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With a wonderful team of writers and makers, I am embarking on a new venture which I hope will be of benefit to those who produce and enjoy beautiful craft.

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What we can learn from the JMGA-NSW conference

‘Tis the season of conferences and I’ve got four this month. Unfortunately, the Australian Ceramics Triennale and JMGA conferences clashed this time, so I had to dash from one to the other  (this may not have happened if Australia had a national craft organisation where this could have been noted early on).

I found the organisation of the JMGA-NSW jewellery conference in Sydney quite inspiring. Both the ceramics and jewellery conferences demonstrated the strong participation in studio craft. There were more than 400 at the ceramics conference and the auditorium in Sydney was full. But the jewellers certainly showed how to manage an event.

These were some highlights that raise the bar in conference organisation:

  • Clusters of exhibition openings scheduled on different evenings
  • Car pool stickers to help participants get to exhibition venues
  • Beaded conference tags subtly indicating registration stream
  • Delicious lunch alternatives with vegetarian options
  • Flower decorations
  • Billeting for interstate guests
  • Lawn diversions courtesy of Roseanne Bartley
  • Time for questions during each each session
  • Well-promoted hashtags: #edgesbordersgaps #jmgaconference2015
  • Offer of community announcements at conclusion

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Some outside voices from allied domains could have opened up the conversation further. The odd cantankerous voice could also have added a little salt to the discussions.  There are some complex issues about the growth of post-object jewellery that could be teased out. And the issue of the global jewellery scene, prompted by the presence of Thai gallerist Atty Tantivit , could have been further explored.

To the challenge will now be continue this dialogue. Who will wear the JMGA crown next? Canberra, Melbourne, Auckland… They have a tough act to follow.

She’ll be jugalbandi – Australian-Indian ceramics collaboration

Jugalbandi is a Hindi word for collaboration. It means literally ‘twins entwined at birth’ and is applied to an improvised form of musical collaboration, sometimes involving different Indian traditions. This type of duet emerged after Independence as way of bringing together the northern and southern halves of India. A particularly good example is a duet by singers Sreeranjini Kodampally and Gayatri Asok, combining the sinewy Carnatic style with the more rhythmical Hindustani timbre. The land masses of Australia and India were also entwined at birth, when they shared the Gondwana land mass. So you can look at this 6 by 6 exhibition as a kind of ceramic Jugalbandi across the Indian Ocean.

Specifically, 6 by 6 is a ‘form and surface’ collaboration where one person makes the basic object which the other decorates. The understanding is that culture consists of a number of concepts that can take different forms of expression, sometimes with exhilarating effect. One of my most memorable theatre experiences was seeing the Jacobean tragedy ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore performed in modern US dress by the American Theatre Company. The austere contemporary military officer’s uniforms gave this play a sense of political power that was more monumental than in the original flamboyant 17th dress. It’s as though we only explore one dimension of our culture at home, leaving other facets to be revealed elsewhere.

‘Form and surface’ collaboration is particularly suitable for ceramics, where the process of modelling and decoration are relatively separate.  Sandra Bowkett used a similar method in her Cross-Hatched project in 2009, which involved collaboration between Australian ceramicists and Indian folk artists. Vipoo Srivilasa and Pushpa Kumari developed the strategy whereby one made the form, on which the other decorated in pencil, leaving the original maker to fill in the details with cobalt oxide. While very similar, 6 by 6 adds an element of surprise, where artists work only with their received objects, unaware of their story or what others are doing. This makes it a little more like the Surrealist exercise of Exquisite Corpse.

6 by 6 involves three Indian and three Australian ceramicists. Each artist makes six versions of the same form. One of each of these is then mailed to the other five who decorate it in their own style. The objects chosen are redolent of meaning.

Let’s look at the offerings.

Adil Writer

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Adil Writer, Saes, soda fired

Originally from Mumbai, Adil Writer now lives in Auroville, which is an experimental international community nestled in the forest of south India, now a hub for ceramics.

For his chosen object, Writer draws from his heritage as a Parsi, the ethnic group that migrated to India when Persia converted to Islam. Parsis follow the Zoroastrian faith, which is sustained by intricate rituals involving sacred objects. For 6 by 6, Writer has chosen the saes (or sace or ses), a circular rimmed metal tray that holds silver objects, which include a cone (soparo) containing sugar rocks, a rose water sprinkler (gulaban) for spreading happiness, a metallic cup (pigani) filled with vermillion powder for regeneration and the oil lamp (divo) celebrating Zoroastrian fire worship. The saes is usually a family heirloom passed down through generations in order to maintain cultural continuity.  It is activated on special occasions such as the thanksgiving (jashan) when it is polished and adorned with garlands, sweets, an egg, dry fruits and nuts, betelnut leaves, rice, water, coconut, dates, spices and herbs.

