From the outset of his tenure as CEO of Adelaide’s JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design in 2010, Brian Parkes had wanted to develop a series of media-specific exhibitions; each show in the series would be an authentic and scholarly exploration of a particular material. The four exhibitions would need to be both curatorially demanding and appeal to a broad audience, include a prudent mix of objects, perhaps with some tangential or poetic aspects and, importantly, tour nationally.
The material on Parkes’s mind for the first show was wood and the various ways it has been used in creative practice. Parkes explains,
The strategy for choosing wood was to shift the paradigm a little. JamFactory, with its craft-based workshops, had a particular set of histories and relationships and I felt that the material disciplines were a meeting place for a broader set of practices—thus the idea of art, design, architecture.
The idea gradually matured and eventually came to fruition in Wood: art design architecture, a show that toured Australia in 2013 and 2014—I saw it at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Art Museum, Brisbane in 2014.
Combining the three components in a single exhibition allowed for a more catholic exploration of JamFactory’s relationship to wood, as well as our daily interactions with it. An early question for Parkes was how you might, through a series of exhibitions, create a dialogue between people from divergent disciplines that opened up opportunities for his organisation? The idea of involving designers, architects and visual artists was that there might be longer-term benefits in these expanded networks, whether it was manufacturing components for designers, undertaking interior fitouts with architects or producing components for the work of artists. ‘I felt there needed to be a better relationship with the organisation commercially and strategically and that we could use the exhibition program as the hub to set that up’, said Parkes. Wood made sense as it is the obvious one to engage with design and architecture—buildings, interiors fittings, furniture and house-hold items.
The result of a natural collaboration between JamFactory and Adelaide’s Botanic Gardens, Wood, co-curated by Parkes and Elliat Rich, presented a cross-section of current creative practices, modes of thinking and relationships to this fundamental material, combining furniture and functional objects, sculptural works (including wood carving by Indigenous artists and a multi-media work), interiors and architecture.
Based on the success of Wood, the second show in the series, Glass: art design architecture, co-curated by Parkes and Margaret Hancock Davis, opened at JamFactory in early 2015 and was shown at QUT Art Museum from late 2016 to March 2017, and then went to Cairns Art Gallery and Caboolture Regional Art Gallery, before continuing its fifteen-venue national tour which ends early 2018.
Glass, an intriguing medium in the history of civilisation, was first produced as a kind of glaze from 3,500 BCE in Mesopotamia, and then, from 1500 BCE, rudimentary glass containers were formed by sand casting. Glass blowing, as we know it today, emerged in the first century BCE. Since these times this seductive material has been used in increasingly sophisticated ways, including in cutting edge technologies such as fibre optics and interactive touch screens. The projects and objects in Glass range from Janet Laurence’s mixed-media installation Natural History (Landscape and Residues Series) (2008) to Architectus’s naturally ventilated 130 metre-high atrium at 1 Bligh Street, Sydney; Mel Douglas’s blown and cold-worked vessels; Richard Whiteley’s cast glass sculpture and Tom Moore’s hot joined and blown fabrications.
Given the primacy of wood—it has been inseparably connected to the human condition for 40 to 60,000 years—and noting that glass has been made by humans for around 6,000 years and steel for nearly 4,000, I wondered out loud to Brian Parkes if the order of the four shows had some basis on historical use. He said no. Although he thought my chronology idea was not altogether out of the question.
Concrete, the material selected for the final show in the series, is probably an anomaly here as it may well predate steel by a few centuries (certainly the modern low carbon version). The comparative chronology, it is worth noting, of the uses of glass, steel and concrete within multiple cultures and civilisations, is complex and debated. But wood’s position remains undisputed—from humankind’s earliest manipulation of sticks for warmth, shelter and gathering food, the increasingly enlightened ways that we have used and understood wood reflect the history of civilisation itself. Wood is also one of our few truly renewable materials and is currently experiencing something of a resurgence in architecture.
The objects in each show reflect the use of the particular media from three perspectives: place and identity, sustainability and ecology, craftsmanship and technology. Plainly, there is plenty to think about and grapple with in this four-exhibition series.
