Catalogue Texts

Selected texts from recent Exhibition Catalogues

Making Sense: from the Sublime to the Meticulous
by John Gregory

It’s hard to imagine a more opportune moment for ‘making sense’ of environmental issues, which clearly present us all – scientists and non-scientists alike – with a huge challenge. In this regard, Debbie Symons and Jasmine Targett’s works bridge a crucial gap, presenting complex, disturbing data in lucid, evocative, even surprisingly beautiful form.

Human beings have always tried to tame and exploit nature, but typically, in the past, with some sense of awe. Traditional belief in the spiritual power of the land may underpin later responses like the Enlightenment ‘Sublime,’ or Marcus Clarke’s famous 19th-century lines on the gloomy and mysterious grandeur of the Australian landscape.[1]

For Kant, contemplating fashionable aesthetic categories in 1764, the Sublime involved ‘the feeling of the beauty and dignity of human nature.’[2] But, post 1945, and especially post 2001, the idea of the Sublime may seem fatally flawed, perhaps even totalitarian, with terms like ‘Shock and Awe’ now coopted by the U.S. military.[3] Yet there still seems to be scope for a contemporary Sublime, for instance in the work of Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, who explores environmental and scientific issues, often on a massive scale, as in The Weather Project (2003).[4]

In ‘Making Sense’ (a title borrowed from Eliasson), Symons and Targett also address large issues, and grapple with science, in considerable detail, but on an intimate scale, implying a 21st-century Sublime with subtler, darker tones. Antarctica, from all accounts (unfortunately I can’t speak from first-hand experience), is a majestic place, exemplifying that combination of awe-inspiring beauty, fear and melancholy that made up the Enlightenment Sublime, and still capable of astonishing contemporary visitors. However – as both Symons and Targett demonstrate – it’s also a fragile ecosystem showing obvious and increasing signs of damage, as temperatures rise, the ice melts, and species disappear at an alarming rate.

Faced with such destruction, it may seem impossible not to succumb to despair – or at least melancholy – that richer, more energetic concept central to Kant’s idea of the Sublime.[5] But these artists suggest another, more productive approach. For, in a final paradox, the works in this exhibition also project considerable beauty – in the vivid colours of Targett’s glowing temperature maps, for example, or Symons’s delicate delineation of species’ decay and death. It may remain debateable whether these responses constitute a transcendent Kantian gesture, bitter-sweet mourning for what’s already irrevocably lost, or a vital redemptive act.
John Gregory


[1] For a lively recent discussion of Clarke’s comments, see John McDonald, Art of Australia, vol.1: Exploration to Federation, Sydney: Macmillan, 2008, pp.150-52.
[2] Immanuel Kant, ‘Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime’ [1764], in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings, ed. and trans. Patrick Frierson & Paul Guyer, Cambridge University Press, 2011, p.24.
[3] Christine Battersby, The Sublime, Terror and Human Difference, London & New York: Routledge, 2007, p. 205; see also Gene Ray, Terror and the Sublime in Art and Critical Theory: From Auschwitz to September 11, Gordonsville: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
[4] In a recent interview, Eliasson, while voicing considerable mistrust of the idea, continued: ‘…I like to think of the sublime as something which does not exclude the context. If suddenly the world appeared as a construction and therefore changeable – that would in my view be subliminal’ (as quoted in Michael Fitzgerald, ‘Nature as Culture: Olafur Eliasson and the idea of a contemporary sublime,’ Art & Australia 47.3, Autumn 2010, p.405).
[5] For melancholy, see Kant’s ‘Observations…,’ op.cit., pp.25ff.; the classic text is Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (first published in 1621); see also Jacky Bowring, A Field Guide to Melancholy, Harpenden: Oldcastle Books, 2008; Eric G.Wilson, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2008, esp.pp.69ff. (‘Generative Melancholia’); and Shirley Law, ‘“Spirited Sadness” and the Gothic in Jane Eyre,’ forthcoming in Screen Education [Australia], vol.63 (2011).

Icons of Climate Change
by Associate Professor Linda Williams, RMIT University. 

There are several well-known types of imagery recurring in the public arena that are now icons of climate change, and photos or film of massive slabs of melting ice in the polar regions have become one of these key indices of escalating global environmental change.