As a diasporic object, the story of the saes takes the Parsi story beyond Iran. 6 by 6 continues the process of cultural dispersal to a land across the ocean.

On the other side of the process, Writer has soda/wood-fired the five works by other artists. Ironically, fires his kiln with Australian mountain ash timber which was planted around Auroville 40 years ago for reforestation. But the tree is now considered a blight and its destruction for this project is welcome.

Sharbani Das Gupta

Sharbani Das Gupta developed her skills at Golden Bridge pottery, Pondicherry (just next to Auroville), under Ray Meeker. Her work combines an interest in the formal properties of clay with its potential to provide critical commentary on the key issues of the day, such as global environment.

Sharbani has chosen the kaavad (‘god box’), which is a portable shrine developed in Rajasthan around 400 years ago. It became particularly important in the 17th century when the Moghul ruler Aurangzeb demolished Hindu temples and the kaavad helped maintain the sacred stories in individual homes. It is a complete wooden object with doors that unfold within doors and a drawer containing additional story scrolls. The kaavad is painted throughout with scenes from stories such as the Mahabharata, providing the bard with a device on which to base their performance. Distributed in parts to the other artists, it will only be whole again in the exhibition. Like the saes, this is a diasporic object.

In turn, Sharbani has made her received objects more useful, transforming them into a plumb line, hand warmer, magnifying tube and acupressure chart. It makes us wonder how many of our utilities began life as something more ceremonial.

Madhvi Subrahmanian

Madhvi Subrahmanian has also followed the ceramics path south-east from Mumbai to Pondicherry. Subrahmanian is particularly interested in the ancient symbolism of clay and pottery in Indian culture. Her object, the yoni, is a Hindu symbol of the divine mother, Shakti or Devi. In the temple, it is a vessel form that channels libations to the symbol of the male god, Shiva. It takes the shape of a vulva that embraces the phallic form of the lingam. On special religions festivals, or pujas, the lingam is offered libations which consist of either water from river Ganga, honey, sugarcane juice, milk, yogurt, ghee, seawater, coconut milk, fragrant oils, or rose water.

The yoni brings to 6 by 6 a particular understanding of multiplicity present in Hindu thought, especially in relation to the mystery of male and female duality within the indivisible whole. So in the logic of this collaboration, each of the artists have the opportunity themselves to offer libations in the form of pattern, glaze or smoke.

Subrahmanian’s own process involves smoke-firing, warm terra-sigillata colours derived from earth stones that are burnished and waxed. These colours are similar to those produced by Indian fabric dyes.

Gerry Wedd

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Madhvi Subrahmanian version of Gerry Wedd's thong

Gerry Wedd from Adelaide plays with the cultural differences of West and East. He has subverted the regal language of blue and white ware to express the popular dimension of Australian culture, including surfing, football and rock music. His offering is the iconic Australian thong. The word originates from the proto-German thwang, meaning ‘to restrain’. In Australia, it took off when Dunlop released the rubber thong in 1959—a perfect fit for Australia’s informal beach culture. In summer, thongs save many Australian feet when, wet from the surf, they have to fire walk across the baking bitumen of the beach car park.

There’s an uncanny resemblance between the lingam and the thong. Both are similar shaped containers for a human appendage. But the concept of libation is a very uncommon one to such a pragmatic country as Australia, which does not usually subscribe to sacrifice as a cultural practice.

Wedd’s responses are related to the Logic Magic Kingdoms by Eduardo Paolozzi, which combined his own sculptures with several hundred museum artefacts. Such ‘collaboration’ confuses authorship and opens up new perspectives.

Trevor Fry

Trevor Fry is a creature of Sydney. As well as exhibiting in public galleries he is involved in Sydney’s artist run scene and has shown in the Mardi Gras festival. Fry was part of the Wild Boys collective that stages radical drag performances. His work is provocative, using coil-building to create transgressive objects with deviant sexual and scatological meanings.

