We were due to go directly to Lincoln but I suggested a detour to the small market town of Sleaford to visit the National Centre for Craft & Design. I knew the venue had opened “a few years back” as I told my partner in crime, the estimable Simon, but it turns out that was 13 years ago – so high time we paid it a visit! And in truth although rather tucked away in this – to be honest – remote corner of Lincolnshire it is a real delight. I shall certainly be keeping my eyes open for future shows there and for us its actually not that long a journey so there really isn’t an excuse if you’re a driver (I’ve no idea how the rail links are to here but I imagine not too good if you’re a distance away?).
The show that had caught my eye was Anton Alvarez’ ‘Autonomous Manufacturing System 1.0’ that between publication of the Feb/May programme and the opening became ‘Alphabet Aerobics’. In essence the show comprises a machine that makes ceramic sculpture without human intervention, the paraphernalia required to do so (including a gallery technician/invigillator, drying racks for the sculptures and a range of plinths on which finished works sit.
This is an intriguing and elegant show that is both visually interesting and conceptually questioning. The machine itself is cleverly though quite simply constructed…the clay is pushed down through a tube that ends with a die or mould that forms the material as it oozes out of this device onto a bed beneath that can be tilted forward or back further determining the ensuing shape. My pal and myself have just had a little debate over exactly what to call the various metal dies or moulds…suffice to say they are discs with shaped cut outs in them…but the key to the titling of the show comes from the idea that they are based (to my eye loosely) on the letters of the alphabet and that this is apparently related to a rap song? Whatever the specifics of this it is the delight of the machine demonstrated and occasioning a unique artwork on each occasion of its doing so.
The device, the moulds, the whims of the operator (we were told that each operator makes decisions on the actions and movements), and I imagine too, climatic conditions, subtle differences in material contents, and so on, determine outcome on each operation. It is a curious and chaotic means of predicting form although being machine driven there is an odd kind of unpredictable predictability at work too. It seems rather as if a Richard Deacon or Tony Cragg (more visually contingent?) or Ken Price(more materially so) were an automaton rather than a thinking emotional human, the sculptures being curiously both regimented and not. The use of the alphabet as a kind of cypher or metaphor is amusing too…as pieces are mounted to plinths will the alphabet emerge visually? This is a terrific exhibition that truly begs plenty of questions of us as viewers.
The Centre is an enterprising and delightfully rounded venue, alongside Alvarez the show at the top of the building ‘The Other Mountain:Contemporary Chinese Jewellery’, was surprising and delightful by turns, a crazy material mix and imagery that both emphasises cultural origins and again then often confounds them. Next to it Kathryn Parsons’ eclectic mix of objects, a narrative thread held together by the obsessive delight in the life and work of John Clare, and small displays of wall hangings by Robyn Hinchcliffe and jewellery by Flora Bhattachary added up to collection of displays that makes a visit so much more rewarding than a single show venue where you are confronted with a ‘take it or leave it’ experience. Oh and the cafe is lovely too…the cakes were marvellous!