Text by Glenn Adamson, Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, author and a specialist on the history and theory of craft and design
‘I have experimented and explored, collected and ordered, discovered boundaries and got over them again.’
Were craft and technology ever truly at odds? That is certainly the impression one gets from the history of the crafts movement. Ruskin and Morris had, at best, a grudging tolerance for the machine, and paeans to the values of the handmade, in which the intimate contact of body, tool, and material take centre stage, form the mainstream of writing on the subject to this day. But lately there has been a rapprochement – or rather, a realization that craft has been technological all along. Equally, there is increasing awareness that technology has always had a firm basis in artisanal experimentation. Silvia Weidenbach’s new jewellery is the latest expression of this coming-together. Weidenbach has the most traditional of backgrounds, having been trained as a silversmith and studied jewellery at the Burg Giebichenstein in Germany (focusing on enamel). She has also done a stint as a resident artist at a stone-cutting centre, the Jakob Bengel Foundation. During her time at the Royal College of Art, however, she began to explore the possibilities of rapidforming, CAD, and in particular a tool called a ‘haptic arm.’ This digital sculpting tool allows the user to shape ‘virtual clay’ of a specified hardness, and gives palpable feedback. It’s relatively quick, physically nuanced, and best of all (like all computer-based modeling systems) allows the maker to get the piece just right before hitting the ‘print’ button. Experimentation happens immaterially, an expansive situation for the formative imagination. As Weidenbach puts it, ‘you have no limit in the computer as you do in the real piece.’
The leap that Weidenbach has made for the Jerwood Makers exhibition is to combine these high-tech processes with her own traditional skill-set of gemtone-setting, enameling, casting, electroforming, and metalsmithing. The results sit somewhere between the future and the past, like props from a stylish science fiction film based on Elizabethan jewels. Symmetry is an important feature. Computers are very good at generating complex form – think of the fractal patterns that were once a popular screensaver – and also good at mirroring. Even bilateral symmetry is difficult to pull off through traditional craft techniques, because the maker must match their own work exactly. (This is why most traditional handmade wares are symmetrical, in fact; it is a simple proof of skill.) Multiple symmetry, and other mathematically-derived formal logic, is still more challenging to realize by hand. Weidenbach exploits this capacity of the machine, but through subsequent embellishment she restores the objects to uniqueness and preciousness. Two realms of making are brought into exuberant, hybrid union.