Fry has tested the boundaries of this project by creating six different objects from the letters of the word ‘English’. The linguistic legacy of British colonisation is clearly one of the strongest links between Australia and India. But there is tension between the ‘Queen’s English’ that is maintained in formal education and its ‘bastardisation’ in the periphery of the empire. The YouTube series ‘How to talk Australians’—Indians trying to learn to talk ‘sheep shaggers’ for work in call centres—evokes a common distance from the language heard on the BBC.  Fry subverts the capital letters with scenes of debauchery, invoking the cultural corruption that occurs on both sides of the Indian Ocean.

Fry has decorated the others with a camouflage design, which is both critical and decorative. He immerses these pieces in the contested terrain of Australian politics.

Janet deBoos

Janet deBoos is at the same time a very local artist, reflecting the natural beauty of the Brindabellas where she lies, and a potter of the world, working in other countries like China. She is an advocate of the ‘distributed studio’, involving collaboration between artists in varied times and places, drawing on their own unique specialisations. Her designs also involve a cultural patchwork, juxtaposing different designs on the one piece.

For this show, deBoos chose a form that celebrated Australia’s myth of the noble failure. The grand expanse of the Australian continent is littered with failed explorers, such as Ludwig Leichhardt, Burke and Wills and Lasseter. Sidney Nolan’s 1948 series of paintings reduced the bushranger Ned Kelly to a black mask with a letterbox opening. The view from the helmet flattens landscape, reducing the world to the horizontal. Next to India today, Ned Kelly evokes the failure by Australia to define itself as an independent republic.

One positive consequence of that failure is a cultural pluralism, which deBoos realises in the variety decals and glazes she uses on her received pieces.


6 by 6 demonstrates the power of clay to create a cultural alchemy. At one level, the works give new expression to another’s cultural forms. But through this most plastic medium, we are reminded how much cultures themselves are fluid, reflecting continual displacement. In the context of reincarnation, the Jugalbandi never ends. These twins keep being reborn.


Swimming in the river of mud: The life and art of ceramics as process

Opening address for the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale, Yingge Ceramics Museum, 3 May 2014

I’ve come from the state of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, where last month there was a very touching event. Two designers Ben Landau and Lucile Sciallano had been exploring the soil on a Victorian farm to prospect for a workable slip to make ceramics. The owners practiced organic farming, not only providing restaurants with their produce but also taking away the waste for their compost bins to plough back into their soil. As it turned out, the local couple were in the process of planning a wedding. Landau and Sciallano proposed to make crockery for their feast, direct from their soil, which afterwards would be smashed and left to merge back into the soil. And thus a marriage was consummated in a wonderful cycle of earth, reflecting the life cycle, of which marriage is arguably the traditional the peak of life between birth and death. It’s an inspiring example of the cradle to grave sensibility that is espoused by ethical design.

While this a touching exception to most consumption, which cannot account for its waste, there are places where the clay cycle is an everyday event. In India, potters produce small cups, or kullarhs, out of clay scooped from the river. These are dried in the sun and then half-baked on an open fire. Batches are sold to those selling spiced tea, or chai, on the street. Before filling the cup, the chai wallah taps it to dislodge the loose clay. In train stations, the cups are called pi ke puht—pi ke means ‘to drink’ and puht is the sound it makes when it hits the tracks, thrown away after use, dissolving back into the soil at the next rain.

There’s something about the linear orientation of modernity that finds this zero-sum process threatening. Melbourne designer Sian Pascale has produced chai cups that are embedded with flower and vegetable seeds. By contrast to most consumer items, their disposal is a positive act. Nonetheless, these are ironically prized as collector items and few find their true destiny on the ground.

Also from the Victorian countryside, ceramicist Sandra Bowkett has been collaborating with traditional potters in Delhi to make products using their methods and skills. Their shared concern is that mass-produced plastic items like buckets and cups will make redundant the handmade production of everyday ceramic items. But for her local market, Bowkett has resorted to high-firing the chai cups, so that they can be used multiple times.

As moderns, we are conditioned to both destroy traditions and preserve things. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin evoked the image of an angel of history, hurtling backwards to the future, witnessing the trail of destruction produced in its wake.[1] While we invested in science and technology to develop ever new modes of living, at the same time we also built museums to preserve what gets left behind. Now empires of the cloud such as Google and Facebook promise to hold memories beyond the limits of space as well as time.

As a modern movement, studio ceramics has celebrated the timeless masterpiece. In the raku technique, the vessel bears the traces of ash and salt from the kiln, frozen in time by the firing process. For an artist like Peter Voulkos, it is his highly gestured making process itself which is captured in the fired product.[2] Like the modern art of photography, studio ceramics has sought to hold back time—not so much the Cartier-Bresson encounter of lovers on the street, but the alchemical interaction of elements in the fire.

