Every object makes a story: The McGuffin Contract

As the Dutch say, ‘You cannot shoe a running horse’. There are times when one must put a stop to things for a while and see what’s happening under the bonnet. They’ve been significant changes in the world since a time when craft was the defining cultural activity. Our Victorian forebears helped re-position craft in relation to the industrial revolution. In the 1970s, craft was aligned with the liberating forces of feminism and environmentalism. So today how might we re-contextualise craft for the era of Facebook?

While popular interest in craft subsided a little after its peak in the 1970s, professional studio based practice flourished. For the purposes of this chapter, I want to focus on a new platform for craft that grew significantly after the 1970s—the university. Despite recent pressures, this platform retains potential for craft development today.

Contemporary craft emerged in Australia largely in the 1970s out of a popular interest in ‘getting back to nature’. Once that heady idealism succumbed to the power politics of the 1980s, certain craft practices moved out of the mud brick cottages into the groves of academia. From the late 70s, universities played a critical role as homes for the reproduction of craft skill and thinking.

For the past twelve years, in response to increasing centralisation of tertiary education, university executives have found it increasingly hard to justify the contact hours necessary to transmit craft skills, particularly compared to areas conducive to online teaching, such as photography. Rather than simply close down departments, some have attempted to re-balance the books by a reduction in teaching hours and creation of pathways to research activities in postgraduate and beyond.

For some, contact hours are essential to the transmission of craft knowledge: such knowledge is acquired in the body through concrete experience rather than abstract text-based learning. Without disputing this, it is important to consider what can be gained by a better understanding of craft practice through research.

Craft as research

The challenge is to develop a research paradigm appropriate to craft while retaining critical understanding. As someone often called on to provide external assessment for craft post-graduate degrees, I am often faced by two common problems. It is a mistake to simply borrow a research method that has been developed for the visual arts without considering the special conditions of craft. An academic approach to craft that does not take into account its materiality provides a form of abstraction that is disconnected from its subject. This is evident in the emphasis on craft practice as the exploration of issues, without regard to the medium. We engage with an issue expressed through images differently to one revealed in objects.

Where methodology has been adapted to craft practice, it sometimes takes a diaristic form. In these cases, studio-based craft is represented as a personal journey. While one can’t deny its significance in the artistic process, personal experience does not conform to the basic principle of academic research as a contribution to the collective field. Often unanswered are key questions, such as how the craftsperson’s experience contributes to the broader understanding of the medium and is reflected in the paths of others.

Apart from the problems for individual craftspersons in adapting to university standards, there are also missed opportunities to build an academic culture of craft research. From 2007, the Journal of Modern Craft has been building up a substantial base of scholarship focusing on the dialectic between craft and modernity. Last year this was complemented by Craft Australia’s craft + design enquiry providing a thematic focus that is both international and of relevance to the Asia Pacific. The platform for craft research is growing substantially.

Establishing a base for craft research has two benefits. Firstly, in terms of the broader craft ecology, academic positions provide important opportunities for practitioners to sustain their practice and extend existing audiences. Secondly, research should be able to enable new paradigms in craft practice that connect it to our changing world.

It is to the latter benefit that this article attends. My intention in this paper is to focus on a relatively new paradigm that seems particularly appropriate to craft practice—Actor Network Theory. But given the existence of a burgeoning field of research in craft, let me first locate it in relation to existing thought.

The image

Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking through Craft provides a foundation for today’s craft research. Adamson attempts to critically examine the relation between craft and visual arts practice. He targets particularly that form of contemporary craft which aspires to the status of visual arts.

Adamson critiques the way visual arts defines itself against craft. He adopts a deconstructive method that understands such oppositions as mutually sustaining relationships: in setting itself up against craft, artists find themselves an agenda for contesting visual arts orthodoxy. He identifies five qualities that despite being disavowed have become intrinsic to the field. These include supplementarity, materiality, skill, the pastoral and the amateur.

In this paper, I’d like to build Adamson’s analysis of the material dimension. Adamson’s thinking about materiality in craft is not limited to physical substance. He looks instead to the dimension of objectness—the place of things in the world.

Objectness has a problematic place in visual arts. With irony, Adamson quotes the line from Ad Reinhardt –‘Sculpture is something that you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.’[1] An image is a mirror to the world. We see the world reflected in it, but it is not totally part of the world. While we do find images in craft practice, such as designs on ceramic pots, it consists predominantly in things that take a place in the world.

For Adamson, the optical ideal of visual arts entails a disavowal of materiality in. Yet far from banishing physical substance, this ideal provokes a framework for movements such as minimalism that contest the reduction of art to illustration.

No doubt, the visual is the dominant sense in the contemporary world. W.J.T. Mitchell has been one of the theorists advocating the extension of visual arts theory beyond art itself to the role of visuality in our culture – a visual studies. As he writes in What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, ‘image is everything’:

The claim that we live in a society of spectacle, surveillance, and simulacra is not merely an insight of advanced cultural criticism; a sports and advertising icon like Andre Agassi can say that ‘image is everything’ and be understood as speaking not only about images but for images, as someone who was himself seen as ‘nothing but an image’. (Mitchell, 2005, p.32)

Mitchell evokes here the ‘society of spectacle’, in which we engage with the world as a remote form of entertainment. Rather than be part of the world, we watch it on the stage or screen. As Guy Debord remarked apocalyptically, ‘[Spectacle] is the sun that never sets on the empire of modern passivity’ (Debord, 1995, p. 17).[2] Of course, this does not mean that visual arts is a mere extension of society of spectacle. Yet while much contemporary art is directly opposed to the manufactured image, there are times when even the most critical resistance ends up creating an alternative form of spectacle. [3] As an object-based form of expression, craft has potential to connect participants together more directly rather than via a distant image. There are thus political as well as theoretical reasons for us to consider ways of understanding craft practice that go beyond the image.

The story

There are various distinctive ways of thinking about craft as an object-based medium. Craftsmanship reflects the investment of skill in the making process. Of enduring relevance here is David Pye’s ‘art of workmanship’,[4] which presented craft process not only as a reassuring tradition but also as an apt response to organic materials.

But this is only one side of the story. Readings of the object such as Pye’s attend exclusively to the manner of its production. But there is also a complimentary dimension revealed as the object makes its way into the world, once it leaves the maker’s hands. So what craft framework do we employ to understand the life of the object after the bench?

As Aristotle noted in Poetics, the foundational text in aesthetics, plot is the basic principle of art.[5] Narrative binds together events over time, conventionally with a beginning, middle and end. Narrative has a role in visual arts in providing the framing context in which we view the work. A particularly important context has been the romantic myth of the artist, him or herself. It may not be the most highly regarded reading of art, but a popular means of engaging with painting is certainly to invoke the biography of the artist. The work of key figures in modern art, like Vincent van Gough, can be read as a theatre for their tortured relationship to the world.

The biographical reading does happen in craft as well. The work of the late-jewellery artist Mari Funaki is usually framed as a modernist exploration of form. But when it was exhibited in the National Gallery of Victoria, a story was invoked of a walk shared with her nephew when she discovered a beetle that inspired her to re-create its secret three-dimensional world. [6] The modernist and narrative context need not exclude each other, but the former links the work more to the field of specialist artistic endeavour, while the latter offers a connection to common experience.

Narrative isn’t limited to the interpretation of craft by users. There are certain artists for whom narrative is a key element of production itself. Robert Baines constructs narratives such as the speculative Portuguese colonisation of Australia as frameworks that charge his work with meaning. Providing the user with a story to accompany the craft work is one of the less acknowledged skills of the maker.

In all, I would argue that craft is better understood within the framework of narrative than image. While an image can show a story, the object has potential to be part of one. Narrative helps make sense of the crafted object as a material presence in our world rather than an abstract reflection.

Thus far, we have considered narratives of production. But the concern here is on the other side of the story. Reflecting the development of reception theory in literary studies, I’d like to focus the rest of this paper in the way a crafted object can be understood according to its history of use.

The MacGuffin

In narrative theory, there has been some intriguing recent work on the way events are tied together into a story by use of a linking device. This is often through the use of a witness, such as a character who may be incidental to the action, yet whose point of view provides the critical connection between the events of the story. There have been various terms for such a linking device. Wayne Booth (1987, p. 102) uses the term ‘ficelle’ (the French word for ‘string’) for the way a narrator will use an object to weave together events within a complex story. Slavoj Zizek (1991, p.18)[7] uses a parallel psychoanalytic term ‘quilting point’ to describe more broadly the operations of the object to bind values together. His reading of Hitchcock films points to the critical role of the object as an agent in narrative. But it is Hitchcock’s own term for this which helps us here take a fresh view of the narrative significance of the object.

