Concept is paramount when discussing or evaluating works produced under the banner of craft/art and design; it is the unifying element that extends over visual art, object design and product design. While many artists working across these areas utilise installation as a method of practice it not only enables them to combine elements and go beyond concerns dealing with the individual object, it enables a dialogue between objects and the chance for the artist to communicate a narrative. In settings , an exhibition shown at Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre in September 2007, four artists were given the brief of creating an installation to demonstrate how objects can indicate the presence or absence of the human body.
The curatorial concept was inspired by objects found in the public realm, in the field so to speak as opposed to a gallery context. During the late 1990's I worked in a gallery in Sydney where there was often a pile of clothes left on the footpath across the road. It struck a cord with me, here were these objects left behind that implicated a presence and suggested an absence. As I now walk around I often notice dropped gloves, hats and shoes tossed up into telegraph wires. While these objects have a direct correlation with the body there are other objects that have a lesser connection but still reference us when they appear out of context. Things that come to mind include discarded furniture, shopping trolleys and basically any object appearing out of context.
The exhibition settings raised the point of the importance of context; in this case a gallery context and the context of the public realm. When placed in a gallery context, seemingly ordinary object arrangements are highlighted through the contrast with a neutral space. Naturally it is the desire of both curator and artist to solicit a response from audiences and in a sense our hallowed minimalist spaces become the venues for offerings to a public willing to venture into these spaces. Certain methods of presentation are employed; at times works are placed on plinths, hung on walls and at other times the work stands alone. The use of the plinth in presentation acts as a mediator between architectural space and the work itself. The literal act of putting something on a pedestal again puts an object in a rarefied realm and one could say even further away from the viewer. Installation work on the other hand gives the viewer no buffer zone and as a positive, the viewer must engage directly with the work. Approaching a stand alone work you must consider how far you will physically approach and how much you will engage mentally.
The public realm on the other hand, despite its appearance, does have its conventions; roads going through nature that lead to towns of buildings and public spaces filled with street furniture. Within this context objects can have an out of context moment and these are immediately identifiable. When objects are perceived as out of context they immediately imply human activity due to the fact they have been placed or left behind by accident or deliberately. These objects defy normality and at times appear to have escaped from the place and sense of order we usually associate with them.
Settings included work by Lisa Owen Burke, Megan Bottari, Chris Fortescue and Paull McKee. In the exhibition Fortescue created objects by bringing two of his experiences with other artist's work together with his own, inferring presence and absence by bringing objects into being and creating associations; in this case, the work of Edward Krasinski and Michael Heizer. In short Krasinski's work utilizes a specific blue insulation tape applied horizontally to connect objects while Heizer's monumental earth work, Double Negative in the Nevada desert, USA , is the result of an action of taking away a massive amount of earth creating a 450 meter long trench, 9 meters wide and 15 meters deep. Fortescue has visited Double Negative and has a connection with Krasinski's work as an art handler employed during Krasinski's retrospective in Vienna . By combining rocks collected from Double Negative with the specified tape used by Krasinski, it has enabled Fortescue to create objects for a new installation that incorporates not only himself but two absent artists that may have never met.
To take in Fortescue's crisp white shelves and blue tape rocks without having a look at the catalogues on the two artists plus the text RESETTING by Fortescue himself, placed on a matching white table, would mean missing out on the full story. Fortescue's text is crucial to the reading of the work. He takes the reader on a journey describing his thought processes, his actions and his influences. You have to engage with his work to understand it first physically and secondly via the catalogues and text. Fortescue brings his past experiences into the gallery and as they exist in the past they are themselves an absence made present in the context of settings .
Lest we forget is an emotionally charged phrase from Anzac day ceremonies. It is used by Paull McKee to accompany his reconstruction of a homeless man's cardboard shelter. The title suggests to the viewer that it is at our own peril that we place individual aspiration above our concerns of a fair and equitable society, a concept that was supposed to be pivotal to the two world wars. By creating a habitable structure McKee immediately suggests the potential for occupation as well as creating tension in terms of not knowing when the inhabitant has left or is due to arrive back. The installation continues his fascination with ‘make do' culture and the long history it has had with resisting economic changes and persisting in the face of oppression. The furnishings of blankets, ropes and straps implies wrapping and unwrapping, an action performed by the human body. Positioned to the side of the gallery and unlit the work highlighted displacement while its form was generated as a composite of remembered and imagined camps that McKee has momentarily seen out of the corner of his eye.
