Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Robin Best's
New Work with Old Cultures

Article by Christine Nicholls

ROBIN BEST’S SHANGHAI EXHIBITION TITLED NEW Work with Old Cultures reveals the work of an eminent Australian ceramist whose approach is at once cerebral and physical. This is a rather un­usual combination in an artist. Most artists veer towards one or the other, emphasising either the phys­icality of their work or its underlying philosophical or intellectual stratum and subject matter. Moreover, Best insists that her work must move its audience by its beauty. Therefore she strives to create work that will make people feel, that people will experience as beautiful: “That is the secret of successful work – moving people to feel something – you’re striving to make that group of people feel something in response to the beauty.”

On display in Shanghai’s Madame Mao’s Dowry Gallery, this 2005 exhibition is composed of three dis­tinct groups of work that show an artist at the height of her powers. The first group, collectively entitled Open Cut, relates to the Australian landscape, to the con­tours of human body and to the Chinese tradition of fine pottery. The second, modestly titled Marine Forms, has been inspired by the minutiae of Australian underwater sea life. Finally, Best’s Sky Forms com­prises new work that the artist has made since her arrival in China in August 2004. In the case of each sep­arate body of work, location has exerted a complex Ceramics: Art and Perception No. 61 2005 and multi-layered influence. It is also worth noting that these three separate although interconnected bodies of work collectively cover the dominions of sky, earth and sea.

Robin Best was born in Perth in 1953. Today she is living and working as a professional ceramist in Ade­laide, a southern Australian coastal city with a popu­lation of a little more than a million people. Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, is recognised on the international cultural map for its biennial arts festival, known simply as the Adelaide Festival. While global artistic forces exert an influence on almost all of Best’s work, her South Australian location is particularly significant in her Open Cut and Marine Forms.

At the same time Best is conducting an amiable intercultural conversation with her Chinese hosts. Thus, in the work shown at Shanghai’s Madame Mao’s Dowry, Best simultaneously makes reference to the local South Australian environment in which she works as well as factoring in the Chinese cultural milieu which is the setting of this exhibition. In the same body of work the artist evinces another of her long-term preoccupations.

Best enjoys working in an integrated and culturally sensitive way with people and cultures that differ from her own. In the past, for example, she has collaborated with Aborigi­nal women at Ernabella in South Australia’s far north to create bright expressive pots and bowls decorated by the women with their own secular designs and religious visual imagery. Visiting Pukatja is the collab­orative work she has brought to China where the Pit­jantjatjara artist Nyukana Baker has painted the small bowl with the water pattern or Wira pattern in black underglaze. This work belongs to the Open Cut series.

Significantly, given the Shanghai context, Best’s exhibition constitutes an act of homage to the Chi­nese tradition of pottery, universally acknowledged as the finest in the world. In Madame Mao’s Dowry, the four shapes that comprise the second still-life installation Visiting Jingdezhen are displayed on black stone slabs known as golden bricks salvaged from the floors of Ming buildings. In this case, contrasts, disparities and differences, vis-á-vis the shape and form of each of the works, become a major source of visual pleasure. Identical in shape and size to Visiting Pukatja, each piece is two-thirds the height of one of the other works in the installation. Close attention has been paid to the juxtaposition and arrangement of these contrasting forms. The Chinese grouping is cast in white porcelain. The stark white matt glaze differentiates it from the accompanying glossy vase form that is inscribed with a water pattern and deco­rated with the Dragon and the Phoenix in red enamel by Hu Lian Qiang.

These works make loving and respectful reference to the sublime Chinese porcelain, to its classical gen­res and shapes. Traditionally, Jingdezhen has been the source of the best porcelain supplied to the Emperors’ palaces. Best’s attitude towards this awe­some artistic legacy is humble and reverential.

There is more to this arrangement than meets the eye. In Best’s hands these forms have been ‘flattened’. It is as if the artist has started by creating a com­puterised image of classical Chinese forms and then ‘stretched’ or elongated those original shapes. In doing so Best has not only flattened the original forms but also ‘pulled’ or extended them along the horizon­tal axis as one may do with visual imagery on a com­puter screen. The result is curiously compelling. The works stand in relation to one another in much the same way that computer images which cast drop shadows func­tion in relation to one another, thereby enhancing the original image. There is a sense in which these ‘real’ forms are doppelgångers, or even simulacra, quoting from the ‘virtual’ forms made possible by computer technology. This is one of a number of examples of experimental and playful postmodern quotation in Best’s work.

