Feb 22 2016
Director of the Guild of St George and former curator of the Ruskin Collection Jacqueline Yallop talks about What you do; Where you’re from; Who you know, a new commission by artist Mir Jansen and woodworker Henk Littleword currently on show as part of our In the Making exhibition at the Millennium Gallery:
What you do; Where you’re from; Who you know laces together a series of contradictions: you are invited into an intimate, personal space, an enclosed wooden pod, but you remain in a public place; you’re drawn into a work inspired by the Victorian artist and critic John Ruskin but there is nothing didactic or old fashioned about the piece; you’re presented with detailed, highly-finished illustrations on wood which draw on elements of a folk art tradition but the effect is contemporary, urban and political. What seems, at first glance, a simple globe-like structure becomes as you enter it, an immersive, dreamlike experience of prompts and impressions and intuitions. At the heart of an exhibition about craftsmanship and creativity, the piece raises key questions about what it means to make things with your hands and how material, form and technique both shape, and are shaped by, ideas.
In Spring 2015, Mir and Henk travelled to Ruskin Land in Worcestershire by invitation of the Guild of St George to select a tree from their ancient oak woodland. Henk talks about the positive effect of felling their tree correctly, so that the coppiced stem can regrow and the woodland, in time regenerate to supply timber for the future. He is unequivocal, too, about the quality of the Bewdley oak: its long, straight-grained stem lent itself to the steam bending required to make the exterior of the sculpture and meant hardly any timber was wasted. An entire tree was used for What you do...; all that was discarded was what Henk terms ‘a few knobbly bits and lumps’.
Spending time with the collection which Ruskin gathered together for his Sheffield Museum, Mir’s concern was to ‘bring Ruskin alive again’ for today. She found she was constantly asking herself how Ruskin would have reacted to current issues and news stories, and allowing herself a free interpretation of his ideas based on her own principles of social justice.
The title of the work nods to the social and personal restrictions of the nineteenth century, but more openly encourages us to examine ourselves now, as individuals in a thoroughly twenty-first century context.
What you do... places the notion of craftsmanship at the centre of things today by considering the ways in which we craft our own lives and our relationships with the natural and human world. This is craftsmanship in its widest, fullest sense as Ruskin explored it in perhaps his most influential work, The Nature of Gothic: craftsmanship as a means of expressing natural complexity, linking what we do with our hands to how we think and to a healthy, organic, communal way of life. The achievement of this collaborative piece is that is draws us into its heart and thus into ourselves, but in so doing, forces us to sit and contemplate – if we can bear it – what is happening beyond.
Read more about Mir and Henk's commission here.
Top: Artist Mir Jansen looking at works from the Ruskin collection. Image © Mir Jansen
Bottom: What you do; Where you’re from; Who you know on show at the Millennium Gallery. Image © Henk Littlewood.