Review published on 'art agenda' by Matthew McLean
One origin myth of ceramics: that far back in prehistory, basket makers packed their containers with clay to form a lining, and one day dropped one of these vessels into a fire, finding, when the ashes cooled, that the clay had hardened and remained where the woven structure was destroyed.(1)
Ceramics, in this narrative, supersedes basketry: and yet the practice of weaving continues, even, as the makers move from gathering to hunting to farming. Was this a practical decision, or an aesthetic preference? Some early ceramics are decorated in indented crisscross patterns, as though aspiring to resemble the earlier form.
The themes inherent in this story—about the relation between craft and art, between utility and decoration, and of the development of forms, their chronological succession—are probed via the six basketwork forms included in Dan Coopey’s “Dry.” Each one—all Untitled (all works 2017), with enigmatic, geographic subtitles: Indus, Gansu, Tuxá, etc.—is roughly cylindrical and narrows and expands along its length, as if gently squeezed, as clay is on a potter’s wheel. Made from unpainted rattan, they look somehow ritualistic, like urns, and vaguely echo the undulations of Indian stupas, but they belong to no identifiable formal tradition, as intact and sui generis as pods arrived from Mars, or ancient finds exhumed from the earth. From left to right, the structures visibly intensify in complexity, like a textbook diagram of decorative evolution.
Though referring to the ceramic tradition and its notionally intertwined history with basket weaving, Coopey undercuts the utilitarian dimension of both clay and woven vessels, as each of the six objects displayed is entirely closed, without an opening that would allow storing or carrying. The absence of openings or points of entry also makes it difficult, even impossible, to re-construct the work’s physical progression, to establish where the artist began or ended their making. In this sense, they have a strangely un-made, “pre-fab” quality: all the stranger given that each one’s entire surface, densely textured with the looping of warp and weft, is so legibly crafted, so visibly the result of hours of repetitive labor. To weave rattan means working with and against the tension inherent in the fibers themselves; each of these objects emanates a kind of sprung, tensile quality, as if the energy worked into their weave is always just on the verge of snapping open, like a seed cracking out of a pod.
And indeed, though it’s barely discernible from the exterior, each one of the baskets does indeed hold a seed of sorts—a wad of gum. Gum chewing is another practice as widespread and ancient as basket making, its origin also the stuff of speculation (what would lead a person to begin nibbling tree sap: taste? Curiosity? Or merely to pass the time?). Is the gum Coopey has implanted something organic, or artificial? To find out, you’d have to break the object open. It would be then a more useful vessel, but a broken artwork.
On the opposite wall of the gallery, a length of Kuba cloth, also untitled, is hung, sewn together from eight panels; a second, smaller example hangs separately in another room. Produced by the Kuba people of Democratic Republic of Congo, and worn in ceremonial contexts, the cloth is woven from raffia, then pounded, and sometimes decorated with geometric shapes appliquéd onto the surface of the fabric. There is no higher or lower grade of raffia, so the value of the textile is determined by process—how well woven, how thoroughly pounded—and the deployment of the vocabulary of decoration, its complexity and rhythm. Outside the circle of manufacture, it is hard for me to appreciate the craft of this cloth, and the symbolic meaning of its shapes (often kept secret even within Kuba society) is impossible for me to parse (though my eye tries to trace a narrative of sorts, as looking at the sky I instinctively trace constellations even though I don’t recognize them). I am used to trying to interpret what I see in galleries, to saying what artists are doing, or meaning to, whereas here I can only admire the craft of the cloth, or Coopey’s weaving without recourse to expression, as I might find beauty in a wall of brickwork.
In some sense, Coopey’s primary gesture with the Kuba cloth is that of a curator—to bring an object to attention, to offer it for consideration. “Curator” derives from the Latin cura, “care,” and care seems for Coopey inseparable from curiosity (the rattan objects are delicately supported by rods projecting from the wall, cradling their curves and indents). In sparse areas of the cloths where the fabric is worn, Coopey has made repairs in the form of brightly colored embroidery, which aggregates in mollusk-like bumps. Is this act one of revision, invasion, or completion? Or is the cloth always able to be modulated, worked, and worked again?
A standard basket-weaving manual won’t teach you how to close a vessel, like Coopey has, because in order to hold something, baskets remain open. The theme that emerges from this exhibition is of the implacability of endings: not only the way that the finishing of an object is rarely the end of its story, but that the moment of finishing, completion, is itself an ambiguous, shifting span. The exhibition’s third element is another installation of collectible found objects: a spread of seeds of the Entada gigas, or Coeur de Mer tree, rusty brown in hue, and swollen to fairy-tale size, pinned flush against another wall. There is perhaps here another inquiry into value—the seeds’ worth has nothing to do with artistic effort, but a grower’s slow cultivation, or the sheer luck of finding one washed up on a shore. But they also introduce another chronological horizon. If the nearby Douro river, just visible through the gallery’s window, flooded its space and wrecked the objects within it, releasing the gum from the baskets, undoing the carefully sewn repairs, how long would it take for these seeds to sprout?