Time cannot be dammed up for ever. While, the challenge of digital technology seemed to be storing information, in the 21st century it is about channelling flows of data—the feeds, tweets, streams, instagrams, Facebook updates, chats and snapchats that burst on to our screens when we turn on our mobile devices. In what Zygmund Bauman called our ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman 2000), we are beginning now to experience this flux in the very institutions once designed to contain it. Corporations become ever more mobile as they migrate operations for one side for the world to the other in search for bigger profit margins.

Ceramic Art captures the flux in dramatic ways. In 1995, Ai Weiwei captured on camera the act of dropping an antique Han dynasty vase. Artists like the Venice Biennale duo Fischli and Weiss are increasingly using unfired clay to depict a world that is provisional and changing. We no longer always expect that the ceramic work will be the same at the end as it was in the beginning of the exhibition. You can’t step into the same river twice.

What does ceramics as process mean for the tradition of studio work? Is it a dinosaur destined for extinction with the advent of our process-based lifestyles? How does the museum, once dedicated to conserving treasures for posterity, open its doors to the rivers of mud flowing through contemporary ceramics?

The Taiwan Ceramics Biennale provides a rare opportunity to experience the power of clay to express the cyclical nature of things. Some works do this in a thematic manner, addressing the downside of our gaze upward to economic growth. While much in media advertises the products and experience that promise happiness, it’s clear that our world is characterised by considerable loss. With development comes a decline in bio-diversity: an estimate of 10,000 species becomes extinct every year. But this is just one statistic among many that we learn every day. It takes a work like Ivette Guier Serrano’s Vestiges depicting dying birds to bring it home to us. When we confront this loss in the presence of a physical object, occupying the same space as our bodies, it connects with us more directly than an abstract statistic or flat photograph.

The destruction of cultures resulting from colonisation is an especially powerful theme. Gustavo Perez depicts ancient cities in ruins. Kukuli Velarde forges a unique Peruvian ceramics to represent repression of Indigenous cultures by Catholic Spanish colonisers. Bouke de Vries takes this to a universal scale by invoking a potential nuclear apocalypse.

These are powerful works that use the quality of fired clay to offer us a subtle form of repose from the world. But there are many artists in this show that make this melancholy part of the very medium itself. After all, clay is a quintessentially fragile medium. Its survival is testament to ongoing human care, but its destruction also bears witness to violence and decay.

In the West, the increasing concentration of manufacturing in the industrial centres of China and south-east Asia has decimated large-scale ceramic production. After financial misadventures, Wedgewood went into administration with Deloitte in 2009, which led to the transfer of production to Indonesia. The loss of this capacity is ironically the source of new work in ceramic art. Neil Brownsword has made an artistic career out of laying the tradition of English industrial ceramics to rest. Elsewhere the deserted factories have been eulogised in the haunting photography of Grzegorz Stadnik, depicting the ruins of the Książ Porcelain Factory in Walbrzych, Poland. We can even read Francesco Ardini’s remains of the banquet as an allegory of the end of aristocracy that founded the great porcelain workshops of Europe. But this mourning of the industrial is not restricted to the West. Yanze Janze’s work is about the moulds that are discarded in the industrial process. The Indonesian collective Tromarama have created exquisite installation reflecting on the destruction of Dutch heritage in Bandung. Finally, Shlomit Bauman reflects a planet that is straining its natural limits, invoking the potential disappearance of clay deposits.

We find elsewhere in the use of ceramics by artists much use of unfired clay. The 2013 work Shams (Sun) by Algerian Adel Abdessemed is a gallery wall covered entirely in a clay relief that depicts workers on a building site, hoisting sacks of materials up ladders. Its display in Qatar evokes the toiling immigrant workers who construct these new mega-cities from their labour, for which they receive around $100 a month. By the end of the installation, the clay has dried and elements have fallen to the ground. Also last year, the Swiss duo Fischli /Weiss exhibited Suddenly this Overview (1981-2006) at the Venice Biennale, including 200 unfired sculptures representing various kinds of human endeavour. By contrast to the monumentalisation of labour in the 20th century, these works reflect its evanescence, as hidden toil has replaced honourable craft. From Korea, we see the extraordinary dissolving architecture of Juree Kim in her Evanescent Scape (2011). Finally, the Argentinean Adrián Villar Rojas used unfired clay as a medium to produce a body of work about the tragic rock star Kurt Cobain, whose form cracks apart with time, even sprouting potatoes.

