Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Neoteny and Wisdom

It seems we humans have been evolving quite rapidly over the last 50 years or so. We have been evolving in a way that prefers traits of youthfulness over decrepitude. These traits include big eyes  adaptable thinking, playfulness, and other juvenile features which explains love of anime characters,  pandas, sloths, kittens  and cute overload as well as explaining the longer time span adult children spend at home.

The phenomenon has lead to a study called neoteny which comes from the Greek neo meaning young and a German variant referring to tendency. People are living longer and the dilemma of facing a prolonged old age of senility is being rapidly evolved by middle life extension, before our eyes, as 20 somethings evolve into 30 somethings still involved in what seems to be frivolous play activities. Fur babies have satisfied the reproductive urges for young people as well as those who would have been anticipating grandparent hood. It seems everyone is in a holding phase as they try to work out whether the planet or world finances are going to implode. So it is a case of Keep Calm and Play. It also indicates supreme optimism that there will be enough time, a very typical juvenile trait.
It seems all the old paradigms are shifting including accepting rights of disabled people, rights for all to marry the ones they love, rights of animals not to be farmed for food or to be experimented on in cosmetic factories. So where do we point our collective fingers of disgust? Well if the world is changing to one of youthfulness then the aged and all those who show signs of ageing are going to be the new targets for discrimination.
Education is going to be a very important factor in this new world. At one end there will be fewer children spawned by very old zygotes, being cared for by ??? Hmm... decrepid old people who are even more divorced from modern technology and understanding of the modern world... or reluctant and middle aged parents who are paying IVF debts on top of HECS debts and mortgages in a world of spiralling costs and housing shortages.  Technology which is favoured now will age quickly and the bright young things at their zenith now will be flailing to re educate to keep up with the next bright stars. 
Edward de Bono suggested 30 years ago that a better education system than our current one would be to have it prolonged over a lifetime with breaks for work experience and skill development, returning to higher academic study in the late 20s and deeper intellectual study in mid life. This concept may need reviewing again (even though it was never implemented) as human intellectual capacity keeps growing just like data storage and faster computer speeds.
Being an artist is not just about filling in time and playing. It is about being aware of the changing times and seeing signs where no one else is looking. It is about being visionary and thinking outside the box. It is about self directed learning and enquiry. Art employs the imagination with a licence that no other practice has. It works perfectly with science to give both sides of the coin.   
It is important that no matter what age you are, if you wish to be relevant and share acquired wisdom to cope with an uncertain future, that you maintain connection to both ends of the age spectrum . If you don’t have a personal contact within every decade of the age spectrum, consider that maybe your life is not balanced, just as a diet can be unbalanced without certain nutritional food groups.
It is a delight to find yourself a young tutor no matter what age you are. Children born today are considered to be digital natives, in that the world they are born into is all digital, and they have an innate sense of digital media. But they cannot necessarily synthesise old understandings with new media and so their world is limited and dependant on older tutors who understand the past and the present. Their naivete is also charming and an inspiration for further imagining.
 Finding food, growing things, making things and understanding mechanical devices is further removed from these children than my generation is from the beginning of the industrial age. Show a child a video tape, a cassette tape, a vinyl record and they have no concept of what it is or how it works. Flour is white powder in a bag, but so is plaster, arsenic, and titanium oxide or cocaine and they have no means of understanding its origin or purpose just from observing it. Foundation skills are missing and as we travel into an uncertain future we need to hold hands across the generations and transmit the knowledge that might be necessary.

Don’t be a Luddite and give up on the digital age because it might be a very long future, from which you are excluded.  There has never been an era of more accessibility in learning with facilities like online tutorials and contributing to these has never been easier either (if you feel you have something to contribute) There are many companies waiting to make a mint out of your helplessness, and reluctance to move with technology, and once you give up one skill  and one right to know, they can move in like fog and separate you from your soul. And it can happen to you  at 20 if you don’t keep tabs on your rights and responsibilities as well.

