Craft Unbound introduction


(Melbourne: Thames & Hudson, 2005)

By Kevin Murray


There was once a familiar order to things. On one side was the supermarket and on the other was the art gallery. There was the world of common things to be used up and discarded, and the realm of precious objects to be appreciated into the future. The meaningless cycle of consumption was counterbalanced by the collection of treasured objects. But this cultural economy has become stagnant as art becomes increasingly insular and detached from everyday life. Consumption continues to accelerate while art risks being locked into the fashion cycle.

A generation of radical Australian makers is challenging this arrangement by bringing the profane world of consumption into the sacred halls of art. Theirs is not merely a conceptual exercise. There is no Duchamp-like cleverness about their use of found objects. These craftspersons express a renewal in the elemental energy of creation, reaching back to the mysteries of material transformation in alchemy. They are breaking through.

This is a distinctly Australian phenomenon, and we need to gather these makers together to appreciate their work, learn about its origins, and understand its meaning. What is the relationship between beauty and rarity that their work confronts? Let’s begin to examine this question with the broad brush.

The lay of the land

To make the common precious is to work against the grain. The identification of value and rarity is self-evident. It governs the way we see the world and how we transact with it. According to Gestalt psychology, we perceive the world by dividing it into figure and ground: the lone object stands out before the common background. By taking the common for granted, we can focus our attention on the singular.

In the English language rarity is almost always expressed using words that carry a positive connotation—words such as ‘extraordinary’, ‘special’, ‘rare’, ‘incomparable’ and ‘noble’. Whereas what is common is valued negatively, as in ‘ordinary’, ‘average’, ‘mundane’, ‘usual’, ‘pedestrian’ or ‘plebeian’. Accordingly, we will pay more for something that is exclusive, one-off or editioned than we would for goods that are mass-marketed.

This asymmetry is especially prevalent in the world of art. It seems obvious that the beautiful is necessarily exceptional. After all, art history is peopled by rare geniuses who produce rare masterpieces. Craft plays its own part in this story. In the decorative arts treasures such as the Fabergé Eggs are valued for their rarity as much as their craftsmanship. The value of an object is conditioned more by its supply than its simple use value.

But there are ways in which this natural order of things can be questioned. In a radical move the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that rarity is not the accident of beauty, but rather its cause.[i] We enjoy a masterpiece because it is rare. According to Bourdieu, art enforces a hierarchical society, in which value must be seen as limited to the few.

This view has its shortcomings. While providing a powerful critique of aestheticism, such arguments do not suggest ways of creating beauty that are alternative to the existing economy. To find these, we need to go beyond academic theory and explore the popular values that shadow elitism. The different manifestations of elitism provide us with alternative ways of understanding what Australian craftspersons are achieving today.

Throughout the history of Christianity, the gospels have often been used to support the Church’s responsibility to the broad mass of people—‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ In contrast to the hierarchy of the Vatican orders such as the Franciscans make humility a life-long vocation. And, most radically, during the Reformation anti-elitist movements celebrated daily labour and the common tongue. A similar tension is present in Islam, in the opposition between the priestly Shiite and popularist Sunni versions of the religion. Beyond religion, popularism was given its most powerful expression in the revolutionary movements that culminated in Marxism. Given the declining significance of theology and ideology in the third millennium, where might an aesthetics of commonness reside today?

In Western society, there is alongside the mainstream economy of beauty a black market of artistic production.[ii] The value of rarity is reversed when it is seen to be tightly controlled by a particular group. Thus there are negative terms associated with those who police rarity, such as ‘elites’, ‘priesthoods’, ‘snobs’ and ‘cabals’.

The craft movement

Throughout modernity, craft has provided an alternative set of values to the positivist dream of technological advancement. At its most basic, craft is the transformation of common materials into precious works. Potters dig up mud which they shape and bake in the fire to make vessels for eating and drinking. The history of modern craft is characterised by a search for these elemental roots.

It was during industrialisation in the nineteenth century that craft emerged as a foil to modern capitalism. Reflecting a Protestant spirit, the English Arts and Craft movement of this period championed labour and decried bourgeois decadence.

Rarity was a significant issue for the movement’s champion, John Ruskin. He admitted that certain kinds of rarity, such as a fine sunset, were legitimate as ‘Nature’s way of stimulating your attention’. However, if rarity became a matter of possession, then it was idolatry: there was no reason to value pearls above glass beads. So Ruskin wrote, ‘If only the English nation could be made to understand that the beauty which is indeed to be a joy for ever, must be a joy for all.’[iii] At the time, the craft spirit was identified as a northern phenomenon, with its origins reaching back to the historical struggle of egalitarian Anglo-Saxons against their Norman overlords.

In the twentieth century Western craft turned to the East. The English potter Edmund Leach introduced the values associated with Mingei, a Japanese movement of folk ceramics. These values emerged from a strain of Zen Buddhism that sought enlightenment in the here and now. A key text for Mingei practitioners was The Unknown Craftsman written by Soetsu Yanagi in 1931, which stated ‘Why should beauty emerge from the world of the ordinary? The answer is, ultimately, because the world is natural.’[iv] Yanagi’s values were epitomised in the Kizaemon tea bowl. This sixteenth-century bowl was celebrated as one of Japan’s most significant treasures. According to legend, the bowl was found in a Korean workshop, and produced by a regular worker in a moment of complete unselfconsciousness.

The roles were reversed in the late twentieth century. Crafts practitioners reacted against the earnestness associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and with Japanese ceramics. Post-modern flamboyance and conceptualism, such as that inspired by the Italian designers Memphis, removed craft from its demotic base.

