The journey home from the working week

Modern life has been geared around the regimentation of time through work. The nine to five, Monday to Friday, has become the universal machine for production. It was hard to think of life outside of this rhythm. Grab a coffee to kickstart the brain so you’re ready to go by 9am. And then it begins—the endless stream of meetings, phone calls, letters, emails and repetitive processes. The gears turn.

Everyday, the same grinding routine. The great difference was between work and life outside—the work day and the weekend.

But this seems to be threatened now by the introduction of the smartphone and the capacity of emails to appear at any time and anywhere, not just at our desk but on the train home, in bed, even in the bathroom. This is usually seen as a negative intrusion, making it difficult to sustain a work-life balance. The world of busyness colonises more and more of our waking lives.

But there are other changes afoot with office work. The introduction of the standing desk has given information labour a more active form of engagement. Telecommuting has enabled work outside the office environment, especially in the comfort of home.

It is natural that this opening up of possibilities has encouraged increasing interest in personal productivity regimens. Systems like Getting Things Done have spawned thousands of versions, apps and routines. These are mostly geared to keep us focused and prevent our time being wasted by confusion or uncertainty. But they still mostly involve a linear sense of time that essentially is spent processing repetitive tasks.

I’ve been working independently for a number of years now. I miss the random interaction that an office can bring, but I’ve found myself increasing impatient with the obsession around process that can be found in formal workspaces these days. I can’t imagine being as productive in an office as I can on my own.

But working independently has involved developing ways of staying on track. Over time, I’ve begun to realise that there are different areas of focus necessary during the course of the working week. You need to spend some time thinking about long-term possibilities, not just worrying about latest email request. Of course, the GTD method recommends a series of weekly and monthly reviews to cover this. But I felt I needed to integrate it into the working week itself.

I began to sort out the different areas of focus in their distance from myself. At the most distant were ideas for future projects that required non-urgent development tasks such as concept notes. At the other end, the closest was my “team”, involving colleagues who were actively engaged with me in current projects. The natural way of arranging this was to order it in a sequence that went from outside in. This led to a week that starts in the distance, then gradually moves inwards like layers in an onion. Here’s how mine goes:

Monday: projects in development, future deadlines, up to three years in the future

Tuesday: new partnerships and audiences, research into new competing/partner platforms, promotion and media, email newsletter

Wednesday: resources necessary to continue, funding applications, following up subscriptions

Thursday: existing audience and relationships, keeping subscribers engaged and improving their experience

Friday: colleagues and peers, collegiate activities, advisory panels

After having arrived by the end of the week, the weekend is spent reviewing and filing, with some intellectual activity for its own sake.

There are some tools that I’ve found useful to keep this kind of focus. As email is my “coal face”, I find the Active Inbox gmail extension useful in sorting out emails according to tags for each of the days. For drilling down into projects, I’ve recently moved from Workflowy to Dynalist. Dynalist have introduced documents, which means I can put each day in a distinct outline.

The main weakness in this system is that it’s easy to lose a day in the week with a series of meetings or travel. I try to date my weekly tasks so that they appear as overdue if not completed the previous day. Sometimes I have to combine two layers in one day.

My week as a whole is still relatively similar to the modern office routine, but it has a narrative arc that I find useful in ensuring that I cover the full scope of the enterprise. The “journey home” is hardly a novel story, but it has an enduring appeal. It extends what happens daily in the office life into a week-long process.

While technology may be seen to flatten our sense of timing, turning every moment into work. But with a little imagination, we can bend it to the shape of rituals that give greater meaning to what we do. Trade your steam engine in for a sailing ship.

Where is your village?

Introduction to Garland #6

A young girl called Pikul was pure of heart and spoke with a golden tongue. Tormented by her jealous stepmother, the angels took pity on her and granted her a blessing: every time she spoke, golden pikul flowers world fall from her mouth. Pikul was forced to talk by her stepmother who gathered the golden flowers and sold them. Eventually, Pikul did not want to speak for fear of the flowers that fell from her mouth.