In this exhibition, the Australian artists Debbie Symons and Jasmine Targett focus on Antarctica in ways that extend and reconfigure these iconic images, taking them into the imaginative realm of art. Their works invite us to consider the Antarctic region from two different perspectives: from the position of endangered species on the ground, and from the aerial perspective of the hole in the ozone layer.

Interpreted through the affective language of art, Symons and Targett’s thoughts on Antarctica invite the viewer to reflect on the immanent threats to the region itself, and further, to the ways in which the deterioration of Antarctica is now represented as a key to environmental and ecological deterioration on a global scale.

The Crumbling Ecologies Project
by Debbie Pryor, Curator Craft Victoria 

Across the nation art schools are re-evaluating the need and demand for crafts such ceramics, glass, woodworking and jewellery. Such courses are experiencing restructuring, merging and fatal closures; the dilution of teaching pure craft techniques at a tertiary level will have a profound effect on the visual art, craft and design communities. Melbourne based artist Jasmine Targett began her project by tackling the Monash Caulfield campus' craft restructure and in doing so discovered a national community supporting her concerns.

The Crumbling Ecologies Project opens a discussion surrounding the condition of environmental conservation and craft education within Australia. This predominantly ceramics-based exhibition symbolises the crumbling of a community and the struggle to sustain an industry in the absence of a training infrastructure. It also stimulates discussion around the meaning and worth of craft and design as viewed by both the arts education system and Australian society.

In the gallery space neon wall installations and museum style vitrines feature multimedia works, showing both the breadth of Targett’s practice and the interdisciplinary impact across craft and visual arts of the topics’ material. Navigating the exhibition, the viewer experiences the installation as both a contemporary Museum and gallery space. The most literal piece in the exhibition, an installation of ceramic geraniums, sweeps a large portion of the room. Some of these geraniums will be taken home by the audience, and some will be destroyed throughout the exhibition’s duration as a result of audiences navigating the site, which physically reinforces the loss of craft and environmental research funding with a startling crunch.

Upon entering the gallery the Weather Barometer, a flickering wall installation of neon and vinyl, raises awareness to the decline and increased risk of extinction to both the geranium and craft. Mimicking the motions of a weather barometer the piece conceptually links financial climate to the closure of Melbourne’s art schools.

The Beauty of Weeds, fashioned from the Project’s plant waste, sits beneath hand blown glass domes replicating a Botanical exhibit while demonstrating the utilisation of craft within a conceptual art practice. The vitrines are positioned upon tables salvaged and repurposed from an art school, further demonstrating the resilient and transformative nature of craft, able to be adapted to the needs of the user. 

Geraniums are heavily featured in the exhibition, with thousands dipped in ceramic slip and positioned tenuously throughout the gallery. In Melbourne geraniums are a popular commercial plant used to ‘green’ corporate breakout spaces and public gardens around the city. Yet curiously also feature on the Australian National Heritage Trust's Alert List for Environmental Weeds. This mirrors the dichotomy that is Australian Craft; across the country craft courses are being shut down within art schools, despite enjoying a resurgence in Australian creative and consumer cultures. 

“One key argument used to justify the closure of the craft studios is that these materials and practices have become outdated and no longer relevant to contemporary arts practice and research” says Targett. To claim a material can no longer be researched or utilised is defeatist. Any material incites experimentation, exploration and excitement, how is it that a creative institution can arrive at the decision that a material has reached its potential? In a direct commentary on the strength of the community, the thousands of ceramic geraniums shown in the exhibition have been created by volunteer makers in Melbourne, Bendigo and New South Wales. The artists' involvement is a direct display of their concern on how the closure of art school craft studios will impact their future careers and the position of Australian crafts on a national and international scale.

Both contemporary visual art and craft feature a stream of talented young, emerging contemporary visual artists and craftspeople utilising ceramics regularly, if not primarily in their practice. In particular, artists such as Brendan Huntley and Honor Freeman have studied the craft within the last 10 years and have shown in major Australian institutions such as Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney and National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; and both are represented by commercial galleries. This indicates that both commercial and creative audiences continue to see the worth in the varying incarnations of the material.
Undoubtedly the upsurge in digital technologies has had a hand in the diminished support for craft in higher education in this country. There is no disputing that universities have realised they can increase their profit margin from online teaching rather than providing classes with hands on making, but are Universities taking into consideration the impact on cultural industries, the environment and a way of life in Australia? As Gabriella Bisetto, glass artist and head of the Glass Department at the University of South Australia states: “Universities are increasingly moving towards an online education - UniSA is part of Open Universities Australia (OUA) offering innovative practices, expertise and resources in online learning and distance education. Online learning is a fantastic resource for a component of our society but it does also increasingly put pressure on actual hands-on programmes that cost more in resources, staff and facilities. It makes courses that can be taught online financially very attractive for universities to offer in opposition to studio based practices”.