Meanwhile industrialisation entered the information era, which altered the basic economy of production. Today, the greater the number of people who possess a particular piece of software, the more valuable it is. As Pierre Lévy writes, ‘Everything that flows from top to bottom in theological discourse should be viewed, within the technosocial system, as flowing from bottom to top.’[v] What was vertical has become horizontal—networks replace silos. While technological change has proceeded largely independent of the arts, it does alter the mindset in which the arts are perceived. Craft is just beginning to enjoy this new ground.

Poor cousins in the arts

Modesty of means is not exclusive to the contemporary crafts movement. The ‘Poor Theatre’ of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski evolved in the 1960s as a rejection of theatrical excess, such as lush sets and lavish costumes. It used austerity to bring the focus back on the unadorned actor. This process was extended into cinema with Dogma 95, the Danish movement led by Lars von Trier, which precluded sound tracks and editing in order to bring acting to the fore. For von Trier and other like-minded directors, to work with whatever is at hand promises to be a more transparent means for creative expression.

In the late 1960s Grotowski’s Poor Theatre inspired an Italian art movement known as ‘Arte Povera’. Influenced by American minimalism, a group of sculptors reacted against what they saw as a commodification of art, and created works that materialised a raw creative energy. Their process involved both found materials and spaces outside galleries.

For its main spokesperson, Germano Celant, Arte Povera was a distinctly European movement which contrasted with the futuristic and industrialised scene in America. As Celant writes, European progress ‘is made up of elements astonishingly cobbled together, of deteriorated, ancient materials, excavated from the past and recycled according to intuitive, illogical visions.’[vi] Arte Povera embodied the primitivism of Poor Theatre while articulating a specific message about the heterogeneity of European history. And it embraced the enigmatic.

The antipodean future

At first, there seems no place for a country such as Australia in Celant’s scheme. On the one hand, our thin past does not reflect the rich palimpsest of European history. Australian history seems like a crust of colonialism built over a seemingly timeless continuity of Aboriginal occupation. And on the other hand, Australia is not gripped by the positivism of its American cousins. The cultural dynamic is more colonial in character. It is within the colonial story that we might find the ground for a distinctly Australian craft.

According to the colonial mindset, Europe is the rightful home of preciousness. In his book The Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd holds up the north as a model: ‘Yet in England, unlike America and Australia, there is always something of genuine beauty around the corner, a medieval church or a glimpse of field, hedge and honest stonework.’[vii] This Europe is studded with the precious jewels of its grand pasts.

Such ‘colonial cringe’ naturally evokes a republican response. There have been many strains of irreverent nationalism. In the 1990s the Sydney designers Mambo celebrated suburban values, typified in local wisdom such as ‘The grass is always greener around the tap.’[viii] Films such as Muriel’s Wedding associate suburbanism with a free spirit and the sense of community; they foster a boisterous pride in being ordinary.

Australian folk craft reflects this popularism. Bush furniture celebrated the make-do practices of farmers who were isolated by the great distances of the outback. A kerosene tin became a chest of drawers. Likewise, the isolation of Aboriginal communities has encouraged an ingenuity of means. The 2001 television series Bush Mechanics celebrated the almost magical ability of the Walpiri people to keep cars going without the backup of tools and supplies. Australian popular applied arts have been forged by isolation.

Australia shares this celebration of the common with other ex-colonies, particularly in the south. Consider the most influential poet in South America, Pablo Neruda. He was ideologically committed to ordinariness. His Elementary Odes are rhapsodic verses in praise of ordinary things. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Neruda claimed that ‘The best poet is he who prepares our daily bread.’[ix] The popularism of Liberation theology and leftist revolutions aims to continue the struggle first established against Spanish imperialism into the factories.

Parallel sentiments are being expressed across the Indian Ocean, where the African Renaissance upholds the value of collective tribalism against capitalist individualism. The post-apartheid generation of South African intellectuals is keen to turn the freedom struggle beyond the spectacle of mass riots to the matters of ordinary life. The author Njabulo Ndebele writes about the ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’ as the focus for political action: ‘If it is a new society we seek to bring about in South Africa then that newness will be based on a direct concern with the way people actually live.’[x] Cultural energy in the new South Africa stems from township life, particularly music and craft.

There are clear differences between a majority White country such as Australia, and the racial profiles of nations in Africa and South America. Craft in Australia is located in galleries, where it is partly removed from its value in the market. Yet despite differences in culture and economy, all southern nations share the condition of seeming to live in the ‘shadow’ of the north, where the common things of our world are outshone by the precious imports from afar.

Eventually corrupted by modernity, the modest spirit of craft in the West seeks renewal from outside. In the past Western makers looked to the Viking north and pre-modern East. Now it is from the south that emerges a fresh energy.

‘Poor craft’

The nineteen makers profiled in this book have chosen to work with materials which might otherwise be considered worthless. They have gathered remnants, packaging and rubbish that have no place in the economic system: they turn to whatever is at hand. This ‘poor craft’ is a particularly rich source of creative expression.

To speak of a ‘poor craft’ is to suggest a movement that is bound by common experience and ideas. But it would be premature to christen a new movement. As products of relatively modest backgrounds, the makers in this book share similar sensibilities, though their ideas about preciousness sometimes diverge.

These artists share a common story. They are like the last fruit of a native Australian tree that only grows in the wild. Their childhoods were spent in relatively free open spaces—if not gazing upon the open horizons of the bush then roaming the wilds of the outer suburbs. They grew up before television had absorbed recreational time, and so faced the rare challenge of learning how to create time themselves and to make virtue of necessity.