With Paull's work a story develops. It gathers momentum and manifests itself in objects. For this work he did a trail run in the field and during the install in the gallery he made a point of not labouring over the set up too much so he could achieve a plausible setting. His use of textiles is often a key component of his work and you can understand that because textiles become invested with the essence of presence. This work begs you to consider a tied up bag, a gate, lino and a roll of wire as objects. This is not a pretty work; it has qualities of rawness and attitude. Ultimately, this work brings a piece of the public realm into the gallery and sits at odds within that context.
There is probably nothing more likely to implicate presence and absence of the human body than human excreta, which of course carries additional complex social customs all of its own. Megan Bottari's faeces in settings is the hand crafted, lost wax cast crystal variety which sets the stage for a classic precious/abject dichotomy. The parallels she sets up between the concept and material are endless, a favourite being an excerpt on crystals from Wikipedia: ‘Which crystal structure the fluid will form depends on the chemistry of the fluid, the conditions under which it is being solidified, and also on the ambient pressure.' To which Bottari replies: ‘well, precisely'. While her work is often a manipulation of the literal, one cannot dismiss the humour generated by first impressions. Bottari habitually employs language to set a scene, so to speak—to create a mood, here the work is titled ‘Prima Faeces' . She enjoys the nuance of veiled ambiguity, the invitation to ponder the myriad possibilities that lurk beyond the obvious. As an installation it engages the viewer firstly with curiosity as a set of objects lurking in the darkness of the gallery and I am sure for some it repelled and in doing so on a secondary level the viewer themselves become a participant; a presence and then a conscious absence in the gallery space itself.
In the making of this work there were a lot of funny moments an example being a comment from the visitor's book in the gallery ‘Nice turds' or Bottari telling me how she is making ‘shit' work at the moment. The action of putting faeces into a gallery space is the other side of the coin to object glorification and the work takes the idea of making glass objects to a new level. The abject nature of the work is enhanced through its placement on the raw concrete floor under a spotlight, not the place you would usually find cast crystal in a gallery. You often see glass works that imitate real objects and one could ask how far this road can be taken? Bottari has taken us to the end of road to imitation as she uses the permanence and light absorbing qualities of glass to create ‘shit' that will last forever.
Lisa Owen Burke's hand-made hybrid forms combine materials we usually associate as being worn on the body, Lycra, with structural forms in this case a tent. Her work implicates the body through material association and habitable space. By combining Lycra with the structure of a tent she creates ambiguity by introducing a material language with a form that has a practical application. In previous works, often her choice of material is one that is worn close to the body such as Lycra, nylon or lace suggesting an intimate association with the body. When this material is applied to a habitable structure such as a tent the work takes on a degree of surrealism where function is negated and scale is distorted.
Human idiosyncrasies and vernacular culture, especially Australian popular culture, acts as a source of reference for her work with the title, ‘Adventurer “ for max exposure ”', often adding an element of humour. Our pre-established thoughts relating to material and recognisable structures act to position her hybrid objects within our post settlement culture. Having initially studied in an object design studio, Owen Burke has orientated her art practice around the human body, its functions and its failings. The opening of the tent obliquely draws parallels with the orifices of the body and in that sense it is a work that draws us in and implies our body, reinforced by the interior which is akin to the inside of a pair of swimmers. As a work in a gallery it could be initially read as a form of object tautology. Generally for use outdoors, Owen Burke's tent has had its waterproofing negated as well it's interior and in doing so becomes a work crafted for a gallery space.
The key to the suggestive power of objects ultimately lies with the viewer of this exhibition and how one will perceive each work sensually. As a species we have being conditioned over time to accept the gallery context as a place for contemplation of the work of others. It is this context that all these works have been made for and it is interesting to note that all these installation works reference things outside the gallery space itself. To suggest that installation work is void of the process of crafting and more suited to a contemporary art venue would be ludicrous. Most craft and design centres in Australia today would consider themselves contemporary art spaces with an emphasis on but not limited to the manifestation of three dimension forms. The main difference with craft and design and other contemporary art practices is craft and design's pre occupation with function and the assigning of meaning and utility to acknowledged functional forms.
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This article is presented in partnership with Craft ACT: Craft and Design Centre.