One of the joys of being a grey haired lady of no definable age is that I have perfected the famous Harry Potter cloak of invisibility. I can lurk and eavesdrop and learn whatever I like and no one suspects. I am closer to both ends of the age spectrum than I will ever be again in my life and have communication skills to interact throughout the full range.
You can share your time equally between being teacher and student. You can also use invisibility to do the unexpected. Just as “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition”, nobody suspects little grey haired ladies to be so full of surprises. Here are the contents of my handbag this week.
Note 8 Tablet, media stick, wind up LED torch, earphone, iphone, black sharpie and white permanent pencil for graffiti, mechanical pencil, Rock- it mobile amplifier, slingshot, reusable roll up shopping bag, mini microscope,crocheted grass basket project.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Magnets and Thought Attraction

Sometimes I feel feverish and my head explodes with ideas but it can be messy like any explosion. There is no order to the ideas and they rub against each other creating friction and sparks and uncomfortable feelings. I have a wonderful set of magnetic poetry words which I keep on the  metal door of the cupboard in my studio and fiddle about with. 

It’s a fun diversion but is limited because all you have to draw on is the limits of the box of words. There must be a certain algorithm to illustrate the number of combinations that can be made and I am being a bit lame in suggesting I have exhausted the possibilities but that is not the problem. Our brains have an insatiable desire for novelty and I feel I have exhausted the novelty of the toy. The internet can be the same if you use it in the same way each day.
When I used to teach, my favourite resources were dictionaries, phone books, street directories and atlases. Google Earth is exciting and a valuable addition but it doesn’t lend itself to the same type of search. Google maps is limited by your search entry or the size of the page. The hard copy books could create curiosity and word trails. A random opening of a page of each book could lead to a search by chance and a rubbing together of completely unrelated ideas. For this reason I love the craziness of the book of answers. You have to have a question first and randomly open the book to find out if it will come to pass. A bit like the yes no oracle toy that was popular in the 90s.
Mystical Orb
 I like to start an adventure with chance. I am lucky that I have a head that retains odd ideas for a very long time but it is extremely poor at retaining any number facts. I am happy to be astounded by number facts and I understand them but cannot recall the truth of any of them in retelling a story that has excited me, which must be a great source of frustration to listeners. It also draws scepticism from my audience because I cannot nail a fact at will with a magical number. My greatest skill is in combining one idea with another. It’s good to know your strengths even if it has taken a long time to work that out and even if there doesn’t seem to be a current application for such talent.
I have been noticing a lot recently in my reading about electrical enhancement for the brain and that application of small amounts of charge to the brain can accelerate thinking.   It can actually turn off the inner critical voice which fills us with self doubt by muting some synapses for the briefest moments making them more receptive to clearer thinking.
I also read recently of an older theory (like 4 years old!) that the human consciousness is just a magnetic field. That would explain ear worms, memes, zeitgeist  and crowd control to me.  Having had and lost a friend many years ago to depression for which she was unsuccessfully given convulsive electro therapy treatment and having lived near power lines that kept me in a constant fear of electric magnetic radiation, fiddling about with electricity and brains seems to be a dangerous and emotional field. Maybe you could change a person’s make up by changing their electrical levels. Chocolate does it for me! Too much and I am completely overcharged and unable to rest.
I have just listened to the books and music program on RadioNational and the discussion of a book called Lexicon by Max Barry which is all about the magical power of words and recruiting poets to control people’s minds. Max Barry had previously studied Marketing and Advertising so he knows about manipulating brains with words and ideas.
There is an interesting experiment which has come under different names, one being Takeluma, in which people were tested to see which line shape matched their interpretation of two different words. One was a prickly line and the other a rounded sinuous wave.
 The prickly line matched the word that had an" ick" sound and the sinuous wave matched the "oum" sound. Maybe words are magnetic or electrically charged in the way they are spoken and that is why they stick in your head or are able to move you to tears in certain combination. In cultures where there are words used differently by gender role I wonder if there is a different power in the words. In cultures where only men speak publicly does that limit the electrical balance of the brain and thus influence behaviour of the dominant gender?
Alfred Tomatis researched the frequency of sound and the influence it had on the smallest muscle in our body called the stapedius. It is the tiny little muscle that works the hammer and anvil in our inner ear. Not only does it respond to frequency of sound, it is also influenced by emotions, say through involuntary clamping of jaws or tensing of neck muscles and in turn influences physical balance and perception. Each cultural language has a different frequency and the amount of exercise the stapedius gets in listening to a variety of sound in turn enables the ear to hear more acutely, and the brain to flexibly perceive more things. This is the  triggering theory behind Mozart learning. American language frequency and French are quite different and Tomatis surmised among other things this had something to do with their perceived contempt of one another the living out of an adage of not being on the same wavelength.

