Wednesday, 23 July 2008
The Romance of China
The show coming up at Helen Stephens Gallery in August consists of tableau pieces derived from sources such as the Willow Pattern.I thought that a bit of my MA relating to this work may be of interest.Please excuse any academic jargon.
The willow pattern design operates on a number of levels. Its colour and schema are familiar. The landscape depicted in the pattern although flattened and stylised is serene, almost Arcadian. The underlying narrative (although ambiguous) of love, deceit and murder undermines the idyllic nature of the pattern. On a social commentary level the pattern offers a serene backdrop for unexpected interventions. The inauthenticity of the pattern, its faux-Asian otherness and its subsequent adoption into the dining rooms and kitchens of the Western world presented a fertile area for commentary.
During the rise in popularity of politician Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party in Australia in 1995, more opportunities arose for using the Willow Pattern as a site for subversion. During this period there was a coincidental return to purity in ceramic aesthetics in Australia. This was partly driven by the fashion and design industries although the parallels between the new minimalism and political conservatism are interesting.
My response to this situation was a series of works that borrowed from art historical and ceramic historical sources and presented them as authentic in the manner of the willow pattern. The political position of much of the work was ambiguous. It’s patterning featured Katushi Hokusai’s, Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa, (an image so familiar that is almost kitsch) motifs from the willow pattern and images of Pauline Hanson’s fish and chip shop (selling Australian and Asian food). The images were painted on familiar, domestic forms, (teapots, casserole dishes etc.) in a manner that presented them as authentic china. Ironically, the rise in xenophobia evidenced by the support for One Nation was the calling into question of what, or indeed who, was Australian (or Un-Australian)?
In 1998 I began a series of works that used the shadows that were cast on objects to delineate the areas of decoration. The shadows, which the objects themselves cast, were also painted in as sites for decoration.
These took the form of still lives, groupings of domestic ceramics sitting on handmade decorated tiles suggesting the kitchen tabletop. The areas without shadow were left blank, so that from one view the work appeared to be white (undecorated). Thus, one side of the work was blank (literally and figuratively) while the decoration in the shadow areas was dark, (again literally and figuratively) cobalt blue, and done largely in the style of transfer-printed ceramics from the nineteenth century. The work also referenced other ceramic genres such as Delft and the willow pattern.
The blankness (whiteness) was a reference to the then current interest in a return to minimalist modernist tastes influenced by what Mike Grimshaw refers to, as ‘style alone… a retreat from modernist progress in the fetishization of a retro modernism’ , a style borrowed from modernism, minus the ideology, where less, really is less. This parallelled a fundamentalist strain of traditional studio ceramic aesthetics. I suppose the piece was commenting on the then current political climate.
As I said earlier the concept of mild subversion had previously been employed in my own studio practice by introducing new images into the Willow pattern with which to subvert it. What initially appears to be the original pattern on close inspection reveals other readings. The pattern then operates as a backdrop for a kind of allegory to interrogate notions of ‘Australianness’ and cultural authenticity.
For example Willow Teapot made in 2004 features what appears to be a functional, tea-dispenser decorated in the familiar, ubiquitous and traditional willow style, which, on closer scrutiny reveals a secondary reading. The boat, which should have been carrying the fleeing doomed lovers, has now been replaced by a much larger vessel carrying a large group of people of Middle- Eastern appearance also fleeing from doom. The patterned fence criss-crossing one of the destined isles now supports razor- wire; the idyllic willow back-drop has become Australia, the haven to where asylum seekers were fleeing. The nature of the commentary is potentially heavy handed. The scale of the decoration (miniature) and its site on the side of a domestic object leavens what is a potentially clumsy commentary. After all one looks to a cup of tea and all it entails for comfort, or a little pick-me-up, rather than afternoon agitprop.
Various forms of social commentary have occurred throughout the history of ceramics,I was particularly interested in that period inthe Nineteenth Century industrial technologies such as casting (allowing the cheap reproduction of ceramic forms) and transfer printing, transformed the medium into media.
In his book The Romance of China , historian Roger Haddad refers to an unexpected outcome of this mass prodn where ceramics were literally read ..
'In an era in which illustrated storybooks were both expensive and rare, the willow legend allowed mothers of modest means to tell a story to their children at bedtime or during meals and even show illustrations. '
The new ceramic technology also opened up new potential for distributing information, the commemoration of public events and as agitprop. Moira Vincentelli points out that in the early nineteenth century:
'Printed pottery became an important means of celebration and commemoration, another way of recording important historical events, publicising personalities or pressing the party political position…Ceramics were used to sway public opinion and promote political causes such as the Catholic Emancipation campaign and the Anti-Slavery campaign.'
The next development in the work occurred when I dragged the abstract motifs off the patterned plate and into three-dimensional maquettes. Maquettes lend themselves to a particular approach to making. They are ostensibly models, sketches in three dimensions made as a guide and technical assistant for the real artwork. This imbues the maquette with a particular gestural quality, which is in some ways at odds with its miniature nature. As a result of making the maquettes I became aware of their inverse power as figurines and effectively miniatures.
