The story begins in 1981, when Craft Australia had the foresight to bring out the US fibre artist Douglas Fuchs. At the time, the development of contemporary craft benefited immeasurably from these foreign visitors, bringing together the nascent communities of fibre, textile, metal, clay and glass artists.
Fuchs was a fibre artist particularly inspired by traditional basketry, such as native American traditions. He travelled widely through Australia, giving workshops and spending time in Maningrida learning the ways of traditional Yolngu fibre crafts. The tour eventuated in the exhibition titled Floating Forest, which launched at Adelaide, Festival Centre in 1981, then toured Sydney and Melbourne in 1982. The visit was quite critical for Australian craft.
Fuch’s statement in the exhibition reflects the mystery that he seeks in fibre art:
Psychologically the forest symbol represents the unknown in each person’s being — a beckoning desire to get lost, or discovering aspects of life that may be more challenging and difficult than already comprehended… My concept of a ‘Floating Forest’ environment was an attempt to construct and symbolise this state of feeling, this symbol that has become central in my imagination. Many other people have done it in different ways. I happen to be a person who makes objects in basketry techniques and materials.
A particularly moving part of the symposium was delivered by Wendy Golden, who read out Virginia Kaiser’s reflections on the experience. Kaiser had been unable to attend herself due to ill health, but the sound of her words vocalised by an equally dedicated and innovative basketmaker was quite powerful. Before Fuchs’ visit, Kaiser had been studying weaving. His workshop had the effect of connecting her with a world of twining and coiling. The exhibition itself was a revelation. The theatrical display of sculptural vessels, figurative pieces and floating structures demonstrated the expressive potential of fibre as an art form.
Thankfully, the exhibition as a whole was acquired by the Powerhouse Museum. And fortunately for us, Anthony Camm at the Ararat Regional Gallery had the vision to restage the exhibition 30 years later, reflecting the gallery’s specialisation in fibre arts. The installation was combined with works from the collection and new works made to honour Douglas Fuchs.
Three decades later, a symposium about Floating Forest was an opportunity not only to acknowledge the enduring influence of an exhibition, but also to recognise the revival of indigenous basketry that had occurred in the meantime. In recent years, there has been a wave of fibre exhibitions touring around Australia, such as Recoil, Woven Forms, Tayenebe, Floating Life, and Louise Hamby’s Art on a String and now touring Clever Hands. Increasingly these reflect the resilience and innovation of fibre work in Indigenous communities. More than any other material, fibre connects with the land.
The symposium featured some fascinating reflections on southeastern indigenous fibre. Museum Victoria’s Antoinette Smith gave some fascinating insights into traditional use of baskets, sometimes reaching a massive size to reflect the status of its owner. Marilyne Nicholls reflected on her monumental works using open coil technique. And Brownyn Razem reflected on a wide variety of southeastern fibre arts, such as the revival of possum skin cloaks.
Given the connection to land, there’s a temptation to think then that fibre is an exclusively indigenous art form. An very interesting text panel in the exhibition quoted from a review of the Australian basketry exhibition by Anna Griffiths in Craft Victoria (1992) which downgraded the value of non-functional and conceptual works. But a number of presentations in the symposium showed how it was a continuing form of experimentation for settler artists. As a Victorian basketmakers, Maree Brown showed some very fresh work using a wide variety of materials, from plastics to jigsaw pieces. Lucy Irvine took this further with her phenomenological abstract forms using nylon and cable ties.
So do the settler and indigenous fibre traditions meet? Adrienne Kneebone, mentored by Nalda Searles, presented a paper about her Pandanus Project, involving a dialogue around the Northern Territory town Katherine. This featured some quite haunting indigenous fibre work, including the mysterious mukuy forms. But this isn’t the only influence on Kneebone. Talking with Adrienne in the gallery, she told me how moved she was to see Floating Forest. ‘Virginia Kaiser has been such an influence on me. And here is the exhibition that so inspired her.’
Congratulations to Ararat Regional Art Gallery. Floating Forest helped remind us of the power of craft to both connect people and express deep emotions. It’s a lead that others should follow.