Hitchcock uses the term ‘MacGuffin’ to refer to a technique in his story telling whose purpose is to lure viewers into the drama through a seeming incidental story, often involving an object such as a necklace. Hollywood director George Lucas identified the ‘MacGuffin’ as the driving element in all narrative.[8] It is the elusive object that galvanises action, from the Holy Grail to the evil Ring.

In Hitchcock’s film, Strangers on a Train, the MacGuffin is a cigarette lighter that has the power to incriminate one of the characters. This lighter plays no real role in the action, other than as the object around which tension builds. The climax of the film heightens around a race by two characters to arrive at the scene of incrimination. One is playing in a tennis tournament, eager to finish the game. The other has dropped the incriminating cigarette lighter down a drain. The latter’s desperate attempts to recover the lighter heighten the tension, intercut with scenes of the hard fought tennis match. The object itself plays no practical role in the drama, other than as a witness to particular events. Yet its status as a singular object means that it provides a site of contest between two forces.

In the MacGuffin theory of craft, the object doesn’t just symbolise a narrative, it creates it. But beyond Hitchcock’s canny ‘trick of the trade’, how might be understand the way objects make stories.

Actor Network Theory

While Hitchcock’s idiosyncratic theory of the MacGuffin comes with a set of compelling examples in his films, the broader theoretical framework must lie elsewhere. Fortunately, there has arisen in recent years a paradigm focusing on the construction of linkages that provides a broader context for the object as MacGuffin. Actor Network Theory (ANT) has emerged principally through the work of French sociologist Bruno Latour (2005).[9] Latour attempts to understand society not as the expression of deeper forces, such as class or gender, but as a network of networks, actively constructed by its members. It’s a theory well suited to the age of Facebook and Twitter, where change appears to emerge from the many below rather than the few above. But it also goes beyond the anthropocentric information age and extends agency to include not only humans but also their things. So the production of scientific knowledge, for instance, is not just about the ingenuity of researchers, it is also about the role of devices such as counters that ‘voice’ information. What interests ANT is not the agents themselves, but the way they are linked together: ‘If a dancer stops dancing, the dance is finished.’ ANT is a world of mediators—a world of McGuffins.

So how do we connect this theory of connections back to craft practice?

Everyday jewellery

As others such as the Adelaide jeweller Don Ellis (2004) have noted, ANT is particularly suited to understanding the place of craft in the world. Jewellery, for example, is a business of producing objects that bind social relations. The wedding ring is the typical instance of an object whose worth far exceeds its design and material value. The ring bears witness to a marriage, from the unique day of the wedding ceremony to the countless routine acts of sliding the ring on and off the finger the each day of a marriage. The quotidian duty of the ring calls the husband and wife into a caring relation to the other.

In recent times, with the work of artists such as Roseanne Bartley, contemporary jewellery has explored the paradigm of relational aesthetics. This field appears to complement well the emphasis on connectivity in ANT. Yet according to its founder, Nicholas Bourriard, ‘craftsmanship’ is the antithesis of the relational; it hierarchically elevates the expertise of the master above the participating group. What relational aesthetics lacks is provision for the agency of the object. It assumes that art merely enables an immanent sociality to emerge, independent of its medium. The constructivist perspective of ANT offers a more pragmatic understanding that deals in tangible links.

So how can contemporary jewellery engage with this? I argue that the path ahead lies through design. Let’s begin with the relation between traditional jewellery and natural selection. The charged role of objects has evolved along lines parallel to evolution. Through countless selections and mutations, the wedding ring found a niche in the social construction of family. That’s the story up to now, but in our own time we are increasingly less inclined to leave things up to nature. With innovations such as designer genes and carbon reduction technologies, the practice of design has emerged as an active quest to improve the world as we find it.

From an ANT perspective, we can see how some artists in our part of the world have approached this. The practice of Susan Cohn has exploited the capacity of objects to mediate human relationships. This is most famously evident in her rings whose surface degrades with time. Her aluminium mourning ring has a black surface which is gradually worn away after a year or so, during which the mourning process can be seen to have reached some kind of acceptance. Alternatively, her wedding rings that have alternate surfaces, such that with time the gold leaf exposes the aluminium body underneath. These rings build in a redundancy, necessitating a renewal after five years. While being a clever way of maintaining business with a couple, this also offers the marriage an important opportunity to regain its momentum through a public ritual.

One very interesting example is across the Tasman. Warwick Freeman is known as one of the world’s leading jewellery artists. Each work of his is not only conceptually elegant but also beautifully crafted at his bench. There is one exception to this. For the enterprise Chihapaura (Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Jewellery?), founded by Gijs Bakker and Liesbeth den Besten, Freeman designed a ring for production. Based on this pebble series, this ring is designed to enable those who find themselves travelling across many borders to retain a relation to their home. Expressing a particularly Pakeha settler value to the earth of Aotearoa, Freeman has designed an internal plug which can be inserted into the earth and extract a core sample of dirt, which can then be discretely secured enabling the wearer to move through various quarantine restrictions without detection.

While a clever idea, reflecting the love of the ‘internal secret’ in contemporary jewellery, Freeman’s ring enables us to cultivate a located identity. This is more than we might be capable of purely by force or argument. This ring then enables narrative potential. Like a wedding ring, it binds subsequently journeys back to a foundational moment.

A Charmed Life

There is much potential in thinking about the crafted object as a mediator between people. One of the critical problems with modernity has been the dissolution of social relations. The mobility and abstraction produced through modernity are associated with chronic depression and anomie—what the German sociologist Max Weber (1976) described as the ‘iron cage’ of modern rationality. As we know with the operations of missionaries in Indigenous Australia, the road to modernity is cleared by casting out the idols. ‘Power’ objects are banished and replaced with scientific devices. Prior to modernity, these were associated with the control of forces affecting people’s lives. Now they are seen as forms of primitive idolatry. An ANT perspective restores them to everyday life in their role as social mediators.

Traditionally, objects were used to protect the wearer against evil forces, and sometimes enable them to realise their hopes. They were used to foraging in the realm of religious belief, which has dried up recently—I don’t mean disappeared, but no longer so mediated by ritual and idols. This has left us with a relative dearth of objects that enable us to navigate the rites of passage that still beset our existence, with or without gods. Few of us would think of carrying a St Christopher’s Medal when embarking on an international flight. Yet this flight may entail absence from family and friends for a significant time. How do we sustain our ties back home while venturing forth to new experiences?

The Japanese practice a tradition that continues to sustain the ties that bind us together. Omamori are Japanese amulets that are dedicated to Shinto deities and Buddhist figures. Mamori means protection; Omamori means honourable protection. This charm usually consists of a small cloth bag inside of which is an object, sometimes a piece of paper with prayers written on it. Omamori are dedicated to different functions. Specific temples offer Omamori for particular needs, such as the Gakugyojoju, which assists with study.

Omamori have proven quite adaptable to the modern world. One of the recent contributions to a Luck Bank[10] featured a Japanese woman living in Singapore. Every year, the mother sends a fresh Omamori for protection to her children, including her daughter overseas. All that it takes to express such a primary bond is a simple paper envelope that fits neatly into her wallet. While the power of the Omamori rests in the content of the envelope, for it to be effective the wearer must never open it. At the end of each year, the daughter returns her Omamori to her mother, who then burns it ritually. A new one is then sent to the daughter at the beginning of every year.

This family tradition seems a particularly effective way of maintaining a family tie. It offers an annual cycle that renews the filial links. But once in possession, the object also plays a subtle role in defining the relationship. In a way that is inexplicable to western consciousness, the recipient needs to resist the temptation to open the envelope and look at its content. Like the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, the relationship is defined by an interdiction. This object just calls its human host into a moral obligation to its origin.

Could contemporary jewellers in countries like Australia re-design traditional charms for today’s lifestyle?[11]

Welcome Signs

The second potential path concerns the rituals of hospitality. In village communities, particularly those in eastern countries, there are often elaborate ceremonies to welcome guests. Many Islamic countries even go far as to say that the ‘guest is god’. In the Asia Pacific region, the floral garland is commonly used to dignify the visitor. In the Pacific, the lei and salusalu are constructed from natural flowers and fibres to adorn those returning home from across the waters, sometimes extended to foreigners and tourists. In Thailand, the phuang malai, woven from jasmine petals, finds a multitude of applications—welcome to guests, adorn photos of departed, or prevent accidents in cars. They are also ubiquitous in India and Indonesia. Made from fresh flowers, these garlands indicate that the adornment is fresh to this occasion, not something pulled out whenever like a plastic Christmas tree. Their colourful appearance also visually marks the guest as a special presence.