While this tale from a Thai village is presented as a moral lesson to be “master of your speech”, the imagery of words transformed into flowers is charming in itself. The village is the repository of many such cultural treasures, which this issue of Garland seeks to uncover.

In our journey around the Asia Pacific, we have been moving between different regions to discover the genius of various creative places—enjoyment of labour in South Korea, love of nature in Cairns, mystical beauty in Iran and storytelling in Western India. With this current move to Southeast Asia, we consider a category of place. While villages can take radically different form depending on their host country—from the Indonesian kampung set in a lush valley to a hamlet off the coast of New Zealand’s south island—they do share a common difference from the ubiquitous city. Most people who live in a village are likely to know each other’s name. Relations are not as dependent on financial transactions: there is often collective work towards a community space, such as a temple (in Britain, a place must have a church to be called a “village”). And often there is a set of traditions associated with that place, including myths, rituals and craft skills that make the most of materials at hand.

In Asia, the village has been seen as intrinsic to identity. Gandhi claimed that “The soul of India lives in its villages”. In Vietnam it is claimed that “Royal decrees yield to village customs.” And in Thailand, the word moobaan means “village is where the home is”, which is where 75 per cent of the population reside.

Of course, this fond picture of the village can seem nostalgic in the twenty-first century. Urbanisation seems inevitable and now more than half the world’s population lives in cities, probably including you. From a development perspective, villages can be seen as “backward”, involving superstition, prejudice and boredom. But can we imagine a world without a village?

According to the Italian poet, Cesare Pavese, “Your own village means that you’re not alone, that you know there’s something of you in the people and the plants and the soil, that even when you are not there, it waits to welcome you.” So where is your village? Is it a birthplace in another country, where a dear grandmother still lives, refusing to leave? Or is it a place discovered during travels, which touched the heart?

We have some striking examples of how Thai culture today still turns to the village. Rudee Tancharoen journeys to Ban Pa Ao to find a lost bronze casting technique. Pawinee Sukhaswasdi Santisiri discovers a way of using water hyacinth in Isan. Watanya Siriwan makes a sacrifice of her art work in a unique village ceremony of Kra-tin. Jakkai Siributr creates embroideries that tells the story of the loss of home village by Rohingyas. And Sali Sasaki joins others in Chiang Mai to look at the contemporary relevance of village crafts.

Elsewhere, Bangkok-based jeweller Cecê Nobre collaborates with a Chinese tribal silversmith to create work for the homeland of Kilombu. Tuk Sukumarl Leksawat writes warmly of her exchange with a village in Turkey. The Kurdish artist Rushdi Anwar reflects on his work with Lana paper makers in northern Thailand. Singgih Susilo Kartono takes us the Indonesian village of Kandangan, where he has located his design business. Emi Weir celebrates the cotton made by Taileu villagers. Harriet Watts relates how textiles for a village in Laos village end up as Australian craft products. Sahr Bashir writes how a village in the Punjab helps urban designers think of the bigger picture. Pauline Tran presents the collaboration between textile artist Sara Lindsay and refugee Karen weavers. And Kevin Murray takes us to Denmark, a village on the south west coast of Australia, where artist Cecile Williams has helped forge a unique community.

In other articles, Kanita Kaniyomwakin tells the history of her “craft classic”, the Khao Tom Mud. Paul Northam writes about the Philippines exchange with Castlemaine (the village of our next destination). And thinking of future possible exchanges with villages, Zina Burloiu and Terry Martin reveal the collaborative potential of WhatsApp in Australian-Romanian wood art. Pamela Irving tells us what she has been able to with Ming shards in China. Shannon Garson writes about another ceramic exchange, this time across the Pacific. In other corners of the Asia Pacific, Hyeyoung Cho reports on the Kogei Triennale in Kanazawa and Martina Dempf on a jewellery festival in Kazakhstan. And in Australia, we hear from Bethany Wheeler about the glass workshop 1000 Degrees, Sonja Anderson’s encounter with the Cairns jeweller Kate Hunter and Michelle Montgomery’s take on Utopia art returning to domestic craft.