Relatively few of the makers moved in a straight line. While institutional training has been a critical part of their development as a craftsperson, most have gained ideas on their own. There are certainly common themes that emerge through the work of these artists; they share a spirit of invention and an interest in the alchemic transformation of materials, and many are engaged in a critique of consumerism. Together, they all seek forms of creative energy that are not bound by commodification. Better to have something roughly made from common materials than a slickly produced object that fits snugly into its niche market. While the artists gathered in this book share a use of common materials, their differences are also important. There are two opposed aims. One is the goal of overturning hierarchy, whereby common becomes precious—lead replaces gold. The other is the abolition of hierarchy itself, to make the precious common—gold is reduced to lead. The former tends to be more strategic in orientation, making a mountain out of a molehill. The latter is more modernist in approach. One overturns the pyramid; the other transforms it into a cube. There are reformists, and there are revolutionaries.

The differences between the artists in this book prompt much debate and questioning. I have grouped the artists according to their method of approaching the ordinary. Each chapter deals with a particular group of makers. Gatherers draw from the Australian land to produce work, while Fossickers discover materials in manufactured environments. Gleaners use what gets left behind, such as packaging, and Alchemists look to the physical transformation of materials. Dissectors expose beauty through the act of destruction, but Liberators take the precious out of the gallery and onto the street. While representing a fresh, critical edge in Australian culture, each maker also demonstrates a growing inventiveness in the field of craft.

Like their cousins in Poor Theatre, these makers of ‘poor craft’ seek modesty of means as a way of renewing creative expression. As in the reality television program Survivor, makers are thrown back on their own craft to make works of beauty from what is at hand. And, as in the Arte Povera movement, found materials offer resistance to the dominant economic system, and allow for the spontaneous expression of identity. Ironically, both Poor Theatre and Arte Povera were inward focused and relatively unpopular art movements. ‘Poor craft’ seems different. In its reference to everyday life it seems possible that ‘poor craft’ will enjoy a broad audience, untutored in art theory. This is a rare moment for the art of the ordinary.


[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. R. Nice, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1984 (orig. 1974)

[ii] While the celebration of the common occurs in many different cultures and histories, we need not assume that it is linked to a universal meaning. The championing of ordinary seems a reaction against authority that emerges within a specific context.

[iii] John Ruskin, Arata Pentelici: Seven Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, George Allen, London, 1890, p. 23.

[iv] Soetsu Yanagi, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, trans. Bernard Leach, Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1989 (orig. 1931), p. 101.

[v] Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (orig. 1995), p. 100.

[vi] Germano Celant, Arte Povera: Art from Italy, 1967–2002, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2002, p. 23.

[vii] Robin Boyd, The Australian Ugliness, Cheshire, Melbourne, 1960, p. 16.

[viii] Mambo: Still Life with Franchise, Mambo Graphics, Sydney, 1998, p. 115.

[ix] Alan Feinstein, Pablo Neruda: A Passion for Life, Bloomsbury, New York, 2004, p. 379.

[x] Njabulo Ndebele, South African Literature and Culture: Rediscovery of the Ordinary, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1994, p. 57. The phrase was echoed in the opening of a speech made by Mbulelo Mzamane in 2004 at a gathering of artists and writers from the southern hemisphere (see

From Gold to Grey: Flora for the 21st century–exhibition by Marian Hosking

By the stream the mimosa was all gold, great gold bushes full of spring fire rising over your head, and the scent of the Australian spring, and the most ethereal of all golden bloom, the plumy, many-balled wattle, and the utter loneliness, the manlessness, the untouched blue sky overhead, the gaunt, lightless gum-trees rearing a little way off…

D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo.

Installation from Marian Hosking Beyond Flora

Over more than forty years of practice, Marian Hosking has continually found new ways to distil into ornament the ‘wide brown land’ on which she lives. As a contemporary Australian jeweller, she inherited a decorative arts tradition that celebrated the graphic images of local flora, particularly in textiles and ceramics. The particular challenge of jewellery is to give this seasonal organic life a timeless sense of preciousness when cast in metal. One of Hosking’s significant achievements is to forge a link between the showy nationalism at the birth of Australian federation and the fractured connection to the land sustained into the 21st century. At a time of heightened urbanisation and increasing remoteness from nature, Hosking helps us re-connect where we are with where we have come from.

Early in the 20th century, Australian jewellers such as Rhoda Wager borrowed the English style of foliation to celebrate verdancy in nature. This lens identified aspects of Australian nature that were familiar to the English eye, particularly green ivy-like forms. Rather than reproducing traditional styles, Hosking has been able to create her own language of place through individualised techniques of drilling, sawing and casting silver. She has forged a style appropriate to the dry southern continent.

In her career, Hosking has been able to apply this technique to extreme ends of the scale of representation. With the Tall Tree Project, she celebrated the epic scale of Australian bush. The monumental silver ring for the Errinunga Shining Gum travelled Australia with her Living Treasure touring exhibition. With the works in Beyond Flora, Hosking zooms in to the opposite limit of representation in the fine detail of our world.

For this exhibition, Hosking draws on her recent expeditions, ranging from the far horizons of Ormiston Gorge in Alice Springs to the world at hand in generic suburban scrub. Despite these wide distances, Hosking settles on a humble ecology that is common to both coast and desert—heath. While characterised by poor soil and stunted growth, the variety of plants in heathland often lend a distinctive identity to their nation. We think of the moors in northern England, or the delicate fynbos of the Western Cape in South Africa. Not suitable for agriculture, these spaces are often preserved from development.

