'n' chuck" seems the epitome of the throwaway mentality The
disposable mobile phone means that consumers can now purchase a
device for making calls from a vending machine, along with a candy
bar and crisps. Like phone cards, the paper mobiles come with a
limited number of calls; once these are made, the device is only
good for the bin. The castaway phone is one more contribution to
the growing mountain of landfill, along with disposable cameras,
clothes, cutlery and cups. While such items offer convenience, the
concern is that they encourage an irresponsible attitude to the
rest of the world. If disposable products, why not throwaway friendships
or a disposable environment? Ceramics seems the antithesis of this
reckless mentality. While more food outlets are replacing metal
and clay with plastic implements, potters maintain a craft culture
of environmental responsibility, longevity, perseverance and the
slow accretion of mastery. In an age of instant gratification, their
commitment seems heroic. Yet without some means of exchange with
the world of crass consumerism, ceramics is in danger of becoming
isolated and self-regarding.
there are signs that clay is losing its appeal for a younger generation.
Ceramics departments are closing in teaching institutions throughout
the country. The common understanding is that younger students are
reluctant to commit themselves to the intensive study required to
master ceramics. Why spend three years to learn just one art form
when you can pick up PhotoShop in less than a week? The pottery
wheels lie idle as students flock to the computer labs. Yet far
from signifying the death of ceramics, this exodus might create
the conditions for its re-birth.
Art is a cunning
beast. No sooner is an art movement deemed passé than the
new avant-garde picks it up. This kind of cultural recycling ensures
that arts are re-born on a generational timetable. Ceramics is dead.
Long live ceramics. In Australia, a new generation of artists has
emerged with the drive to translate its venerable traditions into
a contemporary language. Some of them did not begin as ceramists,
but have moved sideways out of a desire to be different. As the
ceramics departments are emptying out, wheels are being taken over
by restless painting and sculpture students. Their work, as evidenced
in the exhibition, Attitude, seems to belie the ideological opposition
between craft and disposable culture. These young ceramists embrace
disposable culture with attitude, casting it in ceramic form.
are designed to be thrown away, there is little encouragement to
enjoy their material being. Ceramists like Nicole Lister press the
pause button on disposability, enabling us to appreciate the subtle
forms of corrugated cardboard that are otherwise discarded as useless
packaging. Rather than cast her forms, Lister delicately paints
her subjects with a 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 assembles
them into quilt-like structures, reintroducing the culture of handwork.
casts takeaway food tray containers. She stencils them with edgy
messages about sex and desire, far from the noble sentiments espoused
by her bearded forebears. Despite the immediacy of her material,
Churchill's works are the product of painstaking processes of printing
from photocopies. The Melbourne ceramist labours intensively to
render the 'raw' feel of her graphics. The use of ceramics as a
medium to convey ideas normally seen on posters gives her work added
weight. They add the substance of honesty to what otherwise might
seem personal indulgence.
incorporates the texture of paper into the clay itself. Unlike the
other artists in this exhibition, Garner models her work on the
grain rather than the form of paper. Garner is fascinated by the
fibrous edge that is exposed when paper is torn. She has since developed
a clay body and method of forming that exaggerates this inner seam.
What results is a baroque 'house of cards' construction that plays
with the contrary experiences of ephemerality and solidity.
in this group create work out of inflated materials. Sarah Parker
moulds her shapes around balloons. Balloon shaping is a particularly
ephemeral creative practice, seen often in fairs or malls. A few
twists of the balloon produces an instant creature, destined to
a life of a few hours before a bored child finds a sharp object
to consign the toy into oblivion. By contrast, Parker's forms speak
for a laborious process of rendering into permanent shape. Her exquisitely
formed pieces take advantage of the clay medium to create a pearlescent
surface. The play of light on these works helps them transcend their
humble reference and become objects with an independent life. Parker
captures the fleeting structure and reinforces it with ceramic expertise.
also models her pieces in inflatable toys. Rather than the whole
object, Schulz uses fragments. While the original object is left
ambiguous, she retains smaller features, such as a plug stamped
with the words 'Made in China'. Schulz places her objects on trays,
modelled on the table arrangement in Asian meals an assortment
of smaller vessels to be filled with various sauces. Her pieces
are formed from porcelain which offers a particularly pure white
surface. These soft ceramics laid out in idiosyncratic clusters
make for a distinctly individual series of work.