The rituals of hospitality fit uneasily into a modern and particularly Western lifestyle. First, increasing urbanisation has decreased accessibility to fresh organic materials. Second, the increasing numbers of strangers in urban life makes it more difficult to apply the unquestioning hospitality normally offered to strangers.

How might contemporary craftspersons fashion welcome adornments that symbolise the belief in hospitality from the dissipated communities of our time?[12]


Through the ANT framework, it is possible to explore pathways that connect the object back to pre-modern uses in daily ritual. Designer-makers have the capacity to test out the capacities of the object to affect its wearer’s life.

But this approach does leave us with some uneasy questions in relation to craft. Where does this leave craftsmanship? The appreciation of skill and innovation invested in the production of object is usually something best appreciated internally within the craft community, whether a guild or fellow makers. ANT offers a purely external understanding of the value of the craft object. The McGuffin need not be handmade—all it need be is a unique object.

But this does not necessarily exclude craftsmanship. If factors like exquisite detail and traditional lineage lead to the rarity of the object, then craftsmanship can facilitate its value as a linking device. The handmade has more narrative potential than an industrially made product found on any supermarket shelf.

In return, though, ANT does seek to develop otherwise dormant design skills in the craftsperson. Such objects need to afford the kinds of use it may undergo as a ritual object. These factors include an aesthetic appeal, temporality (whether enduring or ephemeral) and spatial adaptation (to fit on the body or other surface). As we see in the case of contemporary jewellers today, there are some exciting design challenges in store for the McGuffin makers of the future.


What I’d like to offer from this argument is an alternative mode of relation for contemporary craft. This is a place for the unique handmade object whose value rests not in its worth to the individual collector, but as a token by which certain enduring social relations are enabled. Such a role does not support craftsmanship in itself, but it does buy space and time for the investment of craft skill in an object. This MacGuffin contract extends craftsmanship into the realm of social design.


Booth, W 1961,The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Debord, G. 1995, The Society of the Spectacle (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith) New York: Zone, (orig. 1967).

Dolar, M 1992, ‘Hitchcock’s objects’ in Zizek, S. (ed.), Everything You Wanted to Know about Lacan (But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, London: Verso.

Ellis, D 2004, The Hidden Hand and the Fluid Object: Craft in Three Sites of Representation, unpublished PhD thesis, University of South Australia.

Latour, B 2005, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McIntyre, A. 1984, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame University Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. 2005, What Do Pictures Want?: The Lives and Loves of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Murray, K. 1992a, ’Till death us do part: A structurationist approach to jewellery’ in Ioannou, N. (ed.) Fremantle Arts Centre Press, online at http://www.kevinmurray.com.au/texts/tildeath.html.

Murray, K. 1992b, ‘There is craft in Pierre’s laboratory’, Craft Victoria July/August, 22 (215): 4-6, online at http://www.kevinmurray.com.au/texts/craftplab.htm.

Needleman, C. 1993, The Work of Craft, New York: Kodasha.

Pye, D. 1995, The Nature and Art of Workmanship, Bethel Court, UK: Cambrium Press.

Weber, M. 1976, The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism, London: Allen & Unwin.

Zizek, S. 1991, For They Know Not What They Do: Enjoyment as a Political Factor, London: Verso.


Dr Kevin Murray, Adjunct Professor RMIT University, born 1958, Perth, Western Australia

Research interest: social object, jewellery, intellectual property, ceramics, ethical design, social theory, narrative psychology


Murray, K 2005, Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious, Sydney: Thames & Hudson.

Signs of Change: Jewellery Designed for a Better World Form, Perth, 2009

Common Goods: Cultures Meet through Craft Melbourne Museum, Melbourne, 2006

Joyaviva: Live Jewellery Links People across the Pacific, RMIT Gallery, Melbourne 2012


Narrative is central to art. While visual art is largely concerned with the representation of narrative, jewellery has the capacity to play an active role in generating stories. This paper develops a context for understanding the narrative power of the jewellery object that draws from Hitchcock’s concept of the MacGuffin and Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Several examples are given of specific social objects, such the charm and welcome garland.

[1] Glenn Adamson ‘Things that Go Bump’ American Craft Magazine http://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/things-go-bump (accessed 30 September 2012)

[2] There is a way of arguing that the detachment from the world encouraged by spectacle is one of the resistances to action on climate change. As success of the film Avatar shows, the wondrous images on 3D plasma screens insulate us from the cold reality of peak energy reserves.

[3] See http://www.nomadicmilk.net/full/ for an example of how an attempt to counter commodification results in an alternative form of spectacle.

[4] ‘Every material–clay, yarn, metal, glass, and wood too–has a tolerance, is workable only up to a certain point and beyond that point will break down essentially. The craftsman’s job is to investigate that tolerance, to stretch the limits of the material, come as close as he can to the edge of ruin and stop there. Then the finished piece will ‘sing’ like a taut wire.’ David Pye (1995, p. 63). See also Carla Needleman (1993, p.91).

[5] See Alistair McIntyre (1984) for an extended account of man as a ‘story telling animal’.

[6] ‘The Art Gallery of Western Australia pauses to remember Mari Funaki, one of Australia’s most significant jewellers and artists’ Art Gallery of Western Australia http://www.artgallery.wa.gov.au/about_us/Mari-Funaki.asp accessed 3 January 2012

[7] Also see Dolar (1992) and Murray (1992a)

[8] ‘MacGuffin’ Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MacGuffin#cite_ref-Lucas_7-0 accessed 3 January 2012

[9]. For a previous discussion, see Murray (1992b)

[10] ‘Omamori’ Luck Bank http://luckbank.craftunbound.net/page/2 accessed 3 January 2012

[11] The exhibition Southern Charms has been developed to explore this potential, drawing on jewellers from across the Pacific, from Australasia to Latin America.

[12] Welcome Signs: Contemporary Interpretations of the Garland has been developed to explore how these ornamental traditions might be adapted to modern circumstances. It includes work by a new generation of jewellers from the Asia Pacific, such as Fryza from Indonesia who has constructed a neckpiece for the network age.

“Perhaps New Holland be” the ceramics of Stephen Bowers

Elliott, a wire sculptor from Mpumalanga, witnessing the solar eclipse

I was once in a Zulu village on the day of a solar eclipse. Feeling self-conscious of my skin colour, I asked my host what they called a white person. He smiled and pronounced a mysterious word, ‘Umlungu’, explaining that it meant ‘magician’. With something like admiration he then described the fantastic devices Europeans brought when they first came to South Africa. With a few curious contraptions such as gramophones, cameras and books, white people seemed able to capture the entire world. ‘They could persuade a chief to give away a whole valley for a piece of mirror, for in that mirror seemed to be the whole world.’ While those European saw natives as beholden to primitive beliefs, they didn’t realise that they themselves were bearers of their own magic.

Acquisition of land by colonisation is no longer the source of celebration it once was. But there is still fascination in the original scene when two halves of the world met for the first time—not just when first peoples met mysterious white people, but also when Europeans initially encountered those whom they had previously only imagined. Today, to reflect on those original encounters is to renew the sense of possibility that fate has closed off.

Adelaide based ceramicist Stephen Bowers is adept in the sense of conjunction, contact, overlap and possibility. His works – detailed and richly decorated, crowded with familiar images – are also edged round with shadows, overlaps and shards. They at once evoke a whimsical, topsy-turvy sense of wonder, while hinting at the breakage and fracture central to all forms of encounter.

Dreams of a counterbalancing netherworld can be traced back to the origins of philosophical thought itself. The early Greek philosopher Pythagoras posited that if the earth was a sphere, then it needed an antipodes to underpin or support oecumene, the known world. In his complex works, Bowers continues the imaginative preoccupation with the antipodes as a speculative mirror and source of possibility. At a time when Google Earth exposes all corners of the world to instant perusal, it is especially important to retain the space that once was a playground for our collective imagination.

Pythagoras’ notion was given more concrete form by Pliny the Elder in the first century CE. What was for the Greeks a theoretical postulate was, for the Romans, a source of wonder; imagine a world that could never know of the splendours of Rome! Pliny populated the South with imaginary creatures – antichthones that invert biological order, like the Blemmyis who hid their mouths and eyes in their breasts.

Classical authors presumed an antipodes that was radically separated from the known world of the north. A ring of fire was supposed to prevent travellers from venturing below the equator, a belief not dispelled until the age of exploration, when navigators braved the latitudes and discovered the riches that lay below.

