What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

The key element that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

“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.

Between the Wheel and the Mobile Phone: Ceramics in a network age

Thanks to Jane Sawyer

‘Between the wheel and the mobile phone: ceramics in a network age: Keynote address’ Verge Ceramics Conference  (2006)

Congratulations to the organisers on what’s been a most stimulating conference thus far. I am grateful to Garth Clark for laying out the dilemma in contemporary ceramics so eloquently in his keynote address, and to Gwynn Hanssen Pigott for her animated potter’s tale, which reminded us of the richness that ceramics can bring when reduced to its simple forms. Thanks also to Janet de Boos concept of the distributed studio and its rhizomic metaphors.

I’d like to position this paper in relation to what’s come before. Like others, I’d like to explore the paths leading out from Fortress Ceramica. Not that the fortress is necessarily a bad institution, but for the moment it seems to have been bypassed by modern society.

The image of Fortress Ceramica suggests a particular position for ceramics today. It conjures up the scene of a roundtable with knights sitting in worried discussion as the Normans are just about to scale the ramparts. What will they do? Some decide to join the Normans, with the hope one day they can make it to the glorious court of Paris. But I imagine one stubborn knight, Sir Bernard, who prefers to go underground for a while, in the hope that the ideals represented by Fortress Ceramica might be restored.

My talk considers how ceramics as a field might fare out of its familiar craft setting and in some of the new developments in the art world. The question to be asked through this journey is how these new opportunities advance the field of ceramics, a field which has developed techniques and traditions that enable us to give expression through clay to the things that are important to us.

Following the theme of medieval romance, our journey will take us to a region called ‘the green world’, in reference to the forests like Arden and Sherwood when heroes disappear into a mysterious other world of camaraderie and magic. In the green world, heroes leave beyond the royal power struggles for the utopian world of common folk.

You are wandering down the forest path and what do you find?

Kinki’s handbag

Welcome to Kinki’s handbag. What do we see there? You might notice a wallet, a digital camera, some tissues, candy, the inevitable iPod, keys, chewing gum, pocket PC and sundry other items. It’s hard to imagine ceramics in this sea of disposable items and gadgets. But that’s not what is most remarkable. It’s particularly interesting that we have this image in the first place. Why would someone share an image of the private contents of their handbag? It was taken from a photo-sharing site, Flickr, where users often share an image of ‘What’s in my bag’.

There’s been quite a remarkable opening out of inner experience in recent times. Though reality television programs like Big Brother and the Internet explosion of blogs, we are erasing the boundaries of public and private.

The ‘network age’, as some call it, reflects an increasing interconnectness between people, particularly in the affluent west. We see it in the street, with the rise of café society and the hegemony of the latte. The talking head of current affairs has been replaced by the panel format. A glimpse at any train or bus will find commuters busy texting and talking on their mobile phones. I link therefore I am.

So how goes our noble knight of clay? Rather perplexed, one might say. Ceramics as we know it seems best appreciated from the paradigm of the individual. We need a means to appreciate the investment of time and labour that has gone into the development of skills, embodied in the hands of the potter. We saw this with Gwynn Hanssen Pigott’s life story, involving long hours spent in isolation honing her skills.

Long hours of solitary labour are required to test the limits of the clay, experiment with glazes. We are talking about the moment of connoisseurship, where the collector holds the vessel and appreciates its rare colour and form, and covets private ownership.

Next in the forest, Sir Bernard comes across quite a strange gathering of people – a group of merry men, no less.

Relational aesthetics

In visual arts, the paradigm that many have adopted to respond to the convergences of our time is relational aesthetics. Defined in the writings of Nicholas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics moves the focus in art from the lone object to the relations between people that the art is seen to enable. This art creates fluid communities, which assert democratic values in resistance to the consumerism that hijacks social relations for brand identification and market penetration. As Bourriaud defines it, ‘relational art [is] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space).’[1] Here is art for the age of the mobile phone.

Relational art hardly seems like art at all. For instance, for a work in a previous Sydney Biennale the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres filled a gallery with candies wrapped in gold cellophane. Visitors were free to help themselves to this bounty. The meaning of the work was not in the installation at all, but in the position as a viewer that we find ourselves in having to weigh up individual desire against the collective responsibility to preserve an art work for public enjoyment.

