New Work with Old Cultures
Article by Christine Nicholls
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.
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
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
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
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.
- Shakespeare, William, 1611, The Tempest, 1987 Edition,
edited by Stephen Orgel, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.
- 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.