Originally Parkes proposed a series based on JamFactory’s four media-specific workshops—wood, glass, metal and clay—and, following the Wood show, they were still on that trajectory. Once Glass was up and running, however, they began to think a little differently about the remaining two shows. By then other material-based shows and publications had arrived on the scene and a ‘metal’ show increasingly sat uneasily in the mix: Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology had presented a gold exhibition, there had been several silver shows and one on aluminium. Prompted by the series’ epithet of ‘art design architecture’, they settled on steel, a fundamental material in terms of modern building. Steel felt like a more interesting Australian story too, as well as linking to a history of the JamFactory metal design studio’s fabrication work, including the current studio manager Christian Hall’s production work primarily based on stainless steel.
Like wood and glass, steel—an alloy of iron and carbon—is rich in human history and dates back to 1800 BCE. First forged in hand-made furnaces, steel production and its subsequent use expanded in the 17th century with the technical innovations of blister and crucible steel and, by the 19th century, the Bessemer and Siemens-Martin processes heralded in the modern era of mass mild-steel production. Today, its affordability and durability have made it one of the most ubiquitous materials in the world inhabiting our domestic spaces and our built environments. Steel ranges from raw and functional to lustrous and decorative, blurring the boundary between utilitarian and precious. The objects and projects selected for Steel by curator Hancock Davis, range from Alison Jackson’s Wobble Pots (2015); furniture from Brodie Neill, Korban/Flaubert and Seaton Mckeon; the small objects and jewellery of Mari Funaki, Sabine Pagan and Maureen Faye-Chauhan; to Cox Architecture’s Adelaide Oval redevelopment; Tony Hobba’s Third Wave Kiosk (2012); and the sculpture of Matthew Harding, Gunybi Ganambarr and Kensuke Todo.
For the final in the series, noting that ‘clay’ had also been covered in previous projects, Hancock Davis proposed ‘concrete’ as a viable alternative. While we do not yet know details or a list of artists for the Concrete exhibition, based on the three previous shows it promises a diverse group of objects and a nucleus of designers, sculptors and architects, but, Parkes notes, with some surprises. Given the broad use of concrete in the built environment and in sculpture, there is a rich source to explore. Concrete’s great advantages as a building material are its strength and long service life but, until recently, it has not often been extolled for its beauty. There are historical exceptions of course going back to Roman times, with the Pantheon—still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome—being a wonderful example.
While there have been recent projects, such as the elegant mixed-media exhibition with twenty-two Australian and international artists, titled Concrete (a solid state, a construction material, something which is known or true), presented as part of the ‘Australia in Turkey 2015’ program, and the modest Material: Concrete at Brisbane’s Artisan, the JamFactory version will almost certainly be different from these in terms of philosophy, focus and intensity. Without giving the show away, Parkes mentions two examples of recent extraordinary concrete structures: Smart Design Studio’s Indigo Slam home for Judith Neilson in Sydney and Glenn Murcutt’s Australian Islamic Centre near Melbourne. (I saw evidence of the latter at a low-key National Gallery of Victoria exhibition in early 2017.)
Of the three accompanying exhibition publications so far, the most assured is the one for Steel. All of them contain a good range of new writing and are collectable and useful as references, even if the format—thickish landscape—can be a little tricky to handle easily. Essayists such as Dr Steffen Lehmann, Dr Linda Marie Walker, Robert Cook, Ewan McEoin, Penny Craswell and Kate Rhodes have contributed to date. All run to about 250 to 260 pages and all are beautifully designed by Stephen Goddard, who also designed the demanding exhibition fitouts for touring.
The JamFactory is perfectly positioned to present this ambitious series of shows. Established by the Dunstan state government over forty years ago, with considerable ongoing support and funding from every South Australian state government since, it has become the most potent and authoritative of all the Australian craft and design organisations, as well as a leader in a broader field of medium-sized arts organisations in Australia. The JamFactory—in addition to its training workshops, demonstrations, galleries, touring program and retail spaces—also leads with other ambitious projects and exhibitions. These include the biennial Australian Furniture Design Award, ‘Drink Dine Design emerging designer award’, JamFactory’s satellite gallery, retail and studio site at the historic Seppeltsfield Estate in the Barossa Valley, a big, new retail venue in the North Terrace cultural precinct, and the design and production of a commercial furniture range in partnership with local manufacturers—all part of the strategy to create an ecosystem for craft and design practice and industry development much in keeping with Don Dunstan’s original vision for the company.