In an Indian myth, it is reported that Brahma once shared sugarcane among his sons, who all ate their share, apart from the potter who was too absorbed in his work, and left the cane near his store of clay. When later Brahma asked his sons to return some cane, they all had nothing to offer—except the potter, from whose neglected share a tree had sprouted.(2) Like this fable, Coopey’s exhibition pays homage to the value of patient labor, and its often unforeseeable yields.
(1) The story is circulated in, for example, Susan Peterson & Jan Peterson, The Craft and Art of Clay: A Complete Potter’s Handbook (London: Lawrence King, 2003), 263. For a more nuanced account of the evolution, see Peter Jordan and Marek Zvelebil (eds), Ceramics Before Farming: The Dispersal of Pottery Among Prehistoric Eurasian Hunter-Gatherers (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), 53.
(2) Baidyanath Saraswati, Pottery-making Cultures and Indian Civilization (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1979), 46.
By Kiki Mazzucchelli
Basket weaving is possibly one of the oldest and most widespread forms of craft
in human civilisation. Because of their perishable nature it is impossible to date
the earlier forms of basketry precisely, but it is said that imprints of weaving
have been found on fragments of clay pots dated around 20,000 BC.
Since 2015, Dan Coopey has been employing basketry techniques in order to
produce sculptural objects in which the vessel’s primary function is removed. A
self-taught weaver, Coopey has learnt and incorporated several traditional
methods that enable him to produce these unorthodox objects. Unlike regular
baskets however his sculptures never have an open side. Executed in rattan, they
range from simple cylindrical shapes to more elaborate sinuous designs that are
sometimes painted in an unexpectedly pop palette that contrasts with the
natural quality of the fibre.
In Dry, Coopey has chosen to leave the volumes unpainted, highlighting form and
pattern instead. Although featuring similar shapes and sizes, these works are
nonetheless handmade without a plan and formal decisions are taken during the
process of weaving. Coopey is interested in the ancestral character of
wickerwork and the fact that it is still practiced across cultures and geographies
worldwide. This particular group of baskets have fluid forms that resemble
pottery vases; their process of production described by the artist as “like a very
slow motion version of throwing a pot”. Therefore, from a formal viewpoint they
seem to fuse two of the most emblematic expressions of early human material
culture, namely basketry and pottery, and perhaps this is why these works elicit
a feeling of familiarity even stripped of their usefulness.
Like his previous rattan sculptures, the six slender forms are installed on the
wall resting on a pair of oak rods. Also like in his previous works, each of these
contains a piece of chewing gum (the mastication of gum is also a pan-cultural,
ancient tradition, though for what reason the fashion of chewing grew up remains a
mystery) and a small handcrafted tool or ornament. These can only be accessed,
and the use value of the objects reinstated, by breaking open the rattan. In other
words, artwork and utensil coexist in a mutually exclusive relationship.
The exhibition also includes two works made with appropriated Kuba cloths on
which the artist performs subtle interventions. Kuba cloths are renowned for
their elaborate and bold geometrical designs that combine weaving patterns and
needlework, and are primarily used in ceremonial occasions, as symbols of
wealth and as status objects during funerals by the Kuba people of the
Democratic Republic of Congo. Woven from dried raffia palm, these textiles bear
an evident material affinity with Coopey’s basketry pieces – rattan is also a
species of palm – although in this case a found object is transformed as opposed
to the pieces that are made from scratch. Acquired from second-hand dealers,
the cloths used by the artist are invariably damaged, with holes and rips
scattered across their surface. These imperfections serve as guidelines for his
interventions, which consist of adding a new layer of pattern to the fabric’s
design through his darning. The resulting patterns created by Coopey contrast
both in colour and shape with those of the original cloth with the hues
distinctively brighter; however the distribution of the organic forms possesses a
level of visual harmony to the preexisting patterns.
The making of the Kuba cloth is traditionally a collective endeavour that involves
an entire social group in all stages of production. Coopey does not simply
consume these fabrics as decorative objects, but rather transforms them into
something new by becoming another participant in their creative process. When
de-contextualised into the economy of second-hand goods the Kuba cloth loses
its original cultural significance and symbolic value, retaining only a western
use-value for decorative purpose. However, when displaced once more and
refashioned into an artwork it is given the possibility of starting a new life and
acquiring new meanings that can reconnect it to another symbolic order. The
shift from a specific cultural background where these cloths once held a high
symbolic value into the territory of contemporary art doesn’t necessarily mean
that this same symbolism is lost, but that it has now entered a different episteme
with its own symbolic values that will inevitably transform its original meanings
according to current artistic discourse.
The final work in the exhibition is a group of giant pods from the Entada gigas
plant. While his fabric works combine appropriation and intervention, here the
operation performed by Coopey consists simply of the displacement of a natural
readymade into the gallery context. These formally impressive beans, with their
red coloured skin and seemingly pre-historic gigantism evoke a sense of
extended time that is also present in the basketry and fabric weaving techniques
embraced by Coopey, both in relation to the slowness that characterises
handmade production and for being some of the earliest techniques known to
humankind. Moreover, although the dried beans appear dead they contain seeds
and therefore posses the potential of generating new life if introduced to
moisture. It is precisely this sense of renovation and continuity that pervades all
the works featured in Dry. Ancient types of knowledge may be only preserved in
the fragments of dried out material culture, but they always have the potential to
evolve into unprecedented forms that encompass past and present with renewed