The title Open Cut refers to the quintessentially Australian mining practice of creating a shallow open pit allowing for excavation (usually of coal) near and around surface rock layers. This practice has been extraordinarily destructive of the environment and of the already fragile Australian eco-system. Only rarely has the hole – or gaping wound – been filled in again, once the mine becomes defunct and aban­doned. This practice has tended to leave a large ex­posed rim or wound comprising a band of earthen colours. The revelation of a similar array of colours on the inside of Best’s work gives the installation its name: Open Cut. These unglazed works are made from five different coloured porcelains: black, green, chocolate brown, oriental buff (a golden sand colour) with another colour on the inside. Best has polished the upper rim of each work to reveal five layers or candy stripes of coloured porcelain.

Best’s Open Cut series also relates to the geological specificity of the ancient Fleurieu Peninsula, some distance to the south of Best’s home base, Adelaide. Similar strips of earthen colours can be seen in ancient cliffs around the Maslins Beach area also on the Fleurieu Peninsula. The shiny black is a reference to the basalt rock that forms the headland there.

Robin Best has captured the cultural ethos of post­modernism in the works that comprise Open Cut. She has synthesised Chinese ideas, shapes, forms and ref­erences with Australian contours, shapes and political ideas to create works of seamless cultural fusion. Open Cut is a work of remarkable artistic, cultural and en­vironmental hybridity, postmodern quotation and inter-continental visual ‘translation’. This is quite lit­erally multi-layered work, semantically rich with allusion and reference.

The resulting works are not recognisably Chinese or Australian but occupy a third space somewhere betwixt the two. Best’s ‘postmodernity’ expresses it­self as a mood or a Zeitgeist inhabiting her work. It does not constitute a decontextualised theoretical stance or intellectual position taken by the artist but, rather, it is the inevitable outcome of an increasingly globalised world that is extraordinarily generative in terms of the possibilities that are being created for visual artists.

Best’s next group of works, Marine Forms, also makes reference to the Australian environment, in this case once again to the area around Fleurieu Peninsula. In this series the artist evokes the beauty and delicacy of skeletal coral forms, algae, malleable sea sponges, bryozoans and other marine organisms that either live underwater or grow on rock plat­forms, or are parasitically attached to reefs, live inside shells or protrude from other rock shelves. In this case, fine porcelain is again Best’s preferred medium for expression of a vision that is simultane­ously grounded in nature and in the human body and abstractly poetic.

Marine Forms, this ethereal body of work brings to mind Ariel’s song in Shakespeare’s The Tempest1:

Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes; Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange.

Technically, these works are the result of painstaking effort and patience. Janice Lally put it eloquently: “Best’s Marine Forms become manifest as exquisite fragile elliptical bowls and asymmetrical vases. Smooth and rubbed back to fine-grained translucency within, their outer surfaces have been the subject of her intensive focus as they have been finely engraved with a dentist’s drill to form intricate lacy traceries or dense sculptural textures.”2In Sky Forms, the third and final series to be included in this exhibition, made following her arrival in China, Best has worked collaboratively with some of China’s finest and most dedicated ceramists. These artists have applied traditional Chinese style glazes and enamels to these works, including reds and cobalt blues. This fragile-robust cultural fusion is again transformational in effect, creating a new body of work that is unlike either of the substrate traditions from which it arises. The collective genius of these Chinese artists, their time-honoured traditions coupled with technical skills that have been honed and distilled over centuries, combined with Best’s vision, make for a powerful exhibit.

In the final analysis, this work is a projection of the complex person who is Robin Best. Her wish to engage collaboratively and harmoniously with people, artistic practices, ideas and forms of visual expression outside of her own socio-cultural experience, her passionate feeling for the increasingly vulnerable Australian environment, and her desire to create objects that emulate the human body and are also beautiful, meaningful and full of grace, are all aspirations that have been fully realised in this exhibition.Robin Best and the Australian and Chinese artists who have worked with her on this project have produced a potent synergy and have created a body of work that is indeed something rich and strange.

REFERENCES:

  1. Shakespeare, William, 1611, The Tempest, 1987 Edition, edited by Stephen Orgel, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.
  2. Lally, Janice, 2001, ‘Fleurieu Marine Forms’, CraftArts International 53, pp78-79.

Dr Christine Nicholls is currently Professor of Australian Studies at the University of Tokyo. Robin Best will show her work Snuff at Madame Mao’s Dowry in November 2005 as part of ‘Creative Futures’, a program of collaborative works by Chinese and Aus­tralian artists from the visual and performing arts. Caption title Dragon Jar. Sky Form series. 2004. Thrown white page: Stony Coral. 2003. Engraved and embossed white porcelain. 31 x porcelain with blue cobalt underglaze painting. 34 x 23 cm.

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