Articles Written / Surface and Form

Lueckenhausen, H, Essay for Surface and Form catalogue, Craftwest, May 2002.

Non-aboriginal Australians sometimes appear to have consciously adopted adolescence as a national ethos, "...for we are young and free" - adhering to a model of Australia as the displaced child and defining ourselves by the qualities we fear we lack, rather than by those we know we have.

Our Western beginnings share manifestations of colonial, frontier hardship with other new-world societies, i.e. North America. Australians are given to promoting a rich mythology of men and women pitted against the wilderness, in our terms–the 'bush' or the 'outback'. We have fashioned a mannered identity for ourselves that glosses over the reality that, the privations of earlier times notwithstanding, most of our population hugs the coastline and most non-aboriginal Australians have always lived in a few, large, urban centres. What we can confidently assert is that Australians are a very pragmatic, live-for-today, people manifesting both the positive and the negative aspects of our historical discontinuity.

The result of so many cultures, races and language groups being layered onto our primary British heritage, particularly during the second half of the twentieth century, is that our ability to produce unambiguous icons representing Australia, and what it means to be Australian, is challenged. It is difficult for us to look back to synchronised lines of tradition so we construct a picture of ourselves, not only to market Australia with, but also to really own and to believe. Our Pacific and South East Asian neighbours are still coming to terms with Australia's newly found geographic and economic identification with them. Until recently, for all the attention our European focus allowed them, they might as well have been on another planet. Exceptions include western colonisation of aspects of the visual culture of China and Japan, particularly in the nineteenth century.

After WW2, and particularly since the 1970's, Australia experienced a huge growth in crafts practice and a resurgence of the appreciation of the hand made, to the extent that fine works in ceramic, glass, wood, textiles and metal are now recognised as part of our story. In older 'continuous' cultures such as that of Japan, the gradual evolution of traditional crafts practice into modern technologies allows space for both the handmade and the machine (technology) made. Australians, sharing what may be a particularly Anglo Celtic version of setting up cultural dichotomies, tend to form competing 'tribal' alliances based on these, and a continuum of other, categories.

Architects, interior designers, industrial designers, woodworkers, craftspeople and tradespeople use timber for the production of cultural artefacts. Design and manufacture with wood, including almost every manifestation of creative endeavour imaginable, can sit everywhere but at the same time, are in danger of belonging nowhere. Dedicated crafts courses geared to an academy or university focussed middle class, which were in great demand from the 1960's on, are rapidly giving ground to those offering applied design (industrial design, interior design, graphic design etc.). Crafts bodies, including those predicated on supporting crafts practice and calling on public funds from the Commonwealth arts gift to do so, are rapidly reinventing themselves as quasi-design organisations. The contextualisation of this exhibition within the Designing Futures project, itself begs a clear understanding of the relationship between craft and design.

Continuing from the times of Ruskin and Morris, periodic craft revivals have reflected concurrent socio-political developments, with issues of mystery, spirituality and myth encouraging a rural, nature-based iconography. Designers and artists have responded by pitting rationality against luddism, challenging craft to identify a genuinely modern raison d'être. In the contemporary imagination, craft and design often exemplify the rift between tradition and modernity, each charging the other with elitism, each reserving for itself the cloak of social responsibility. The 'sub-tribes' of the creative professions divide against themselves even more starkly than the 'core-tribes' of art, technology and science.

Concepts of design frequently include two distinct definitions of the word. One is of design as object, with a unique aesthetic, identifiable from alternative 'looks'. The second is of design as a method, of a process-oriented technique of problem solving. Identify the problem, research the field, develop a range of preferred solutions and present those solutions in a form intelligible to the client. This presents as a kind of universal, linear logic. The dialogue within which design is defined includes the question of whether it is more appropriately aligned with the arts, as it traditionally has been in Australian universities, or with the sciences and technology, as has been a more recent tendency.

In the information/communication sense, Australia is no longer as isolated as it was, yet the tyranny of distance still manifests in the difficulty of access to markets. Working in a country that historically has a resource-based economy and a very small industrial base, designers and craft makers work within a culture of opportunism, of simply doing that which is possible. Pragmatic reaction is often cited as one of the manifestations of the anarchic, can-do, Australian stereotype and also provides a clue as to what makes various types of craftspeople tick.

How have Australian woodcrafts people responded to the circumstances in which they have found themselves? It is possible to see the motivation for various models of practice in terms of the responses individuals have made to the professional and physical environment. These include responses to opportunity, and conversely, responses to the lack of opportunity. They are not exclusive and they frequently overlap.

