Kai Melbourne…

Over the years, I’ve corresponded with people in Aotearoa / New Zealand. Almost all of them, including both Pākeha and Māori, have responded with the salutation, “Kia Ora…” By contrast, my generic response, “Dear…” or “Hi…” seemed lacking in culture. I’ve tried to counter that by including the latest weather forecast in my signature, at least to make evident that this message in the cloud comes from somewhere on earth. But that’s not a shared ritual.

Occasionally, I will start an email correspondence with “Cooee…” which does have Australasian roots and at least acknowledges my settler background. But “Cooee…” is more an initial greeting and doesn’t work for an ongoing email conversation. Occasionally I use “G’day…” which is more familiar, but it feels too closely aligned the tourist promotions featuring the happy Ocker. It’s not a term that reflects our growing diversity.

This situation has come to a head recently as I’ve been corresponding with those involved in the upcoming Moana issue of Garland. From different Pacific voices, I get a wide variety of salutations, including “Sio’otofa…” (Tonga), “Bona Marum…” (Tolai, PNG) and “Drau bula vinaka…” (Fiji).

It grates on me to reply with a pallid “Dear…” Is there an alternative? One response might be, “Well too bad, your settler heritage is all about the flattening of ritual and tradition. Suck it up!” But I’ve tried to live by the maxim of the great Southern thinker Paulin Hountondji that “culture is a project”, which balances the debts we’ve inherited from the past with a responsibility towards the future. One of the projects we have in Australia is to lessen our colonial attachments and more fully live where we are in the world. How we talk to each other seems a part of that project.

A few years ago, I started a quest to find a name for settlers like me that might correspond to Pākeha in Aotearoa / New Zealand. I discovered that there was no common name for “whitefella”, but instead quite a dizzying diversity of terms reflecting different ways in which the European intruders were greeted. The most prominent term seemed to be “Balanda”, used by the Yolŋu from a word they were given by the Macassan fisherman to describe the Dutch colonists (“Hollander”). I kept a blog Being Balanda to document this, in response to Michael King’s book Being Pākeha. But the question of salutation goes beyond individual identity to how we speak to each other.

At an exhibition opening recently, I found myself talking with Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin. I presented my dilemma to her and asked if there was a term she I could use that reflected the culture of the Wurundjeri as traditional owners of Narrm (Melbourne). She encouraged me to use the word “Kai” as an email greeting. A word can be a very special gift. Should accept it?

We’ve now adopted the custom of acknowledging traditional owners at public events. Might those of us living in Melbourne begin also to adopt the Wurundjeri salutation? The history of our settlement is marked by Wurundjeri place names, like Toorak, Dandenong, Tullamarine and Yarra. Should we consider this a continuing process? Should we eventually re-name Melbourne to Narrm? Are there other local customary practices that would be more widely adopted?

It is not up to any individual—particularly a settler descendent—to determine these standards. But it seems important that we keep the question open, so that we can move to a better future together.

So kai, what do you think?

Image of Dandenong is taken from Victoria Places

Call me Balanda

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

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

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

Scene#1 – Time to Say Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home crafts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scene #1 – One dollar

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

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

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

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

White culture of no-place

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

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

Let’s try again.

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

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

But again there are problems.

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

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

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

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

Detour – Chewy versus crunchy

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

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

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

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

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

Reverse colonialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pakeha Glass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watjala Fibre

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

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

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

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

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

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

Victorian Wood

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

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

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

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

City Rings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trash Ceramics

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

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

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

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

Scene #3 – The world gets flatter

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

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

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

The final word

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

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

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

This was originally delivered as the Craft Victoria Annual Lecture 2012

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

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

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

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