Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Conversations with Country

Article by Ann McMahon

LIVING ON THE LAND CREATES AN ABIDING INTEREST in the weather. Conversations begin with comments on prevailing conditions with particular regard to rain. “Another hot one today…,” and the response, “….and no rain in sight,” is more than an affirmation of shared concerns. These simple statements reflect the significance of such fundamental observations. The weather eye, shaded by a hand raised in the familiar searching posture, looks for a change from the west in Horizon. The work is about hope and comes from Bev Hogg’s series Conversations with Country, which was shown at Craft ACT as part of Canberra’s recent Dimensions Variable, Festival of Contemporary Sculpture. On first impression, the lyrical quality and earthiness of the piece suggests a romantic view of the landscape. Indeed, the work is intended to evoke emotional responses and the recollection of personal experiences. Hogg is inspired by the figurative pottery of Neolithic Turkey, which documents and celebrates seasonal and everyday activity. By similarly referencing the human figure, Hogg asks the audience to identify with her subject matter. She personalises the environmental issues that are her concern.

Hogg’s direct and intuitive making process allows for spontaneous expression, which is only fully realised after sculptures emerge from the kiln. The pieces are complex and elicit contradictory responses. A brooding side to the work is complemented by a disarming wistfulness that opens the door to childhood memories. Looking at Horizon, I recall a weatherwily uncle showing me how to shade my eyes to look into the distance. Neither will I forget the glowing halo around the moon, which he said indicated rain in two to three days. This weather wisdom, learnt from his elders, was honed over a lifetime of observing and responding to the condition of the land and to his stock. It is knowledge that has a magical quality, which is linked with cosmology in traditional cultures. But the evolution of our society is severing spiritual links with place. The ability of the indigenous law man, or shaman, to commune with the spirits of country, to ‘sing up some weather’ can no longer be accommodated. It cannot be explained by the science of meteorology or the dogma of monotheistic religion.

Hogg has chosen to work with clay because the material has the capacity to reassert such connections. Derived from the earth, it becomes a conduit between the artist’s creative spirit and the audience. Hogg believes art should touch people, stir their minds and spirits, or, “there is no point to making it,” and that, she says, “is the constant challenge.” In Back to Back, Hogg uses the iconic symbol of the circle to suggest a relationship to the infinite. The circle, without beginning or end, represents regeneration, the cycles of life, birth and death. It is also a figurative or diagrammatic representation of celestial bodies and their movements. The sun and full moon, hanging in the heavens, are sublime circles and their influence is keenly felt. The sun keeps annual and diurnal rhythms, while lunar cycles correspond to patterns of human fertility and the moon’s gravitational pull induces tidal effects.

“Water,” Hogg writes in her artist statement, “it shaped our landscape in the geological past, it shapes our use of country in the present. Water is the source and symbol of life. It is essential to the life forces of fertility and creativity without which the psychic world and the material world would be an arid desert.” The presence of water is also vital in Hogg’s hand-building process. The dominating figure she has modelled, in Back to Back, looms above its private world. But the hollow shell suggests the emptiness of worldly pursuits. The construction of ephemeral empires based on wealth and prestige tend to create a spiritual void. The balance is precarious. The figure’s posture suggests the thin divide between life and death. Natural disasters are dramatic reminders, be they cataclysmic floods or the remorseless and bitter onslaught of drought. Unrelenting dry seasons in recent years have tested metropolitan water supplies.

Canberra’s supply has fallen below 50 per cent of full capacity, but in Western Australia, Perth’s storage has been closer to 15 per cent during the past three dry seasons. Water restrictions have become part of city life, a reminder that we live in the driest continent on earth. Those on ‘town water’ must make concessions, but the resolve of country folk has been sorely tried. Those relying on ephemeral surface water have faced gut-wrenching decisions; to tough it out, to buy water, to go into debt. Losing the family home and investments in stock are financially and emotionally devastating. Images of land gripped by drought are impossible to forget. Trees brown and pasture turns to dust. The bones of the earth emerge from the scorched ground just as the skeletons of drought victims are revealed. Withered flesh and hide recede along with the memory and hope of rain.

Hogg uses the figure’s facial expression in Dry to depict the drought experience: the ill temper, the dispirited resignation and the waiting. The parched and distressed surfaces of the piece reflect the harsh physical conditions, while the tattered knees suggest the financial hardships affecting people in drought. Growing up in country Western Australia and relying on rain has marked Hogg with a respect for country, for water and its value. It develops with years of rationing, watching with one eye for rain, while the other measures the level of water in the tank. The Dry figure stands over the precious supply, protecting and endeavouring to control what little is left and conscious that water is the critical element needed to sustain life. Looking closely, the figure’s toes are spread as if desperately trying to hold on, betraying a dogged determination. A glaze on the surface around the feet suggests the last skerrick of moisture. Water consciousness is indivisible from the concept that water storage is finite. Every effort is made to delaying the inevitable: the amount of water for washing is reduced to a minimum and it is frugally reused; automatic systems supply plants and animals at need and plumbing is scrupulously maintained. But without rain to replenish supplies, the cup will eventually run dry. The drain began as a symbol of Hogg’s concern about water wastage, but has evolved into a stylised and conceptual base. In her artist statement she writes, “I am consciously aware that here in Canberra, I too water the garden and flush the loo with some of the best drinking water in Australia. The water and land-management practices colonists brought to Australia were developed in the rich well-watered soils and defined seasons of Britain and Europe.

