Earlier this year, I received an invitation for a group show. The overarching concept embodied in the show's title, A Container of Memories, is as open as it is frustrating. Sometimes the most open of briefs are the most difficult.
Apart from the issue of memory, who had been invited to exhibit and why formed part of the intellectual process that might go into the design of the piece. What I knew as the Canberra School of Art in the late 90s (now known as SOA, ANU) had evolved from the courageous notion of a national craft school, based on the atelier system, launched in the early 1980s. An antipodean Bauhaus. The founder of the Woodworkshop, George Ingham, stood down as head of workshop in 1999, to be replaced by Rodney Hayward in 2000. The show was to involve students and visiting artists who had been part of the workshop over the last ten years, but also to perhaps remark upon the aesthetic memory any maker carries after going through a course.
Because my two undergrad years at CSA were those of George leaving and then a temporary head of workshop, the aesthetic baggage I might carry is more of the English modernism that Ingham exemplified than the European sensibilities of the Krenovian tradition that Hayward has brought to the workshop. This is partly due to aesthetic preferences I'd already formed and partly about disposition - I am really more of a tinkerer; hence describing myself as an object maker - it hides a multitude of sins. Curious as to how to solve the problem in the simplest way possible. At times blind to the potential promise of decoration; unmoved by the gaudy qualities of timber. A mechanic's daughter. Rodney's legacy is for me most profoundly centred on his nuanced holistic philosophy of making not just as process but its unique intellectual space, combining head, heart and hand.
So - quite how do you respond to a brief called A Container of Memories?
Last year, the SOA Gallery hosted a retrospective of Ingham's work. And as always Ingham's miraculous virtuosity as a technician sang from the pieces and remains on display in the accompanying book. At the risk of incurring the wrath of the design gods, the sheer achieve of the thing can on occasion render a coldness to some of Ingham's pieces. A Brunellian mechanical clarity that fires one's inner engineer but doesn't quite warm the cockles of your heart. Discussing the show afterward, what I thought really interesting were the number of women who focused on two small cabinets Ingham made in 1990. A metre high by 150mm wide and deep, they were six sectioned cabinets with doors and a back panel each decorated in leather and a narrative line of decoration. Wall mounted, they sat at average eye level so the top of each was about 1800mm from the ground (I stand to be corrected on that figure). I do think George was a very gendered maker, particularly when his work is viewed against the work of his partner, Pru Shaw - but I suspect that was very conscious on Ingham's part. For whatever reasons, those two cabinets were seen as approachable and defined as such in ways that other pieces were not.
A couple of months before my daughter's tenth birthday in April, madam was in full flight about her plans to be an inventor. At ten, she still has a child's form - curiously rectilinear; three sectioned; legs, torso then head. A scale of about 2:3, the top of her head comfortable for resting one's crossed arms on; a large marionette. In full flight, her hands and feet were cutting a dancer's lines through the air, whilst her torso stayed centred and still. In that moment her form, its scale, reminded me of Ingham's two cabinets. But it also raised the issue of memory.
One of the enormous privileges of parenting is having the chance to play Jane Goodall to a gathering of children, to do fieldwork in their natural environments. And the surprising issues and thoughts that are so often raised either by their questions or observing their patterns and actions. Memory is particularly interesting, as the clarity children have about events that adults don't even note, the intense seizing onto some memory as validation of definition of self is no less certain than an adult's. Memory is the only means by which we can truly define the individual self - without our own and the interlocking memories of those around us in our social webs, we are no longer who we may believe ourselves to be. The insistence on memory as validation is just as intense with a four year old child as it is for a eight nine year woman struggling to retain her recall. But memory is not truth, nor concrete, nor permanent. Neurologically, it is a marvel of electro-chemical engineering balancing evolutionary pressures but truth as we might like to define it, has little use to a highly evolved primate as a principle of memory. How the neurons of memory are laid down, under what conditions, and the frequency and how with which it is recalled, profoundly affect each memory. The rise of numeracy and literacy within human cultures is a culturally evolved response to the limitations of human biological memory.
