You are here
Paper seems to me to be a material that links us as individuals and collectively as a culture in an all embracing way, and yet it remains largely unnoticed, unseen and invisible as matter—in our society it is the ultimate medium or vehicle, a means to an end. Even with the massive growth in screen delivered communication, it is hard to imagine a world without paper. In a recent ABC "Arts Today" program, a group of artists were asked to imagine just this—a world without paper. They said they "could not do so": it played too fundamental a role in the way they even began to think, let alone organised and expressed themselves. They would "simply make it" they said, "if it didn't exist"! Our culture is inseparably linked to paper: it is recorder and marker, it formalises, finalises, and declares proof. It is the way much of our cultural information and knowledge is circulated (literature, religion, history, law, art) and it is vehicle for many of our cultural processes: documents, letters, manuscripts, newspapers, magazines, books, maps, drawings, tickets, dockets, packaging (imagine life without egg cartons), wrapping paper.
At the Queensland Museum, the recently established Papermakers of Queensland organised a juried exhibition of their members work as well as a display of the science of paper production. The display and exhibition, coordinated by Heather Lesley and Jan Haughton, aimed primarily to focus attention on the processes, intricacies and pleasures of hand made paper. The tools of paper production consisting of domestic appliances like a blender, plastic buckets, large saucepans, sieves, stirrers created a democratic starting point to the exhibition. Then there were fibre specimens, many recognizable from one's own garden, and samples of the paper quality produced from them. There were also videos from local TV programs which took us through the steps in papermaking.
The artwork in this exhibition showed engaging possibilities in using paper, from the mouldable pulp in the form of vessels, or as sculptural substance applied to structures like frames, shelves and cupboards, to paper objects and books, to the fabulously fine silken-like shrouds. As a viewer, one was continually referring between the simple domestic acts of mixing, straining, heating, pressing, and drying, and the complex and amazing objects themselves, and back to the knowledge of one's own daily paper use. In fact it is possibly because of the way paper intersects with life at so many points that artists' are drawn to it. Paper 'slides' in that continuum between the raw and the made. It is said to be like a living creature: responsive to time, to the environment, to the elements, it reacts to contact with liquids of any sort, and can be returned to pulp to start over again. The works in this exhibition that had particular impact for me were those that made quite specific use of the points of intersection between paper and life. For instance, panels of translucent paper in Christine Ballinger's war memorial work were able, in the apparent material vulnerability of the paper, to impart a sense of fleetingness in the connections between people and people, and people and place (the war dead were from the Maroochy Shire). A link is made between the frail paper and a sense of pathos, so that both feeling and material come to represent each other and, in the process, the memorial becomes a type of memento mori. Ballinger's Print C a stack of A4 like sheets of paper is an imaginary time line of the last two thousand years from early Chinese paper, to bleached and madly familiar photocopy paper. There is an understated economy in this work, one moment it looks like any stack of paper in any office and in the next we come to read it as we might a book.
I was very interested also in Winsom Jopling's works. Shirt Off My Back is a shirt sewn from transparent paper which in turn was made from banana leaves. The fine, thin and silken materiality does carry a sense of skin and of vulnerability. The vernacular irony of the title is played out through the idea of the body-made shirt.
Still some questions hover over this exhibition. How successful I wonder can it be for any exhibition of some sixty-three works to be situated around a particular material without a thematic element to link the works? How successful can it be to try to balance such inevitable diversity in a members show? These are two issues with which I think this exhibition struggled. Another question arises as to how useful it is to place what is essentially an art exhibition in a museum of natural history, bones and technology? This I think was the very successful aspect to the exhibition. The venue brought a large audience, many possibly not usually an art viewing audience. This was an excellent exhibition to fore· ground the democratic nature of creativity. Anyone can do it, it just requires a spirit of inquiry. Finally I think this exhibition did lead to a greater appreciation of the continuum in our culture between matter and art, substance and every day life.