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Looking at Susan Ostling's recent exhibition at Savode at Saint John's, it is immediately clear that her ceramic pieces are not 'functional ware' as the term is used in craft discourse. Ostling cuts across the quibbling between categories of art and craft. Clay is her medium and she uses it to say what she wants. Her tiles become her canvas while her bowls refer to and speak beyond their function as containers.
Lusciously glazed bowls and platters tell of their function as containers of food by having three dimensional shell and plant forms fused into their bellies. The shell forms are arranged in rows, as are the tiles hung along the gallery wall and the Aboriginal artifacts drawn onto sets of tiles on the floor. The serial arrangement of objects speak not only of collections but also of the collectors and arrangers of objects. Two vastly different kinds of collection are referred to: firstly the traditional Aboriginal way of collecting food to be eaten, and secondly collection for the purposes of classification and preservation. The latter is aligned with the white European settlers of Australia, who brought with them a scientific culture which seeks to define itself through the collection and display of material objects.
References to these two cultures , the Aboriginal and the Euro-centred, English- speaking, Australian culture pervade Ostling's exhibition at Savode. The culture of the first Australians is aligned with a more fluid and transient use of objects compared with the colonising culture which strives towards self-perpetuation through notions of permanence and preservation, notions it embodies in a set of frozen historical referents known as specimens. The fluidity of the Aboriginal way of living and being, referred to by watery blue and green glazes, ample hand-built forms and rough brushwork is ossified into the hard forms of fired clay, no longer able to be changed, only shattered.
Three round bowls hang along one of the walls of the receding space of what was the church's, now the gallery's, side aisle. They appear like large blue or green cyclops eyes, each with a white shell-shaped pupil at its centre. Highly poetic objects, they watch vigilantly over tile grids arranged on the floor, and mutely ooze their watery referents across the space to sets of small tiles hung in sequential groups on the opposite wall.
Although these tiles echo the clear blues and greens of the bowls opposite, their square format speaks a different message. On closer inspection this message is elaborated in small drawings and words or sentences which refer to the classification of objects. Ostling quotes the words of Sydney Parkinson, artist on the First Fleet, who with "passionate objectivity" did his utmost to "minute everything, trust nothing to memory". This obsession with scientific collection and classification of the natural world could be seen as characteristic of the way English-speaking Australia has attempted to define, contain and make sense of a seemingly infinite and indescribable country and its inhabitants.
Ostling's work in Materielle Kultur also indicates that attitudes and ways of structuring and defining indigenous Australia have not changed a great deal from the precedents set by the First Fleeters. Four large floor pieces made up of square tiles laid together to form checkered grids have drawings of Aboriginal artifacts loosely sketched onto them. Each set of artifacts is accompanied by hand written quotes from a museum publication printed in the 1970s. The piece entitled Interesting examples of the artistic bent, displays a series of drawings of decorated boomerangs, and reads 'these boomerangs show a pleasing combination of geometric and naturalistic motifs". Appropriated into a paternalistic and
scientific grid, Aboriginal artifacts become specimens and collections, illustrations of a way of life instead of objects which serve the on-going functions of life itself.
Looking at the materials and themes used by Ostling in this exhibition, I am tempted to draw a simplistic but none-the-less satisfying analogy. The two cultures, indigenous Australian and Australian settler, have common origins represented by the fluid and dynamic elements of clay, water, air and fire. However the forms that the two cultures have taken are very different, and the intellectual grid of the colonizing culture has been used to control the more fluid culture of the indigenous people.
Having made a simple reading, I am still left wondering whether Ostling's work has been made with the intent of criticism, or more as a creative response to a set of lived observations of both cultures. That decision is perhaps one purposely left open to the biases of the individual reader of Materielle Kultur. Ostling's work in this exhibition is well conceived and poetically realised. With its combination of fluid forms and rectilinear grids, it has the effect of dissolving barriers between culturally contrived categories such as physical/conceptual, art/craft, primitive/simple and sophisticated. Ultimately, Ostling 's layering of signs and meaning, and her openness of expression conspire to cause the reader to examine his or her own perceptual grid, his or her own set of personal and cultural biases.