It became obvious once I had produced maquettes of the six elements which constitute the willow pattern (the tree, bridge, boatman, doves and apple tree) that the resultant “tableau landscape” could also be subverted in the same way I had done on the surfaces of functional ceramics. Through the transposition of the elements, they became figurines, which share the “invisible” qualities of domestic ceramics. Their often-saccharine qualities and scale make them unlikely content carriers. This development opened up new opportunities for subversion. The benign tableau had the potential to become the site for new narratives. The willow pattern configuration, which in itself is a well-known mythological narrative, became a physical and conceptual backdrop for a range of analogous tableaux, each with their own narrative.
Navigating the route I had previously taken with the subversion of the willow pattern, I began to insert figurines derived from socio-political sources into the willow tableau. While researching this project I became much more aware of the trail of cobalt throughout the history of ceramics, particularly the geographical trail between the Far East and the Middle East. The willow tree also linked these two cultures. Investigations into the symbology of the willow tree via the willow pattern lead me to associations between the tree and mourning. These associations were brought home to me during the conflict in the Middle East (which caused great mourning), when I came across a Biblical reference to the weeping willow tree (Salix babylonica), where the branches of the tree drooped and, during the Babylonian captivity, “we hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof”
When the photographs from Abu Graheb first appeared in the media I was struck by the multiplicity of readings which they offered up. On one level they were obviously a numbing indictment of the kinds of activities we have been complicit in with regard to the war on terror. Consideration of these photographs lead me to thinking about the archival aspect of ceramics in relation to the “new media” and how the instant proliferation of electronic images seems to render them somehow less potent. There is also the question of how long these electronic images will physically survive. The rendering of these scenes as ceramic tableaux was intended to act as a memorial to the crimes. We know from history that these artefacts are likely to far outlive electronic documentation. At one level the modelling of the prison scenes was a way of me thinking through these actions (thinking through making?). The making process becomes a way of dealing with the information. The images were also ironically almost erotic in their content, ironic because these tableaux vivants had been set up to morally humiliate the prisoners.
By removing the soldiers and prisoners from their original context (whether in the media or in their prison environment) and concentrating on their gesture they assumed an art-like quality similar to that of classical sculpture or statuary. I decorated the figures with the ubiquitous cobalt blue of Delftware and the willow pattern painting in the shadowed areas. Their scale, familiar colour and patterning took them into the domestic realm of the figurine. Our relationship with the figurine is complex; on one level you are drawn into the interior world of the miniature, yet on another level you are in control in a scenario where the figurines assume the characteristics of the toy.
Everything’s Turning to White
The next group of figurines I produced during my Masters Candidacy at UNISA . As a mid- career ceramicist I embarked on this period of post-graduate study as a means of addressing aspects of my career to this point.
I felt a little drained and saw study as a means of reinvigorating my work. When you are producing endlessly to deadlines where work is out of the kiln and in bubble-wrap and out the door on the way to somewhere else it becomes difficult to take stock of what is happening in your practise. Although much of the MA process was difficult (especially the reading) it gave me the opportunity to evaluate, contextualise and interrogate my practice up to that point and to produce a new body of work that was reflective of, driven by and enmeshed in the research.
The prison tableaux were based on electronic images from the media’s depiction of “real life”. To add further narratives to the willow tableau I returned to popular culture for source material. The introduction of songs to the work was influenced by the television work of writer, screenwriter and director Dennis Potter. Potter used songs in a number of ways, often inserting them into the screenplay being mimed by the actors, to either drive or ironically underline the narrative. Potter was interested in the way songs were entwined with people’s experience. Potter explains, ‘I often used song-titles as my titles, for example. Noel Coward has talked about the potency of cheap music-it was that kind of thing’.
The piece I produced which is part of this show was based on Raymond Carvers short story, So Much Water So Close to Home from the collection titled Where I’m Calling From. My first contact with this story was the original source which was subsequently adapted by Robert Altman for his film, Short Cuts which strung a series of Carver stories together both in parallel and at occasional points of connection. Paul Kelly later adapted the story and turned it into a song titled, Everything’s Turning to White. Australian director Ray Lawrence recently adapted the story and set it in Australia for the film Jindabyne.
The resultant tableaux of five figures illustrates part of the narrative which revolves around a fishing trip involving four friends who discover the naked body of a girl, lying dead, face down in a mountain stream. The friends elect to postpone reporting their find until their holiday is over, two days later, because in their minds, (‘The girl would keep, she was goin’ nowhere’).
It was a verse in Paul Kelly’s lyric version of the story that suggested adaptation into a tableau. The song is written from the point of view of the wife of one of the fishermen who finds it hard to understand why her husband has to travel so far to go fishing when, ‘There's so much water, so close to home’. At one point in the song version the protagonists are standing around slightly inebriated, looking down at the body.
They stood there above her all thinking the same thoughts at the same time.
There's so much water so close to home
The placement of the tableau within the larger willow landscape offers yet another level of reading. The willow landscape is both a contrast and a foil for the less pleasant aspects of the Carver tableau. The willow idyll provides a calm backdrop for Carvers despairing short stories.