Anxious to claim Terra Australis – the South Land – for their empire, the British imbued their own new antipodes with a mellow neo-classical turn in which the decorative arts and pottery in particular played an early role. Wedgewood, using a sample of dark grey clay from Sydney Cove collected by Governor Phillip and given to Sir Joseph Banks, created a medallion to commemorate the 1789 poem by Erasmus Darwin, ‘The Visit of Hope to Sydney Cove’. It was here that Darwin dreamt of that…

‘…some isle

Might rise in green-haired beauty eminent,

And like a goddess, glittering from the deep,

Hereafter sway the sceptre of domain

From pole to pole, and such as now thou art,

Perhaps New Holland be’.

Reflecting similar evoked icons of dignified nature, Bowers draws on the specimens and representations brought back by the navigators and naturalists. He often incorporates into his work the engraved copperplate image of the kangaroo painted by George Stubbs from remains brought back by Captain Cook in 1773, and includes the animated banksia by the Endeavour’s illustrator Sydney Parkinson as well as the technicolour birds by the contemporary artist William T. Cooper.

Stephen Bowers, plate

But it was not until Sydney of the late 1960s and early 1970s that the antipodean adventure seemed to reach its zenith. ‘It was time’ and culture, it seemed, had awakened; Australia was coming of age. Sydney was then a cornucopia of writers, wits, artists and creative eccentrics. On TV, the Mavis Bramston Show, followed by Aunty Jack, celebrated distinctively Australian variations from an increasingly remote English norm in content, accent and attitude. It was within this encouraging scene that we can locate much of Bowers’ formative creative inspiration.

Between 1970 and 1973, and inspired by van Gogh who had sought to escape Paris by starting a community of artists in the south, Martin Sharp developed an artist’s collective, The Yellow House, in Macleay Street, just down from King’s Cross. Sharp, with his incisive illustrative involvement with the satirical and incendiary OZ magazine and recently returned from creative years in London, was ready for a focus for his vision of creative evolution. Membership of the Yellow House was casual and diverse; at any time one might find the likes of Aggy Read, Dick Weight, Brett Whitely, Bruce Gould, Peter Weir and George Gittoes. Thanks to Sharp’s cultured affability it was not an exclusive club; anyone who strayed into the house was invited to work on its walls.

One day, a young Stephen Bowers wandered in and discovered Sharp engrossed in work at a large table. Looking up, Sharp said hello and pointing to some money on the table, asked if Stephen wouldn’t mind going to the hardware shop to buy some black and white paint. On return, Sharp asked Stephen if he knew the work of surrealist painter Rene Magritte. Soon, Stephen was assisting in painting an entire room according to Magritte’s ‘stone room’ painting (ceramicist Joyce Gittoes later produced clay figurines to complement the setting). It became a legendry trompe of a trompe l’oeil.

Stephen Bowers, Surf Board, 2010Vestiges of the Yellow House can be seen throughout Bowers work. We can discern the word ‘Eternity’, which Sharp had discovered chalked through the streets of Sydney in copperplate handwriting by the illiterate soldier, Arthur Stace. Sharp had an eye for locality and identity and championed Luna Park, as a kind of psychic key to Sydney’s identity. In the same vein, Bowers developed his own take on Australian culture, adding to the carnival of images such characters as Boofhead and the Bondi lifesaver.

Bowers however is not limited to the Australian menagerie. He continues the long ceramic traditions of depicting whimsical, imagined and fantastical realities, as can be seen in his interpretations of the idealised harbour, archipelagos and floating islands of the willow pattern. Under Bowers’ exacting brush, this pattern unfolds as a map of imaginary voyage, migrating even onto the iconic forms of Staffordshire dogs.

More than just a conduit for the past, Bowers has inventively developed his own graphic language. His ceramic plates use the eye of the cockatoo as a centrifugal centre which focuses the storm of energy that circulates around it, which can be either integrated and connective or chaotic and fragmented – or both. As a cockatoo can shred human shelter with its beak, so too it seems to unbind decorative art history, leaving shreds of wallpaper and shards of Chinoiserie. The bird’s eye provides a powerful fulcrum for this energy.

Among the many techniques in Bowers’ work are layers of marbleised background and other faux surfaces, fine brushwork detail, on-glaze enamels and gold lustre, stencilled reserves, air brush and drop shadow. Thanks to Photoshop, this last feature has been a ubiquitous effect in digital graphics. In his ceramics however, Bowers uses it to enhance the sense of floating fragmentation and the drift and vertiginous flow of elements in his compositions.

These and many other pictorial devices contribute to a visual feast, to which he continually adds new ingredients. But Bowers is not only a skilled graphic artist; he also knows how to bring out the best in those around him. Concentrating on glazed decoration, he has long collaborated with the highly skilled Adelaide potter Mark Heidenreich, who throws all his large blanks for decoration.

It is hard to find peers for Bowers. To my mind, his closest comparison comes perhaps not from ceramics, but from gold and silversmithing. Like Bowers, the Melbourne artist Robert Baines has persisted with a strong interest in the antipodes. Baines has enjoyed a similar mix of sacred and profane in his ornate metal sculptures, and is certainly not shy to exhibit his prodigious craft skills. Both Bowers and Baines offer a rare classical aesthetic in Australian craft culture. They are drawn to the wisdom of the archive while remaining true to their place in a contemporary Australia.

Today, the Yellow House is as unreal to us as the yellow brick road in the Wizard of Oz, and as distant as the legendary antipodes once was to the ancient Pythagoras. It is thus even more important to retain the horizon of wonder and play on which imaginations flourish. We are fortunate to have such a dexterous hand as Bowers’ to guide us back to the lost world where we live today.

The party’s over, time to do the dishes: Thinking through relational art and craft

In his book Thinking Through Craft (2007), the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Glenn Adamson argues that craft in the twentieth century functioned as a repository for all that visual arts defined itself against, such as amateurism, skill and pastoralism. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can now see craft beginning to come out of that closet. Like a rabbit being swallowed by a python, it is slowly being absorbed by the visual arts.

In 2001, Ricky Swallow’s exhibition at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art introduced ‘craft’ into Australian visual arts as a performative notion. Since then, craft has added a celebrated dimension to many artists’ work, including that of Fiona Hall, Maria Cardoso and Louise Weaver. The appropriation of knitting into DIY culture has also provided artists like Renee So and Kate Just with a new context in which to work. Internationally, the recent publication By Hand: The Use of Craft in Contemporary Art by Shu Hung and Joseph Magliaro features visual artists employing craft techniques particularly as a medium of intimacy and personal meaning.

So while visual arts has brought craft into the mainstream, what role remains for the specialist potters, jewellers, weavers, glass-blowers and wood carvers? Many hold out in noble pursuit of their craft, but others seek a place in this new order. Some seem to have abandoned the workshop altogether in order to socialise their production, taking on the paradigm of relational art. In this way, the worlds of craft and visual art appear to converge. Visual art seeks to ground itself more firmly in making, while craft divests itself of traditional materials and spaces.

Craft and relational art might seem an uneasy fit. In his manifesto Relational Aesthetics (1998), for instance, Nicolas Bourriard decries ‘craftsmanship’ as a means of excluding audience. But new possibilities can be found in the relational craft of Vipoo Srivilasa. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Srivilasa moved to Australia in 1997, soon finding himself sharing a Melbourne studio with David Ray and Stephen Benwell. While very different from each other, each of these artists express a baroque effervescence that contrasts greatly with the sober modernism elsewhere. Using gold lustre and bright glazes, Srivilasa created fantastic creatures from realms of popular toy culture, Thai mythology and coral reefs. But to move from craft to contemporary art spaces posed a different challenge: ceramics need to leave the shelf.

Last year artist and curator Aaron Seeto, Director of Sydney’s Asia–Australia Arts Centre, Gallery 4A, struck a deal with Srivilasa: he would show his suite of ceramic hands if Srivilasa could think of a way of directly engaging his audience. In response, Srivilasa included a clay exercise for visitors to contribute to an underwater sea of coral reefs and fish. Beyond the gallery, they programmed ‘Taste – Touch – Tell’, a series of dinners in the homes of private individuals where Srivilasa would serve Thai food in specially prepared crockery.

The dinners went stunningly well. Srivilasa developed a 105-piece setting for a seven-course meal which he himself cooked. As a way of experiencing ceramics, it was more choreographic than curated. Guests were given a wristband on entry. They were free to select their own plate for the first course, on the underside of which was message of fortune. Food was passed clockwise to duplicate the direction of Buddha’s walk around the stupa monument on Buddha’s Day. The next course was served up in bowls: ‘Best Wishes Soup’ contained symbols of fortune at the bottom. The meal was interrupted with a simple clay exercise as guests were taught to make pinch pots.