Relational art might involve an artist cooking a dinner for a number of people. In 1993, the French artist Georgina Starr handed out sheets in a restaurant to customers dining alone, that spoke to them about the anxiety of solitary eating—anything to bring people together in unorthodox combinations.

Sir Bernard and Robin Hood seem unlikely companions. Relational aesthetics has a puritan disdain for art as a form of idol worshipping. Bourriaud rails against the ‘dead object crushed by contemplation.’ It may seem there is little prospect for an object-centric art in this movement, but there are new works which honour craft in ways that do not focus on the individually made object.

Let’s meet some of the merry men.

The Buddy System

In craft, an example of a work that fits within relational aesthetics is the Buddy System by Cook Island artist Ani O’Neill. Inspired by her Raratongan grandmother, O’Neill has devised a touring art work that recruits visitors to learn crochet and make a simple flower design. At the end of the installation, these flowers are sent to a person nominated by the maker. The work has been quite successful for O’Neill, featuring in many cultural festivals, including the first Auckland Triennial.

Textile art would seem a natural medium for gregarious uses as it lends itself to the social group. In Melbourne, we have witnessed the knitting revolution develop as younger people sought meaningful ways of coming together outside of the commodified spaces of entertainment.

Asian Field

How might be apply this paradigm to ceramics? A pertinent example may be found in a much publicised work on view at the current Sydney Biennale, Anthony Gormley’s Asian Field. Asian Field is part of a series of work produced by the British sculptor by recruiting people from communities to produce figurines with local clays. Previous works have come from Bristol, Mexico, Brazil and Sweden.

Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of Xiangshan, aged between 7 to 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Originally planned to be a little over 100,000 figures, the total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period.

The effect of standing before Asian Field is quite impressive. As one individual, you feel yourself subject of the gaze of nearly half a million eyes. There is an ambivalence of omnipotence and humility. There are also subtle variations in the clay evident across the installation, as the figures reflect the different qualities of clay distributed across the land.

For Gormley, the series has two motives. The first is to honour the primordial mission of sculpture, as witnessed in the first interventions into landscape which lifted horizontal rocks into vertical forms, reflecting the ascent of man from a four to a two legged beast. Thus Gormley transforms the resting nature of earth into the animated works of art. For his second interest, Gormley states ‘I want to democratise the space of art.’[2] Gormley gives over the privilege of making to the people, by no longer being the sole artist who creates the work, but by enabling others to express themselves. This reversal is parallel to the transformation of the gallery, from the crowd visiting the unique object to the multiple objects visiting the unique visitor: ‘you become the subject of art’s gaze rather than the other way round.’

By situating a work about democracy in a Chinese context, Gormley provokes a critical response. An Englishman comes into a Chinese town and recruits villagers to mould pieces of clay. The installation contains photographs of these individuals with their names and one of their pieces. Is there any way of distinguishing their figures from one made in Mexico or England?


Let’s think about Xiangshan for a minute. In Chinese history, Xiangshan is the revered home town of the nation’s father, Sun Yat Sen. Today, it is one of Guangdong’s ‘four little tigers’, specialising in hardware, appliances, casual wear and mahogany furniture industries. Many of us are probably wearing clothes made in Xiangshan, or use their devices in our kitchens. It’s part of the revolution in consumerism that has made inflation history and has given us all access to low-cost goods. Someone else often pays the price. In a famous case, workers in a Xiangshan factory were found working for as little as $22 a month making handbags for Wal-Mart. They were forced to hand over identity documents under pain of arrest, denied overtime pay and fined if spent too long in the bathroom.

Gormley’s work was part of a campaign called Think UK, it was first exhibited in the Imperial Palace next to Tiananmen Square. He can be seen to be following a similar path to that other Western visitor, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch aimed to introduce STAR TV into the Chinese market, which he considered the fastest growing into the world. As Murdoch said to the Asia Society:

Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese not only dare to dream but have confidence that their dreams will become reality.