The dominant material, as always, is silver. Silver seems a particularly appropriate material for heath. Not only does it reflect the grey colour of its vegetation, it also occupies a secondary status to the more mercantile gold in the hierarchy of metals. Hosking’s silver works for Beyond Flora include a cast brooch, embossed rings, and her signature kinetic brooches. But this time she has also included stones in her work. She has combined cast silver with complementary stones in necklaces—ruby with boronia, black cubic zirconia with wattle, and carnelian with gum nuts and leaves.

Beyond Flora does something quite particular to our understanding of wattle as the national emblem. In Australian decorative arts, particularly the period inspired by Art Nouveau, the dominant feature of wattle has been its bright yellow blossom. This is particularly the case in the graphic designs on ceramics and textiles. Jewellery also attempted to capture the brilliant colour of wattle, such as the enamelled works of Deakin and Francis, Birmingham, produced for the Australian market in 1910.

Hosking takes a contrary approach to illustrative history of wattle decoration. Rather than reflect its distinct golden blossom, she renders the flower into grey metal. Avoidance of colour releases other dimensions of the blossom, particularly its delicate outline. To achieve this, Hosking has developed a method almost photographic in its capture of form. She impresses the specimen in silicon from which a wax form is cast. The wax impression is then sent to the casting foundry, Len Rose, in order to produce the silver form. By this means, Hosking has been able to produce an exceptionally precise silver version of the wattle flower.

This casting process has opened up a new dimension in Hosking’s work. The flower provides a motif that can be repeated, like the cotton baubles sometimes found on the base of curtains. Previously, Hosking has worked mostly with unique forms. By turning the blossom into a motif that can be reproduced, Hosking connects her work to the decorative art tradition, transforming nature into ornament.

The wattle was originally taken up in the late nineteenth century as a symbol of the native-born Australian. Previously, the bush had been a source of dismay, reflecting Adam Lindsay Gordon’s view of Australia as a land of ‘scentless blossoms’ and ‘songless birds’. Wattle became the focus for a new pride in the young nation. The value of the wattle as a national flora was buoyed by the dramatic events at the start of the twentieth century – Federation, the granting of Dominion Status and the First and Second World War. Wattle as a national emblem provided Australia with a proud motif in its coat of arms, and a symbol of its distinct identity alongside its commonwealth cousins, including the South African protea, the Canadian maple and the New Zealand silver fern.

But it was more than just an official emblem. At the beginning of the twentieth-century, wattle clubs were formed in all the state capitals. Since 1908, the first day of spring has been celebrated as national wattle day, as city folk venture forth into the countryside to enjoy the ‘golden-haired September.’ In 1912, the first ‘wattle train’ took 980 passengers from Melbourne to Hurstbridge to admire and often souvenir the bloom, sometimes to the chagrin of farmers.

Though the wattle lost popularity after the Second World War, there have been recent attempts to use it at times of national importance. In 1999, the Governor General Sir William Deane cast sprigs of wattle into the waters of the Swiss river gorge in memory of Australians who had lost their lives there in a recent accident.

The wattle has shown resilience in the face of globalisation. But in the turbulent waters of rapidly changing culture, it is critical that we find fresh ways of honouring the wattle. This is one of Hosking’s great achievements in Beyond Flora. Previous incarnations of wattle seem locked in nostalgia for naïve nationalism. Hosking’s more scientific method connects wattle to our time. In honouring our flora, we create a language to respect the lives that are spent here.

This is a catalogue essay for the exhibition by Marian Hosking Beyond Flora at Workshop Bilk, 2010

Who stole the Southern Cross? A cautionary tale for public art

Howard Freeman mural at end of Southern Cross station shopping mall

The best way to appreciate Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station is to close your eyes. Echoing calls for ‘Traralgon’, ‘Mildura’ and ‘Warrnambool’ conjure the image of a monumental rail hub in the southern capital of a great southern land. But open your eyes and you are in a very different world. In this ubiquitous brand-scape, every conceivable surface is covered by advertising clamouring for attention—hanging from the ceiling, around pillars, carpeting the floor, moving up escalator rails… How could this happen? And what future does it beckon for art in the public domain?

There were high hopes. In announcing the new name for the old Spencer Street Station in 2001, Premier Steve Bracks invoked the Southern Cross as a symbol for many shared stories—not only multiculturalism and federation, but also ‘democracy and freedom because it flew over the Eureka Stockade’. But there is not a Southern Cross to be seen in finally emerged. Despite being a public transport facility, the government has little control over the look of the station. Instead, the station follows the interests of a Private Public Partnership, involving the superannuation body Industry Funds Management, under the management of a private company, Southern Cross Pty Ltd.

There actually had been funds set aside for public art, but these were taken up by the relocation of the mural originally commissioned from the ‘state artist’ Harold Freedman in 1978. The mural depicts the history of transport in the first 100 years of Victoria and is now visible at the end of the extensive shopping mall, far away from the actual station. There are no plans for any public art reflecting the station’s new identity.

So what? The public has a better transport facility, and a bright new shopping mall as a bonus. Yet the story of public transport in Melbourne this century has been dominated by dysfunction, particularly violence against vulnerable minorities. The ultimate message of developments like Southern Cross is that the world is constituted by individual desires, rather than common interest.

It’s easy to forget that things could be otherwise. In 1978, the Victorian Government initiated the Transporting Art project, which commissioned 40 painted trams from artists over 15 years. City streets were adorned with mobile works by artists including Howard Arkley, Trevor Nichols, Gareth Sampson, Alex Danko, John Nixon and Les Kossatz. The program was initiated in the renaissance of public art under Rupert Hamer, which also saw the establishment of the Victorian Arts Centre, ACCA, Sculpture Triennial and Meat Market Craft Centre.