Australia has an established commercial infrastructure for makers, our mainstream audiences are becoming more design savvy and artisan products are at an all time high for demand. Ceramics in particular is treated as a diverse component of contemporary craft, as opposed to the actuality of it being an essential component, relating directly to mould making, form building and sculpture which are integral to many other visual arts processes.

Brian Parkes, CEO JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design suggests the rise in frustration and concern is widespread “JamFactory runs what we describe as a post-tertiary training program in ceramics, glass, furniture and metal design and the worrying thing we’ve witnessed in recent years is the reduction in both the number of graduates from craft-related programs across the country and the diminishing skills level they seem to be attaining as graduates.”

The Crumbling Ecologies Project highlights the desperate, fragile point that we have found ourselves at. A point where the government needs to invest in the future of our creative industries as opposed to looking at the immediate financial benefits for the educational sector today; and commit to the building of an industry that can contribute to the international landscape. 

Our contemporary culture has not desisted in using hand made Australian vessels and objects, we retain the need to hand down information from generation to generation on the materials used to create them – the system in which we do this within our mainstream culture is not through family tradition, but a formal education system. Perhaps this move by educational institutions will see a push in new practitioners seeking privatised teaching?

Targett is completing her PhD Sensing Ether: a studio based investigation into Perceiving Atmosphere, Light and Life Support Systems at Monash University. It’s a brave move on the part of the artist, critically publicising the movements of an institution before the completion of study. Perhaps the best position from which to observe is on the inside.

Porcelain Persuasions
by Miriam McGarry

On arriving at the casting studio I was bundled into the threatened studio space, and welcomed into a team of volunteers. We stood in a row; jeweler, musician, sculptor and I - slowly dipping and spinning the green leaves into the porcelain slip. Little by little, we filled our sheets of newspaper with embalmed plants, gently massaging the porcelain coating where it had not clung to the waxy leaves.

Jasmine Targett’s white geraniums are compellingly tactile, and serenely beautiful. However, in addition to their elegance, the crisp porcelain leaves are persuasive and political.

Among the images that decorate Jasmine’s studio space is a picture of a ‘yarn-bombed’ tree. Yarn-bombing sits within an emergent trend for craft-ivism or arts activism, where small interventions using artisan skills and techniques are executed to highlight political and cultural issues. While yarn-bombing has conventionally been a site specific enterprise performed in the urban landscape, Crumbling Ecologies translates the concept of craft-ivism into the art gallery.

Targett demonstrates the legitimacy of art-activism as an art form, by placing her own political porcelain within a traditional white gallery space. Targett’s practice has previously married the realms of art and politics in her Life Support Systems glass works (2011), and Antarctica, Dissolving Perception (2009). These projects exploited the transparent material quality of glass, to succinctly create an exposé of contemporary environmental issues.

Both aesthetically, and as an act of art-activism, the Crumbling Ecologies Project draws parallels with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds installation.

The two works comment on mass production and consumption, and are constructed from individually crafted elements. The sunflowers seeds and geraniums represent an investment of time, material, craftsmanship, handwork of different creators, as well as the snowflake-like individualism of the leaves themselves. While Weiwei highlights that his work is ‘Made in China,’ Crumbling Ecologies is explicitly and intentionally a local production. The enthusiasm of volunteers, from both within and outside the arts community, validates Targett’s central thesis: that the practices of porcelain, glass and textiles artists are valued, deserving of support and the opportunity for ongoing development.

In horticulture, Geraniums have a dual meaning of both friendship and folly. [1]

Crumbling Ecologies exploits this contradictory but co-existing message to articulate the current relationship between art and ‘craft’ within Victoria. Geraniums (like artisans and crafts people) exist in a liminal space. Between a weed and a precious flower, the porcelain geraniums are simultaneously craft and art. Targett exposes how artisan practices of porcelain casting, glass blowing and tapestry slip between the cracks for funding, recognition or endorsement.