Like Murdoch, Gormley is presenting China as a sea of individuals, each with their own unique aspirations. But alas, there is nothing in what they produce that connects with the traditions that inform Chinese history, from the ceramics of the Ming Dynasty to the communist ideologies of the post-imperial era. These are placeless Chinese, ready to enlist in the Hollywood dreams of Foxtel. This Robin Hood turns out to be a undercover agent of King John.

Asian Field raises broader concerns about an infantalisation of ceramics, where clay is seen as a form of spontaneous expression innocent of skill and virtuosity. A museum in Melbourne is developing a touring exhibition of ceramic horses made by children. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be a shame if audiences forgot the power of clay as a form of artistic expression.

Ai Weiwei

Let’s compare Asian Field to other ways in which the tradition of Chinese ceramics engages with the west. Also in the Sydney Biennale is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His signature piece is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), which is photographic documentation of the artist doing just that. Ai Weiwei comments bluntly: ‘China is a factory of the world. So boring porcelain stay same 2,000 years: break.’ Naturally, our first response is to recoil with horror. Here is modernism at its most brutal—the destruction of tradition for sensational effect.

But in a way, there’s also something refreshing about this honesty. Ai Weiwei is being open about the unspoken neo-colonial agenda in work by Anthony Gormley. His recent work Ghost Valley Coming Down the Mountain (Museum für Moderne Kunst) featured 96 vases from the Yuan period reproduced from the original workshop. These filter ceramic tradition through a modernist lens, reducing the singular masterpiece into a grid of reproductions. This Asian Field has more to say to ceramics than Gormley’s installation.

Ah Xian

In Australia, we have some notable examples of dialogue with China. Of great success recently in Australian galleries is Ah Xian, a refugee from Tiananmen Square. Human Human is a life-sized figure finely ornamented by the traditional craftsmen at the Jingdong Cloisonné Factory in Hebei Province, east of Beijing. The principal motif is the lotus, the traditional sign of hope on the journey to enlightenment. While incorporating a very traditional form of Chinese ornament, Ah Xian has made quite a radical shift in substituting the body for the vessel. For Ah Xian, this places the human body at the source of life, rather than nature.

Ah Xian can be compared to Gormley as someone who brings a humanism to China. Though his is something that engages more with the traditions of Chinese ceramics.

Writing a Painting

Such a path is followed by Robin Best, in work for the exhibition curated by Vivonne Thwaites, Writing a Painting, which was presented at the University of South Australia School of Art gallery at this year’s Adelaide Festival. The exhibition featured works by Robin Best in collaboration with the Chinese ceramic painter Huang Xiuqian and the Ernabella artist Nyukala Baker. Best’s methodology is similar to Ah Xian’s, though she herself creates the forms that are then ornamented by specialist artists. Like these artists, she introduces a modernist aesthetic that abstracts traditional form. But hers is a more aesthetic interest in the formal beauty of spaces created by these shapes. In flattening the traditional vase, she has heightened the painterly quality of their work.

After meeting the false Robin Hood, there is still much to offer Sir Bernard and the Anglo-Oriental Company in possibilities of cultural exchange with China through the medium of clay.

While I’ve dwelt mostly on China, allow me to mention briefly a few other less familiar terrains in which ceramic practice might flourish.

There are some opportunities in relational aesthetics, but there may be more prospect for ceramics in cultural collaboration, in what might be understood alongside world music as part of the genre of world craft.


Ceramics as a means of bringing people together achieved its most literal expression in a recent series of events staged by Karen Casey, titled Let’s Shake. These reconciliation events involved indigenous and non-indigenous people shaking hands—the dental filling placed between the two hands slowly forms a solid impression. During the celebrations of NAIDOC last week,

While celebrating the humanism of clay, this event highlights the seeming opposition between specialised skill and shared meaning.

But perhaps we can tread a different path in looking at ceramics. Rather that look at its role in bringing strangers together, there is a strong theme in the way it serves to acknowledge existing relations.

David Ray

In Melbourne, David Ray is one of a school of merry men, including his St Kilda studio brothers Stephen Benwell and Vipoo Sviralasa.

Coming from the far flung suburb of Ringwood, David has an interest in the emancipatory potential of clay. For his Open Bench residency at Craft Victoria, David created a ceramic BBQ. At the performance that culminated this, David invited audience to make pinch pots that finished the installation. While his work remained the centrepiece, the audience could experience for themselves the plasticity of the materials.