In many ways, Srivilasa’s work parallels that of his Thai compatriot Rirkrit Tiravanija, who became famous for Untitled, his 1992 work that transformed a New York art gallery into a restaurant providing free meals for visitors. But the two Thai dinners are quite different. While both artists resort to the kitchen, Tiravanija offers meals in the gallery without rules or price, embodying the spirit of Andy Warhol by surfing the Manhattan art scene in a way that made space for its anarchic sociability – ‘to consume without being owned’. By contrast, Srivilasa’s seems a more commodified experience, carefully controlled to focus on the things and their cultural context. How the two artists have since taken their contrasting anarchist and programmed approaches reveals much about the alternative paths of relational art and craft.

So where do Tiravanija and Srivilasa go from there? Tiravanija has restaged his dinners as well as putting his show on the road from Berlin to Lyon. Last year he commissioned Thai art school graduates to render photographs of demonstrations into drawings. As one would expect from a conceptual artist, Tiravanija gave over production to others, though the value of the work remained his. In August last year he brought two young Thai artists, Pratchaya Phinthong and Pattara Chanruechachai, to Auckland’s Artspace where they produced an unbound magazine based on spontaneous content. His work combines symbolic gestures with collective process, but it largely maintains the social limits of the art world.

Srivilasa has now taken this work back to Thailand. Following the lead of Janet deBoos, who now works with a ceramics factory in China, Srivilasa organised a residency for himself in Thai Celadon, a family-owned ceramics factory specialising in glazes based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. While there, Srivilasa had been struck by the fragmented nature of the factory where each worker is responsible for only a small element in the final product. He started hosting workshops which offered workers the opportunity to create whole pieces based on a monster theme. After the first workshop, it was clear that the resulting works would warrant an exhibition of their own. Launched in April this year at Pong Noi Art Space, ‘Monsters by Hands’ featured works with photographic portraits of each worker. Opening night was officiated by Princess Duangduen and by the end of the evening half the works had sold. It has already evolved into an annual event on an animal theme.

By contrast with Srivilasa, Tiravanija’s work seems more contemporary in its direct address of political themes. It attempts to bring politics into the realm of the personal through handmade process. But as a work in itself, it reproduces the classic relationship between artist and technician as reproduced in brand name artists such as Jeff Koons. Srivilasa’s relationship with the workers is more reciprocal. They have helped make his work, and now he is helping make theirs. It’s certainly a very different kind of reciprocity to that of Antony Gormley, who in Asian field, 2006, had 347 Chinese villagers make 192,000 clay sculptures.

The contrast between Srivilasa and Tiravanija touches on a heated argument about relational art. In 2006 Artforum published an extended debate between English critic Claire Bishop and American writer Grant Kester, with Bishop arguing that relational art has been too focused on worthy causes and that to be effective as art it needs to operate at the level of desire instead.[1] Kester countered that this simply reproduces the privileged role of artist in society.[2] In parallel fashion, Tiravanija breaks the rules, while Srivilasa breaks the rulers.

There’s reason to welcome an approach such as Srivilasa’s. As an art form that is based on an emancipatory logic, relational art seems to inevitably come up against the privileged position of art. Its very avoidance of commodification limits its access to those who are freed from the constraints of economic need. As the New York critic Jerry Saltz comments on Tiravanija’s gallery dinners: ‘I had an amazing run of meals with art dealers.’[3] The very anarchic values espoused by relational art can seem to reinforce its distance from the non-art work, mired in practical issues.

For the democratic aspirations of relational art, it may not be enough to give over artistic authority to a gallery crowd. To stretch the horizon of practice beyond the limits of the art world, an artist needs an element of design. Relational craft brings design into the aesthetic process.

The use of ‘third world’ artisans has become a significant feature of recent Australian art, such as Rodney Glick’s use of Balinese wood carvers and Danius Kesminas’s collaboration with batik artists in Yogyakarta. In both cases, the contribution of the artisans has a political as well as aesthetic dimension. In its recognition of skill, relational craft provides a framework that troubles the cultural boundaries of art. It seems the closet is roomier than we thought.

Vipoo Srivilasa: Roop – Rote – Ruang (Taste – Touch – Tell), Gallery 4A, Sydney, 14 June – 26 July 2008; Rikrit Tiravanija: Magazine Station No. 5, Artspace, Auckland, 6 August – 6 September 2008.

This article was first published in Art & Australia Vol 47 No 2 Summer, 2009.

[1] Claire Bishop, ‘The social turn: collaboration and its discontents’, Artforum, Feburary 2006, pp. 179–185.

[2] Grant Kester, ‘Another turn’, Artforum, May 2006.

[3] Jerry Saltz, ‘A short history of Rirkrit Tiravanija: Thai artist who cooks meals as installation art’, Art in America, February 1996, pp. 82–85.

Call me Balanda

For reasons that will be clear later, I’d like to start tonight’s lecture by acknowledging the people who lived on this land before John Batman declared it a village—the Woiwurring and people of the Kulin nations.

Tonight, I want to talk with you about the role of art in reflecting where we live, with particular regard to the texture of our material environment. The lecture is constructed around three poignant scenes of craft culture. There will be one sidetrack. We will visit the work of five contemporary craft practitioners who grapple with the dilemma of what it means to be non-indigenous. At the very end, I will leave you with a word—a piece of Australasian vernacular—that seems to be perfectly embody our post-millennial condition

Let’s start tonight where we left off—the twentieth-century.

Scene#1 – Time to Say Goodbye

‘Good old Collingwood forever.’ There was a moment at the end of the twentieth-century century when only one of these was true: Collingwood. Many cities have strong traditions of inter-suburban rivalry. In Siena’s Palio the city’s districts compete in a bloodthirsty horse race which has continued annually from the middle ages to today. But in Melbourne, at the end of the twentieth-century, its colourful tradition of weekly winter contests in suburban ovals was coming to a symbolic end.

Collingwood’s President, Eddie Maguire, was leading his team into a new millennium by moving his club. In the future, home matches were moving from Victoria Park, where they had been for the past 107 years, to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the symbol of success. On 21 August 1999, in their last game for the season, they were ingloriously thrashed by the previous year’s wooden spooner, the Brisbane Bears.

Here is one of many pre-millennial scenes: the grass scattered with trash, bitter fans, and rising above them all, the glowing screen proudly bearing the message, ‘Fly Emirates’.

What we glimpse in such a scene is the transcendence of the new millennium from its ground in the local public domain. By the end of the twentieth-century, this ‘lift-off’ was visible throughout Melbourne, from the Suprematist architecture of Denton Corker Marshall to the four wheel drives that elevated their passengers above the earth.

Now we are three years into the ascension, and there are signs of a bumpy ride, if not a crash landing. The collapse of corporations such as Enron, World.com, OneTel and HIH has demonstrated the unsustainability of the ‘sky is the limit’ management style. September 11 and enduring Middle Eastern conflict has confronted the West with the inexorable limits of globalisation.

It seems time to reacquaint ourselves with the ground on which we stand.

Home crafts

If we were to think of modern society as an electric circuit, craft is the extension that earths its energy into the material world.

Through local potteries, weaving workshops, jewellery guilds and furniture studios, makers have been able to give tangible form to their immediate world. Consider Dresden china, Gobelin tapestries, Shaker furniture, Indonesia Ikat or Danish silverware. These products embody their world in both the material substances from which they are constituted and the creative energy to which they bear testimony.

This locative function of craft is especially important in an industrial era, where the global circulation of goods threatens to create a placeless world. As the Mexican poet Octavio Paz wrote in 1972:

Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands by preserving differences, they preserve the fecundity of history.[1]

Regionalism was one of the main forces in the formation of the Arts & Crafts Movement. Figures like William Morris and John Ruskin both saw craft as embodying the home-grown Anglo-Saxon energies, in contrast to the foreign Latin hierarchy imposed by invading Normans.

In Australia today, vernacular craft is championed by South Australian writer Noris Ioannou. Ioannou is Australia’s sole remaining public craft critic, as well as social historian of the Barossa folk crafts. In recent years, Ioannou has pitched his argument against the homogenous culture of design. I quote from a talk he presented in 1998:

At the end of the twentieth century we might ask: are the crafts expressive of or connected to any true Australian cultural authenticity or social meaning, or are they just another appendage of twentieth-century global craft?[2]

At this point, I should acknowledge that there are varying degrees of vernacular, ranging from mugs decorated with gum nuts to the sophisticated pastiche architecture that was so popular in Melbourne during the early 90s. As will be evident later, what I am pointing towards here is a vernacular that concedes a relationship to place that is not indigenous. It is the tentative belonging felt by guests, rather than the proprietorial claim of hosts.

So given the quest for homecoming that has been set up by the ‘lift-off’, and the traditional role of craft in defining our unique place in the world, how has craft fared in this process?

