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.

 

Craft in Australia: let’s not forget the real value of the handmade

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In his budget reply speech in May 2015, Bill Shorten claimed that “coding is the literacy of the 21st century.”

With the possibility of technology taking over our jobs, now is the perfect time to remind ourselves of the value of Australian craft culture, and the beauty of the handmade.

In September, Melbourne will host the inaugural Radiant Pavilion, an international jewellery festival – along with the state organisation’s Craft Cubedand national conference, Parallels: Journeys into Contemporary Making – to be delivered by the National Gallery of Victoria.

This conference culminates the National Craft Initiative (NCI), managed by theNational Association of the Visual Arts (NAVA). A 2014 report by the NCI, Mapping the Australian Craft Sector, called for an urgent review of its sustainability.

CRAFT APPRECIATION

In 2009 NAVA Director Tamara Winikoff described craft in the community in the following terms:

The extent of the Australian community’s engagement with craft and design (over 2 million participants) is a powerful affirmation of the deep seated satisfaction which people gain from the exercise of their imagination and skill. The ambition of the NCI is to stimulate engagement of the Australian craft and design sector with new ideas, ways of doing things, connections and opportunities.

University of South Australia’s Susan Luckman’s recent book, Craft and the Creative Economy (2015), reflects on the growing interest in the handmade, prompted by increasing awareness of exploitation in global industrial production:

Craft, as both objects and process, appeals in this moment of increasing environmental and labour awareness as an ethical alternative to mass-production; craft also speaks to deep human connections to, and interest in, making and the handmade as offering something seemingly authentic in a seemingly inauthentic world.

The internet – bringing with it businesses like etsy.com, which has exceededUS$2 billion in transactions – promises to extend the intimacy of the local market to a global audience, offering a sense of connection that is lacking elsewhere.

But how does Australia feature in the global industry of craft? Surprisingly, Australia was once a world leader.

THE BIRTH AND DEATH OF CRAFT IN AUSTRALIA

The Crafts Council of Australia emerged in 1964 as a response to an invitation from the World Crafts Council (WCC) to attend its inaugural event in New York. In 1973, the Crafts Board was established to represent the arts in the Australia Council alongside visual arts, dance and literature.

Then in 1980, Australian ceramist Marea Gazzard was the first elected president of the WCC. Political leaders of the time sought to identify with popular crafts, such as Democrats founder Don Dunstan opening the Adelaide’s JamFactoryCraft Centre in 1973 and Rupert Hamer launching Victoria’s Meat Market Crafts Centre in 1977.

However, Australian craft has since virtually disappeared from the national stage. Through the 1980s, the Crafts Board was incorporated into the Visual Arts/Crafts Board, and eventually merged into the Visual Arts Board in the 1990s, as it now remains.

Finally, the last national link to craft was lost with the 2011 decision to cut funding for Craft Australia.

Recent political leaders have failed to use Australian crafts to demonstrate their national pride, with the exception of John Madigan and Nick Xenophon’s failed attempt to furnish Parliament House with Australian-made crockery.

The now corporatised state-based crafts councils such as Craft Victoria and Adelaide’s dynamic JamFactory generate much local activity, but they are not supported by a national platform or funding.

AUSTRALIA’S IMPACT ON THE GLOBAL HANDMADE FOOTPRINT

Though Australian craft is rarely seen on our national stage, we have actually made many unique objects of enduring value. As a material art, craft expresses in a tangible appreciation of the land. Using Japanese techniques, Australian ceramicists give artistic expression to the rich soils, glazed with ash from our native timbers.

As shown in this year’s Venice Biennale, Aboriginal communities from central Australia use the unique plants of the desert to tell sacred stories in fibre sculptures. Wood craftspersons are learning how to adapt European techniques to the challenges of our indigenous timbers. Jewellers have taken the egalitarian approach to materials and learnt how to make exquisite works out of humble materials.

While other nations have attempted to re-focus on making things, the “lucky country” has come to depend more on what can be extracted from the land than is produced on it. The “clever country” imagined during the Hawke-Keating years made a virtue out of the loss of manufacturing, heralding a knowledge economy that focused on financial and education services.

THE CRAFTINESS OF THE REST OF THE WORLD

In the US, President Obama personally hosted the annual Maker Faire last year, reviving some national pride in making things through local production, featuring neighbourhood labs that offer services such as 3D printing.