This ambitious period of cultural programming and infrastructure culminated in Federation Square. By 2001, Victoria’s public transport had been privatised, but the energies awakened by the painted trams resurfaced in a campaign of resistance by sacked conductors. Through performances like the Full Monty outside the GPO, conductors turned cultural activists argued for a restoration of human contact in public life.

Allied with this campaign, the Tramjatra project, led by Mick Douglas, established a solidarity between Calcutta’s endangered tram system and Melbourne’s transport resistance. For Douglas, Tramjatra was an expression of ‘globalisation from below’: the tram was a site of popular culture to counter homogenisation of urban life produced through advertising. Its most visible manifestation was a garish loud Karachi tram that trundled Melbourne’s city circle during the 2006 Commonwealth Games.

Apart from these renegade projects, the privatisation of Victoria’s public transport has undermined possibilities for public art. As profit-based companies, the new operators have capitalised on their exposure to the city’s mobile population with saturation advertising campaigns. This is exacerbated by the Adshel structures through Australia that offer shelter in exchange for product promotion. In Melbourne, there have been some proposals to commission artists to adorn the new tram ‘superstops’, but the problems associated with introduction of electronic ticketing have meant the government is reluctant to be seen diverting its energies on non-essential activities.

There have been some private and local initiatives. For 20 years, Melbourne’s first Artists Run Initiative, Platform continues its program for commuters passing by through Degraves Street subway coming and going from Flinders Street Station. In 2005, the Committee for Melbourne initiated Moving Galleries, modelled on projects in London and New York, which features work by poets and artists in train carriages. In 2007 they produced 1440 posters to travel on 40 trains. This is better than nothing, but it is a relatively minor presence.

There is more activity beyond the CBD. Under VicUrban’s public art strategy, Dandenong City has introduced a broad program that seeks to connect its varied populations. The Sleeper Project with curated by Ian Haig features work by RMIT Media Department alumni. Video are displayed on LCD screens on station platforms, including redundant ticket booths. This include scenes of a indigenous plans (Dominic Redfern), banality of train experience (Tawale Solote), fortune telling (Martine Corompt), a budgie-human hybrid (Zoe Scoglio) and conversations between strangers (Cassandra Tyler).

Pedestrian arteries such as under and overpasses are now adorned with eye-kidnapping images. Anu Patel, an Indian artist now living in England, produced a design for the Noble Park underpass that offers a metaphoric connection between people with a flamboyant river design. Viachroma by Rowena Martinich covers the glass overpass at Dandenong Station with splashes of iridescent paint that illuminate with different angles of the light during the day.

But such developments face a particular challenge now that public imagery now has to swim in a sea infested by predatory messages. How to break through? One particularly incisive project from Dandenong entailed turning a defunct bus depot into a series of discrete works of art. Robbie Rowlands’ contribution was to make a series of cuts through the floor to peel back its surface. The effect is similar to the sculptural work by Nicholas Jones who wields a scalpel to expose the inner tissue of books. These seeming destructive acts open up a dimension of materiality beyond the spectacle.

So how can we cut through the advertising? Given the capital at stake, it may seem hard to imagine state and local governments holding back the tide of advertising. But elsewhere under the Southern Cross, one city has radically reversed the trend. In 2006, São Paulo adopted the ‘Clean City Law’ which prohibited all outdoor advertising. Suddenly, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere removed more than 8,000 billboard sites, stripped the buses and discovered the reality behind the glossy image.

The law against outdoor advertising was enacted by a conservative mayor in order to combat the rampant expansion of illegal hoardings. As you might imagine, the legislation was denounced by the advertising industry. Some raise the spectre of old communist East Berlin as an example of how drab life can be without advertising in the streets. But the ‘clean city’ has proved a hit with Paulistas. The city’s retailers have adopted alternative strategies, including colour-coding that add to the environment, rather than distract from it. The vacuum has been quickly filled by a vibrant new street art. The distinctive ‘straight tag’ calligraphy of pichação (dirty scrawl) has recently been recognised in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. As local design writer Adelia Borges says, ‘For São Paulo it is a wonderful thing. The city can speak!’

We urgently need to weave a fabric on which strangers can relate together. It may be a new medium, like screens that accept text messages from passengers. Or even something, old—a state artist for the 21st century who can lend their skill and creativity to craft an enduring image of the many cultures that come to form a city. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘If you board the wrong train, it’s no use running along the corridor in the other direction.’ It’s time to change trains.

Kevin Murray is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and an independent writer and curator ( This article was originally published in Artlink issue Art in the Public Arena Vol 30 no 3.



Contemporary jewellery in Australia and New Zealand

Contemporary Jewellery in Australia and New Zealand is a book project with New Zealand writer Damian Skinner

Jewellery has a unique role to play in representing place. With the heritage of craft techniques and their own individual imaginations, jewellers are able to transform the world around them into wearable ornament. Thanks to their jewellers, it is possible for Australians and New Zealanders to display a complex and engaged relationship to place.

The aim of this book is to both provide an archive of information about recent history in facts and images, and engage jewellery in a broader argument about sense of place.

This book will recount the development of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia and New Zealand from the 1960s. The two scenes run alongside each other, at times parallel, other times crossing and sometimes divergent. Both scenes can be read as attempts to make sense of what it is to live on the other side of the world to the cultural centres. In this quest, they have both been influenced by German modernism, particularly with visits from Hermann Junger and Otto Künzli. While in New Zealand the language of local materials has been much contested as a means of Pakeha expression, in Australia there has been a divergent tension between the immediacy of found materials and the excess of ornament.

