Helen O'Donoghue, Senior Curator: Head of Education and Community Programmes at IMMA reflects on her experience of the Crafted Creatures exhibition
When I entered The Ark and travelled through the exhibition with its curator Brian Kennedy, I became overcome with a wonderful sensation which actually made my heart beat a little faster than it normally does. I found that as I journeyed through the spaces, all of my senses seemed to come alive in the presence of so many beautifully crafted artworks, stimulating ideas, objects and ephemera.
I felt I had arrived again at the heart of what I value most about working in the intersection, or fault line, between a gallery space or museum and the public who engage with what we present. Yesterday I was a member of the public that was about to be surprised at what I encountered here in The Ark, and it was quite a thrilling discovery.
In the Crafted Creatures exhibition, Brian has created an experience that is built on the very child-centred nature of The Ark. The exhibition concept, of the animal as a symbol, resonates with the very purpose and raison d'etre of The Ark, which presents reflections on childhood - in all its complexities - throughout its programmes.
The exhibition has successfully interwoven very many narratives throughout. The partners are represented, The Ark, the Crafts Council of Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland. They are subtly interwoven throughout the fabric of the exhibition.
On the one hand the exhibition references contemporary imagery associated with the contemporary child - such as that of JK Rowling's Harry Potter (in the theatre space); and on the other, using the Victorian display cases, it roots us in the age-old practice of museum conservation, preservation and presentation. But, I feel, with a sense of humour embedded, perhaps playfully questioning how museums present themselves?
And at the heart of this dialogue Brian has embedded the extraordinary work of many artists and crafts workers all poised for a conversation with their audience over the next six weeks.
Alongside the presentation of their artwork, the exhibition reveals the artists/craft workers' processes in a selection of ways: from the video interviews in the basement area, where some of the artists talk about the stimuli for their work and how they research their ideas; to the range of ways that artists use notebooks. I particularly liked the surprise of finding working drawings displayed under the glass top tables and discovering the cross section of preserved insects and butterflies alongside the artists eclectic ephemera that represent the very wide ranging sources that contemporary artists use to inform their arts practice.
Brian has taken on the architecture of the building, which is a challenging space for the presentation of visual art, and has created a labyrinth that is quite magical. His curation of the space is open-ended. He does not dictate where to begin or end but presents a range of possible entry points and links these to the next discovery, and the one after that, on the visitors' own terms. But he also offers landmarks along the way through the beautiful text boxes and reflective spaces where children can pause and draw or read or have a conversation.
This is an exhibition of great dept and I think that it will be considered as one worth revisiting. A core principle of this show for Brian is that it does not distinguish between art and craft in any hierarchical way. At its very heart are the artists, each one of whom is extremely important to Brian. The objects/artworks that each person creates is a metaphor, a carrier of meaning that connects the artist to the world, and through it connects the viewer to the world of the artist. An encounter with an artwork may connect us to many states of being, and evoke a reservoir of meanings that connect us to our past, our present and allow us to imagine our future: in essence artworks can create spaces to grow.
The exhibition is the intertwining of many contemporary artforms, breaking down the divides that too often exist between fine art and craft- and it lets the viewer, the audience, and in this case most importantly, children decide what matters. The exhibition as a concept that has been sensitively and thoroughly researched by Brian resonates with The Ark as a potential place of refuge. The Ark - symbolised by that great biblical concept - the vessel that offered safety in a time of turbulence and nurtured its passengers through stormy seas to a safe harbour - can in contemporary times, in this building, be a nurturing space also. A place where children can experience triggers of the imagination, have arts processes revealed to them and see the embodiment of human thought as represented in these beautiful and extraordinary artworks which have the power to leave us breathless.
If we consider what Rudolf Arnheim , the American psychologist and art educationalist said in 1954: "The eye is a part of the mind. For the mind to flourish, it needs content to reflect upon. The senses, as a part of an inseparable cognitive whole, provide that content."
This exhibition, as presented in The Ark, in the context of a multi-faceted programme for children and the adults in their lives, offers us an opportunity to contemplate (and I quote Arnheim again here) "What humans do to create art and what art does to create humans"
May I congratulate everyone involved in bringing this exhibition and all that is stands for, to our attention.
The Crafted Creatures exhibition is open to the public at weekends and during St Patrick's Festival 2011 (17-20 March).