Writing is my way of getting the scramble of scratching clashing ideas into a visual form so that I can redigest it. It’s a bit like crushing a whole lot of rock ingredients together and mixing and sieving to make a glaze which actually only comes together because of the right electrical balance of the molecules in it. It’s just annoying knowing that there is some thought in the back of your head that draws all these ideas together like a magnet and you just can’t get at it.

One of the pieces of music said to bring about the Mozart effect is this by Greek musician Yanni
Maybe if I sit and listen to it, I will be able to make something that has magnetic attraction. 

Friday, 19 July 2013

TGIF and sweepstakes

As a child growing up in the prehistoric days, when classrooms were full to bursting point, assessment of children on intake was an intuitive skill by young, one year trained teachers. It relied on wisdom handed down by their own mothers and senior teachers to spot potential talent or difficulty in learning and they had to be as quick as cattlemen assessing their herds going through cattle crushes. There were 81 children (YES!) in my prep classroom and our teacher was a nun about 22 years old. I remember clearly some shining moments in that year and ah ha moments so despite her wild furies and lack of time for personal interaction she had an impact on my life.  

One of her assessment methods which I also came across in my later primary years was the broom method. A very quick assessment of a child’s organisational skills could be assessed from their use of a broom to sweep an area. It uncovered their sense of logic in finding a starting place that expended the least energy, their willingness to change plan if the prevailing breeze undid their work, their calmness in accumulating a dirt pile instead of creating a maelstrom of dust, their ability to predict traffic interceptions and adapt by either managing interceptors or diverting their flow. It also uncovered an ability to complete a task and care for the furniture and skirting boards, to return the equipment, to assess their own completion of the task and take pride in it. By looking at whether a child swept all along in front or made tight sweeping motions to their body could also be a possible indicator of personality type- introvert or extrovert. In those days it was the children’s job to participate in the cleaning as schools were too poor to afford cleaners. The poor novice nuns would scrub the bathrooms on their hands and knees, without rubber gloves, and cleanliness was next to godliness although they all suffered terribly from chilblains, an almost unheard of affliction these days.
Brooms are pretty well universal so their use is hard wired into cultures.  Indeed, I vaguely remember the Japanese symbol for wife or female is based on a pictograph of a hand on a broom. No doubt a reader will fill me in on this.
The actual design of brooms has not had much variation over time and I am not even going to count those abominations called electrical brooms in this discussion. (If you are paying for garden maintenance make sure you aren’t paying for some inept fool to sweep around one leaf with an electric broom for half an hour!) Probably one of the greatest design leaps was to put a longer handle on a broom so that the user did not have to bow over to inhale the dust at the business end. Apart from that the only noticeable change I have found in brooms is built in obsolescence in the cheapening of handles and flimsy connections between brush and handle. Making a good design that lasts for aeons is not a money maker and therein lies the conflict. Save trees by using plastic handles but fill up our tips with broken goods which will never break down.
I love to sweep! It is a task that I learned proficiency in during childhood through regular practice and which I find to be satisfying and mind clearing. As a childhood task it gave me pride to sweep our driveway and a chance to hang around the front gate and engage with passers by. It also enabled some initiative to choose to sweep. As our driveway was also our art gallery covered in the clay chalk scrawling of 5 children, being good at sweeping provided for new drawing space each day. We would fossick for good clay globs in our explorative walks around the creek land and home building sites near our home, not dissimilar to cavemen looking for the perfect flints. It is sad that some councils have banned the use of chalk on public paving. Such a big stick for a minor act.
Whenever I am agitated or my life feels cluttered, the regular meditative job of sweeping relaxes and invigorates me and seems to align all my thinking gears into order. It also requires clearing a path of objects in order to accomplish the task and so acts as a sort of touchstone process for re orienting me in my space. It’s a great job for Friday to clear away the disasters of the week and plan for the following week. My last 30 minutes in classrooms on Friday afternoons was all about cleaning and preparing for the coming week with the reward of a fun  weekend ahead when the job was done. The old mistakes didn’t haunt children and Monday was a chance of creating a new page.
Friday mayhem
Ceramic studios are dusty places, as clay slops and glaze drips dry and become dusty, and work drying on shelves sheds little rings of clay particles.
Unfortunately sweeping of clay is not a healthy practice as it stirs up loose silica, a regular component of claywork. Even with a mask on doing dusty work in a studio, dust still creeps under eyelids and into tear ducts creating unpleasant sinus conditions. I still like to sweep a little in there though in a very gentle and controlled way but I am very lucky to have a ducted vacuum system with one of those nifty pick up points built into my studio.