In that moment of my daughter reminding me of a cabinet, lay both the certainty that she wont remember that conversation - it being just a transient moment in the flow of a household - but equally that I will remember, that it will become one of my strongest memories of her as a child as her boundless enthusiasm, potential and embodiment of potential memories (the future is, after all, a memory yet to happen) were encapsulated in the moment of her twirling hands and feet and stilled torso.
So I have a basic form at this point, referencing Ingham's cabinets but I'd like to introduce an element of movement to suggest Mim's physicality as well as scaling and situating the piece in relationship to her ten year old size. Movement also adds a discourse about the cabinet as holder of aide de memoire - in most domestic settings, things, bits, pieces, objects, are grouped on display - in cabinets, on mantelpieces, bookshelves; artfully or otherwise. Things kept, held, are to whatever degree precious - placed objects in a cabinet are more precious yet, an exclamation point of notice. However, usually a display is static, and in Japanese aesthetics, an object worthy of display must be viewed only from a single perspective - honored by the right aspect. The static siting of an object is central to Ingham's two cabinets, the preciousness highlighted by the doors securing the space. Asking someone to place their preciousnesses in something that swings and spins will mean that the object will be viewed from perspectives not at all expected, and is also something of a headfuck - movement threatens the equilibrium of an object. The possibility of one's sixteenth century Korean tea bowl tumbling onto the floor and breaking is not a comfortable prospect for most people.
Initially I'd machined up some boards of blackwood, Acacia melanoxylon - the remainder of a flitch I had bought in about 1992 and carted around since. On dry fit, the grain and tonality were awful - my fine sentimental mutterings about the tree's demise on a roadside in northern NSW after a bout of careless Council spraying were not going to make it work. Urban salvaged oak I'd bought 12 or so years ago from Richard Parsons in North Richmond offered hope, but the boards were extremely deformed and twisted. An oak grown somewhere on the Cumberland Plain near Penrith promised interesting grain but equally promised all the appalling habits of evil bastard wood. The memory of its past life resides in the cambium, years of little rain in tightly lain down cell lines, the patterns of medullary rays opening up in the wet years. It machined up much better than I had expected, but to use 120mm long mitres on 9mm stock means the joints are not at all load bearing. This also meant I had to figure how to hang the cabinet without any of the joinery being weight bearing.
Physics also insisted that for the cabinet to hang true, there had to be some manner of adjustment. As the back is also solid timber, if the cabinet is set to hang when empty absolutely vertical front to back, it will tip forward with any objects in it. Using 1.2mm steel wire captured in automotive electrical grommets wedged onto the 4.76mm steel rod allows for line lengths to be finely adjusted and to hold when the cabinet is fully weighted. As the rods can also be shifted sideways, balance points can be found across the vertical from side to side if necessary. It's pretty simple, but it requires a degree of finesse, an engagement by its user to its built requirements, to remember why the adjustments may need to be made, to develop a routine of tweaking to ensure it sits true, shelf gaps are even, lines run parallel or at even angles. A memory of engagement.
Finally, the cabinet also contains the memory of movement. As it swings and spins, it is responding to the touch of a viewer, a gust of wind, the curiosity of a child, a bump from a dog or passing vacuum cleaner. It is made for a domestic space, and as such will hopefully respond to the ebbs and flows of movement and being. In its name, Swing, what it will do is given but it also ties back to the moment with my daughter. For most of us, a common metaphor of childhood would be those hours spent on a swing - exhilarated, thrilled, terrified, expectant, exultant, comforted, held. Swing offers to hold the things that perhaps matter, the aide de memoire of precious.
A Container of Memories - SOA Gallery, ANU, Canberra
July 8 -31, 2010
Cross-posted at Slow Making