Two other ceramists
who cast profane objects have a more ironic effect. Irianna Kanellopoulou
creates figures of supermarket culture, such as rubber ducks, Barbie-style
figures and kewpie dolls. Her subjects are often crude figures that
might be found in the bins of discount stores. She slipcasts with
earthenware and deliberately exposes the seams. Kanellopoulou's
rendering of a plastic motorcycle is almost heroic in its regard
for the toy world. And through the process of multiple productions,
Kanellopoulou is able to arrange her objects in a way that grants
Hutchinson moulds delicate porcelain shapes that allude to the more
bizarre contraptions found in sex shops. While the practical use
of her devices such as ³dicksticks' seems quite lewd, this
is contradicted by their clinical appearance. Hutchinson deliberately
confuses unbridled consumer desire with the otherwise sterile feel
of medical instruments.
Muir approaches popular culture with a particularly post-modern
strategy. She constructs ceramic forms that quote their readymade
contents. Inside are objects found often in opportunity shops, such
as ceramic ashtrays in the shape of Australia. By this combinative
method, Muir maintains a reverence to a world of clay objets d'art
that is rapidly disappearing. In the average suburban home, a stack
of DVD, video, CD, mini-disk and cassette decks, has replaced the
glass cabinet filled with Toby jugs and precious porcelain. Muir
rescues these collections from oblivion and memorialises them in
modernist forms. The other artists in Attitude build forms directly
out of their imagination.
David Ray has
established a reputation as one of Melbourne's leading young ceramists
with a substantial body of engaging work. Ray defies conventional
making technique and applies a critical edge to contemporary consumerism.
Like Churchill's food trays, they are designed to look cheaply made.
In conventional ceramics, decals are usually applied sparingly to
add a hint of decoration. Ray plasters his pieces with decals to
create a baroque confusion of imagery. The method in this madness
is the 'cut-up' process developed in the creation of William Burroughs'
Naked Lunch. Ray plays with various themes using his extensive vocabulary
of decals. He explores the Australian anthem Waltzing Matilda, focusing
on the less reputable aspects of national identity in the story
of the suicide by a glorified sheep stealer known as the 'jolly
swagman'. Ray's works reward many readings.
Fellow Melbourne ceramist Vipoo Srivilasa draws on the apparently superficial culture of gay kitsch. His 'boy toy' works are lovingly decorated with delicate lustre and pearlescent glazes. Look a little closer, though, and you will find hints of a radically different language of Thai religious ornamentation. You might discern outlines of temples and hand gestures of Buddhist meditation. Srivilasa offers us an indulgence of colour and form. He is naturally drawn to ornate subjects, such as coral and flowers, but enjoys the unsteady balance between profane kitsch and sacred beauty. Lastly, Joanne Higgins draws on cartoon imagery. Her colourful figures and forms express a lively and individual imagination. They offer a softer version of the quality of 'attitude' - an American disposition for standing your ground and not giving in to the system.
For some craft
purists, this new generation of edgy ceramists might seem like the
barbarians at the walls. These are the young suburbanites who bear
a lack of respect for the revered traditions of their masters. But
maybe it is better to make friends with the barbarians rather than
wait to be annihilated. Those who appear to be barbarians might,
in fact, be distant relatives. There is something in this generational
shift that returns us to the original spirit of ceramics. The most
revered object of Japanese ceramics is the Kizaemon teabowl, made
by an anonymous Korean potter. It is described by Soetsu Yanagi
as something 'anyone could have bought anywhere and everywhere.'
The aesthetic push supported by the Japanese was constantly opposed
to the self-conscious ascription of beauty. For disciples of Zen,
there was no difference between authentic and inauthentic
'the world is natural'.
Might it not
seem ironic then, that the masterly traditions which evolved out
of this philosophy themselves fall victim to its fundamentalist
argument. The equivalent of the humble Korean pottery today is McDonald's
Family Restaurant. The challenge faced by the new generation of
ceramists is not to remain pure and aloof from popular culture but
to sublimate our disposable world in a triumphant act of creative
alchemy. To make a monument of trash is an especially Australian
contribution to world culture. The classic film comedies, such as
Strictly Ballroom and Priscilla Queen of the Desert embody the kind
of karaoke exuberance that you might find in this exhibition. They
embrace the inauthentic with passion. There are seen to be few original
ideas art forms develop by acts of plagiarism and theft. Like
Dame Edna Average, Australian glamour is distinctly suburban and
imitative. lt worships the profane. It is the attitude that counts.
Kevin Murray is the Director of Craft Victoria.
This article is published in conjunction with the exhibition Attitude:
New Australian Ceramists presented by Craft Australia at SOFA Chicago,
2002. The Australia Council, the Australian Government's arts funding
and advisory body, through its Audience and Market Development Division,
assist Craft Australia. Craft Victoria's Website: www.craftvic.asn.au.