Scene #1 – One dollar

You could say it has been a bumpy ride, at some risk of understatement.

To return to the end of the twentieth-century, the process of dislocation affected our local craft scene dramatically. The closure of the Metro Craft Centre in May 1999 effectively ended the Meat Market’s role as the state’s nursery of craft—the base for those whose responsibility it is to create our future heritage. Gone were the retail outlet, exhibition spaces, State Craft Collection and access studios. Craft was evicted. Despite all that Craft Victoria has done to recover to accommodate craft, through its CBD galleries, new retail outlet, Open Bench, the website and Skill Bank, we still lack access studios critical for emerging makers.

During the creditors meeting on 21 May, a host of tenants, employees and guild representatives turned up to stake their claim. The locks had been changed on the building and many were anxious simply to retrieve their goods and equipment. No one from the state government of the time dared to appear and explain the situation. Much of the meeting was taken up with reading out the list of creditors who has signed up with the appointed liquidators. Most of their claims were the base minimum—$1. All the symbolic significance of a common institution for the crafts to flourish was converted to a flat nominal sum, as though the victim of hyper-inflation.

The various ‘lift-off’ reforms, such as the disappearance of tram conductors, the privatisation of public utilities, new opportunities for gambling away your life’s savings, have substantially reduced what it means today to say you are Victorian. The default option for most people today is the shop around the corner selling cheap imported designer goods. We need to provide a choice that allows people to decorate their lives in a way that contributes to the sustainability of their own world.

White culture of no-place

We are heading into difficult terrain. One path ahead leads to the no-where of an internationalised lifestyle. Along this path, the non-indigenous peoples of the world are consigned to a Hilton-like limbo of standardised fixtures, their senses dulled by the techno-banging beat that dominates pubs and cafes, their experience cocooned in entertainment capsules, more concerned about Madonna’s navel than the native forest being wood-chipped in their own state.

No, let’s not go there. I don’t mean the global no-where. I mean beyond that—to the enclaves of high culture and the self-satisfied mindset of anti-popularism. Rather than succumb to this kind of elitism, we need consider our own part in the process. We should be aware that this ‘lift-off’ is not simply the result of a global empire attempting to colonise our hearts and minds. If we look closely, we can find reasons for such a move that correspond with the noblest of motives.

Let’s try again.

At the same time that settlers have divested themselves of place, the spiritual custodianship of the land has been returned to indigenous Australians. It is these people that are first acknowledged before speaking in public, whose smoking ceremonies sacralise our lands and whose dances provide the official ceremony of our grand occasions.

While Western culture was ascending into the new millennium, it bequeathed its title deeds to the indigenous people. In the wake of ‘lift-off’ was a symbolic restoration of native ownership. As the Meat Market was closing, the Melbourne Museum was opening its key new wing, Bunjilaka, a centre for local indigenous culture. As Victoria Park was closing, the city acquired its first substantial park for more than a century, Birrarung Marr, named after the local aboriginal words for ‘place of mists by the side of the river’. Local councils around the state were developing indigenous features. Non-indigenous were acknowledging the violence of colonial invasion and the displacement of the natural owners of the land.

But again there are problems.

There is an implicit convenience at work in this direction of reconciliation. Devolving a spiritual claim to the land allows settlers to embrace global culture all the more freely. There is less contrary pull to speak for one’s region. Like the Goethe’s Faust, we have sold our soul in order to gain the power of flight—to move around the world and always be at home. The settlers embrace the practical business of getting things done—building infrastructure, administering projects, managing budgets and formulating policy. To the first peoples is the burden of expression—the pleasure of the brushstroke, the hurt of discrimination, the pride of achievement and the hope of renewal.

The Australian theorist McKenzie Wark, now living in New York, advocates ‘We no longer have roots, we have aerials’. We could structure this into a more active sentence, such as: ‘We have passed on our roots so we can climb aerials.’

It’s at this point that it be useful to call on that kind of Protestant energy that helped develop the Gutenberg Bible and forge self-reliant crafts. Impatient with priests, the Protestants claimed an individual responsibility for their own salvation. Every culture seems to need these democratic movements at some stage in their historical cycle to counteract hierarchies that inevitably develop around specialisations. The process of reconciliation seems ripe for a personal journey of indigenousness. Rather than relying on a fixed division of labour, whereby sense of place is relegated to Aboriginal Australians, custodianship should be something we can all be part of. This beckons what Calvin called ‘the heart brought to light’.

We are clearly a long way off from this process. The difference between indigenous and non-indigenous is so stark for us in Australia, that it is very hard to think around this dichotomy without seeming either racist or new age. One advantage of craft theory is that it attends to the sub-theoretical layer of experience. Ideas can be explored through the phenomenological encounter with our material being. As a process of re-orientation, I’d like to draw on a parallel dichotomy in our contemporary experience as urban consumers—chewy versus crunchy.

Detour – Chewy versus crunchy

Consider the traditional culture of the Pitjantjatjara lands west of Uluru. Here, the craft ethic is an integral part of the traditional lifestyle. Around Ernabella, in northern South Australia, women have practiced spinning since before contact. The process involves rolling a wooden frame on their legs while pulling away the yarn. They call this action rungkani, which also applies to other actions involving the palm of the hand in a circular motion, such as grinding seed. Advocates of authentic craft such as Edmund Leach see a kind of rungkani as the epitome of the potter’s creative skill.

Rungkani’s dialectical opposite in Western culture can be found in the latest evolution of consumer aesthetic, the KFC chicken popcorn. These deep-fried chicken remnants are testament to the craving for crunchy that afflicts the non-indigenous consumer. The advertising image almost sends up its voracious orality, alluding to the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, designed by John Pasche. Like the Keith Richards guitar riffs, Chicken Popcorn is loud and aggressive. You can eat them while you are driving. They are the crispy crunchy fizzy world of Ciabata bread, mouse clicks, potato crisps, pizza crusts and Coca-Cola. Like the process of digitisation, one whole domestic fowl is reduced to many individual bites.

By contrast, the indigenous world is chewy. The old world of betel nuts, pumpkin seeds, bush tobacco, beef jerky and chewing gum where consumption occurs with ruminative repetition and slow accretion. This is horizontal molar grinding, rather than vertical molar clash.

Now going back into the more familiar realm of theory, we can readily cast this opposition in Freudian terms. As well we all know, Freud made the classic distinction in childhood development between oral and anal phases. The consumer ethic is transparently oral. It is about filling an emptiness. Within those terms, the indigenous ethic tends towards the anal. The creative process is about giving form through slow processes. It is to produce, rather than consume.

What this dichotomy demonstrates is the need to maintain contact with the modality currently inhabited by people like the hundred odd Pitjantjatjara still living in communities around central Australia. We need something to chew on, in both physical and metaphorical senses of the word.

Reverse colonialism

In order to develop dialogue with indigenous culture we need to push what has become known as the post-colonial project. While the process of post-colonialism was designed to relive the sins of the imperial powers, and celebrate the enduring quality of indigenous culture, there is the acknowledgment now of the dangers that can arise when colonial rule is suddenly withdrawn. The abrupt end of the Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 led to the tragedy of East Timor and enduring African civil wars. Leave it to the locals to clean up mess.

Rather than post-colonialism, what is called for today is a kind of reverse colonialism. Those who were once masters need to see themselves as guests, at least symbolically. Rather than conveniently disappearing into the neverland of global consumerism, we need to renegotiate our place.

So how do we continue? What can we take from indigenous Australian culture that is not simply appropriation?

In the case of our decorative arts, there was a time when Australian artists naively turned to Aboriginal culture to develop a sense of local identity. The printmaker Margaret Preston believed that drawing from indigenous craft helped counterbalance the dominance of overseas influences. In 1942, Art in Australia published her article ‘The indigenous art of Australia’, where she argued that authentic Australian art must draw from Aboriginal sources. Preston concluded the article:

Our saving grace is our distance from contaminating sources. We have teachers and wonderful prints to help us and the rest must come from ourselves, and the beginning should come from the home and domestic arts. This is the reason that I have studied the aboriginal’s art and have applied their designs to the simple things in life, hoping that the craftsman will succeed where, until now, the artist has certainly failed.[3]

In our time, the respect that accompanied an artist like Preston’s foray into Aboriginal design seems at best condescending. It would be a brave designer today how would try to establish a new language of the decorative arts by appropriating indigenous forms.

Respect in our time entails precisely the opposite regard for Aboriginal culture. Not using it is our standard of respect for indigenous rights. Suburban boys playing didgeridoo are seen as gauche leftovers of a naïve white Australia. In their place are lawyers specialising in copyright and art academics checking to see who really benefits from the success of Aboriginal art.

