Review of Will Shannon: The Closet Craftsman, mac Birmingham

Will Shannon (b.1980) describes himself as: “designer, maker, artist, architect, prototyper, workplace designer, maybe”. The son of a cabinetmaker, he did a Fine Art degree at Chelsea College of Arts and then returned to his more practical roots with a Design Products MA at the Royal College of Art. His exhibition at mac Birmingham, curated by Craftspace, suggests that if art and craft and design are separate camps, he is on the road between them.

The high-ceilinged gallery has an outdoor feel and, at spacious intervals from each other, there’s a market stall, a trailer, a pedlar’s bicycle, a door-to-door salesman’s suitcase. It suggests the world of the itinerant hawker, but with a difference: it’s all as much about making as selling. Shannon’s market stall is discovered to be a functional carpenter’s workshop. The trailer has on it great gizmos that will transform discarded chipboard into new furniture. The bicycle, likewise, is loaded with kit, in readiness to refashion and recycle. Perhaps something has happened and our whole way of manufacturing has changed? It’s as if we are looking at the wherewithal for a whole cast of characters to survive, living on their wits, day-to-day, place-to-place, in the wake of a global catastrophe.

What is unexpected is how very beautiful it all is. The market stall exhibit, titled Market Factory (2015), is an elegantly configured workbench, tool shed and storage space combined, assembled with evident care using pine lengths, and with a stylish silk awning. The chairs manufactured in it are exquisitely designed and constructed: struts of different coloured woods have been combined with panache and the dowel joints are perfect. If Shannon’s exhibition is a post-apocalyptic vision, it’s in marked contrast to the wretchedness of existence described in futuristic novels by, for example, J.G. Ballard or Harry Harrison. Shannon conjectures a manner of survival that is aesthetically refined and optimistic.

The world as described by Shannon is also more immediately relevant: it is thrifty with resources, and has a low carbon footprint. It’s also a picture of the recovery as many economists predict it will happen – small scale and local. One of the exhibits, created in the aftermath of the banking crisis and the stock market run on gold, is wry social commentary. Suitcase Foundry (2009) is comprised of an open suitcase that houses a small-scale foundry together with a range of implements, materials and safety clothing; a fire extinguisher is stowed thoughtfully underneath. From the side of the suitcase sprouts a sign that says: “GOLD FOR CA$H”.

Here at mac in Birmingham, formerly known as “the city of a thousand trades’ and ‘workshop of the world”, Shannon conjures with a society in which the making of objects happens not in closed workshops or factories, but out and about in a wider world of vivid encounters with other people. He proposes, by implication, an up-close-and-personal way of being a consumer, too. It feels very much alive, out there on the road.

Angela Kingston

Will Shannon: The Closet Craftsman, curated by Craftspace in partnership with mac, until 19 April, mac Birmingham, Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham B12 9QH.