THE PLATTER HAS ASSUMED A CENTRAL POSITION fn the work of Canberra based artist Sarit Cohen. Her works are a vehicle for both aesthetic and conceptual investigation and they have been selected for inclusion in the 2008 International Triennial of Silicate Art, Kecskemet, Hungary. Cohen used two distinct installation strategies in the exhibition Placement at Craft ACT Craft and Design Centre, May-June 2008. Traditional table settings are invoked by horizontal display while another group of wall mounted pieces suggested a different and quite complex set of references. These unequivocal placements relate to Cohen's artistic concerns, which derive from her own position within a social and cultural context. From childhood Cohen recognised the rituals of hospitality as a focus for family and religious life.
The offering of food marks the diurnal rhythms of daily meals as well as the annual cycles of festivals and significant dates in the Jewish calendar. In accordance with tradition, mothers care for their children, show affection for loved ones and honour their guests by preparing and offering food. The personal milestones littering the path of life are likewise celebrated with the sharing of food. Cohen uses the platter shown in a horizontal orientation at table height as a symbol of these practices. It is most significant that they are universal in nature, transcending religious and cultural difference. Hospitality the world around is about sharing, showing mutual respect and consideration, developing personal bonds and overcoming differences.
Cohen is mindful of the geophysical qualities of ceramic media and her recent work signifies an inherent relationship to place. Use of strong earthy colour is evocative of Australia's iron rich soils, where Cohen has lived for the past 25 years. But it is also inspired by memories of the parched basaltic landscapes of southern Israel where the artist was born and grew up. Strong tonal contrast between the clay body and slips suggests the harsh quality of the light present in these arid places. It creates stark contrasts; juxtaposes deep shadows with high keys, while mid tones are bleached out. Heat and sunlight dry and shrivel soft organic matter until all that remains is unyielding. Inhabitants of these regions are tough, resourceful and enduring. In the desert, life and death seem to stand closer together. In this unforgiving environment the obligations of hospitality take on an urgency informed by survival imperatives.
The histories of these ancient lands reach back into antiquity and beyond. Cohen's choice of ceramic media recalls the use of clay tablets in Mesopotamia and the subsequent evolution of alphabetic writing from Phoenician script. It is a precursor of Modern Hebrew, which Cohen incorporates into her work to honour her first language and to acknowledge her Jewish heritage. While the titles confirm the meanings for English speaking audiences, the script none the less exerts a compelling fascination. Application of oxides and clay slip recalls rock art and the ritual body and ground painting practiced by Australia's Indigenous people. In some areas these activities have been practiced continuously for thousands of years. Stories recount the origins of rituals, the exploits of generation after generation, sea level rises and falls, age upon age. Western history, by definition does not recognise such accounts as they are not carried and legitimated by the written word.
Cohen has been working with text for some years. Hybrid Life, her 2002 solo exhibition was an example in which three dimensional forms were abstracted from the shapes of letters. Completed after a residency in Denmark, the show featured a series of hand built blade like forms. The black and white pieces addressed essential visual principles; repetition, opposition and balance. But they also suggested social interpretations relating to the political and historical conflicts of the Middle East. During her Danish residency Cohen began adding shredded paper to her clay, extending the porcelain body to alter its qualities to suit her hand building requirements.
The mixture has a firmer handle and is more flexible to work. When fired, it's strong, light in weight and has a rough papery texture. Using techniques including pouring, rolling and casting, Cohen characteristically creates strong and distinctive shapes. She majored in ceramics at the Canberra School of Art, but also completed complementary studies in printmaking and has developed a keen graphic sensibility. It informs her treatment of surfaces, which provide another avenue for expression. Different concepts are usually explored in this aspect of her work. Separate messages carried by shape and surface converge to paint a more comprehensive picture. The works are in some ways deceptively simple and refined in aesthetic yet they convey an intriguing raft of meanings.
A proclivity for incorporating pattern might perhaps be attributed to Cohen's Indian and Turkish heritage. Islamic design has influenced the decorative traditions of both peoples, which are lavish and redolent with cultural values and signification. The decorated Indian hand appeared as a motif in Given Words shown at Canberra's Gallery 289 in 2002. In Surface, a group exhibition shown at the Australian National Capital Artists (ANCA) Gallery Canberra, a central motif representing women became a vessel within a vessel. The work explored sexual division of labour and social segregation in Jewish society. In this 2007 exhibition, the technique of stencilling also became a focus. It is noteworthy that the repeated patterns of circles the artist continues to use are not applied through the stencil, but are instead removed. Slips and oxides are washed away to leave the clay body exposed. Cohen respects her surface, honouring the mutual relationship of positive and negative space in the manner of a printmaker.