We are left with no other choice but to be non-indigenous. But what does that mean?

Our southern cousins across the Tasman have struck a tentative arrangement whereby the New Zealanders from the north acquire a special Maori word for non-indigenous. Since the first years of colonisation, settlers have been known as Pakeha, thought to mean ‘those who come in tall white ships’.

Pakeha Glass

With the extensive New Zealand migration to Australia, we need to consider the Pakeha experience as part of our own picture. As seems often the case, the Kiwi expatriate provides Australian culture with a softness and nostalgia that is otherwise missing in the blokey mainstream. This is the case in film, comedy, jewellery and music.

It is very interesting to see the Pakeha consciousness surface in new media—in this case, glass. Wendy Fairclough moved to Australia in 1978. Despite the length of time here, she maintains a close identification with her New Zealand homeland through her work, particularly around the place of her birth, Wanganui.

Fairclough’s glass work is ornamented with New Zealand landscapes. Her installation ‘Journey #2’ is made from handblown glass, engraving and enamel paint. She uses the forms of everyday domestic objects, rendered in frosted glass, which grants them a sense of fragility and distance about them. The long grey cloud evokes a far land. The combination of form and decoration produces an effect of insatiable longing. There is something about glass that puts us at a distance from our desires, like the landscapes we see through the thick transparent skin of Maureen Williams’ vases.

Remembering Taranaki is produced in a similar way, though the work here features the Ponga, the ubiquitous New Zealand silver fern found in its many damp gullies. The same fern can be found in What seekest though in the unknown land, which uses gold leaf. The combination of glass objects in each installation has the effect of a virulent growth, reflecting the obsession of nostalgic memory for the dark cool spaces of New Zealand while sitting in a hot studio in the bright brown Adelaide hills.

The challenge of Pakeha identity is to locate an equivalent term in Australia. Of course, there are difficulties. The distance between the indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia is far greater than in New Zealand. There is no one Aboriginal language that might offer a term like Pakeha.

The most common term for non-indigenous person in Australia today is Balanda—a word taken from the Macassan fisherman who visited the shores well before Captain Cook. Balanda is a version of ‘Hollander’, but is used frequently in the land of Yothu Yindi and Maningrida baskets.

But in the national context, Balanda is quite different to Pakeha. It is the word of one group of Top End Aboriginal languages. Other indigenous languages have different terms. One can’t speak for all. There are Kardiya in the Kimberleys, Migloo among the Murris in Queensland, for the Noongar it is Watjala, the non-indigenous people among us here are Gubba, and there are the Numminer across the Bass Strait. One means of dealing with this diversity is to adopt a federation of non-indigenous terms. Who knows, perhaps in a twenty-second century census of Australia we will have to nominate such categories for ourselves.

Watjala Fibre

In Australian culture, we are only seeing tentative steps towards embracing non-indigenous identity. One example comes from the Watjala people, Nalda Searles. Nalda has grown up in Kalgoorlie under the broad open skies of Western Australia, where civilisation thins out and individuals fall back much more on their own imagination to colour their world. Inspired by her surroundings, Nalda helped establish the legendary textile camps at Edith Cowan University. Since 1987, artists and students have been venturing into the wilderness to make out of what nature brings to hand, such as puff ball dyes, grass for stitching, seeds for ornamenting. Members of this push include the late Elsje King, John Parkes, Holly Story and Kate Campbell-Pope.

In 1992, Searles was involved in a project with the Wongutha community living on the fringes of Kalgoorlie. The project was titled Warta Kutju, one tree. Many of the Wongutha had come in from the Western Desert where they had succumbed to a cycle of poverty and alcohol. Searles took the people back out to the desert and worked with them on different creative projects. Through their networks, she established contact with Aboriginal communities throughout the state, from Narrogin in the south to Blackstone in the east.

One of her collaborative projects was with the painter Mary McLean, which involved a picture book of words from her language, Ngaanyatjarra. As you can see, Searles is not trying to capture some connection with pre-contact world of dreaming. She engages with the immediate materials of life in Aboriginal communities, especially blankets and clothes.

As well as these collaborations, Searles’ own work reflects on the place of white people in this land. Her signature piece is White Boy Blazer, a school uniform on which have been sewn the brachia of Xanthorrhea, known colloquially as Black Boy. Each of these brachia has been painted white, showing the uneasy tension between settlement and the wild bush beyond.

In Aboriginal communities of the Western Desert, Searles is known as Kabbarli, the word for grandmother that was used to describe Daisy Bates. Recently, she has been engaging in a significant body of work dealing with the complex biography of this woman who lived alone in a tent on the Nullarbor Plain. This work consists of a pair of white gloves sewn together and ornamented with initi seeds, reflecting the strangeness of Daisy Bates Edwardian attire while living in the desert. The people from the Musgrave Ranges, who used to come down to visit her camp, often wore initi seeds in their hair. Today you will find these seeds used as decoration on the rim of baskets.

I think what is significant about Nalda’s work is the way her art exposes European culture to the rough edge of the bush. It is a grafted culture, never completely merging with the land. She gives a flavour to the non-indigenous.

Victorian Wood

In Victoria, the natural genus loci is wood. We have seen recently great interest amongst our furniture makers in the way local timbers can be used as a language for craft. Damien Wright has made a particular feature of gidgee in his tables. Part of this process is getting to know the timber, its strengths and limits. In this process, the maker embodies the physical stratum of our place. Such direct knowledge is one advantage that maker has over the mere designer, who does not have to engage with materials.

The aptronymically named Andrew Wood is a maker who explores the symbolic potential of this language. In Wood’s debut exhibition, Reading the Country, he presented a series of furniture pieces that reflected the relationship between trees and water. For instance, the Billabong piece included a slumped glass insert that could contain a small body of water.

Wood followed this path to uncertain territory. In an attitude similar to Margaret Preston’s, last year he produced a series of works based on the Aboriginal coolamon. They were beautiful works, but they prompted that uneasy feeling we have these days when seeing indigenous forms used by a non-indigenous maker, no matter how well-intentioned.

Recently, Wood has developed a series of work that is less beholden to the problems of authenticity. His commission for an apartment in Albert Park continues his use of inlaid water bowls, though in this case they are designed to reflect the bayside landscape. Wood is exploring how a rural medium like wood might fit in an urban context.

City Rings

The vernacular in metal has taken many forms. During the 1970s, there was a strong push with artists like Helge Larsen and Darani Lewers to incorporate the local architectural fabric in their work. They followed a Scandinavian model of jewellery practice that saw creative labour embedded in the environment.

In Melbourne today we see a very different kind of vernacular. Melbourne is privileged in the availability of relatively cheap studio space in the middle of the city. The Flinders Quarter has locations like the Nicholas Building and Carlow House that contain warrens of workshops, studios and trade outlets. These collectives place jewellery in the centre of Melbourne life.

However, rather than simply reflect the city around them, Melbourne’s jewellers are making active interventions in urban life. Roseanne Bartley has established a practice in public jewellery, where the wearing of labels such as ‘unAustralian’ has extended the stage of jewellery from the body to the public at large.

Another Melbourne jeweller who has extended jewellery’s horizons is Caz Guiney. Guiney has attempted during the course of her career to stretch the boundaries of jewellery practice, in particular rings. She has made rings out of ephemeral materials like ice and sugar.

Her City Rings project approaches the city as a whole with a jeweller’s perspective. City Rings entails the fabrication of rings that can be attached to elements of the city. There are twelve locations around the city that Guiney has chosen as sites for her rings.

Jump Ring is attached to a flag pole on the top of a city building. The ring floats around with the breeze over the city. Gold Nut is screwed into the rear of a city billboard. Tucked behind a large advertisement, Guiney’s jewellery is lost in a maze of nuts and bolts.

Guiney is unconcerned about the long-term fate of these precious objects. What is critical to her is the translation of the city into a jeweller’s concerns. This means searching the city for the negative spaces on which jewellery might be threaded. City Rings is a conceptual work that is about changing the way we look at the city, of recovering it from the Adshel signage that plasters its tram stops and the techno pulse throbbing from its cafes, so that it becomes again a place of human habitation.

Trash Ceramics

The modern tradition of ceramics is closely linked to the environment. The Japanese values that so informed Australian pottery in the 1960s identified beauty with the effects of nature. As Soetsu Yanagi said, ‘the world is natural’.[4] Within this philosophy a generation of Australian artists like Les Blakeborough, Col Levy, Jeff Mincham and Milton Moon adopted the Japanese methodology to harness the beauty of the world in their work through use of local clays, timbers and glazes.

