fragility of this material as my subject matter to represent a state of extreme tension that indicate and threaten a sickening inevitability of impending destruction.

“Often repetition is used as a visual device to overcome issues of scale and that can facilitate grand visual gestures.”

The theme provides for a sobering moment. Textile artist Niki Collier offers a comforting image in what appear to be cuddly felt objects, but turn out to be killer viruses viewed through a microscope.

The exhibition is hardly benign in its subtext — comfortable/uncomfortable might equally describe it.

Willow and a found piece of ash wood are fashioned into basketmaker Joe Hogan's 'Primal Energy' piece, from the Monumentality/Fragility exhibition currently showing at the Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny and Kilkenny Castle.
Willow and a found piece of ash wood are fashioned into basketmaker Joe Hogan's 'Primal Energy' piece, from the Monumentality/Fragility exhibition currently showing at the Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny and Kilkenny Castle.

But, above all, what the craft makers have done is risen to the challenge of conveying the stretch between monumentality and fragility in a, sometimes, deeply personal way, while illustrating along with 67 other exhibitors the level of skill in contemporary craft making.

This is the lure of the exhibition, along with what Karen Hennessy, CEO of the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland, the other co-organiser, describes simply as “opportunity to share the stunning work of a diverse group of European artists with the public, and to display the very best of modern craft practice”.

Monumentality/Fragility takes place at Kilkenny Castle and the Design and Craft Gallery of Ireland, Kilkenny until June 23; www.ndcg.ie

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