To a large extent this intuitive/romantic response can be located within the 'bush romance' that we have been developing since the first fleet. It is related to the 'national brand' of the 'outback' stoic which we have created. This is our most primal response, shared equally by craftspeople and their clients; it taps into an ancient, mythological value-system in which trees are one of the archetypes of creation. In this context wood, its smell, texture, colours and its patterns is as often the genesis for creating work as is function or pure design. The material leads rather than follows.

Early settlement techniques and attitudes, where much was made out of little, have been passed down to us and are reinforced with enduring, puritan values. For example, objects and furniture made from branches utilised largely in their natural forms evolved into a mannered style that actually far outlasted any lack of alternatives. The romantic adherence to this type of iconography encouraged the development of industrial processes which allowed the 'natural' forms to be reproduced in foundries, speaking of nostalgia for a remembered (imagined?) bush youth, presenting it in an urban, 'high art', context. Today, in a country with a bush mythology but in terms of its area, precious little actual bush, ecology-friendly design practice could be interpreted as a contemporary form of early ‘making do’.

It is in the work resulting from this response that the social upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s, involving a move to the left in popular politics, with a redefinition of the values of work, domestic life and national endeavour, can be most clearly seen. For many craftspeople, this revival of the ideals of William Morris' Nineteenth Century Arts and Crafts Movement reaffirmed the ideal that beauty results from an accord between the constructed object and the forms in nature. Today, the ‘opting out’ of 60/70's counterculture movement is likely to be replaced by attempts to ‘opt in’ to economic and market opportunity.

Jarra in Western Australia, and Huon Pine in Tasmania, are as close to being worshipped in their respective states of origin as it is possible for a material to be. The ancient archetypes of tree-spirits and the tree of life are reaffirmed in a modern context. Material focus has its dangers, makers can be confronted with changeable fashion in national and international markets, for example, 'light' is periodically in and 'dark' is periodically out. This may seem fickle but is none the less a lesson to would be marketer/exporters who view material with a parochial religiosity rather than with agnostic reserve.

Making a virtue of necessity enables material to be deified in parallel to the status of the 'hero' artefact to be fashioned from it. The modern art gallery and museum can be traced to the development of the private collections of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Cabinets of Curiosities (known in German as Wunderkammer). In a relatively short time, the collection category of 'Naturalia' which encompassed specimens of rare plant and other natural forms was joined by the category 'Artefacta' where material and human skill were linked to create the extraordinary. Both the material and the object fashioned from it were enshrined. A similar commitment is promoted by a sector of crafts practitioners today. Conservation and preservation are linked to economic arguments for value adding through design in the low usage and high yield methods of the small woodworker. The promotion of the unique object fashioned from rare material and housed in the gallery-sanctuary closes the circle.

Certain manifestations of logging, and most manifestations of wood chipping involve the translation of the precious natural into ubiquitous and sometimes easily expendable product, diminishing the extraordinary to the ordinary.
Creating niche objects via design and skill can offer a qualitative alternative to getting the most product out of the material. One object with integrity and provenance may be more worthy than a greater number of products challenged by ubiquity and a short life cycle. Designers today understand the principles of dematerialisation-making do with less. Craftspeople can also do their bit with righteous re-materialisation–making sure that what is made is both worthy and long lasting. Conversely, craftspeople making this response need to deal with the criticism that may come in response to it, often from the design fraternity, of creating a cult for over-romanticising and worshipping material.

Crafts practice has as many (and possibly stronger) roots in the country and urban conservatism of a solid trades base as it does in periodic social experiments and movements to the left. In fact, one of the most often repeated criticisms of contemporary crafts practice, particularly to this approach to furniture making and woodwork, is that it clings to responses that are inappropriate to contemporary culture. Craft and woodwork of this kind, it is held, represents a romantic attachment to a lost past and therefore a refusal (or an inability) to deal with the real world of today.

Whether or not all the icons and markers of our contemporary culture need to be as high-tech as this criticism suggests is questionable, especially in the face of the dogged success of an attitude to making which inherits traditional materials and technologies with a practical rather than a spiritual commitment. In this pragmatic response, wood, while being used as the primary material, and having its physical attributes exploited, both in regard to design, local availability and market acceptance, is not used exclusively, nor with excessive reverence. Other materials are combined with it as appropriate and it is (mostly) a means rather than an end in itself. Neither are traditional production methods sacrosanct ¬–within the practical limitations of small workshops that have to contend with their geographic location, and their social and economic conditions.
This is a response recognising that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. It calls for almost as many models of doing things as there are workshops doing them, which need to be matched to specific niches. These niches have been filled more often through a trial and error or developmental process than through an informed overview or a business case based on market research and economic planning. It is in this respect, a micro example of the Australian macro economic model.

