Tag Archives: forest

The forest comes to Ararat

Detail of the Floating Forest installation by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Detail of the Floating Forest installation by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

I had the good fortune on Saturday to attend the Floating Forest symposium at Ararat Regional Art Gallery. Talks by curators and artists reflected a heartening story that connected not only generations of fibre artists but also indigenous and settler cultures.

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.

Installation shot of Floating Forest by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

Installation shot of Floating Forest by Douglas Fuchs at Ararat Regional Art Gallery

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.

Adrienne Kneebone, one of the fibre artists presenting at the symposium

Adrienne Kneebone, one of the fibre artists presenting at the symposium

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.

Time to take a front seat



Congratulations to Simone LeAmon for winning the 2009 Cicely & Colin Rigg Contemporary Design Award which opened at the National Gallery of Victoria last night. Her Lepidoptera chair continues the creative use of recycled materials that she had forged in her classic Bowling Arm bracelets.

Other entrants included Adam Cornish, Lambie Chan, Lucas Chirnside, Matthew Harding, Cathy Jankowsky, Joseph Keenan, Jacqueline Ying Jun Lin, Chris Connell, Stuart McFarlane, Ross McLeod, Drew Martin & Dale Rock (Rock Martin), Oliver Field, and Helen Kontouris.

Congratulations to all, but there are concerns.

This year’s award continue the NGV’s presentation of the Rigg award as an exhibition of ‘contemporary design’. Previous media have included ceramics, jewellery, hollowware and textiles. Presenting these in purely ‘design’ terms has the effect of focussing attention on the cleverness and fashion. It tends to marginalise more cultural issues expressed through the language of materials. In a country like Australia, wood has great power as a symbol of identity. 

Let’s hope that the next iteration of the Cicely & Colin Rigg award brings craft back into the equation. Design hardly lacks for recognition in our world. And the global financial crisis demands that we reconsider our own skills and culture. Maybe the 2011 Cicely & Colin Rigg Craft & Design Award will be for glass. I’ll drink to that.

Rich and poor, Australian and Aotearoa

If you’re around the north island…

Rich Craft, Poor Craft – Thursday 2 October

Writers Kevin Murray and Damian Skinner will present two illustrated talks about Murray’s concept of ‘rich and poor craft’ in contemporary jewellery from Australia and New Zealand.

Baroque ‘n’ Roll: the forest versus the street in contemporary Australian jewellery. In this talk Kevin Murray will discuss concepts of rich and poor craft drawn from the alternative classical and modernist strategies that have characterised much of recent southern arts.

Native/Natural, Settler/Silver: Considering Murray’s Theory of Rich and Poor Craft in Contemporary Jewellery from Aotearoa. In this talk Damian Skinner argues that Murray’s dialectic of rich craft and poor craft in Australian jewellery can be mapped very differently within contemporary New Zealand jewellery.

Dr Kevin Murray is a writer who lives in Melbourne, Australia. His book, Craft Unbound: Make the Common Precious, was published by Craftsman House in 2005. Dr Damian Skinner is a writer who lives in Gisborne. His book, Between Tides: Jewellery by Alan Preston, is being published by Random House in October 2008.

Thursday 2 October, 6.15pm, Room WE 230 AUT campus, Auckland, New Zealand

The German forest comes to Namibia

A6 postcard

A6 postcard

Hentie van der Merwe Messenger 2007 Polyurethane Mask 68 x 46 x 23cm Stand 150cm   

A recent exhibition in South Africa provides an interesting comparison to Melbourne’s ‘jewellery of the forest’. Hentie van der Merwe has been studying the German archive of folktales collected from the Nama people in Namibia. She recognised this tales from her own childhood, though they were excluded from Afrikaner culture because of their violence and complexity.

It’s interesting in today’s South Africa than an Afrikaner artist can draw on this material. It would be inconceivable for an Australian artist to be making reference to Aboriginal mythologies in this way. Is this because of the greater respect for indigenous cultures in Australia, or our more Eurocentrist outlook?

Deeper into the forest

Since the Forest or the bush? paper for the JMGA conference, I’ve come across some more expressions of the enchanted woods in the local craft & design scene.



Casey Payne and Sassie Napolitano in their Northcote store In the Woods which contains a herd of bears, deer, foxes and other creatures of today’s handmade culture.
siri hayes woods

siri hayes woods

Where in the Woods?, an exhibition with
Richard Grigg, Siri Hayes (photo left), Amanda Marburg and Mark Rodda at VCA Galleries until 15 March

DSCN1229 a

DSCN1229 a

Sue Lorraine, workshop coordinator of the metal studio, JamFactory Craft & Design Centre Adelaide, with some gamey looking mounted wall pieces from 2005