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The potential for redefinition: a review of Clay Economies.

IN AUGUST 2008 TWO EXHIBITIONS OF CERAMICS, each with a concurrent publication, opened at nearly opposite ends of New Zealand's North Island. One was Raising Boys at the Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery, Napier, curated by Lucy Hammonds. The other, at Objectspace in Auckland, was Clay Economies, curated by Richard Fahey.

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The coincidence of Clay Economies and Raising Boys was not so much that they were both about ceramics, but that in both cases the subject matter was deployed in the service of broader agendas. Raising Boys explored via a 'particular discussion of five artists' the idea of mentoring relationships, of community and connection in making, as structures for learning and development and the Raising Boys publication, Upstarts, (1) discusses among other things the crisis in clay education. (2) In conjunction with the exhibition the Museum organised Volume, a craft/object symposium (3) which traversed more general 'state of craft' issues including the cause and effect of the demise of tertiary craft education in New Zealand. (4)

In Clay Economies, the exhibition eschewed discussion of studio ceramics through the work of individual makers and instead explored the relationship between ceramic consumption and culture, via an installation of clay objects which varied greatly in provenance, value and use. Although the contemporaneous publication bears the same name, it was not a catalogue of the show but a short anthology of critical writing contributed to and edited by Fahey, with Objectspace director Philip Clarke as associate editor. (5)

Objectspace is a publicly funded organisation focussed on craft and design and one of its priorities is the promotion of craft discourse. Clay Economies was the third in a regular series of publications and exhibitions which aim to add to the body of significant critical writing about craft and to extend its range, by introducing new perspectives and voices.

The earlier Talking About (6) and Bespoke (7) shared a focus on handmade objects, but Bespoke dealt particularly with commercially-oriented making activities. Revealing wedding cakes, suits and prostheses as objects that exhibit familiar craft virtues such as skilled and detailed workmanship, high quality materials, longevity and authorship, opened up a discussion about the cultural and social relevance of craft and the varied systems of value in which it operates in New Zealand.

The decision to focus on ceramics in the third "text-based initiative" emerged organically, Philip Clarke recalls. Wanting to extend the discourse of Bespoke, he found himself thinking about the cheap ceramic multiples filling the windows of a Chinese shop he passed in Auckland's colourful Karangahape Road. This led to ideas about ceramic tradition, ceramic qualities, seriality and ultimately, economy: would these items be coming out of China in their 1000s, year after year, unchanged, if there was no market for them? (8)

Fahey, who has a deep and long-standing interest in contemporary New Zealand ceramics--evidenced not least by a significant personal collection--had been having similar thoughts. A Senior Lecturer in the School of Design at Unitec in Auckland, he had written about New Zealand ceramicist Peter Hawkesby for Talking About and was interested both in curating an installation-based show and in doing something which generated new writing about ceramics. As he talked with Clarke, these ideas evolved into Clay Economies. Invited to put together a critical anthology and to curate the exhibition, Fahey deliberately chose to continue the discussion begun by Bespoke in a purely ceramic context, taking the perspective of ceramics consumption rather than the more usual viewpoint of production.

Fahey's professional background is in the fine arts, but he has little interest in theoretical boundaries. "What I teach is craft--the craft of art. Craft is a set of values, like making something really well, making something that belongs to a tradition, making something that makes sense within that tradition. It exercises the visual and haptic intelligences which come with working with materials and processes for a long time." He is interested in the role of these values and intelligences in our culture; with Clay Economies, he wanted "to present an assemblage of objects which would make us think about what the future for ceramics might be", and to facilitate a body of writing which would suggest where craft might take us in the future.

So far as the exhibition was concerned, "there was a clear intention from the start to put together ceramic objects which wouldn't normally be seen together, to open up the way we understand what is meant by ceramics," says Fahey. He approached the task of selection by setting up a kind of matrix of opposites--a series of potentially overlapping axes such as one-off and multiple, high-use and purely decorative, quite rare and ubiquitous, highly-signatured and anonymous, obviously ceramic and not recognised as ceramic. In choosing objects, he aimed for the broadest range he could find of type, status, value and use, rather than making an eclectic selection.