But no doubt the well-polished gem of this issue is Alice Pung’s longform essay about Vipoo Srivilasa. Vipoo is a Thai-born ceramicist who has flourished on the other side of the Indian Ocean, where he has established not only a striking artistic practice, but also a base for a flotilla of projects that help foster exchange in our region. Alice is able to reflect on a characteristic of Vipoo’s art that is rarely acknowledged despite its obviousness—that cute elephant in the room. Drawn herself to this cuteness, Alice asks why we tend to be suspicious that this quality is not serious in art. Whatever the outcome of her inquiry, the means she takes to get there is testament of a serious regard for Vipoo’s work.

Many people have helped with this issue. First, Vipoo has provided not only inspiration through his work but also guided us to discover some of the most interesting Thai work around at the moment. Sincere thanks to Jongsuwat Angsuvarnsiri, Atty Tantivit, Dr SImon Wallace and Sara Lindsay. And we appreciate the partnership with SACICT’s International Innovative Craft Fair, which has provided the source of so many stories.

Smell the pikul flowers…

Trading Tales: Narrative Design in Craft

Stories are an important way in which we connect together, over time and space. I’m currently in Western India for events launching our Garland issue New Homes for Old Stories. Here, the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata have helped reproduce cultural values over millennia. The same could be said of other world religions, such as the Koran for Islam and the Bible for Christianity. Stories are also help bind smaller groupings, such as the stories passed down through families. And finally at an individual left, it can be said that a happy life involves having a consistent story that connects the successes and failures that constitute our personal narrative.

It is critical therefore to consider how stories are made and cared for. We tend to think of stories as being “told”, therefore consisting purely of language. Certainly there’s a “craft” in the telling of stories: bards, novelists and screenwriters have learnt how to sustain our attention over the course of a telling. But stories also have a material dimension. As with all things that are important to us, we find a way of experiencing the story through ritual, with the help of storied objects. In the modern era, this has been the role of the book. Beyond the mechanical operation of the books as a device for serving up words, this bundle of paper also offers itself as a home for the story itself. And in our modern era, we have build libraries as temples for the safeguarding and honouring of those stories. This is particularly where the book is a unique object, such as a illuminated manuscript. Other objects can also house stories, such as personal keepsakes that preserve precious memories—of travel to exotic lands or of dear departed ones.

So if objects are important to how we keep stories alive, then we need to think about how we treat them. There are two different tracks along which objects circulate.

The commodity track

In the market, an object operates as a commodity, which can circulate freely according to its exchange value. When we acquire such an object, we do so based on abstract considerations such as price. All things being equal, we are most likely to chose the cheaper object. In the consumerist era, an alternative value arose which we know today as “brand” identity. In this case, some products are valued because of the story behind them. Many chose to buy an iPhone even though it is more expensive than other equivalent smartphones because of the brand value of Apple. What is this value? Apple takes great pains to present itself as “designed in California”, building on the mythology of Silicon Valley, and particularly its prophet, Steve Jobs.

In the case of crafts, an equivalent is associated with the region commonly identified with high quality and authentic products, such as Varanasi saris or Kutch block-printing.

The key point about this commodity track is that objects circulate freely. They are available to whoever has the money sufficient to pay for them. And once they have that object, they are free to do with it whatever they will, even destroy it.

The gift track

By contrast, there is an alternative track which is made up of our ties with others. A key traditional means for objects to circulate is through the gift. As anthropologist Marcel Mauss observed, an object bestowed on another created a debt which served to bind that person to the giver. We are not free to do whatever we like with a gift. How we treat the gift will reflect on how we value the giver. Most gifts must be acknowledged, even over time as we report on the pleasure it gives us.

A key moment is the ritual of giving. Often this is extended by the use of wrapping, which creates the suspense and grants the giver time to provide a story about the object, particularly why they chose it for you. It’s the thought that counts. One of the reasons why handmade goods are very appropriate gifts is that they tell the story of the handmade, which itself is a testimony of care and this carries over to the expression of value in the relationship.

In formal terms, the commodity and gift tracks are dialectically opposed, like the spaces of profane and sacred that we seek to keep separate in order to maintain of social grouping.

