The craft of being functional

Pushing Boundaries

Her ability to convey thoughts and emotions through the gestures of her bronze figurines comes out explicitly.

Incidentally though, these bronze figures and the granite cubes hold between them an array of books! Well, the books are not part of Dimpy’s assemblage; they are just part of the display at Forum Gallery in Chennai, which has curated a show of senior and established artists as well as sculptors on the theme of ‘functional art’. The fact is — Dimpy’s bronze figures along with the granite cubes that they lean back upon provide an elegant arrangement to hold books upright, much like a book holder. That is functional art for you.

Functional art? Is that an oxymoron? After all, fine arts has always been bracketed far away from being functional with the aesthetic crown in functional stuff earmarked a prerogative of ‘the crafts’. As if in response, Shalini Biswajit, Forum Gallery, says, “I wanted to combine function with art, give it an added dimension. I have invited mainstream artists to retain their originality, signature, style and produce or convert their art to something functional.”
 
Challenges of the art

Of course, there are challenges in creating functional art. Sculpture and assemblages lend themselves to functional art much more easily than a canvass. Elaborates Shalini, who is a painter too, “While it is easy for a sculptor, for a painter it can be quite a challenge.” Shalini herself has used her canvas as a base for a tray in stainless steel. On the other hand, her stainless steel sculpture of a cow (which is a kind of a diagrammatic sculpture, by the way) easily lends itself to function, automatically providing a place for say — hanging a towel. This piece’s utility can be extended by being used as a cloth stand. The same is the case with senior artist AV Ilango’s bowls in granite. They are fit for function without extra modifications. 

Meanwhile, artists like Asma Menon, V Narayanan and V Ravindran have framed mirrors in elaborate worked-upon woodwork. Biswajit Balasubramanian has got his cartoons printed on ceramic mugs and done wine rack holders in metal. Benitha Perciyal’s crescent shaped lamp shade in shell and acrylic, of course, blows you away. Switch on this piece in the dark and you find yourself gasping at a scintillating, ethereal crescent moon, hanging within an arm’s reach. Laxman Aelay’s globular lamp shade in yarn is elegant too. What’s unique is that this lamp shade is a work of art when switched off too.

Cynthia Prabhakar displays a bowl in wood; Geetha MS has put up trays in copper and silver plated copper while Hemalatha S has created bowls and jewellery with the same material. S Saravanan’s trays and jewellery in anodised copper and enamel come under the same category, so does Thejo Menon’s table mats with laminated coasters.
Shailesh on the other hand has created a colourful candle stand, keychain holder and photo frames in paper mache. These sculptures belie the fact that they are actually functional key holders and hangers. A multi-peopled, fragrantly light hearted sculpture that rises from the ground, these pieces are a fallout of the paper mache workshop that young Shailesh attended in the UK recently.

Then, there is furniture too. Lakshmi Srinath’s tables in wood and canvass, Suresh Kumar’s centre table in metal and glass. “Hopefully, this show will lead to a permanent gallery store. Also, these artworks are priced modestly than the regular paintings and sculptures”, voices Shalini. The result is a varied and diverse range of artwork that outlives its aesthetic presence!

So what is functional art? For that matter, what is art? Does something become ‘art’ only when the artistic skill is used to express creativity to the exclusion of function? Or could it apply to a functional object as well. Our ancients were masters at this, often internalising the concept of art in all the objects they manufactured and used. Ancient Indian civilisation, for instance, had a heady relationship with functional art. The result — the rich ‘craft’ legacy that we have inherited.

Replicability factor

Though, currently, we term all such objects as craft work as opposed to art work. Perhaps, replication and replicability are factors to be considered. Should we define art objects that can be replicated in multiples as craft work? But then, many competent artists can replicate even Michelangelo. Obviously, the issue is tricky but functional art could be an uplifting facet for our mechanised and impersonal contemporary era. 

In a sense, functional art brings art much closer to reality, seeing that you get to not just stare at it standing a few away, but hold it and relate to it everyday. But then, are you ready to drink a cup of coffee or dip a spoon in kheer from a work of art? Do you dare to hold a piece of art in your hands and use it as an everyday, functional object? This either calls for a certain sense of self-worth or alternatively, a certain lack of understanding of the fine value of art.

Not just aesthetics and creativity, art has always related to science, religion, and also function. While science and religion have stood the test of time, the link with function had somehow worn away down centuries. In the early 20th century, beauty was the Holy Grail of art. The cubists, and later, the modern and installation artists overthrew that notion. Now, world over, functional art is raising its head. Let’s watch and see how it evolves.

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