If I am doing any last minute fettling of lumpy glaze it is done in this corner as close as possible to the pick up spot. I find those microfiber fluffy brooms glide across the floor and pick up most of the loose particles and then it is a matter of using microfiber damp cloth under each foot to scoot around and mop the remainder.

Microfibre is something that didn’t exist until recently and we are lead to believe it is made from all our recycled plastic bottles. I would like to think so but I have my suspicions it may actually be freshly made from petro chemical by products like those so called green shopping bags. I hope there is a plan somewhere for reprocessing of microfiber cloths because I don’t know where I would be without them, but they will not break down naturally and so will become another piece of our world’s shameful legacy. 
Anyway its all clean now and my kiln is fixed and working again so Monday is looking rosy.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Manningham Victorian Ceramic Art Award 2013

The Manningham Ceramics award is currently staging in the new MC2 art gallery at Doncaster opposite the city library. There are 46 diverse and extraordinary works exhibited out of 140 odd applicants. Prizes were awarded last Wednesday night (July 10) as judged by David Hurlston, Curator of Art at the National Gallery of Victoria. I have been to many of David Hurlston’s exhibitions and appreciated them for their greatly satisfying breadth.

In the finality and excitement of the actual pronouncement of the awards last Wednesday some simple truths were lost to sight. David Hurlston judged 140 works and declared 46 winners. The breadth of the exhibition is wonderful.

There is confusion and disappointment and sometimes a sense of failure or even shame in not measuring up to selection for an exhibition. What could have been better? How much more time should I have devoted to it? Did I really even want to win? What is the break even time for cost to benefit? Is this really representative of my work or just something to impress the judges? Should I break out and experiment with something new or follow the tried and true, safe and easy? Does concept interfere with object? What does the winners work say about mine? Should I give up?

That is not the intent of the judge or the competition and no one is being targeted for not measuring up or being an unworthy person. It is one man’s decision based on one man’s experience in a field of specialisation which endows him with some aesthetic sensibilities which may or may not be relevant to our experience as ceramic artists. Overlaid onto this selection is a political requirement to tick all boxes for inclusive culture and the criteria of the awards. I would not want the role. But judgement does make you strive harder and all applicants have probably benefited from the mental stretch. Those who were chosen will have gained a huge confidence boost and maybe even some significant new audience.
Tracy Muirhead utensils photo credit Marlize Myburgh

The exhibition satisfied the criteria for me of opening up conversation about ceramics. It showed handbuilt, conceptual, highly crafted wheel thrown, cast and manipulated technical virtuosity, intuitive, colour, form, old, new, large, small, surface treatments, ceramics as elements of larger works, stand alone and contextual, fragile and rock solid, absurd and mundane. If you think you know what ceramics is then you will be surprised to find it is not just functional and funky Craft Victoria but everything that the mind can imagine and some of it is very skilful indeed.

That awards were also provided with the exhibition is a bonus and all congratulations go to those who secured them. Reward for art is difficult to come by and when ceramics is mostly relegated to the field of Crafts, reward and the respect that goes with it are even harder to find.

Victorian 1st prize Acquisitive Award ($5,000)
Petrus Spronk for his work Landscape of the mind.