There is a perception of both geraniums and crafts as old fashioned, irrelevant or out of touch. And yet, there is simultaneously a growing trend towards preference for the handmade unique object. Oliver Supon’s book, ‘The New Artisans” published last year explores this resurgence and awareness of quality handmade objects. Within Victoria, institutions, collectives and blogs such as Craft Victoria, NorthCity4 and thedesignfiles.net, demonstrate a cultural and social awareness of the importance of sustaining these traditions. Why then does education policy not follow this public support? Crumbling Ecologies exposes the reality of a thriving craft community in Melbourne, which is being uprooted and displaced through failures of funding and recognition.

Jasmine Targett ‘s porcelain landscape is constantly under threat. In addition to potential destruction from visitor’s boots, the fragile environment has no means of regeneration. The fragility of the materials demonstrates the dangerous position artistic practices such as porcelain casting hold in the future. Without funding, projects like Crumbling Ecologies will not only die out, but will be unable to regenerate unless tertiary level courses remain available to educate new practitioners. Targett’s delicate installation shows how the very skills that created the porcelain leaves, are under threat of extinction.

Crumbling Ecologies explores a space between fragility and preservation. The individually hand crafted porcelain geranium leaves are rescued from decay, but in the process of conservation, are embalmed in a cast. 37 000 gentle persuasions….

[1] http://www.victorianbazaar.com/meanings.html

Collaboration, Continuity and Community
by Alicia Renew

The Crumbling Ecologies Project addresses the key issues surrounding the closure of media-specific studios across Victoria and asks us to consider why these studios are disappearing from the education system. The project openly questions which forms of artistic practice can be considered as contemporary, and which are now considered irrelevant, while identifying the obsolete notion of the artist existing within a singular medium. Since the rise of Conceptualism in the 1960s, the art world has recognised the dominance of the multidisciplinary artist, designer and architect whose creative practice relies on accessibility to various media-specific studios. Yet, art schools have continued to perceive traditional studio practice outside of the freer forms as rigid classicism with dictatorial notions at play. This has resulted in the disempowering of artists and designers in aspects of technical specificity. This dated mode of linking technical practitioners to the divisive thought of being either a maker or a thinker is a discontinuous logic that has led to the current closed studio archetype. Only through the notions of collaboration, continuity and community can changes be made within art schools to stabilise an otherwise crumbling ecology.

The current split model, which has studios and departments separated both physically and metaphorically, has segmented and narrowed skilled visual and conceptual approaches to simply exist within a singular canon. The artist working solitarily within a single discipline is a dated 20th century notion, it is instead proposed that a no walls approach to studio practice should be adopted and should act as a reflection of the contemporary artist who works outside of one medium and expands past limited learning systems. Architecture should act as collaborative tool that draws practices together through open spaces that enhance creative production.

To foster progression, a collegial assessment of the three compasses of visual arts; aesthetics, technique and economics should be used to promote creativity between disciplines. Basic training in different technical arenas for all artists, architects and designers with access to media-specific artisans and specialists, along with exposure to conceptual theory will foster new dialogues and open advanced discourses about our cultural and visual anthropology. The separation and isolation of mediums only amplifies the current approach of closed dialogues between disciplines which hinders innovation in each field; becoming a catalyst for the current unsustainable approach to arts education and production.

The new art school should demand an approach to arts education that combines intelligent physical making along with providing an experiential sensorium which joins studios, labs and lecture theatres in one collaborative space. Rather than the closed circle, of work and display hidden within a labyrinth of walls, it should aim to choreograph the self-referential space of the studio with engineered exposure of mixed spaces and galleries that coexist within mutually accessible arenas. The new art school should be a thriving hybrid learning environment with co-teaching, studios, galleries and technical labs for collegial learning, a network of intimacies, that is shared and explored by artists, architects and designers.

It doesn’t take much to create a dynamic community and sustainable ecology for the arts, it does however take vision and a portion of risk to invite dialogues surrounding shifting paradigms of the environment. Perhaps it is only when these conversations happen that we can start to see some stability and longevity in ecology, art, education and production.