Hold, Trace, Listen

“Culture is talk; living is story,” said Greg Dening, an Australian cultural historian at the end of a long career.1

“A window is a window, but there is looking out and looking in,” wrote Margaret Atwood, Canadian prose writer and poet.2

                                                                                         [Image: Bowl for 264 species, 2007; detail]

It is true pleasure to be here in Dubbo, Tubbagah/ Wiradjuri ancestral country, on the banks of the Macquarie River. Or as I learnt from Diane McNaboe last night: “dhubu-gah”; “here in Dubbo”. It is country that seems to say: ‘Wait, breathe, listen’. For even the name Dubbo, itself, seems full of possible story – a place, I read, derived from the local language word ‘tubbo’ or ‘thubbo’, meaning red earth (red ochre) and net cap, as in the clay cap once worn by Wiradjuri women in mourning. The latter is not often said, but was repeated to me by Diane last night.3 This is a continent of patterns, layers, and unexpected interconnections. A continent where the continuous past of the present, indigenous and non-indigenous, surrounds one daily.

“A floating feather, a sweeping wing, a vigilant angel, the cows from ‘the mission’ farm, a single Australian plague locust in flight, a comforting Bible and a graceful emblematic returning boomerang. The boomerang is really the only overtly Aboriginal image in the set and the locust one of the few native animals left that is visible and cannot be swept aside. It persists.” 4

These are words by Djon Mundine for photographer Michael Riley’s retrospective Sights Unseen at the NGA in 2006. Born locally of Wiradjuri and Gamillaroi heritage, at the old Talbragar Aboriginal Reserve about ten minutes drive north of here, Riley also lived and photographed in urban Sydney. Visiting these western plains for this ceramics exhibition has, pleasingly, led me back to look at his photographs again … (cont.)

CONCLUDING REMARKS on Concept vs Medium

 “We are surrounded by things, and pictures of things, and things with pictures of things on them,” said Laurie Anderson, in her 2007 show Homeland.14

Throughout, I have attempted to interweave a semblance of the relationship between concept and medium as I see it, in response to the forum’s proposition to open out discussion on this topic. But this is always a much more fluid process than that described above. I suspect any ceramicist will tell you this. For me, there is always the ‘collaborating partner’ – the kiln – offering at the two extremes, wondrous enhancement or crushing loss.

However, when I came to ceramics formally in the early nineties, a narrative, thematic approach was a natural inclination. There were things I wanted to say and express as one would in other media, such as words or painting or music. So why not use ceramics in the same way was the guiding thought. I went to learn skills in order to find some articulation in ceramics in order to do so.

This approach also had the added benefit of circumventing, in my thinking, the weary and limiting art/craft debate I encountered, and which was reflected in the aesthetic and the material values assigned ceramics, compared with for example, paintings by artists at similar stages of their exhibiting careers.

My interest in ceramics preceded by a long time my actual making of them, and my earlier exposure through museums and books was slanted towards ceramics as cultural objects, shown and interpreted in very particular social and cultural contexts. When working at Sydney University, I could spend a lunch hour in the Nicholson Museum, an archaeological museum on campus, where a fabulous collection of objects, pots, and other unearthed items quietly held court. Ancient Syrian earthenwares, zoomorphic Egyptian forms, Egyptian paste jewellery, faiance tiles, Etruscan black wares and terracottas, Greek black and red amphorae, rhytons, kraters and multiple others shared the space and time of encounter. None of these were classified into categories using the language I was to meet later in the world of ceramics – functional/non-functional, sculptural/ decorative etc. To me, these terms were always, and to this day remain, descriptive adjectives, not categories for classifying one’s ceramics. The ceramics in the Nicholson collection were understood, as I also encountered in accounts elsewhere of human societies and the objects they made, part of a broader cultural and local physical world, whether used as daily utilitarian pot, a storage vessel, a grave good to honour a particular deceased person, or as an offering as part of a religious ritual connecting earth-held communities to the gods who controlled weather, season, crop, game. Or, indeed, several of these together, with the same pot having several possible attributions.

The art/craft debate is a dead end for ceramics, and ceramics artists, potters, artisans, ceramic sculptors, contemporary makers, or any other moniker we choose for ourselves – even if we insert the words contemporary and object somewhere. Perhaps it could be given its own museum exhibit now, explanatory wall tags and all. I’d like to repeat an insight from Noel Frankham, one I raised five years ago in a similar gathering in Newcastle: “Perhaps we should imagine a scale with artisanship at one end and art at another. Ceramics (often lumped into ‘craft’ or ‘decorative arts’ by the western art canon) can be found anywhere along that”.15

Over the last decade, theorists such as Susie Attiwill, Sue Rowley and David Walker aspired to shifts “from discussions centred around media or style or technique to questions of the meanings and contexts of both craft objects and practices … This transfer of focus is vital, if persistent misrepresentations of craft as skilful, but essentially mindless and repetitive processing of media, are to be displaced”.16 The language of these aspirations is no longer unfamiliar or surprising, and I would suggest that there is a growing literacy about the possibilities of the spectrum of ceramics, more generally. The Australian Ceramic Stories exhibition is, indeed, an example of this.

Also, from a personal perspective: with increasing frequency visitors to gallery exhibitions approach me and ask if there is a background story to a particular piece, and if so, ‘what is it?’ They may be interested initially because of the way it looks, or the way it makes them feel (or associate or recall), but increasingly, over the past five years or so, people are asking for more than ‘surface’. They are not asking ‘what does it ‘mean’, either, as in concept. Perhaps in this time, described by Alan Gilbert as ”the postmodern twilight”,17 people need to make more grounded connections to their lives or experience, and narratives/ stories are an inherently accessible way of doing this in the encounter with three-dimensional objects, whether pot or other.

I’m not advocating for ceramics to be interpreted as present-day ethnographic objects, but perhaps if seen more as part of contemporary, living culture – material expressions of austral place and time, whether intensely personal or more abstract – there is much more scope to explore, including the narrative possibilities specific to the ceramic medium. I note that this itself covers a wide spectrum of clay types, form-making and firing tools, and that fluid, inscribable and impressible clay is not a slightly different version of paper or canvas that is ‘set’ in a kiln. And I would suggest this is more congruent with the practices of many contemporary makers who use different materials and combine ceramics with other media, for the qualities, associations, allusions and stories possible.

Thank you.

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Boscacci, L 2008, Hold, Trace, Listen. Artist lecture at the forum Ceramics and Narrative, in association with the exhibition Australian Ceramic Stories, April 12, 2008. Dubbo Regional Gallery, Western Plains Cultural Centre, Dubbo, Australia. [text only]

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pdf of full presentation on request

more on Australian Ceramic Stories, 2008 ☛ Jones, Julia 2008, ‘Ceramics in the broader visual arts’,  Australian Art Review, August/October: 38-41