Valley of the Arts Acquisitive Awards (up to $4,000)

General Acquisitions
Neville French Mungo Light 7
Janetta Kerr-Grant Urban Light, Winter
Vanessa Lucas Stone Jugs

 Tracy Muirhead UtensilsTerunobu Hirata Facetted vase with triangular topAlan Constable Not titled (blue concertina camera)

To listen to some of the artists talking about their work you can go to this site which will also give you viewing times and a list of the artists in the exhibition.

I am going back for a quieter slower viewing as I think many pieces deserve some more looking.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

A day trip to Mona

Yesterday my beloved and I jumped up early, while the stars were still up and the cheap skates were trying to play golf by torch light before the links were open, and headed off to Tasmania for the day to see the Museum of Old and New Art- MONA.
It’s been on our to do list for quite a while but finding a whole weekend and the money for such a splurge just kept escaping us. This was a brilliant solution. No car hire, no accommodation costs and a direct bus to the gallery and pick up in time for our return flight which also meant cheaper parking costs at Melbourne airport. While we have several friends and relatives in Tasmania, to squeeze in time at Mona and time with them would diminish both experiences.  
I love visiting Hobart in the middle of winter. It is a chance to experience the full on cold of a southern winter, see the snow capped mountains and return home to only slightly chill Melbourne. It was max 6C in Hobart yesterday.

We were amongst the first arrivals for the day so staff were full of enthusiasm and good cheer and we were advised to make the most of our status by visiting the sarcophagus of um ?(sorry!) in a separate darkened chamber. It was The Indiana Jones part of the tour where only two people at time can enter a very dark space with a walkway surrounded by black slightly odoriferous water. The concrete pathway was about 900mm wide in reality yet seemed distorted in all the blackness and it felt precariously narrow and then petered out to only stepping stones which were uneven heights (only 3) which strangely seemed even more precarious. The sarcophagus and a matching one were lying side by side in the dim light one digitally animated to show images of the mummy and xrays through the bindings to the underlying organs and bones. I guess if it were shown in the raw light of day apart from the deteriorating effect of light on it, the whole experience could be a bit ho hum. By slowing down your approach and turning off some senses while alighting others it did what Science Works does not do-focus attention.
The whole gallery is built in an enormous sandstone pit beside the Derwent River. A minimum of light is used throughout partly because there are extremely valuable Egyptian artefacts and partly for theatrical effect. The architecture is astounding and we could not help but think of what a great place it would be to play nerdy electronic war games, up and down the hefty beamed walkways and tunnels hewn out of solid rock. It would also make a great nerd film set.
The current exhibition is The Red Queen and refers to Alice Through the Looking Glass  who when confronted by the Red Queen is caught up in a discussion of adapting or keeping up. The art refers to adaption mostly through genetics and mutation and points of difference in humans. Mona is often referred to as the museum of Life and Death and  there is certainly a sense of dipping into death and corporeal experience in the darkness and under the ground which will stay with me for a while.
There was one very powerful piece where a granite labyrinth  adorned with binary numbers which at first seem like timeline numbers going back to primordial days leads to a central tiny space with a mirrored ceiling.  I have always loved the prayerful purpose of a labyrinth in which you quietly wander toward the centre to yourself and then turn around and return to community. It was hard not to draw analogies to Persephone and the underworld.
One other piece that moved me partly because I got it wrong was a giant Buddha made of reinforced aluminium. I was staring in awe at this gigantic shiny Buddha made out of reinforced cast aluminium and full of respect for the artist who I thought had transformed an army tank into this beautiful Buddha. Then I heard the conversation behind me as the attendant explained to somebody else the process of making the twin of the Buddha I was staring at, out of incense ash from temples. The piece I was looking at was simply the mould to shape the dust which was headless due to building constraints or something and it was slowly collapsing in on itself. The artist is Zhang Huan. Awesome is a much misused word but it was awesome in concept and execution.