For the Commonwealth Games, David participated as host in an exhibition Common Goods. Common Goods was under the umbrella of the South Project, which looks to possible exchanges between artists from across the south. There are many untapped connections for Australian ceramicists with the traditions of our southern cousins in Africa and Latin America. This was just a taste of that.

His guest was the Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. Thenuwara has invented his own genre of art—barrelism. Barrelism is the appropriation of the military paraphernalia of Colombo as art rather than sedimented violence. Thus Thenuwara explores camouflage as a form in itself and took advantage of this residency to start to develop a three dimensional camouflage. David responded to this militaristic theme with a ceramic gun position as though building of a city-scape. The pervasive military nature of Sri Lankan life as evidenced in Thenuwara’s barrels provided Ray with an opportunity to pull out the stops in Melbourne.

Poor Craft

Reflecting the knitting revolution in textiles, the recent genre of poor craft reflects an attempt to renew craft with the use of common materials. In ceramics, Nicole Lister has employed her skills in porcelain to ennoble the humble packaging that normally accompanies ceramics. Beyond the object, Honor Freeman places porcelain in the public domain in the production of fake power points. Poor craft is a definite guerrilla movement of the Fortress Ceramica, determined to maintain the ideals of object making in a world dominated by hyper-consumption.

The new labour movement

An alternative path is to focus on the way the object embodies the time spent in making it.

A work by Christian Capurro has some quite interesting relevance to ceramics. There are reports of a shortage of kaolin affecting porcelain production. One of the main uses of kaolin is the production of glossy magazines. Capurro is one of a new generation of artists that turn labour into art. His work Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette commissioned a number of people to erase a page each from the male fashion magazine Vogue Hommes. They were asked to record how many hours it took to rub out the page, and what their normal hourly rate was. The work was thus calculated at $11,349.18.

While this kind of perverse conceptualism seems far from the ideals of the craft movement, it does suggest other paths for ceramicists, who might make a feature of their labour. Rather than selling a pot, one might sell the equivalent labour…


Finally, a new realm of underground action has developed recently in the production of blogs, daily web diaries. Blogs not only enable individuals to upload images and writing about their day’s concerns, but importantly it is a means of connecting people together based on shared interests. The blog becomes an informal project that solicits a mobile audience. The Danish ceramicist Karinne Erikson reflects not only on her challenges in the studio but also her involvement in a choir and occasional purchases. She adopts a popular method of dividing the week up into colours, so Red Friday includes images of Galerie La Fayette and an English stove. Part of new network includes Queensland ceramicist Shannon Garson, who used a bird theme for one week and encouraged visitors to submit works accordingly. Ceramic blogs

Already there

To a degree, one could say that a theory like a field like ceramics already embodies many of the values in relational aesthetics. At an everyday level, ceramics is used as structure for the relationships between people, from the consistency of plates on which people dine to the range of quality in cups that represent the specialness of the occasion.

It may be tempting to stop at this point and say that’s enough. We don’t need to worry about this new theory.

However, we need to acknowledge that there has been a change, which is probably reflected in the greater fluidity of human relations, the absence of the ‘special guest’ whose presence demands opening up the porcelain cabinet. The formality and ritual of social life has declined.

We need to explore other paths.

In one element, the field of ceramics is likely to differ from other forms of conceptual visual art. Ceramics takes longer. There is more work involved.

[1] Nicholas Bourriaud Relational Aesthetics Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002 (orig. 1998), p. 14

[2] http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,11711,921159,00.html

The Plinth in the Age of Digital Reproduction

‘The Plinth in the Age of Digital Reproduction’  Keynote address at Localities conference at Northumbria University, UK (2003)

… that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.

Walter Benjamin ‘The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, in Illuminations (trans. H. Zohn) London: Fontana, 1973 (orig. 1936), p. 223

to lift clay into the heavens is against nature

Plotinus The Enneads (trans. Stephen McKenna) New York: Pantheon, 1969 (orig. 270), p. 86

For those concerned with putting objects into public view, the plinth is a familiar device. Its clean flat surface creates a separate neutral space on which we can gaze upon the object from all angles and appreciate it in its own right as a thing of beauty. The plinth makes art.