This response, born of the desire of many makers to be able to rationalise their work within a dialogue understood by art schools, universities and most particularly the art gallery circuit offers both opportunity and threat. The desire to see the work as three-dimensional pictures, as narrative having abstract meaning, has led to a number of furniture and woodwork responses which elevate the status of craftwork to that of symbolic object. This response values exclusivity and uniqueness and is aimed at obtaining the status and financial return, thought to be found in that sector.

Craft theorists were later to declare that by not developing their own vocabulary, and importantly, their own unique value criteria, craftspeople had set themselves up for being critiqued within an essentially unsympathetic set of values. The fine arts sector has to contend with its own conversation between skilled object making and deskilled conceptualism. Witness the gulf between the reappearance of highly materialised works of exceptional skill in the National Sculpture Prize and Exhibition 2001, mounted at the National Gallery of Australia and the conceptual installation and performance shown in the 2002 Sydney Biennale. The catch 22 for crafts practice in the 1990s was that the institutions of the fine arts–the galleries, agents, critics etc. leaned towards the presentation of the 'avant-garde' within which craft/skill was consciously played down. Technique, it was argued, devalued concept and reduced art to artisanry.

Craft as an ideal of work and skill now seems to be coming full circle but whether it mitigates against the 'poor man's art' status of much craft remains to be seen. One needs to remember that some of the hurdles between craft and art may be more usefully considered as manifestations of the core rules of marketing than of any ill intent. Craft practitioners who wish to engage with a system predicated on the maintenance of minority elites need to understand that the system, in order to maintain its value, needs to keep more people out than it lets in. A small number of designer/makers/craftspeople has been able to make a critical success of exploring furniture and woodwork as cultural artefact, despite the waning incidence of gallery directors representing crafts. The price point of craftwork only rarely satisfies the returns expected by major galleries for significant and continuing representation.

Nonetheless, it is interesting that at this stage, after all these years of the essentially unfruitful art and craft debate having dragged on, the word craft is regaining its currency across the tribal divide.

The increasing recognition of design disciplines in contemporary cultures and economies, including educational institutions, has aided in the development of what is now a sub-culture of 'after modern' thinkers which has developed highly pronounced values, affectations and personal and public icons. The disdain of some designers for arts, and most for crafts, is palpable, yet it is the aesthetic much more than the nature of the response that differs. With its roots in modernism and championed by a select but powerful group of supporters of international high-chic, this technology-specific response is often made by architects and designers, or artists and craftspeople working in collaboration with them. Sometimes aspiring designers, lacking access to the industrial infrastructure required for the production of their work and, equally importantly, without the promotional machines that large production runs and therefore large budgets can put into the field, have used the gallery circuit to launch their ideas.

Designers are now being granted the super-star status aspired to in the gallery circuit and their products are making an impact on public collections. Sydney gave the world Marc Newson and now the world has lent Melbourne Philipe Stark, both world class designers who share icon status with their work. Design has become art.

Has craft become design? Certainly a modernist aesthetic with diminished decoration and even quasi-industrial overtones is currently dominant in the work of many craftspeople. New materials and combinations are being explored as are broader categories of process and making. Even so, craftspeople and crafts organisations in Australia have not as yet succeeded in clearly staking out their territory. Design has been offered to craft as an aesthetic, a problem solving and production methodology, a system of marketing, of selling, of contemporary identification and a pathway to social and economic relevance. What makes craft unique in that context, and importantly, why governments should support its production and dissemination any more than it should do the same for domestic appliances or injection moulded dinnerware, for example, remains to be adequately articulated. A further dichotomy between an industry which can and should support itself and a social activity, or service, which has a claim on the public purse has also yet to be reconciled.

In fact, we need descriptors of material culture capable of sustaining a multiplicity of meanings that may overlap and are capable of encompassing all, or most, of our built and manufactured environment. Within this broader picture we can then credit a range of historical and contemporary manifestations of crafts-and fit the lot into the continuum from art to science. I would suggest that a generous, catholic construct of material culture of this kind, while complex, promises the capacity to reintroduce mystery and wonder to the continuum from material through form to function. Our tribes can, as they do in other cultures, find common ground. The Australasian exhibitors represented here are contributing to the evolution of an ethos in place of having inherited one. They join the international exhibitors in demonstrating how and why the development of our material culture depends as much on visionaries as journeymen.