I cannot show you any photos of the art work even though I was free to take them for my own use  but which does not include internet sites. Mona is a wonderful gift by David Walsh to the people of Tasmania. I didn’t love everything on display and some things filled me with horror or revulsion. The whole atmosphere of darkness and some areas of electronic noise and strobe lighting were very disconcerting and disorienting. One particular series of works the Vivian Girls by Henry Darger, I found very uncomfortable at a visceral level but the slightly waving images suspended in frames around which you had to walk in very poor light made me feel so vertiginous  that I had to hurry out.
My overall experience will stay with me for a long time but strangely there was no dizzy euphoric sensation which I realise for me hits me when I am confronted by colour. By having to negotiate a space in poor lighting when I am already hindered by poor night vision shut down some creative force in me. There was no room left to think which I think is a little like the way the brain exists only in survival mode when traumatised. I have lots to think about for a long time and I will treasure some of the works I saw. I will certainly be back to do it all again in another year or so as long as David Walsh doesn't go broke paying back his gambling tax.
Bye Mona.





Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Designing holes

There is a famous Australian film called The Castle in which the son of an extremely ordinary family develops a sense of achievement in the world of DIY by digging a hole . This is followed by another  bland statement a few days later that he dug another hole. The droll nature of the statement has become a bit of an icon in our family, at least, since DIY has been quite a past time.  Digging a hole is actually quite hard work and digging a deep hole is extremely strenuous but when it is finished it doesn't jump out as a significant achievement.
So it is with ceramics. Essentially the potter is capturing a hole that didn't exist before. And a hole can make such a difference to the outer skin that holds it.
We seem to have an innate sense of proportion and pre determined calculation of mass that should accompany certain proportions so that when we come upon this magical combination our minds  then  immediately click other programs into action to assess surface, colour and feel. If we are drawn first to the visual colour, we might forgo mass or feel, because in our minds it has already become a decorative item and if our calculations don't add up about weight for volume we can overlook that. These intuitions probably go back to our survival skills of picking the juiciest fruit or heaviest coconut, that would repay the energy expended in climbing for it.

It is with all these seemingly intuitive judgments that the experienced ceramicist develops a form.

Is that hole going to contain just air for the rest of its existence, hot beverages, fat ice blocks, a chunky stew or a special little treat? Do spoons or chopsticks have to wrestle with its interior? Are the contents going to extend beyond the top of the opening and therefore change the centre of gravity.

So many times when selling things at markets we ceramicists are bemused by the question "What would you use it for?" I don't know if this is because buyers want to know if they are committing a sacrilege to feed the beloved kitten milk from it or whether they think there is some secret code in the ceramics world tied to notions of value that ascertain whether a piece is going into the "good" room. Heavens to Betsy if you "use" the Wedgewood!
Sometimes I can't believe that people have so little imagination, or are so bound with convention.  The idea of a container that can be used for one tim tam and also for wasabi  or dukkah at  a dinner table is a revealation to them. Our job is not just to provide the object but also the vision to go with it. I can't believe our audience want to be dictated to.

When I make vessels I use a printed guide of the Golden Mean. It was used by artists of the classical eras and is sometimes attributed to Euclid.
1:618..... it occurs in nature through the Fibonacci spiral and it is what dictates our seemingly innate sense of proportion.

I don't use it religiously but when I have developed something new and want to make a decision about its proportion, I might just put it up against the guide. When I have made something I don't feel comfortable about it usually doesn't fulfil the proportions of the golden ratio and sometimes the addition of a higher foot ring might make all the difference or  the addition of a darker colour in one part might give a sense of grounding and balance.

I haven't got it all worked out. I struggle with every little hole I make. I fight a mind that constantly seeks novelty over pursuit of perfect form. If my work becomes too perfect I whack it or bend it or draw on it left handed. I want my pieces to resemble humanity and none of us conforms to the golden mean entirely. I fight the machine made look that comes with constant practice. I know that if I spend a week in the studio at my wheel my pieces dance off the wheel as perfect little replicas but my urge is to fight that because the gesture and nuance is lost. Regular and matching is what the buyer wants but I have always been a rebel and I am my own worst enemy. We want to choose the puppy from the litter that we feel most connected to and a bowl or beaker that fits our hand and heart.

 So bad luck if you want any of my pieces fitted neatly on your shelf and perfectly lined up. It's not going to happen and if that is what you want you are best to go to Ikea.

                                           POST SCRIPT
A beautiful video on Fibonacci sent to me by Mirta