As an Australian, I’m particularly touched by the work of Pip McManus. Night Vessel uses the solubility of clay to evoke the evanescence of life as experienced by those who resort to taking leaky boats in order to seek asylum in countries like Australia.

It is easy to associate this breaking, cracking or dissolving of ceramics with a type of loss. But there are ways in which it can be precisely the opposite, almost a celebration. As we saw in the wedding, many social rituals express an explosion of joy in wilful collective destruction of material things. Besides the breaking of plates at Greek functions, there is the smashing of the glass at Jewish weddings, the breaking of the champagne bottle at the launch of a ship, the Russian tradition of tossing vodka glasses into the fire and so on.

Why is this the case? Isn’t it vandalism to celebrate the loss of things of utility and beauty? According to the French sociologist George Bataille, the condition of our sociality involves the production of surplus value, which provides material for sacrifice. This wilful destruction implies that the social bond is more important than mere things. In his book Accursed Share, he writes:

Light, or brilliance, manifests the intimacy of life, that which life deeply is, which is perceived by the subject as being true to itself and as the transparency of the universe… From the start, the introduction of labour into the world replaced intimacy, the depth of desire and its free outbreaks, with rational progression, where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent results of operations … It is this degradation that man has always tried to escape. In his strange myths, in his cruel rites, man is in search of a lost intimacy from the first. Religion is this long effort and this anguished quest: It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the poverty of things, and of restoring the divine order. (Bataille 1988, 7)

If there is indeed a hunger in us for the present moment, then many works in this exhibition seek to satisfy it. In the centrifugal moments photographed by Martin Klimas, we can celebrate the singular beauty of destruction. You could argue that, until prevented by health concerns, the act of walking over the pieces in Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern is an act of collective defiance. But also evoking Ai Wei Wei’s wilful destruction, Rocky Lewycky makes a dramatic intervention on the mindless production of consumer items.

What this biennale introduces into ceramics as process is the inclusion of work whose essence is not material, but abstract. As I mentioned earlier, the drive for ceramics as process is partly coming from the changing nature of technology. Some pieces give us the chance to reflect on this. Francesco Ardini creates work between the real and the ever-expanding dimension of the screen. Twitter subjects to a heady flow of information without stop. Of the more the 300 billion tweets that have been sent so far, it is likely that around 100 million have been sent since I started talking. David Gallagher helps us materialise the abstract flows of information that forms the world of twitter.

Some use technology that augments ceramics with sound. In Nicola Boccini’s Evolution 14.0, the work is the space of potential between the ceramic panels and the voice and touch of the viewer. Pierlugi Pompei’s Whispers enable visitors to explore a world of sound in ceramics.

With the advent of 3D printing, we see the focus move from the object itself to the code that it embodies. The work of Brian Peters concerns not the individual ceramic object but its Lego-like potential as a building block for other things. For Unfold’s L’Artisan Electronique, the romantic idealisation of pottery as a direct manipulation of materials is replaced by a mediated process, in which the hand sends signals to 3D printing devices. Their Stratigraphic Manufactury extends this to a relational space allowing others to intervene in this process. By contrast with the fixed world of studio ceramics, these mediated works reflect an as yet unrealised potential.

We see in this biennale and other contemporary works an exploration of ceramics as process. The result is not a fixed object, but instead a sequence of events such as gathering, drying, firing and breaking, whose meaning is their connection with each other. This opens up powerful emotional experiences, with narratives of decline and loss. As gifts and heirlooms, things can connect us; but as subjects of avarice and greed, they can also keep us apart. Sometimes, their destruction is cause for celebration.

But where does this leave what has gone before us? It is tempting to see this new work, particularly that which employs state of the art technology, as superseding the previous focus on mute objects. It is quite significant, therefore, that the curator has selected more traditional works, particularly from southern Africa. The Zulu ceramicists including Nesta Nale and Clive Sithole continue the tradition of village ceramics that glow with burnishing. Of course, this has its own relational meaning, particularly as beer pots to be passed around. This tradition is inflected through a Western idiom by the South African Clementina van der Walt. But the objects themselves remain a testament to the survival of a culture—what the New Zealand Māori call taonga, or treasures. I’ve been particularly impressed with the work of Manos Nathan, a Māori ceramicist who, besides works of art, makes items for traditional use, such as his bowl of the burial of the placenta, Waka Taurahere Tangata, which ties the newborn to the land.