So it was. Today, a new device has come along and stolen the privileged role of the plinth. It is the screen that viewers look to now—a mirror world where the world appears as spectacle. The plinth by contrast now looks like a lump of MDF, taking up space and harbouring clutter.

So where today does the object go to find recognition as a thing-in-itself? Does the screen offer a way of realising the beauty of objects as receptacles of the here and now? These are questions for this paper.

I will present two examples of curatorial practice that have found a place for the object in the screen world. They both challenge the simple tale of technological progress, which sees the screen as a successor to the plinth. Both examples converge on the new development in Melbourne known as Federation Square.

In his classic essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin developed an opposition between the priestly aura of the cult object and the mass enjoyment of cinema. While evoking the poetic charge of the singular object, Benjamin embraced the increased engagement of the senses in modern life. By contrast with a contemplative art form such as painting, which absorbs the viewer in internal reveries, cinema mechanically directs attention on particular paths.

In the twentieth century, the aura of the cult object was to a degree sustained in art galleries. The white cube provided a relief from the cascade of images flooding the world outside. Walls and plinths secured our gaze.

But the barbarians are at the gates. As we become more used to screens, with their changing views from afar, the object becomes increasingly dumb by contrast. Nothing seems to happen on the plinth. It’s dead space. Our inherited ability to gain rich pleasure from appreciating the complexity of craftsmanship is being superseded by more speculative ways of seeing.

And now new architectural practices are introducing the cinematic process into the art gallery itself. As a case study, I wish to present a newly opened development in the hub of Melbourne known as Federation Square.

At first glance, this new design seems to signal the demise of craft as a source of aesthetic experience in the art gallery. Cinema flattens the world onto the screen in order to jump through space and time.

Progress is often imagined as the increasing pace of this transformation, though with a caveat. In Spielberg’s film Minority Report the hero investigator operates a device that enables him to physically manipulate the screen world through a dizzying process of hand-sorting. The moving image has become so pervasive that even cereal packets sport animations. But as with most futuristic plots, the film contains a kernel of the real that defies the distracted world outside. The hero visits his ex-wife’s rural retreat, filled with old-fashioned darkroom photographs. The still world provides an emotional anchor for subsequent engagement with the dizzying world of screens beyond. We journey through the mirror in the hope we can recover a lost object from the real world.

A number of design ethics converge on Federation Square. I will follow two: the National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image. Like Spielberg’s film, Federation Square beckons a web-like visuality of interconnected images, but leads eventually to a rediscovery of the thing-in-itself. Along the way, we find that conventional modes of presenting craft are radically challenged.

Federation Square

Federation Square opened in late 2002 as a series of buildings opposite Melbourne’s central railway station. It contains the Australian wing of the National Gallery of Victoria, the newly forged art institution titled the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, the major ethnic broadcasting service and many bars, cafes and restaurants.

Federation Square is based on the designs of two young architects, Peter Davidson and Don Bates, known collectively as Lab Architects. In this their first commission, Lab have departed radically from the conventional modernist white cube. Galleries are designed with multiple visual planes. On entry, visitors are granted views not only of the work in their immediate space, but also of art from neighbouring rooms exposed through niches and orthogonal walls. Screens at the entry of galleries provide dissolving menus of art currently on display. On entry into one space I counted up to thirteen different visual planes. This is not a conventional gallery experience. What is going on?

My reflection on the architect’s intentions was gleaned from an interview with Peter Davidson. According to Davidson, NGV: Australia is about providing visitors with an experience of how artists see the world. In his words, their design was about ‘giving air to visuality’ and providing visitors an opportunity to ‘get inside the look’ of the artist. The parallel with film-making seems relevant, as Davidson explains:

‘Just as the cinema profoundly affected the way that we dream and imagine, I think that creating space as an architect that can contribute to the same thing is also what our responsibility is.’

In this scheme, space is not a neutral container for art, it is rather the structure that gives it meaning.