In the UK, craft contributes A$6.5 billion to the economy. The Crafts Councilactively presents craft in the public eye, including a recent manifesto – Our Future is in the Making – launched in the House of Commons to promote craft in education.

Across the sea, the Crafts Council of Ireland receives annually A$5.2 million in government funding to support craft initiatives such as Future Makers to nurture the next generation (a per capita equivalent in Australia would be A$26 million for a national craft organisation).

China, South Korea, Japan and India have also dedicated significant funding,international festivals, infrastructure and craftsman support services) to the development and sustainability of locally crafted goods, including Nahendra Modi’s personal commitment to support khadi (handloom) cotton production.

But with the end of the mining boom, we are looking at the impact that this loss of productive capacity has on our ability to sustain our future. What exactly will be the legacy of our good fortune apart from large holes in the ground?

THE CRAFT OF THE FUTURE

This year – will it be a turning point, or could it be more of the same?

For the past two decades, the cult of the new prevented us from building on the unique traditions we have established. Arts talk today is infected with corporatephrases such as “disruptive technologies”, “breaking down barriers”, and “design thinking”.

The obsession to break with the past weakens the social and community values that underpin meaning.

Understanding where we have come from offers a trajectory that can guide us into the future. According to Marian Hosking, President of the newly revivedWorld Crafts Council – Australia:

Today’s craftsperson draws on both traditional craft practice and new technologies, with an understanding of historic and social precedence.

The end of the mining boom is a chance to review the implicit direction of Australia as a nation. What will happen as Asian countries inevitably raise their wages, develop first rate universities and create their own designs?

Crafts help us answer that question. Crafts demonstrate that we know our place in the world and are committed to make something from it.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How to Make a Promise

James Hansen, the man considered to be the father of climate change awareness, told The Guardian that the agreement was “bullshit” and just “worthless words. There is no action, just promises”
(James Hansen, father of climate change awareness, calls Paris talks ‘a fraud’, Guardian 12/12/15)

If all we are left with is “promises”, how can we make them so that they will be kept?

Though promises that help increase trust are usually made of words, the phrases ‘to make a promise’ and ‘to build trust’ allude to a process of material construction. Verbal promises leave no trace, unless they are formalised as legal documents such as contracts. The increasingly temporary nature of contemporary life works against long-term social bonds.

Trust is at the core of what sustains a community, but it is particularly fraught as cities grow and become more diverse. The issue of Islamophobia reflects on the sense that a recent community in many Western countries cannot be trusted to behave appropriately.

The basic motive driving this project is to find a way of being useful in the world. While art clearly holds up an important mirror to reality, the challenge of design is to find ways of changing that world.

Bodies aren’t forever

I shouldn’t be writing this essay. The body as a theme in contemporary jewellery is essentially a feminist issue. All the artists and the curator of this exhibition are women. The patriarchal position of the writer is one that seeks to explain the work, rending its unnerving and rogue elements in rational form. In a feminist context, this is an obvious expression of phallocentrism, therefore to be resisted.

But the alternative seems worse. I could attempt my own kind of feminist discourse, employing a corporeal language à la Julia Kristeva. But no. This would be an exotic primitivist gesture that disavows my inevitable gender position.

I can only proceed. My concession is to say that I am not demanding of you that my text be read as an explanation of the works in this exhibition. My text is more like the otherwise neutral architecture of the gallery in which the exhibition takes place. These words attempt to shelter the artists from the business of the world outside while allowing some traffic of ideas inside and out. What happens inside is out of my hands.

So let’s do the historical stuff.

Contemporary jewellery as a modernist venture sought to define what distinguished itself from other art forms, such as sculpture and painting. A common response was to identify the body as the essential and unique element in jewellery. While most art worlds are created to occupy walls, floors or plinths, jewellery is designed primarily to fit on the body. Essentially, it should not be read in isolation as a small sculpture, but instead be evaluated in relation to this vertical tree of flesh clothed in skin. As the canvas of jewellery, the body then becomes a site of experimentation. In the 1980s, this involved an enlargement of jewellery to cover the whole body, such as the English David Poston’s life-size performance props and the Australian Rowena Gough’s Reptilia wearable paper sculpture.

The focus on the body opened up the discovery of new sites on which jewellery could be located. Beyond the wrist, finger, neck, ear and crown, artists could explore new spaces for ornament, such as teeth (Susan Cohn’s ornamented dental braces). These works raise the question of the relation between adornment and the body.