The Low and High Road in Australian Jewellery

Humble beginnings

Jewellery has played a role in Australia’s emergence as a nation. Inspired by the Arts & Crafts Movement, Australian flora began to appear in brooches and centrepieces. But much of this was still made in England. Until the 1960s, the Australian jeweller was mostly a tradesman equipped with technical knowledge and skill in manipulating metal and setting stones. These resources were used to fulfil commissions for relatively timeless standards such as the engagement ring. It was only in the 1960s that jewellery schools like that of RMIT began to encourage jewellers to consider the possibility of creating their own designs. The shift towards greater autonomy came partly through the intervention of European jewellers who migrated to Australia.

The influence of migrant jewellers was particularly strong in the 1970s. In Melbourne, Wolf Wennrich, an ex-student of Friedrich Becker, encouraged students to think of themselves as artists, using the medium of jewellery to express their inner visions. About the same time in Sydney, the Danish designer Helge Larsen established the Jewellery and Silversmithing Department of Sydney College of the Arts where jewellery was positioned as an art form alongside others, such as sculpture. It was here that Margaret West was able to develop such a powerful poetic practice evoking the resonance of such base materials as pebble and lead.

The opening of Australian jewellery to the world continued in the 1970s, with range of distinguished visitors including Arline Fisch, David Poston, Claus Bury, David Watkins and Wendy Ramshaw. Of particular significance was the visit in 1982 of the Munich professor and ex-student of Franz Rickert, Hermann Junger. Junger’s extensive three-month tour enabled him to have personal contact through workshops and social activities with most of the contemporary jewellery scene in Australia. As a primitivist, Junger was intensely interested in the direct engagement of the world, not beholden to received notions of preciousness. This aesthetic resonated greatly with the emerging Australian scene.

One immediate effect of Junger’s visit was to strengthen the link between Australia and Germany, principally through Munich and Melbourne. Australian students began to travel to study as part of the Munich Academy and Junger’s successor Otto Kunzli made many subsequent visits to Australia. In 1995, Gallery Funaki opened as a gallery in Melbourne that would operate as a southern showcase for the European jewellery world that was centred in Munich.

More broadly in Australia, Junger’s visit reinforced the challenge in jewellery here of connecting with the world at hand. This was reflected in two particular themes—nature and the body. In the case of nature, there was an avoidance of literal representation, such as the gumnut, which might be confused with cheap tourist souvenirs. As we will see, there was instead an attempt to capture in jewellery a more phenomenological engagement with environment. Through events such as the 1980 touring exhibition Objects to Human Scale, the body was identified as the domain proper to jewellery—what distinguished it as an art form. As the gallery wall was to painting, so the human body was to jewellery. The artistic impulse remained the same.

Meanwhile, state galleries and museums developed strong collections of contemporary Australian jewellery thanks to generous funding and government subsidies. Thanks to generous support of the Australia Council, and the work of organisations like Craft Australia, the relatively young Australian jewellery scene was able to engage with more established scenes in Europe and the USA. In 1984, Helge Larsen organised the exhibition Cross Currents, with jewellers from Australia, Britain, Germany and the Netherlands, each selected by key figures from their own countries. As this toured these countries, it presented a story of Australian jewellery in dialogue with the wider world in the north. As Larsen concluded in the catalogue, Australian jewellery offered ‘a freedom from traditional values.’

This quest for freedom was not foreign to contemporary jewellery. In contemporary jewellery, this poor aesthetic is most evident in the turn against the legacy of precious metals and stone. In their place, jewellers embrace materials considered either profane to jewellery heritage like plastic or inherently worthless such as rubbish. Ralph Turner’s 1982 exhibition Jewellery Redefined laid down the battle lines between the traditionalists and moderns. Peter Fuller responded, ‘I never thought I would live to see the day when it became necessary to say diamonds are a better friend to a girl – or boy come to that – than used cinema tickets.’[1]

Ripples of this continued to be felt through contemporary jewellery, such as the contest that emerged between two Dutch jewellers in 1985, when Robert Smit reintroduced gold into the jewellery repertoire, to the dismay of Gijs Bakker. This stimulated a contest between craft and design within jewellery—the traditional skills of the craftspersons opposed to the conceptual creativity of the designer.

Preciousness is highly contested in Australian jewellery. The modernist approach seeks to find ways of dignifying the ordinary world. This low road contrasts with the less-travelled high road which embraces the rich aesthetic in the use of precious materials and homage to tradition. The low road takes us back to where we began, while the high road leads us ever on.

The Low Road

Back to the bush

In recent times, Australian jewellery has played an important role in this quest to understand our immediate natural world. Marian Hosking was one of the first Australian jewellers to spend a considerable time in Germany. Between 1971 and 1973 she studied at Fachhochschule für Gestaltung in Pforzheim. Ironically, the experience of being surrounded by the jewellery traditions of Europe made Hosking even more determined to find her own path as an Australian. There are many obvious symbols available to someone like Hosking. Australia abounds with unique forms, such as gum leaves and kangaroos. The danger of pursuing these graphic symbols is that the jewellery becomes simply a vehicle for hackneyed visual icons. This doesn’t reflect the creative challenge of finding meaning in the material itself. In dedicating herself only to silver, Hosking was able to concentrate on the language of the metal. Rather than a singular form, Hosking is interested in the texture of nature, its striations and rhythms of movement. While her work can embrace the singular majesty of the giant Errinunga Shining Gum tree, it also draws from the humble suburban flora such as angophora shrub. Hosking’s silver jewellery brings nature a little closer to our world.