While seeming to offer exciting possibilities for viewing works of art, there is one disturbing feature of Federation Square for those who work in the crafts—their rarity. Apart from one or two works stored in niches, NGV: Australia shows none of its rich collection of decorative arts. According to management, this is a purely logistical issue. The money ran out before specially designed cabinets could be constructed. While this is no doubt a contributing factor, it does speak for a lower priority assigned to objects. I would argue further, though, that Federation Square is philosophically antipathetic to craft.

The gallery design reflects a license to manipulate space that is partly a product of the digital age. Screen technologies have given a new mobility to the visual plane; images are readily captured, processed and transmitted. This is particularly the case with contemporary architecture, where CAD technology makes it possible to design with vectors that arrange space dynamically.

As a product of this facility, Federation Square has an almost kaleidoscopic complexity. This is not a space conducive to what Robert Hughes claims as the ritual of art devotion—the ‘long look’. Instead, it is a space for the restless contemporary eye, seeking constantly changing views and connections.

Conventional plinths would be out of place in this kaleidoscope. Their presence would rupture the dynamic visual flow of the space. The plinth’s invitation to view the object ‘in the round’ would create a kind of whirlpool in the visitation experience, disrupting the designed trajectories. It would be the awkward crease in the seamless ‘fly-through’ constructed for gallery visitors.

When I put these thoughts to Peter Davidson, he claimed that there is nothing antithetical to objects in Lab’s design: it was a curatorial issue, rather than an architectural feature. He described plans for new cabinets that would be more easily altered and defended the bifocal structure of the existing niches.

Indeed, I hope that craft is a challenge that NGV: Australia eventually confronts. Lab Architects appear not to be fundamentalist in their commitment to visuality. But at this stage, we must deal with the evidence before our eyes.

And here, if we look long enough, we do find a place where the journey comes to a dead end and the object finally reappears, albeit without the plinth.

One of the works to be displayed in the initial hang was a sculpture by a visual artist Ricky Swallow. Swallow’s surreal mechanical assemblages are heralded as much for their craftsmanship as their imagination. This head of Darth Vader is menacing in its reference, but undercut by its exaggerated construction. To orchestrate this piece, Lab architects built a black room in the middle of the gallery—a kind of blind spot in the kaleidoscope. For a reason unbeknownst to the architects, the artist objected to this space and the black box was left to other artists’ works.

While not used as intended, the black box suggests that a kaleidoscope is not sufficient to itself. At some point, there needs to be an intensive experience that grounds the trajectory back in the physical being of the visitor. Here, perhaps, is where craft might creep back into the gallery as cinema.

Susan Cohn: Black Intentions

The idea of the black box was eventually realised in a profile of the Melbourne jeweller Susan Cohn. Cohn has made a mark not just for her ability to translate urban sociology into ornament, but also her innovation in exhibition designs, eschewing readymade options in favour of bespoke display solutions. Plinths are rarities in Cohn shows. Her Black Intentions explored the netherworld of jewellery as a binding device that embodies the culture of nocturnal Melbourne. To exhibit this work inside NGV: Australia, Cohn recreated her own black box. Walls were painted black and the works were isolated by theatrical lighting. Rather than plinths, Cohn placed her objects on a series of cylinders, reflecting a modernist discipline for function. Visitors engaged with a subtle play on bodily encirclement, including spare tires, bondage and rings that bore the trace of their wearer. Any sentimentality was rigorously avoided using an industrial aesthetic that evoked the engine rooms of modern buildings.

So what are we to make of this? The destiny of craft in the screen age appears to be as the grand exception. Robbed of its plinth, the object has sought refuge elsewhere. The white cube has become the black box.

Freed from the institutionalised plinth, Cohn developed a materialist form of display, with metal on metal, clay on clay, glass on glass and fibre on fibre. Here craft exists in the digital netherworld as its material shadow. It can be seen to feed on the hunger created by a world increasingly removed from the here and now.

So here is the first alternative for craft beyond the plinth. The object may survive within an installation that screens off competing visual stimuli. In doing so, craft provides a kernel of the real that sustains the cinematic experience outside.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image

Meanwhile, in the actual netherworld of Federation Square, a very different place for the object has been found, this time in a more direct partnership with the digital. The guiding artistic mission of the Australian Centre for the Moving Image comes largely out of Sydney, from a group of ‘poetic modernists’ engaged with replacing institutional display structures and releasing opportunities for reflection.