In the end, as Fahey had hoped, his 'matrix' operated not as a system of definition but as an introduction to the potential for redefinition. Just to hint at that potential, united in the name of ceramics were Peter Lange's Ampersand, constructed of commercially-made bricks, and his slipcast and assembled Brick, Sponge, Stone and Polystyrene teapots; a stack of child-sized porcelain toilets in one corner and in the other, a flock of Vietnamese-made chickens with attendant pigs; hand-thrown studio tableware from Ross Mitchell-Anyon and imported Scandinavian designer tableware; ceramic implants and photo-ceramic mortuary plaques; slipcast tableware produced by local manufacturer Studio Ceramics and fragments of tableware from the now-defunct New Zealand icon Crown Lynn Potteries, recycled into jewellery.

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The connection to Bespoke was quite palpable. The objects, their juxtaposition, the fact that they were there at all, prompted consideration of what craft really is and what it means to us. At the same time the installation directly provoked an awareness of the concurrent hierarchies in which ceramics permeate life in New Zealand and it afforded an opportunity to appreciate as clay, certain forms which are normally rendered invisible by function. There was an emphasis on serial quantity, on assembled groups of identical or related objects, which contributed to the sense of ceramics being everywhere, doing everything, being consumed by everyone, knowingly or not.

Any exhibition of objects either draws on a collection or forms one, however temporary. Clay Economies and its visual cues of massed objects, including Simon Manchester's 'Face cup' collection and John Parker's collections of electrical insulators and Chinese Mao Tse-Tung figurines and busts, put collecting up front as a significant mode of consumption.

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This isn't news, of course; collecting operates at all sorts of levels in all kinds of economies. Collectors don't just pay the bills. The potential of strong relationships with collectors to provide contemporary makers with ongoing, informed responses to their work, the bodies of knowledge acquired through sustained interest and study, recording and conservation--the benefit of all of this is immeasurable, culturally and creatively. Fahey himself is a passionate collector of New Zealand ceramics, an engagement which began as a chance encounter with Peter Hawkesby's Weapons series nearly 30 years ago.

"I was stunned by these objects," Fahey says. "They were like nothing I'd ever seen before. It was as though my blood had stopped, and begun flowing the other way."

Could anyone, maker or collector, hope for more than that? Yet Auckland Museum recently separated curators from their collections; it has now also lost its Curator of Applied Arts and whether it plans to appoint a replacement is not known at this stage. Discussions at the Volume symposium indicated either a hiatus or a lack of commitment to continuing institutional collection of contemporary work. This leaves a significant shortfall in public recording, scholarship and professional encouragement in the craft sector, towards which the tertiary education system currently delivers little. By default, private collectors, and to an extent dealers, are being left to pick up the slack--a situation which is as unviable as it is undesirable.

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Fahey's hopes for the Clay Economies publication were ambitious. He wanted to generate a significant body of new writing about ceramics, one which sat independently of the exhibition, yet shared its objective of opening up new perspectives. As with the exhibition, he hoped that by exploring the varied nature of ceramics' engagement with its consumers, he would expose the pathways along which it might be likely to continue as an area of practice.

Fahey's essay, (9) the first in the anthology, explores the ideas underlying the exhibition, the 'invisibility' of much of ceramic production and the liberating effect of exposing paradigms and histories to broader contexts. It scopes out the terrain from which he suggests a framework for the future of ceramics may emerge and presents it as a field more level and negotiable than we might currently believe.