Hogg writes, “The lack of water in this arid ancient land drove the early explorers to carry their boats across its saucer-like expanses in search of their inland sea, They travelled with green eyes, not believing that rivers never reach the sea, that years of no rain was the norm, not knowing the subtle counterflow of salt. Their green watery memories of full reservoirs continue to fill our psyche today ...” Water sharing is, and always has been, a hot political issue. The controlling impulse and anger, expressed by Hogg in Dry, can be read in broader terms, in relation to disputes over water rights. Historically, they have threatened national unity in Australia. A paradigm shift in water management practices occurred when irrigation was privileged over river navigation and transport. A series of agreements between the states have aimed to guarantee equitable diversions of water from the Murray Darling River system, but pressures for water resource development to keep pace with the demands of consumers are increasing. Today we face another similarly historic management choice: to maintain environmental flows or create aridity, irrevocably altering the country we know. The challenge is to create new levels of water consciousness and accountability.

Hogg reflects on the situation in Holding. A figure, hands clutched defensively to the breast, prays with wide eyes welling with tears. The expression seems to ask, “How did it come to this?” The ‘green watery memories’ have generated a belief in the inalienable right of the individual to unlimited supplies of water. Unrelenting dry seasons are a wake-up call to be realistic in managing our water and it is a reminder of our relative helplessness in the face of natural forces. Calls for a new dam to assure Canberra’s water supply in the future are a response attracting attention and spirited debate. Seduced by the scale of the metropolitan water supply, it is difficult to conceive of a limit or that personal actions and responsibilities are directly related. It is easy to turn on a tap and to watch a seemingly inexhaustible resource run down the drain. But holding on to water in catchments does not increase rainfall and reduces the flows available to the environment. The urge to redirect water to reservoirs is whimsically expressed in Hogg’s Funnel. The figure is hopefully holding up a container incapable of holding water. The work suggests the inevitable flow of water as part of a dynamic natural system. There must be a give and take, a balance that Hogg suggests in her use of dual channels in the base of the work. Rainfall is the beginning of the age-old water cycle. Water courses through the landscape just as it moves through the bodies of consumers. Seepage and overflow is drawn down by gravity, as implied in Funnel: it is gathered, evaporated and condensed again to complete the circle. The pattern occurs locally and Canberra’s regime of water treatment sets a high standard in management practice. Much of the water diverted for domestic consumption is returned, along with storm water, to the Murrumbidgee River. These environmental flows maintain the health of river ecologies and support the economically significant irrigation industry down stream. It is a paradox, however, that we expect our water supply to be a publicly-funded service, yet we are accustomed to purchasing boutique bottled water. The labels and promotions conjure images of exotic places, enviable lifestyles and promises of good health.

We pay a substantial cost at the point of sale for the advertising and packaging and there are costs involved in disposing of the empty containers. Hogg’s bottle-filled culverts create a vivid picture of our earth as one giant landfill. But the scale and her references to the human figure speak of individual responsibility. It is no accident that we are seeing marketing campaigns selling water-wise and no-waste messages. These were once passed on in the wisdom of one generation to the next, but the glorification of youth and self indulgence that underpins postmodern consumerism is altering social values. In the frenetic contemporary race for personal and cultural reinvention there is a converse devaluing of age and traditional knowledge. Hogg’s choice of ceramics, continuing the practice of this age old craft, is apt. The city generates its own local conditions and the urban lifestyle separates us from the environment. The seasons cease to have meaning when summer fruit and spring vegetables are available all year round. Weatherproof constructions are homes and vehicles, places of work, leisure and consumption. We learn how to survive in urban society rather than in the culturally iconic environment of the bush. But wherever we live, water consciousness makes a difference and conservation should be practised. Hogg’s own productive and attractive suburban garden is sustained through her diligent use of grey-water. Both in her everyday life and through her art practice Bev Hogg creates an environment that is sustaining and nourishing to the spirit. In Conversations with Country, she tells a dramatic narrative of drought, using a visual language informed by symbols and materiality. From the active searching for answers implicit in Horizon, through the anger and frustration of Dry to the brink of overwhelming hopelessness explored in Holding, Hogg’s sculpture discusses environmental issues in human terms.

Ann McMahon is a freelance artist and writer based in Canberra. Bev Hogg is represented by Sabbia Gallery in Sydney: www.sabbiagallery.com. Title page: Back to Back. Clay, glazes and coloured slips 1200° C. 60 x 30 x 30 cm.

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