The Museum of Sydney team included Ross Gibson, ACMI’s founding creative director, Peter Emmett, previously director of the Crafts Council of New South Wales, and designer Gary Warner. The architect was Richard Johnson (Denton Corker Marshall).

The Museum of Sydney was built on the original site of government house. It had no collection, and was dependent on the archaeology of its own premises for display. Artists and designers were recruited to participate in presenting the objects in a way that gave a sense of their aura. For designer Peter Emmett, the abiding mission of the museum was to give a sense of the history of uses for objects.

For Peter Emmett, exhibition display was a matter of ‘taking the guts out’ of the museum. Rather than the standard ziggurat, objects were suspended in mid air and screens were embedded in walls. Removing boxes made the space for the physicality of the object to come forward. The result was a kind of digital elementalism, where the fleeting mystery of moving image returned an enduring aura to the object.

Like NGV: Australia, the museum had its own kernel experience. Ross Gibson and Gary Warner worked on a series of story-tellings that evoked the life experience of ordinary people of the time. These stories were presented in a room called the Bond Store, using a method called Pepper’s Ghost, where the image is projected from the screen onto glass, giving the impression of a floating figure. Theatrical lighting highlighted props from the colonial era, such as barrels and heavy iron chains hanging from the ceiling. The screen here returned to its elemental role, which in the words of Gary Warner is ‘a light flickering in the hearth’.

This methodology involved releasing both image and object from their respective boxes—the plinth and the screen. Image and object could now come into contact without one transcending the other. The objects anchored the ethereality of the image and the image amplified the tactile experience of the objects.

Like many experiments with digital media in the 1990s, the Museum of Sydney has itself reverted back to a more conventional museum. But its spirit has re-surfaced in Federation Square.

Lynette Wallworth: Hold Vessel

This poetic modernism is reborn in the Screen Gallery, located in the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, in the basement of Federation Square. The business here is to take the moving image out of the cinema and project it onto gallery walls. The result engages the viewer’s body in the process of display, as visitors walk through the gallery to take films into their stride.

The unique aesthetic experience of this space was evident in the first exhibition, Deep Space, curated by current director Victoria Lynn. One work in particular stood out. Visitors to Hold Vessel #1 by Lynette Wallworth, enter a darkened room with video projected down from the ceiling to floor. Cradling a glass bowl, visitors can catch the moving image by placing their object under its rays. The experience is quite mesmerising. The video of fantastic sea life appears to be swimming inside the bowl. What’s critical in this illusion is the responsibility of holding the bowl. If the bowl was on a plinth, the effect would be severely reduced. Cradling the bowl brings into play an implicit haptic knowledge about holding liquids in vessels. It seems the image itself is a fluid that requires containment.

In its search for life outside the plinth, Lynette Wallworth’s work shows an alternative place for the object—on the body of the viewer.

Naturally, there are immediate problems with such a method. The bowls used were quite generic with little sign of craft. But this can develop. What’s important is that Wallworth and these designers have initiated a relationship between the dominant medium of our time and the art form it appeared to replace.


Federation Square provides a curious twist in the tale of aura in the modern world. Above ground, architects have turned a gallery into a cinema, while below ground the cinema has been transformed into a gallery. It would seem that in this process the moving image is liberated from its role as mirror to the world. Instead, we see potential for film to become an accessory to reality, its flickering shadow, an ornament to the real. The challenge now is similar to one faced by Peter Pan—how to stitch the shadow back onto material form.

For those reluctant to deprive gallery visitors of contact with objects, there do seem to be ways forward. Beyond the homogenising context of the white cube, craft is freer to embrace its own materiality. This physical encounter provides a dialectical counterpoint to cinema and thus tempers its more escapist tendencies. Alternatively, craft can engage directly with the moving image, realising its expression in the physical presence of the viewer. The alchemical challenge of combining screen and object provides opportunity for future creative endeavour. Aura and mechanical production may not prove to be mutually exclusive.

Paper delivered at conference Locate and Classify: Curating the Crafts at Northumbria University 26-27 September 2003.