The remaining essays deal primarily with how that terrain has so far been formed. Sociologist David Craig discusses the nature of ceramics' participation in the New Zealand domestic economy since the mid-20th century, (10) ceramics curator and writer Moyra Elliott reviews the history of New Zealand studio ceramics over a similar period, (11) while design historian Christopher Thompson looks at ceramic production and consumption within the broader political economy of New Zealand from 1840 onwards. (12)

The texts combine to produce a deeply contextualised and multi-dimensional study of the ceramic medium in New Zealand, with the benefit of much first-hand knowledge. Overall the emphasis is on the past and how it has led to the present, rather than on the present itself, and one can't help wondering about the state of clayplay, given Lloyd Jenkins' remark in Upstarts that "The number of interesting [New Zealand] potters under the age of 40 is greater than three but not significantly so." (13) The reader is left to take the next step, to draw together the various perspectives and imagine the current state of construction of the future framework and the ultimate form it may take, but the anthology is no less valuable for that. It provides a foundation on which to build--or perhaps, as Fahey suggests, a platform from which to depart: "Material production in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has seen functionality, inspiration and circuits of exchange all undergo profound alteration. The historical coordinates that previously circumscribed ceramic production may no longer be useful in anticipating future developments ..." (14)

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An opportunity, then, to clear a way into the future for ceramics and craft. The patterns of consumption which dominated the late 20th century are ready for change and as Fahey says, "a renewed focus in the 21st century on 'ethical' consumerism means traditional values associated with craft practice are being revisited, such as the manufacture of objects by skilled individuals utilising historical precedent, renewable, often local, resources and sustainable methods of production." (15) Reconnecting with humanist values and developing a "new literacy about the value of skilled labour", allows us to re-calibrate our appreciation for "the haptic intelligence" of craft in its widest sense. Where that will take us may not be certain but this is our chance to rethink things altogether, rather than merely trying to turn back the clock.

Clay Economies adds significantly to the scholarship of contemporary New Zealand ceramics, and makes a timely contribution to broader discussions in which craft is currently embroiled. Let's hope for more projects like this.

The Clay Economies publication can be obtained from Objectspace, and is also available as a free pdf download: (http://www.objectspace.org.nz/publications/viewPublication.php?documentCode=1469)

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Footnotes

(1.) Lucy Hammonds, Douglas Lloyd Jenkins and Jenny Robertson, Upstarts: Knowledge and Change in Clay. Napier, New Zealand: Hawke's Bay Museum & Art Gallery, 2007.

(2.) Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, "Clayplay", ibid. p20.

(3.) http://www.hbmag.co.nz/index.php?cid=exhibitions/symposiums

(4.) Available: http://www.hbmag.co.nz/item/volume_dlj.pdf

(5.) Clay Economies, ed. Richard Fahey. Auckland: Six Point Press, 2008.

(6.) Talking About, curated and edited by Damian Skinner, Objectspace, Auckland, 2004.

(7.) Bespoke: The Pervasiveness of the Handmade, curated and edited by Anna Miles, Objectspace, Auckland, 2006.

(8.) In discussion with the author, Auckland, 2008.

(9.) Richard Fahey, "Travels to the Muddied Provinces", op. cit., p09

(10.) David Craig, "Setting a table in the provinces: domestic economies of ceramics in New Zealand", Clay Economies, ibid, p19

(11.) Moyra Elliott, "The mutable handmade.", ibid., p41

(12.) Christopher Thompson, "A brief genealogy of government policy and ceramic production and consumption in New Zealand", ibid., p57.

(13.) Douglas Lloyd Jenkins, Clayplay, op. cit.

(14.) "Travels to the muddied provinces", op. cit., p17

(15.) Richard Fahey, email to the author, 28 December 2008.

See also, for example, Grace Cochrane, Smart Works:

Design and the Handmade. Sydney:

Powerhouse Publishing, 2007.

Article by Rigel Sorzano in discussion with curator Richard Fahey

Rigel Sorzano is an Auckland-based craft and design writer and has been a Trustee of Objectspace since 2005.
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Author:Sorzano, Rigel
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Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Mar 1, 2010
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