Cohen is also part of a movement of artists that use materiality to invest their works with inherent meanings. The paper-like porcelain clay is a privileged part of Cohen's imagery and is allowed to make its own assertions. A principle carrier of information since its development, paper's importance has increased with the advent of printing. As a material, paper has a certain authority and we rely on it to carry our history, our words and thoughts. From foundational constitutional documents to the most sublime and inspiring poetry and the everyday banality of a shopping list, words are an integral part of our existence. Iconic words such as: peace, love, pain and trust become Cohen's motifs, both in visual terms, but also by their meanings.
Silent declarations, the words are given privileged status as constituent elements of her compositions by the space surrounding and delineating the applied designs. It is no surprise that religious texts, illuminated manuscripts and calendars have been Cohen's visual reference materials. The border is a visual device derived from these sources, but it is associated in a broader context with concepts such as individuality, sovereignty, geographic and political division. Observation reveals that Cohen's borders entertain incursions. Textual and patterned elements intrude on the spaces, not only outwards from the central medallion, but also from the outside edges. It is as if the curling of a page allows a glimpse of the converse view. It is Cohen's assertion that while borders are contested spaces, they are also junctures where opposing views are expressed, where debate and exchanges occur. While there is a tendency to focus on conflicts in these zones, they are privileged places that also present opportunities.
Between ideologies, cultures and regimes, mutual respect is posited, points of difference can be clarified and negotiated, compromise can be explored and conciliation is possible. Cohen's work has always reflected on these themes. Conflict and debate are necessary not only in the global arena, but within communities and they occur everyday among friends and enemies, strangers and family over the breaking of bread. The microcosm of the dinner table is an allegory for community and international relations. Cohen's family always thrashed out differences, agreed to disagree and endlessly discussed life's dramas and vicissitudes over the dinner table. It is a tradition that she greatly values. She contends that mealtime hospitality provides a climate of mutual respect in which the airing of grievances can be accommodated. Dialogue is the basis for mediation and for growing mutual understanding and acceptance.
Cohen's emblematic words hover, framed within their borders, like lingering fragments of that conversation. The words and the platters themselves are given a different presence and meaning by presentation in the vertical plane. In her wall installation they gain authority and seek interpretation with reference to other conventions. Wall mounted ceramics with mnemonic rather than practical function include commemorative and souvenir plates. But these most strongly infer a personal sphere of experience. As wall pieces, Cohen's platters are publicly declarative and operate in a manner comparable to plaques. They communicate via text, but plaques are strategically placed so as to infer a specific relationship to place. Cohen's installation is theatre, which is enacted in the gallery. The viewing audience is challenged to interact with and respond to the staged and choreographed arrangement.
Wall mounting and a general adherence to a four sided shape intimates a relationship to painting and by implication, to its heroic status. Like icons Cohen's platters rely on formal composition that inspires a sense of order. Icon painters idealise their subjects, eschewing a "realistic" representation, so as to emphasise non-material values. Cohen is similarly concerned with spiritual concepts. These are enshrined in her chosen words and celebrated with decorative and symbolic elements such as the arch and the circle. Shadows indicating a directional light source are avoided in icon painting to create the impression that the works and the depicted saints are illuminated from within. This internal light is the divine spirit made visible and conveys the idea that the subject is sacred. The porcelain shines through Cohen's application of strong rich colour to similar effect. Like votive paintings and offerings Cohen's platters petition for open and mutual dialogue. These are works that overflow with hope and imagine a more positive, co-operative future.
Ann McMahon is an Honours graduate of the Australia National University School of Art and holds post-graduate qualifications in Cultural Heritage Management from the University of Canberra. She is employed as Public Art Project Officer with artsACT and holds honorary positions as President of the Capital Arts Patrons Organisation (CAPO) and on the Canberra Institute of Technology Centre for Creative Industries Advisory Committee. All works are handbuilt from porcelain with oxides. Photos by Derek Ross.
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|Title Annotation:||2008 International Triennial of Silicate Art exhibition|
|Publication:||Ceramics Art & Perception|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2009|
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