By contrast, today’s younger generation of ceramists appear to be philistines. Ceramists you see today at Haecceity Gallery like David Ray, Vipoo Sviralasa, Irianna Kanellopoulou, Zoë Churchill and Sharon Muir stray far from nature and draw instead on the trashy world of popular culture. But in doing this, they are actually following the mission of craft to reflect its world. As Ruskin advised, ‘reject nothing.’

The work of Nicole Lister shows how this method can provide a dynamic basis for artistic evolution. Her earlier work, ‘Stack Up’ and ‘Production Line’, played with a kind of surreal Warhol effect of multiples. The work based on paper cups had an obvious illusionistic effect of making enduring what seemed ephemeral. Her more recent work explores this play with ephemerality in a more experimental fashion. Works like ‘Wrapping Cloth’ convey a stronger sense of the materiality of her subject. Rather than cast her forms, Lister delicately paints her subjects with a Limoges porcelain slip. The bisque firing burns away the cardboard and then the work is fired again at a higher temperature. Lister renders her subject in unique forms, not multiples. She then assembles them into quilt-like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork.

Ceramists like Lister give form to what otherwise is a largely transient stream of the material world. Ephemeral packaging becomes a work of art in itself. This creative alchemy subtly subverts the denial of materiality that lies at the basis of a hyper-consumer culture.

Scene #3 – The world gets flatter

Before we end, I’d like to return to the role of craft in the indigenous relationship to the land. In looking at the contribution of Aboriginal art to Australian culture, particular emphasis is usually given to Papunya, where art coordinator Geoffrey Barden introduced acrylic paints in the early 1970s. But there have been many other creative interventions, especially in the crafts—they continue to this day. One of the most well-known is the Hermannsburg Pottery, where ceramics were introduced by the Lutheran missionaries in the 1960s. The pottery produced engaging round pots detailed with imagery from the surrounding McDonald Ranges. But such developments often have to contend with the predominance of painting, both in terms of comparative prices and the priorities of major institutions.

I came across a salutary example of this is recently. When the director of the National Gallery of Australia, Brian Kennedy, visited the pottery, he saw a large painting they had made collectively for the Yeperenye Festival. Kennedy promptly reached for his cheque book and proclaimed the work worthy of the national collection. Faced with this signal, the potters today are now learning painting skills—reluctantly for both the artists and the art coordinator Naomi Sharp, herself a ceramist.

In the current arrangement, such a move would seem a natural progress towards self-management. However, if we look at what we do in craft as maintaining a responsible relationship to our environment, then we might feel more comfortable about extending support for these potters in maintaining their own unique language in the face of an ever-flattening two-dimensional world. By reminding Canberra of craft’s value, we might indirectly be influencing its sustainability in remote Australia. Our business is their business.

The final word

So we return to where we began, at the end of Collingwood’s last game. Quite a strange development occurred after humiliation on the ground had ended. As hundreds poured on to the ground to enjoy a final kick to kick on their sacred grass, young children began spontaneously to souvenir their own piece of the turf. Regardless of the ‘lift-off’ of the new millennium, these boys wanted their piece of the earth on which their heroes engaged in battles of strength, skill and honour. Accompanying the dizzy expectations of the new millennium was a strange impulse to make contact with the ground of the one about to pass by.

So we come to the final word. In the late 1990s, there was a kind of Mexican wave of ‘lift-off’s in sport and entertainment. One particularly pervasive gesture occurred in the ‘Oh What Feeling’ advertisements for Toyota cars. These ecstatic displays of consumer joy were enacted in a wide variety of subjects and settings.

At our troubled side of the millennium, though, this phrase has been replaced by a word that is grounded in the Australian vernacular. In ads inspired by New Zealand’s John Clark, a leaping dog is unsuccessfully launches itself onto a speeding Ute. Lying forlorn on the mud, it utters a word that says it all for the renewed reality of earth and gravity in the new millennium: ‘Bugger!’

This was originally delivered as the Craft Victoria Annual Lecture 2012

[1] Octavio Paz In Praise of Hands: Contemporary Crafts of the World Toronto: World Crafts Council, 1974, p. 23

[2] Noris Ioannou ‘Crafts and nationhood: Multiculturalism, creativity and Titanic’ Byline: Craft & Text CraftSouth 1998, p.17

[3] Margaret Preston ‘The indigenous art of Australia’ Art in Australia 1925, pp. 3-11

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

Biggest in the Southern Hemisphere or what?

There is a rumbling down-under. We are ‘turning the page’ with a new government, facing the challenge of a warming global agenda and considering a new place in the world of this young nation. What place might that be?

At Craft Victoria, we started to explore what we might have in common with countries of our region. Not the Asia-Pacific region to our north, but that other region, the Afro-Latin South at our end of the world. Over the last four years, the South Project has completed a cultural circuit: gatherings of artists in Melbourne, Wellington, Santiago and Johannesburg have shown a readiness to take off the blinkers and learn about the cultures sitting alongside each other. Buoyed by a generous hospitality, particularly from Indigenous peoples, we now have time to reflect on what’s been revealed.

For me, one particular moment endures. I was talking with a wire sculptor in Mpumalanga (previously South Africa’s Transvaal). Enoch Ngwenya is a self-taught artist who created his entire world from aluminium wire, not only sculptural works but also practical objects like wardrobes. After some small talk, he felt bold enough to ask me a burning question about Australia – ‘In your country, does the black man still bow down to the white man?’ I couldn’t say yes, that we had Apartheid, but I also couldn’t say no, that Australia is completely open to people of all colours. We are used to evaluating countries like South Africa in our terms of health and security. But how do we measure up in their eyes?

Sometimes, it seems almost an accident that we find ourselves in the South. It’s as though we were a respectable middle class family that lands on the other side of the tracks. Our place downunder is something we seek to rise above, evident in the common boast ‘biggest in the southern hemisphere’, which can apply to anything from Scottish Festivals to car parks. If you Google the phrase, you find there are more than 3,500 claims to this title. But how many if you search for ‘biggest in the northern hemisphere’? That there are only eight such claims (mostly icebergs) is hardly a sign that this hemisphere is lacking in distinction—precisely the opposite. Of course, anything of significance up there is likely to be the ‘biggest in the world’.

Is this southern aspirationalism a peculiarly Australian phenomenon? Identifying the claims by country (including Spanish and Portuguese versions of the phrase) reveals that Brazil (42%) has twice as many claims to ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’ as Australia (21%). This is not surprising, given the scale of Brazil’s population and economy. But it’s a sober reminder that, despite images of hemispheric isolation such as ‘big pond’ and ‘great southern land’, we are not alone.

After focusing our gaze on the eastern hemisphere during the 20th century, it seems we are finally beginning a new chapter in the South. Many journals have recently published special issues on this theme, including Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, Artlink, Griffith Law Review and the Australian Humanities Review (out soon). A new book titled Southern Theory by Sydney sociologist Raewyn Connell identifies an alternative source of ideas in our region. Questions are being posed.

There is a broader context at play. As we well know, the Kyoto Protocols are based on the assumption that any solution to climate change must involve an equal contract between first and third worlds, particularly respecting the right of poorer countries to reduce the economic gap with the other half. In Bali last year, Australia conspired with Argentina to extend the talks for an extra day, finally bringing the USA to the table.

We seem well-positioned as a mediator between first and third worlds. Our position in the South, long seen as a ‘tyranny of distance’, may prove to be a godsend.

How can the arts be part of this? With globalisation has come increasing collaboration between artists from first and third worlds: the modernist potential of one is exchanged for the deep cultural content of the other. Already well-established in world music scene, there is ‘multilateral’ dialogue now occurring in theatre, visuals, craft and design.

World arts aspire to be sustainable, democratic and innovative. OK, the first two terms are givens, but innovation is especially important. Innovation is not just the mixing of modern form and traditional content, but also in developing the trust necessary for that to develop. Behind the scenes is a web of negotiations between artists from the first and third world about what can be made of mutual benefit. It’s not without misunderstandings and resentment. But it exercises the assumption that there can be activities that please both worlds—metrosexual and villager alike.

These worlds meet everyday. There are those who drive taxis, and those who take them. If you want to know the Global South, hail a cab. More than likely you’ll find yourself a fascinating conversation about Kenya, Somalia or Ethiopia. This works particularly well in Australia. Elsewhere in the world, it is usual custom for the passenger to take the back seat, leaving the driver alone in the front. Not so here. This relative disregard for hierarchy makes Australia an excellent incubator for world arts.

Will we always be happy with the Deputy Sheriff honour ‘biggest in the Southern Hemisphere’? Or might one day we aspire to be a ‘close cousin of the South’? All will be revealed when we ‘turn the page’.

This was originally published in Arts Hub, 2008