Now the theory…

The relationship between metal and flesh is a powerful dialectic. Skin is sensuous and responsive, compared to the cold inert elements such as gold, silver or aluminium. One is human, the other machine. According to this logic, jewellery exists to serve the body – to draw the gaze to it, to frame its features and to honour it as valuable. But in the longer term, the life of metal extends far beyond that of flesh. The wedding ring can exist long after the husband and wife have decomposed. According to this contrary logic, we are simply hosts for jewellery. We exist so that these vain glittering objects might be paraded through social events and admired. And when we die, a lucky few jewels can live on attached to someone else’s body, protected as a keepsake or reincarnated in the crucible to be remade as a new object.

As with any dialectic, zero-sum logic seeks some possibility of synthesis. How can metal and flesh merge? How can the process of corporeal corruption be revealed through the jewellery itself?

Zooming in to the local…

While the ‘body as canvas’ was a driving formal interest in contemporary jewellery, the body also featured strongly as content in feminist engagement. By contrast with the ideology of mateship, Australia was the country that explored most intensely the feminist dimension of contemporary jewellery, in particular the Gray Street Workshop in Adelaide. In the mid-1980s, Anne Brennan made a series of work reflecting the everyday experiences of women such as domestic duties, including necklaces of nappies on a line. Her work for Thoughts in Flesh (1984, JamFactory) referenced the female body, including pieces resembling intrauterine devices. The Ce Mal de L’Infini (1986, Contemporary Art Centre, Adelaide) exhibition included objects to be clenched between teeth that prevented the speech, evoking the violence of silence. Other Gray Street members aestheticise flesh: Catherine Truman carves models of musculature onto work and Leslie Matthews casts pieces inspired by internal organs. Beyond Gray Street, the most striking jewellery encounter with the body has been Tiffany Parbs in Melbourne. Parbs invents new forms working only with the body itself.

Across the Tasman, feminism had a very different orientation. In New Zealand artists explored third-wave feminist concerns such as the domestic. In her Strain, Grate, Whisk, Scrub series (2000) Pauline Bern made ornament out of kitchen utensils as a way to bring jewellery into the back stage world that constitutes the maternal domain. This was parallel to the exploration of a settler aesthetic that never occurred in Australia.

Now comes the zeitgeist…

So what does it mean here in 2013 to re-visit the body as a site of contemporary jewellery? This century has seen the growth of ‘the relational turn’, which involves moving away from issues of individual experience such as the body. This seems an enlightened development beyond the individualist framework and towards a shared understanding of authorship. It’s hard to fathom today a welcoming return to the romance of the lone artist. But maybe there’s occasional need to question the collective, to go against what Nietzsche called our ‘herd nature’.

The exhibition at hand…

Embodied stretches the ‘body as canvas’ in two ways. First, relationally. Suse Scholem’s opening performance seeks to crowd-source a collective experience of jewellery and her Gestaltwerk creates jewellery out of the relation between two bodies, similar to Renee Bevan’s body assemblage photographs in New Zealand. Rachel Timmins walking jewellery performances disrupt the routines of everyday life, causing public to break their journeys and make sense of this jewellery on legs. As relational element, the body offers more anarchic possibilities than the more structure participatory forms of making in common.

Then there are works that transgress the boundary between jewellery and body. Tassia Ioannides sticker performances and works directly adorn the body. Selina Woulfe’s performances erase the distance between jewellery and the body. Like the Dutch jeweller Vera Siemund’s chalk necklace, Woulfe’s Delmira rubs off on the body. While Siemund’s is designed to stain clothes, Woulfe’s lipstick directly affects the skin. Silvergraft points us towards body piercing. But this is an extension of ear piercing, while Woulfe’s work evolves out of the brooch, which is conventionally attached to clothing. Its radical nature seems to be in circumventing this layer, evoking a nakedness more bare than nudity.

And the final authoritative judgement…

Embodied seems to move in two directions – outward in the collision of other bodies and inward in the inexorable isolation of personal body. The exhibition revives the ‘body as canvas’ only to break through to the other side. Rather than consign the body a singular modernist phase in contemporary jewellery, Embodied offers up the body as a cyclical reinvigoration of adornment, exposing new directions.

You may now view the exhibition.

Essay for the exhibition Embodied curated by Suse Scholem, 24 September 2014