The social market

But there are ways in which the market can taken on social values. We become friends with a shopkeeper over time and award him or her our trust, so we might buy from them even though it is more expensive. We all know that tourists are much more likely to buy a craft object if they visit the workshop and meet the maker personally. The craft market often provides a space for this, when we can buy directly from the maker and offer our appreciation.

More recently we’ve seen a particular kind of social market emerge with the development of ethical capitalism. Here we can buy a product for the sense of goodness. Critical here is the backstory of the NGO or needy cause that prompts our generosity. New versions of the sharing economy such as AirBNB work on an ambivalent combination of personal guest and customer.

And so we’ve seen ecommerce platforms emerge that not only sell us products, but also tell the story of their makers. Such platforms offer many benefits. They provide recognition for the artisan and offer a dignified stage on which their work can be presented. This personal perspective is likely to lead to higher prices and therefore greater returns to the craftsperson, reflecting the benefits in one-to-one encounters such as craft markets and workshop tours.

But there is a danger. Seen purely within the terms of a “brand identity”, such stories risk turning the craftsperson into commodity, him or herself. Here they must learn to conform to the stories which have higher value, in particular romantic stories of creative expression for its own sake, which deny the personal struggles many have to survive. We all do this, to an extent. But there is the risk of alienation from the originary context of the craft in the traditions and stories that will seem foreign to someone from another country.

One way of countering this is to make the platform two-way. So rather than our normal anonymous online experience, we can consider facility for the buyer and seller to interact. The buyer learns about the seller, as much as in reverse. This has potential to introduce the gift track that facilitates a relationship between the maker and the consumer. This is the move behind the innovation introduced by IOU Project, where users were encouraged to upload photos of themselves wearing their purchases, alongside images of those who made them. (The concept of Samaanata developed by the Sangam Project sought to establish a platform of mutual respect across the supply chain, including producer, developer and consumer).

A key element of narrative design in craft is the instruction for use. This is not just about the material care of the object, but also how to honour its making. This could be the kind of occasion to wear a garment, how to activate an amulet, or in the case of giftware, the kind of person to whom it might be given. One way of supporting this covenant is to provide a platform where consumers can share evidence of how they honoured the intentions.

E-commerce need not be just a pixelated version of the supermarket or shopping mall, inspiring our greed and lust for new things. It has potential to be a social space were we can encounter all the different capacities it takes to make a world. It can help tell stories of what binds us together, made present in the precious object we hold in our hands.

Hope’s arrow: The origins of East West Meet

The Australian flag caught up in an Isfahan street as part of the international gathering for the World Crafts Counci General Assembly

I was in Isfahan for the General Assembly of the World Crafts Council, where I was representing my country of birth, Australia. I had to pay my own way, but I thought this was a unique opportunity to be shown around city claimed to be “half the world”. Looking at the press coverage during the event, it was clear that Iranians were seeing this as the first major international gathering since the lifting of sanctions. There seemed much at stake in welcoming the world to this legendary city of craft.

We were assigned guides to help us appreciate the city. On the way to the Isfahan Bazaar, we passed by a mysterious museum with photographs of early twenty-first century Iran. In the first room was a tiled world with the inevitable floral ornament, interspersed with images of religious figures and fascinating accounts (in English) of the Constitutional Movement of 1906 in Iran. My guide told me that Mullahs gathered in this house, known then as the Safa Khaneh, to read newspapers, from which they disseminated the move to replace the absolute power of the Shah with a democratically elected government.

A diorama in the centre of the room caught my eye. It featured two men sitting opposite each other. One was dressed as a Mullah, and the other as a Christian priest. Around them was a mix of Muslim and Christian men and women. I learnt that during this time there were open dialogues between the two religious. They were conducted in order to forge an understanding of Iran as a tolerant nation that embraces other religions of the book. So Iranians valued religious tolerance too!

In the intensive Googling that followed, I discovered that this moment was celebrated by the Iranian President Mr Mohammed Khatami, when he launched the concept of a Dialogue among Civilisations in 1998. This idea reached its greatest potential when taken up as the official theme of 2001 by the United Nations. His speech to launch contained this amazing passage:

“In addition to poetic and artistic experience, mysticism also provides us with a graceful, profound and universal language for dialogue. Mystical experience, constituted of the revelation and countenance of the sacred in the heart and soul of the mystic, opens new existential pathways on to the human spirit.”