It could be argued that ceramics as process gains its energy from its contrast to what has preceded it—ceramics as production of timeless beauty. The value that is dammed up in this field has provided the stored energy which is released through this biennale today. The creative spirit of art has defined itself against the conservative discipline of craft. But this does not mean that ceramics as process has transcended its studio precursor. We can see this too as a cycle, like the rhythm of intake and exhalation in breathing. Eventually, this flow may be expended, and we seek solace again in the stillness.

This biennale offers us a chance not only to admire the combination of skill and materials that produces timeless works of beauty, but also to experience its evanescence. As Lao-Tzu says, ‘The wise man delights in water’.


[1] “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 1970)

[2] The concept of sculpture as process involves the capacity of the final object to record its act of creation (see (Krauss 1981). However, this concept of process stops at the point of firing, when the object becomes a collectable item.



Bataille, Georges. 1988. The accursed share: an essay on general economy. New York: Zone Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press ; Blackwell.

Benjamin, Walter. 1970. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. Vol. 1. Schocken.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 1981. Passages in Modern Sculpture. MIT Press.


Thai crafts have an auspicious future

Thailand’s International Innovation Craft Fair represents a substantial commitment to the support of its crafts within a global context. The fair is organised by the Support Arts and Crafts International Centre of Thailand (SACIST). It includes an Innovative Craft Award, New Heritage Exhibition, Prototype Product Design Gallery, Craft Trend Exhibition, Mobile Gallery and more than 300 booths. Behind the scenes, it is the occasion for three significant MOUs involving the Intellectual Property Department, Thammasat University and National Discovery Museum.

The Thai crafts were quite impressive. Booths were organised in dense Bangkok style and filled with the latest products. I particularly liked the This Means That versions of Thai folk deities, Benjametha ceramics from the Muslim south, and the light fitting made in collaboration with birdcage craftspersons by Supachi Klawtanong.  Outside Thailand, the Lao textiles were outstanding, alongside the stylish textiles from Edric Ong’s studio, and impressive contributions from Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Beyond ASEAN, there were high quality products from India, Kygystan,  Taiwan, Syria, Iran and even Peru.

To complement the displays was a day-long seminar on ASEAN crafts, which featured wonderfully articulate and interesting designers and craftspersons from the breadth of South-East Asia. Pham Huyen Kieu from Vietnam’s Haki Craft was particularly impressive in his advocacy of co-crafting community as a way of attracting more young people. At the end, the speakers reflected on the common threads between their approaches. They all agreed that ASEAN designers shared a common commitment to supporting and using their local crafts.

Despite its scale, the Craft Fair still has room to evolve. The emphasis in craft innovation tends to be on home decoration. But there are only a limited number of light fittings or stools that can be sold, and there will always be stiff competition from cheaper industrial versions. Traditional crafts in Thailand are often tied to their rich array of cultural rituals. The challenge ahead is to find ways of adapting these rituals to modern lifestyles. Many rituals involve good luck. Today’s designers and makers have much to gain in adding auspiciousness to their products. Form, function and fortune would be a winning combination.

For more information about the fair, go to the Facebook page.


Survey shows a need for critical writing about craft

The results of our survey are out. About two-thirds of respondents were craft practitioners. The others included curators/writers (44%) and designers (37%). Most currently get their information from existing craft & design organisations, though half also get their news from Facebook and blogs.

When asked about the kinds of formats that would be of interest, there was strong support for reflective writing, including reviews, essays and profiles. A surprising number opted for craft histories, which suggests a need to provide some reference point for the field.



While a survey like this is useful to collect data, the space for extra comment is critical to gauge thinking and gather ideals. Other suggestions for content included:

  • artist profiles when written independently and not gallery/artist generated publicity.
  • investigative, analytical, witty editorial inquiry and one that pays writers
  • Finding a way to network young curators with artists is also something missing from the Craft Industry
  • Interviews with national / international craft and design curators Articles on grass roots initiates that promote and sell work
  • It would be good to see some true, critical journalism, critiquing
  • I think it should cover the intersections of the changing world of craft- ie traditional crafts and their reinvention using new materials/ new purposes

One craftsperson commented on a divide between the university and practice. While many enjoy the stimulation of education, they miss this when they leave.

I often feel I don’t know what craft workshops/depts are up to (visiting artists/shows/current theoretical thinkings in their galleries etc) and I’d like to know as I miss the academic world and its goings ons as a maker. As a maker I think there is too bigger disjunct once you are out in the real world between the two…

Many pleaded for critical writing, perceiving that many publications about craft are simply promotional.