Conventional jewellery privileges the stone as the dominant element—the clasp is relatively secondary to the precious material it contains. During her career, Carlier Makigawa has elevated the background function of jewellery as a form of containment. She eschewed metals such as gold and silver in order to incorporate found materials, which to her were more indicative of place. A pebble gleaned from the ground during a walk could speak more to one’s location than minerals extracted from mines in distant places. Inspired by Japanese culture, Makigawa found a way of using a heavily lacquered papier mâche to create forms that had the appearance of metal yet were light enough to fit easily on the body. In her later work where cage-like silver structures framed empty space, the jewellery became more purely about the container. Makigawa’s architectural approach uses jewellery to create unique interior spaces.

South Australia has a small but deeply embedded jewellery culture. The JamFactory Craft & Design Centre has helped nurture metalsmithing skills over three generations. From this soil, Grey Street Workshop emerged in 1985 as a collective to support local creative jewellery practice. It quickly established a core focus for jewellery as a language for our immediate material world. For fellow members Sue Lorraine, Catherine Truman, Lesley Mathews this world was the body, particularly the folds of human anatomy. For Julie Blyfield, however, it was the material environment of the city that engaged her, especially in urban archaeology. She was initially fascinated by lost objects charged with memory. This evolved into an interest in nature, specifically South Australian flora. Like Marian Hosking, Blyfield chose not to illustrate nature literally. Instead she attempts to give expression to the phenomenological dimension of nature in its visual and tactile textures. Blyfield’s work offers a Braille-like engagement with the world. In the pimply surfaces of her work, we witness how the process of making taps out a rhythm of nature. This is the more experiential kind of nature that a postcard fails to represent.

Australian jewellers found through metal a particularly tactile language for reflecting nature. Rather than the sweeping horizons of landscape painting, forms like brooches provided a venue for a more intimate experience with the world.


The strength of the Australian jewellery movement lies particularly in its collective structures. In 1980, Workshop 3000 was established in Melbourne as a means of sharing equipment for recent jewellery graduates. It quickly became a creative force in its own right and was eventually led by Susan Cohn. Cohn developed a sequence of highly focused projects that used aspects of modern urban life to invent new jewellery forms. This included her stylised Briefcase of 1987 and series of technology-inspired jewellery for the 1989 exhibition And does it work?

But creating precious ornaments from the profane world of the street is just one dimension of Cohn’s practice. Her capacity to transform the world into jewellery operates in the social sphere as well. Through the use of a rigorous modernist aesthetic, intelligent marketing and personal networking, Cohn has been able to use her jewellery to constitute a particular class. Her iconic forms—the mesh ear rings and donut bracelets—have come to serve as markers of identity for the design elite associated with ‘Melbourne black’. The 2003 exhibition Black Intentions used these social circles directly to realise the final work.

But as with all of Cohn’s work, there are hidden complexities in this arrangement. Cohn occupies a unique position as a designer who embraces craft values. Similarly she provides a way for the cosmopolitan elite in Melbourne to identity with their particular place at the bottom of the world. What is the material that she has chosen as currency for this elite group? For many years, Cohn’s ley material has been aluminium—a strangely humble industrial substance for an urban elite.

Does this betray Cohn’s Australian egalitarian sensibility? There is obvious resistance to a nationalist reading of Cohn’s work. In her 1991 keynote lecture for the Jewellers and Metalsmith’s Group of Australia conference at the Sydney Opera House, she criticised attempts to read Australian jewellery as a reflection of national identity.

If you are someone working in New York or Amsterdam you are not trying to incorporate eagles or turkeys or windmills to locate your work authentically in its national context. The matter of national identity doesn’t even come up. You are a designer/craftsperson/artist/goldsmith, full stop.

Certainly, it would be a mistake to reduce jewellery to some crude tourist motifs. Contemporary Australian jewellery resists this strongly. You will be hard-pressed to find any opal in jewellery galleries—that’s just for tourists. It can still be argued that artists like Cohn are inflected by an egalitarian tenor, which has an Australian base. Yet the broader project she chooses to express this is the contemporary jewellery movement.

The work of Roseanne Bartley provides a deft complement to Cohn’s. Whereas Cohn uses design to create new ornaments for the city, Bartley employs the medium of jewellery to elevate what is left behind in the process of urban consumption. The New Zealand-born jeweller established her presence in the Australian scene with a series of works incorporating parts of obsolete typewriters. Keyboard letters were housed in silver as brooches. Strikers were later joined together to form elegant necklaces. She has followed this with a series on surface archaeology, setting the ultimate challenge of transforming worthless materials like discarded ice-cream sticks into necklaces and brooches.

Like Cohn, Bartley’s work has been placed in a relational context. Bartley takes a more conceptual interest in the way jewellery reflects social groupings. The 2007 exhibition Solutions for Better Living curated by Kate Rhodes brought Bartley and Cohn together in the broader context of user-defined jewellery.

The Australian urban jewellers defiantly embraced the immediate world around them. The jeweller Linda Hughes has found ways of more directly incorporating street signage into jewellery. They are not beholden to a traditional notion of jewellery as the medium of rare materials. For them, jewellery is a way of elevating the everyday.