I’m still trying to get my head around Persian mysticism. Through stilted English translations of poems by Hafez, I can occasionally glimpse the layers of meaning that Iranians have grown to see in the world. And I remember the Elephant in the Dark exhibition organised by Iranians in Melbourne, based on a tale of people imagining different animals from the particular part of the elephant they could feel in the dark.

2001… It was hardly an auspicious year to launch a Dialogue among Civilisations. But at least it became an idea, which will hopefully have a better day to come.

After Isfahan, I spent some days in Tehran with the Mahe Mehr Art and Culture Institute, which is a wonderful art academy established by three visionary gallerists to help improve the thinking and techniques in the local art scene. I offered to give a workshop on the Social Object, with a particular focus on the “promise object”. When I sought they ideas about where trust was lacking in contemporary Iran, a large number mentioned relations with minority religions. So we developed some objects that might help sow seeds for a better understanding between these faiths.

Their concerns reflected the experience in Australia after the Martin Plaza hostage crisis, when so many used the hashtag #IllRideWithYou to show support for Muslim women who might be afraid of Islamophobia. These “memes” mean well, but they are not good at creating ongoing structures for solidarity.

This time in Tehran there was intense interest in the promise object. We had to do the workshop again due to the demand. During the week at Mahe Mehr, I was impressed by how much these (mostly jewellery) artists were very keen to learn more about the cultural scenes outside Iran, and particularly how to engage with them. I was lucky to be there for a ground-breaking exhibition of 60 jewellers who made work about living in Tehran. The quality and ideas behind their work was amazing.

Craft generally is a powerful way of connecting cultures that are otherwise opposed ideologically. It’s a shared human story of how we’ve made something from the corner of the world where we live. Jewellery in particular is a powerful link as a form of personal ornament that connects us as individuals. It’s modernist phase is relentlessly democratic in critiquing the role of jewellery in sustaining hierarchy, from royal crowns to Debeers diamond rings. Through the AJF Ambassadors program, we are now expanding the field to reflect the new perspectives brought by jewellery scenes outside the trans-Atlantic north.

One young jeweller came up with the idea of extending the act of promise to people of other countries. This would be a version of a free trade agreement, except in this case it would be between individuals, along the lines of “I’ll protect your religion, if you’ll protect mine.” How would people make this connection? In one of the bazaars I’d seen posters warning of the dangers of Facebook, which is officially banned in Iran. However, as artists, most of them were on Instagram, which is not banned. This seemed a good platform where individuals from East and West could connect.

One of the writers present spoke about the Tirgan festival, which is a Zoroastrian event that celebrates the coming of rains at the end of summer. Tirgan tells the story of Arash, an archer chosen to mark the boundaries Persian and the Central Asian kingdom of Turan. Shot from Mount Damavand’s peak, his arrow landed on the banks of a river that marked the permanent border, and thus bringing in an era of peace between the two kingdoms. This was followed by welcome rains. We could think of people using the platform to send missives between East and West, exploring similarities and differences. Tirgan also has a jewellery link. It is celebrated by wearing a rainbow coloured bracelet for 10 days, which is then cast into the waters.

While Tirgan seemed a perfect story for our project, eventually there was concern that there could be problems for anyone linked to a project that is formally identified with Zoroastrianism. So right now Tirgan functions more as a backstory, but we do hope to include the bracelets for an event with the Radiant Pavilion jewellery festival in Melbourne this August.

The initial version of the platform exists now on Garland – www.garlandmag.com/east-west-meet. Please enter your details to be linked to someone on the other side. It will be carefully monitored to ensure that people treat this respectfully. We can follow its progress with the hashtag #eastwestmeet.

Most of what’s happening in the world is beyond our control. We hope that East West Meet is something that appeals as a form of direct action. There are many hopes pinned on it.