Overall, the comments reflected the absence of publication – “Once again we are without quality Craft/Design publication so the need to restore the balance is important.” And a sense that something should be done new – “I think that it is timely and important for craft in Australia to have a lively, current, well written, pictorially rich magazine.”

As to the title, respondents were evenly split between the alternatives. But comments were useful in ensuring that the final title can realise the hopes that might be invested in it.

Thanks so much to all those who completed the survey. Your offers of support will be very important in getting this publication started.

Depending on seed funding, we hope to have the publication launched at the Parallels conference, National Gallery of Victoria in September. Please stay tuned for developments as they occur this year. If you have any inquiries, please contact me through this blog.

Speaking up for voicelessness – new works by Olivia Pintos Lopez

The Prosopopoeias (Counihan Gallery, 23 January – 15 February, 2015) by Olivia Pintos-Lopez is an intriguing installation of enigmatic figures made from a combination of cast resin, metal armature, cotton, kid leather, linen, muslin, antique  lace, wool embroidery, brocade, buttons, beads, coral, teeth, bone, feather, metal,  seeds, shell, stick, gold leaf, cloves, lavender, photographs, thread.  The text is from the opening speech by Sarah Tomasetti and images of works are below.

Let’s start with the question on everyone’s lips, What is a prosopopoeia?

Wikipedia informs us thus

A prosopopoeia is a rhetorical device in which a speaker or writer communicates to the audience by speaking as another person or object.

Prosopopoeiae can also be used to take some of the load off the communicator by placing an unfavorable point of view on the shoulders of an imaginary stereotype. The audience’s reactions are predisposed to go towards this figment rather than the communicator himself.

(I think I would like one of those with me all the time to take the rap for my own unfavourable points of view.)

It is interesting that we are speaking of communication here because most of the figurines don’t have faces, let alone mouths. They seem to express a somewhat incoherent state of voicelessness, yet further on we read…

Quintilian writes of the power of this figure of speech to ‘bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states.’

And so via the transformative power of the prosopopoeia we move from this state of voicelessness to bringing down cities and states! (To interpret the idea loosely.)  And we do indeed encounter something utterly powerful and compelling in the way these figurines of humble size seem to give form to our own countless unexpressed longings and objections and passing moments of humour.

My first entry to this exhibition was via two of these figurines bought from Olivia’s last Melbourne exhibition and followed by an exchange of materials in which I gave her some gloves and hankies and other things from my grandmother’s collection to be repurposed.

Encountering this new body of work I am struck once again by a sense of connection, an obsessive feeling of needing to own certain pieces.  I see a lot of art and collect very little, – in fact sometimes as an artist I can wish not to have too many other voices around me – so to what can I put this down?  I think it is the uncanny way that the prosopopoeias seem to give expression to interior states, to literally bring them into being in some way that seems essential to ones inner life.  (I did notice a number of people prowling about as I was, mourning ones that were gone, and trying to make the next cathexis quickly before it too was snatched away.)

There is a sense that the gesture or feeling or unconscious state is literally found through making, and as Olivia has described it, at the point that it is fully realised, she stops, sometimes quite abruptly.  The last gesture or stitch or wrapped thread has been made, sometimes quite violently, and there is no need to go on.  Something has been made coherent, exists more solidly than before.  I would posit that the primary essentialness of the process is echoed in the strong response that is going on in the prowling viewers.

They are not primarily about making a thing of beauty.  They are more direct than this, more necessary.

A new craft magazine?

What do you think about a new craft and design magazine based in Australia?2015 is the final year of the National Craft Initiative, which is a process managed by National Association of the Visual Arts to review the sector after the de-funding of Craft Australia. NCI will culminate in a conference Parallels: Journeys in Contemporary Making  at the National Gallery of Victoria, 17-18 September. This would be a perfect moment to launch a new magazine that expresses confidence in the sector and provides a platform for ongoing dialogue.Key elements of the current proposal are:

  • the strengthening network for craft and design across the Asia Pacific
  • growing expectations of participation through social media
  • increased interest in Aboriginal and Torres Street Islander craft & design in the region
  • support for thoughtful and engaging writing about craft and design
  • increased use of e-commerce

At this early developmental stage, it is important to receive thoughts on such a venture from those who are active in the sector (including outside Australia). Your responses to this short questionnaire are most welcome. Survey closes 6 February. Click here.