When opportunity arises…

Sally Marsland is one of the Australians who travelled to Munich, where she studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. She is an experimental artist interested in how jewellery can be employed as a language for the poetry of everyday objects. Marsland’s early work for the exhibition Pursued Realities (1994) included vitrines filled with objects found at the back of friends’ cupboards. Her signature series, Almost Black (2000), included a deliberately eclectic assortment of objects that were brought together solely in the process of being dyed black. Marsland’s exhibition Why Are You Like This and Not Like That? (Gallery Funaki, 2004) included objects partly sourced from an opportunity shop that were all altered in some way—painted, dissected, lathed or cast. As Marian Hosking does for nature, Marsland uncovers a phenomenological layer to things that exists independently of their use or history.

Another Australian jeweller to make the journey to Germany, Helen Britton, has also gathered inspiration from the contents of opportunity shops. She has drawn extensively from outmoded jewellery in a process she calls ‘re-manufacture’. Her recently Lauscha project using German glass-blowers finds a way of incorporating otherwise kitsch ornament into contemporary jewellery. These kinds of collaborations challenge the disdain that is normally associated with popularist kitsch.

Anna Davern has established a strong body of work that draws nostalgically from the world of lost objects. In recent years, she has made jewellery from biscuit tins, sourced in opp shops. Davern counters their kitsch quite literally by physically extracting figures from the Australian scenes. In others, she cuts out kangaroo shapes from the generic imagery on the tin. Davern confronts the same demon of graphic literalness as other jewellers; her escape is to recover its materiality through the detritus of consumption.

The low road seems to be spiralling into itself. For some, it returns us to the natural world harboured in suburban backyards. For others, it directs us to the quotidian world of the street at our front door. And there are those who find a way into their basement filled with a hoard of leftover things. But what of that other road, leading somewhere beyond…

The high road

In contrast to the realism that characterises such a strong thread of Australian jewellery, there is a remarkable minority of artists who embrace the speculative. Particularly notable is Robert Baines. As Susan Cohn managed to combine design and craft, so Baines has been able to follow a career as an artist while at the same time adhering closely to the ethic of making. However, in contrast to Cohn, Baines draws inspiration from the past traditions of his craft, goldsmithing.

While other jewellers were seeking to dispel illusions about Australia, Baines was pursuing those very fantasies. His 1982 international show Misteri Antipoidei featured indigenous materials like mulga wood and granite. The continuing antipodean adventure of Adventures of the ARCHEGOS in 1992 most directly referenced the deep traditions of jewellery. As he wrote for the catalogue,

Archaeological investigation allows insights into the visual language of the ancient goldsmith with correlation of material process and expressions of eternality. These precepts are available to the contemporary goldsmith for restatement as a personal affirmation in the present context.

This restatement was conveyed powerfully in the 1997 exhibition, The Intervention of Red. Here Baines reached back into the archive of jewellery form and technique, with reference to the crown jewels. For Baines, the object is to find a way of manifesting this ancient art form in the present. One technique is the use of the colour red, which he introduces through otherwise profane elements such as the Coca Cola can and reflector lights. More recently he has used red as a way of signalling his authorship in works whose virtuosity of historical reconstruction might cause them to be seen as literal historic artefacts from a lost world. In the case of the 2006 series, Java-la-Grande, this is the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia. In these ways, Baines comes close to the other baroque mind of the south, Jorge Luis Borges.

Despite the way Baines cleaves to the sumptuous nature of jewellery as a reflection of wealth and prestige, he leavens his work with demotic culture, filled with celebrities and brands. Behind it all is the artificer, concocting forms that can realise the impenetrable mysteries of our world.

There are echoes of Baines’ approach in a number of other Australian jewellers. Stephen Gallagher is drawn to the elaborate style of Elizabethan jewellery, yet uses contemporary materials such as polymers to replicate their effects. Pierre Cavalan engages with classical themes such as the seven deadly sins, though he illustrates these with found elements. Their work strongly contrasts with the realism of most others, yet still in their use of seemingly worthless materials they continue the story of contemporary jewellery as a triumph of imagination over inherited wealth.

The lonely high road leads to mysterious worlds in other times and places. Yet despite this difference, it is hardly a yellow brick road. The ascending macadam is still made of the common materials that have paved the way below.


The pull of the contemporary jewellery scene resists any singular narrative about national style. In many senses, it is a world of its own.

Despite this, we find a story emerging from Australia that seeks to reflect what it is to make jewellery at the bottom of the world. There are two paths. There are those who seek a modernist path to invent a new jewellery that draws from the elements distinctly at hand in Australia, whether from rural or urban or suburban environments. And there are those who seek to recover lost secrets of jewellery tradition in the very artificialities of contemporary life.

These two paths go far beyond Australia. They weave a way across the South. Next door, in New Zealand, there is the attempt to invent a new tradition with local materials and techniques, while a few take the speculative turn. And we are seeing new paths beginning to emerge elsewhere in the antipodes, particularly in South Africa and Chile.

There are some significant Australian jewellers we have not located on these two paths. The much lauded Mari Funaki has developed a distinctive personal aesthetic that resists localisation. Others are at the early stage of their journey, like Christopher Earl Milbourne, whose baroque quotation indicates an upward trajectory. Any narrative contextualisation of jewellery need to be understood as a provisional framing rather than an expression of national essence.

As contemporary jewellery weaves its path around the world, it continues to grow as a project for finding ourselves anew. We can feel part of a conversation that is growing throughout the world. But that doesn’t stop us knowing where we are.

With this ring… in poverty or wealth.

Reference: ‘The low and the high road in Australian jewellery’  ed Robert Baines, The Treasure Room – Australia Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing (2010)

[1] Peter Fuller ‘Modern jewellery’, in Images of God: The Consolations of Lost Illusions London: Chatto & Windus, 1985 (orig. 1983)