Over the last four decades several other organisations have held a comparable mantle: Craft Australia (1971–2011) for example, was a leader for the best part of forty years, until it was defunded by the Australia Council, and Sydney’s Australian Design Centre (ADC, formerly Object), certainly had this ambition and led for a while but then seemed to head in less relevant directions. (Their relatively frequent rebranding—five name changes over two decades—cannot have helped.) For some time the network of Australian Craft and Design Centres (ACDC) has had potency acting as a secretariat to collaboratively initiate projects with and through its state-based constituents. Linking with ACDC and under the auspices of the National Association for the Visual Arts, the National Craft Initiative (2013–2016), a palliative set up via the Australia Council in the wake of Craft Australia to, ironically, ‘strengthen the craft and design sector’, has now run its course, but not before delivering two useful documents: Mapping the Australian Craft Sector (2013) and Agenda for Australian Craft and Design (2016). Both freely available online.
The latter publication contains a number of detailed recommendations leading with this one: ‘Develop new platforms and models for national and international engagement, exchange and export’. For this to happen it suggests a number of ambitious actions including, and I paraphrase: Establish a hybrid government and industry managed body to support exhibitions, exchanges, event participation with multiple year engagement. It goes on to recommend a regular national craft and design festival and international conference and fair to showcase Australian makers and craft and design organisations.
Over several decades we have seen many fine craft, design and fashion-based shows and events at state, national and regional galleries, including the Powerhouse Museum, and the National Gallery of Victoria’s ‘Parallels: International Craft and Design Conference’ (2015), as well as some admirable touring exhibitions from the ACDC sector, or exhibitions that include craft and design or blur the mix, such as the Queensland Art Gallery’s Asia Pacific Triennial series, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art, The National: New Australian Art and the ‘Sydney Contemporary’ art fair. Nevertheless, it has been almost twenty years since the last broad craft-design-focused triennials: the Perth International Crafts Triennial (1989) organised by Robert Bell at the Art Gallery of Western Australia which morphed into the Australian International Crafts Triennial in 1992 and 1998.
What the Australian craft-design world needs now is an impressive, recurrent show, a major biennial or triennial—with associated publications, seminars and satellite shows, perhaps at commercial and non-commercial galleries—in part laying claim to similar curatorial strategies as those of the visual art biennials. Multi-year engagement and funding support will be critical. If you look at some very successful art biennales, here and elsewhere, with their adventurous temporary spaces, a permanent gallery for a big craft and design show may not be a requirement, but a major hosting organisation will be.
While the JamFactory’s ‘art design architecture’ series of four media-specific exhibitions—Wood (2013), Glass (2015), Steel (2017) and Concrete (2019)—are not biennales in size or breadth, with a total of one hundred plus exhibitors and an audience of more than half a million over the series’ life of eight or nine years, we can see they are significant in the Australian craft and design world. Check them out if you can.
Catherine Truman, Some uncertain facts: spiral, cone, funnel, 2012. From WOOD: art design architecture. Paper, card, wax, clay, plastic conduit, shell, cotton cloth, hand-carved English lime wood, 15 x 70 x 90cm. Photograph Grant Hancock.
Installation view, WOOD: art design architecture exhibition, JamFactory 2013. Photograph Tom Roschi.
Woods Bagot, SAHMRI, 2013. From GLASS: art design architecture. Photograph Peter Clarke.
Installation view STEEL: art design architecture, JamFactory, 2017. Photograph Grant Hancock.
STEEL: art design architecture opened at JamFactory, Adelaide, in early 2017 and can be seen at Redcliffe City Art Gallery, 11 August to 12 September 2017; Cairns Art Gallery, 22 September to 19 November 2017; Hervey Bay Regional Art Gallery, 8 December 2017 to 4 February 2018 and QUT Art Museum, Brisbane, 11 April to 28 May 2018, after which it continues a national tour until mid-2020. The fourth and final exhibition in the series, CONCRETE: art design architecture, will open at JamFactory early in 2019 and then tour nationally until 2022, taking in several Queensland venues including the QUT Art Museum.
Ian Were is an independent arts writer and editor based in Brisbane.