Mapuche stories woven into QR codes


Guillermo Bert, Redemption, 2012, wool and natural dyes, woven by Anita Paillamil, 213.4 × 121.9 cm

New Territories at the New York Museum of Art & Design is an ambitious survey of contemporary craft and design from Latin America. While many of the participants reward close attention, the work of Guillermo Bert is particularly intriguing.

Bert is a Chilean artist who migrated to the USA during the Pinochet era. In his new home, he developed a career making politically-charged art, drawing on the use of barcodes as signifiers of restricted information.

New Territories includes his work with Mapuche weavers from his country of origin. One of these, the 2012 work Redemption, is produced collaboratively with the weaver Anita Paillamil. Rather than traditional symbols, it features a QR-Code that links to a Mapuche myth. The work therefore is a testament to Mapuche culture both in the woven object itself and also the story that it encodes. What in his previous work was an emblem of repressive secrecy now becomes an important transmitter of cultural values.

These are the words that appear when the tapestry is scanned:

Somos prueba de que aun existe en el siglo XXI un pueblo ancestral.
We are the proof that in the 21st century, an ancestral nation still exists.


The video depicts quite a fascinating collaboration. At first it seems a forced exercise. Bert seeks to have his design realised by a Mapuche weaver in Chile, but his agenda doesn’t seem connected with their own reality. Do they know what a QR code is? Will they ever get actually to see the work in the US gallery? Modern art is filled with examples of first world artists using artisans as extras for their conceptual adventures. But Bert seems to take it further.

As the story unfolds, Bert travels to the weavers and seems to develop an understanding with them. He even invites one of them to travel to his Los Angeles studio so they can be in closer contact. As the video shows, Anita Paillamil is quite excited to be given this opportunity. And other Mapuche figures (I recognise the journalist Elias Paillan) seem keen to use this work to share their stories. It has the makings of a real collaboration.

Gwendolyn Zierdt, Unabomber Manifesto Handwoven and pierced; mercerised cotton, silk 305cm x 183cm

Bert continues a line of experimentation in weaving with digital code.  In 1998, US artist Gwendolyn Zierdt started a remarkable series of  works that played on the inscrutability of digital role. She translated the Unabomber Manifesto, which was about the decline of handskills, into a binary code that was then woven as a tapestry. It was a defiant proclamation about the co-existence of craft and technology.

A recent article (Kuusk, Kristi, Stephan Wensveen, and Oscar Tomico. 2014. “Crafting Qualities in Designing QR-Coded Embroidery and Bedtime Stories” The Art of Research) described new uses of QR codes in Estonia to embed narratives in

Embroidered QR code from Kuusk, Kristi, Stephan Wensveen, and Oscar Tomico. 2014. “Crafting Qualities in Designing QR-Coded Embroidery and Bedtime Stories”

Embroidered QR code from Kuusk, Kristi, Stephan Wensveen, and Oscar Tomico. 2014. “Crafting Qualities in Designing QR-Coded Embroidery and Bedtime Stories”

Embroidered QR code from Kuusk, Kristi, Stephan Wensveen, and Oscar Tomico. 2014. “Crafting Qualities in Designing QR-Coded Embroidery and Bedtime Stories”

goods, such as fairy tales on pillows and local wisdoms on grocery bags.  The work is not only about the application of new technology to weaving, but also the relational possibilities it makes possible as stories of shared significance can be embedded in the object.

What makes Bert’s work different is the cultural partnership. The QR Code links the Mapuche village with the urban centres of the wealthy North. It is a message in a bottle.
But like all collaborations between rich and poor, we are left with many questions. Is it useful to know how much and on what terms the weaver was paid? The wide gulf between the artisan payment and final sale price is often the cause of an awkward revelation after the initial excitement of craft-design collaboration. There are many valid reasons for a large mark-up – conceptual labour, investment of time and travel, rent, risk, etc.

Of course, too much talk about money can detract from the personal relationship between an artist and artisan. While other artists like Alighiero Boetti do not acknowledge their artisans, Bert is quite overt about the role of Anita Paillamil. This is a welcome gesture that adds greatly to the meaning of his work.

But it seems important that our interest doesn’t stop there. Might Anita Paillamil take this further in her own work? Could she exhibit a similar weaving of her own in Santiago?  It would be interesting to see if Bert’s work could inspire new work and make new pathways for Mapuche weavers in his home country. Perhaps they could have a more overt involvement in the messages carried by the QR Code.

Bert has cast the shuttle wide in his Coded Stories. But there are many more passes to come before the potential of these digital tapestries is fully realised. QR-code have capacity to unlock the secret life of objects. Scan this space.