An orchid in the desert – the lacquer journey of Bic Tieu

Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm
Bic Tieu, Joss Vessels, copper, lacquer and silver leaf, 2016, 32 diameter x 52mm and 32 diameter x 35mm

What does it mean for an Australian to master lacquer art? This quintessential oriental art developed over seven millennia to become one of the most sophisticated languages for expressing the preciousness of human existence. What chance does a young settler culture have to contribute to this tradition? Our ancient art is ochre and bark, not resin. Not only do we lack a history in this art form, the delicate essence of lacquer seems out of proportion to our wide horizons. Like the Japanese haiku, lacquer is a medium for the world in miniature. The challenge of finding a place for Australia in this refined tradition gives the art of Bic Tieu its own unique poignancy.

Understanding Bic Tieu’s own journey helps us appreciate the meaning of her work. Tieu’s grandparents moved from China to Vietnam in order to escape poverty. Her parents then left South Vietnam for similar reasons after the war. A product of that journey, Tieu was born in an Indonesian refugee camp (“Bic” means sapphire).

Like many others arriving from south-east Asia, Tieu’s family moved into Sydney’s inner West. The father had a job in the steel industry and the mother worked in garment factories. Despite the responsibilities of family and work, Tieu’s parents retained a strong traditional aesthetic. They grew plants as a side business, nurturing succulents, cactus and orchids. On return visits from Vietnam, her family brought back panels of black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay. Tieu grew up in this world of delicate things—still and living. We can imagine this Asian menagerie in a domestic bubble, surrounded by the rough and tumble of suburban life—“She’ll be right, mate!”

Initially, Tieu combined her love for the beautiful with the practical business of survival by enrolling in graphic design at the University of NSW. Exposed to a variety of creative practices, she fell into jewellery, thanks to the inspiration of lecturers Wendy Parker and Leong Chan. Then, fatefully, in her final year, she was recommended a book on East Asian lacquer. Tieu was captivated by what she saw. But who could teach her this technique? Australia has no history of this craft.

During her Masters, Tieu was able to do some field studies in Hue, back in Vietnam. But “always in the back of my head was Japanese lacquer – maki-e.” She was eventually successful in getting an Australia Council New Work Grant to go to Japan in 2007. The aim was to learn from the lacquer master, Kitamura Tatsuo, then 55 years old and living in Wajima, a small town on the west coast of Japan, near Kanazawa. On arrival, she was tested in her skills of brush work and polishing. After painstaking preparation, Tieu produced a flawless golden flower, floating on a sea of black lacquer. She consequently passed the test and was initiated into the mysteries of maki-e. Tieu returned to Japan for two years between 2009 and 2011 to refine her skills.

What Tieu imbibed in Japanese culture was an extraordinary sensitivity to the material world. This reverence for objects is expressed powerfully in the tea ceremony. Melvin Jahss writes in his book on Japanese lacquer: “Even the approved manner of handling these objects of art in the palm of the hand (guarded with the opposite hand and held low) speaks for the loving care with which the Japanese regard fine art objects.”

Lacquer art came into its own during the Edo era. The bushido worldview upheld qualities of diligence, honesty, honor, loyalty, and frugality. Lacquer helped exercise these qualities—it is an unforgiving substance. Gold powder is sprinkled gently by the delicate flick of a finger on the bamboo dispenser. A single object may take years of steady labour—the merest speck of dust can ruin an entire work. Four hundred years later, this skill and technique is still sustained in contemporary Japanese lacquer art, such as the tea caddies by Kanazawa artist, Shinya Yamamura.

Elsewhere in East Asia, lacquer art has taken a radical modernist turn. At South Korea’s 2015 Cheongju International Craft Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary lacquer art showcased the Pebble, a seat by Hwang Sam-yong covered entirely in mother-of-pearl. Unlike the traditional use, which employed inlay to create subtle pictorial scenes in a sea of black, this was just the shell itself.

Rather than strip away tradition, Tieu builds on the past with her own techniques. Many of the vessels are acid-etched. Tieu interprets traditional floral patterns on Adobe Illustrator and prints out the design which is applied to the object. The vessel is coated with lacquer, which is then polished back in a way that carefully exposes the copper motifs.

Tieu’s approach to lacquer art is postmodern, as befits a migrant society, seeking to balance the old and the new. This reflects the second generation experience of growing up in a belief system whose reality is at odds with the world outside. In Unpolished Gem, the novelist Alice Pung weaves a parallel story as a Chinese Cambodian growing up in Melbourne’s West.

I could hear Grandmother’s voice in my head: “Stupid white ghosts don’t understand bugger-all about real people, about the need to be protected.” They were already ghosts, what need did they have of protection from ghosts?  

Like Pung, TIeu returns to the “superstitions” of her childhood world. This western Sydney version Chinese auspicious culture prescribed which direction to face when sleeping, what sacrifice to make for an ancestor and the need to finish every grain of rice in her bowl (or she would marry a husband as spotted as that). It is an art of careful alignment, a world of Feng Shui.  

It’s useful to step back here into the Chinese culture from which Tieu is descended. With the arrival of Buddhism in third century BC China, came an appreciation of the symbolic meaning of flowers. Peach blossom evokes the gods in heaven, who dwell in the Far West. Tang flower poetry and Southern Song painting reflect the importance of nature in representing human affairs.

The eleventh century Song poet Ouyang Xiu draws on West Lake for inspiration:

The painted boat is punted in to where the flowers are thick.
Fragrance floats round golden cups,
Mist and rain are so, so fine…

The apprehension of beauty is made poignant by its fleeting quality. This is at odds with our consumerist response to attractive things, which is to seek to possess them—as purchases or photographs. During the Song dynasty, acquisitiveness seemed contrary to the spirit of harmony in nature. The ideal was to “view flowers on horseback” (zou ma kan hua)—catching beauty with a casual glance.

For us today, seeing Tieu’s work in a gallery imposes a similar distance. Such precious objects invite the hand. We long to hold one between our fingers and watch the dance of light as patterns evanesce. But these are not ours to touch. Instead, like the art lover on horseback, we hover around them, enjoying the play of glittering copper and blood red lacquer.

Circling dimensions invites us to circumambulate like the lid of the cylinder. Connected harmony is an ornamental version of a calendar: one side has the Chinese lunar date and the other its Western equivalent.

Tieu’s objects are alive. The lacquer forms a translucent skin that contains the precious interior. And like succulents, lacquered objects require a humid atmosphere to develop. In a relatively dry city like Sydney, Tieu must place her objects in a humidity box, containing a layer of plaster of Paris, and left on a warm window sill. Tieu adds to the unpredictability by using copper as a metal inlay, which slowly turns green with oxidation. The Spring transitions necklace presents metal in flux like seasonal change.

So how does this fragile orchid of a craft survive in such an arid continent? The poet Les Murray articulated as well as any other Australian writer the battered environs of his culture, where “hot water crinkles in the tin wash dish.” But at the core of this world, Murray saw a careful regard for things that is almost Japanese in its sense of aesthetic order. As he wrote in Aqualung Shinto:

Oh Zen makes colonials of a few
but each people has its proper Shinto
Distinctive as verandah beams.

Tieu has found her own “proper Shinto” in lacquer. Drawing from her Vietnamese inheritance, she makes precious rings from eggshell (Moon Autumn), the poor man’s pearl. The object Twang distorts the perfection of the vessel into a unique broad shape, like the broad Aussie accent Tieu acquired growing up in Sydney’s West. And her Prunus Bowls are vessels with minimal inner volume—like a niche to house a sacred symbol rather than a store a thing of the world.

Tieu has sat at the feet of a Japanese master. Through tireless application, she has learnt the delicate language of fragile materials. After endless polishing, she has gradually revealed the preciousness within. But her work is not trapped in time. It is open to the world around her—the air and the light and to us who find ourselves momentarily stilled.  

References

Jahss, Melvin, and Betty Jahss. 2013. Inro and Other Miniature Forms of Japanese Lacquer Art. Tuttle Publishing.

Knapp, Ronald G. 1999. China’s Living Houses: Folk Beliefs, Symbols, and Household Ornamentation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Pung, Alice. 2009. Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother and Me. London: Portobello Books Ltd.