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Regeneration

Margaret Carlin undertook a Master of Visual Arts at the Australian National University, College of Arts and Social Sciences, School of Art. Her research explored the notions of landscape, environment and place. Carlin graduated in 2007 and this is an excerpt from her final Master of Visual Arts report.

Introduction

Regeneration: research into the nature of place and belonging following the destruction of the local environment.

Margaret Carlin, Regeneration Series 1#1, 2007

Within my Master of Visual Arts I explore notions of belonging and place that were challenged by the destruction of my immediate urban environment by bushfires that occurred in Canberra in 2003.

Living on the outskirts of Canberra, many of the markers and signposts of my physical environment were destroyed. Due to the previous planting of large pine plantations, very little regeneration of native vegetation has occurred. With much that is familiar gone, I felt a need to re-establish links with the environment and landscape, as well as dealing with how a sense of place can be affected by such an event. The absence of large trees has opened the surrounding area up visually to create new views and vistas.

My own connection with my local landscape and sense of loss since the bushfires and the lack of regeneration is further articulated in the following:

The landscape also changes, but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become. This is one of the reasons that we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but part of ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.1

In my work I am also responding to the environmental impact of large-scale land clearings and the subsequent inability of the land to recover in the normal way of the Australian bush following natural disasters such as bushfires. In the early stages I was interested in and exploring the physical sense of "regeneration".

My initial explorations involved life size drawings of the Greater Mullein, an introduced species of plant that was the most obviously prolific species to regenerate following the bushfires which destroyed the massive pine plantations that surrounded Duffy. I saw in these weeds, which sometimes grow in excess of 2 metres in height, a metaphor for the resilience and distribution of settler Australians to colonize an apparent harsh and inhospitable landscape.

Margaret Carlin, Regeneration #7, 2007

To further examine this concept I reviewed the recording of first settler impressions of the Australian landscape. Many of these observations were of a land that was completely foreign and hostile to people more used to European flora and fauna. The reversal of the seasons and the harsh Australian sunlight also presented contradictions of what was "normal" to the settlers.

I have also researched more deeply into concepts of 'landscape' and how our perceptions of and experiences in our surrounding environment influences our personal understanding of landscape.

Through these readings my initial concept has evolved from responding to "regeneration" as a direct interpretation of the aftermath of the fires on the physical landscape to a more philosophical response to how a person regenerates a personal or emotional sense of place or belonging following such an abrupt destruction of their environment.

Context

I see my work as existing in the arena of contemporary art where artists articulate and explore issues relating to place, landscape and the environment together with ceramic artists that view the clay itself as being integral to the artist's expression.

Concurrent to technical research was research into place, landscape and belonging within a contemporary Australian context. In order to contextualize my thinking I first read the impressions of early settlers to Australia. Although some of the very first settlers embraced the Australian environment, and appreciated its unique flora and differences from the European landscape, later settlers were not so appreciative.

The bush, to our great-grandfathers, was the enemy: it brooded somberly outside their brave and often pathetic little attempts at civilization; it crowded in on them in times of drought and flood. It, not they, was alien.2

The first recorded impression in 1821 by a European explorer of the Canberra/Murrumbidgee area described it thus:

... perfectly sound, well watered, with extensive meadows of rich land on either side of the rivers; contains very fine limestone, in quantities perfectly inexhaustible, slate sandstone and granite fit for building with sufficient timber for every useful purpose; and, from the appearance of the country, an unbounded extent to the westward.3

Within 2 years of this description, the first grazers' were squatting in the area that is now recognized as the central Civic area of Canberra city. In the eighty odd years between these first settlers and the declaration in 1909 that Canberra would be the capital city of the newly federated Australia, much of the area had been settled by farmers and their animals. As improvements to agricultural equipment and techniques were implemented, the demands on the land increased. As flat land was used more for crops, many trees were cleared from the surrounding hills and areas bordering onto the plains. The need for timber increased as more people settled in the area with the consequent need for housing and other building. During this time modifications of the land were done with the view that the environment was there to be exploited to meet the needs of the settlers.

In 1911, the competition to design the new capital was won by an American, Walter Burley Griffin. One major element of the design was the creation of a sense of a city set within a valley, with the views of the surrounding hills and mountain ranges to be maintained and used to enhance important government and civic buildings. In a sense, Canberra was to be cradled within its mountain ranges, which would serve as a constant reminder of the surrounding environment. To many residents in Canberra these hills continue to provide a landscape symbolic of the city. The artificial lake, filled from the Murrumbidgee in the 1960s, and now surrounded with dense plantings of native and exotic trees also serves as a powerful, if not incongruous, symbol of Canberra.4

These developments over the last 180 years or so are illustrative of the evolution of the "landscape' of Canberra as contrasted with the physical environment of the city. Landscape can be defined as:

... the dynamic interaction of a society and the habitat in which it [the society] lives. ... it is the result of an equation: Landscape = Habitat + Man5

And so, as the habitat or man changes, the sense of landscape also changes. This also means that landscape is a human centric impression of the environment. How people view or value a landscape is tied up with issues such as cultural myths and stories, as well as their own personal memories and experiences. The word landscape itself is derived from the Dutch "landschaft' which was used to signify a unit of human occupation.6 To follow this on to relate to my own work, I have used the word landschaft as the title for the specific series of floor works that directly reflect the impact of attempts of human reparation on the environment.

In viewing landscapes there may also be the influences of evolutionary and natural responses that resulted from ancestral environmental adaptations. Jay Appleton, in The Symbolism of Habitat, talks about how people view a landscape through a perception framed by the symbolic messages identified in the terms prospect, refuge and hazard. These terms are indicators of the assessments made by all animals, including humans, on how they perceive an environment; a cave can be viewed as a refuge, while a raging torrent would present a hazard. An aesthetic response to representations of landscape is a perception of an environment that is conducive to survival. The general positive appreciation of large vistas of parkland where trees are planted well enough apart so as not to hold the possibility of a hidden hazard is a remnant of evolutionary memory as well as a reminder of when these types of spaces were most suited to early human habitation. Appleton argues that

the challenge of their[prospect, hazard or refuge] interpretation, conscious or unconscious ... [is] ..the thing(s) we enjoy in the contemplation of landscape ...7

How artists represent the environment through landscapes can express or suggest to the viewer the effects, benevolent or otherwise of the effects that mankind has had on the environment. My use of knife cuts symbolise not only the effects of fire, but also the way in which damage has been done to the environment by agricultural and mining methods which rip up the earth, and extensive land clearing which shear down trees. The act of cutting the surface is also expressing a sense of pain of what has been done to the environment.8

An appreciation of landscape can evolve to where the perception of a sense of place becomes integral to a sense of ourselves. Attachments to a place can arise from an intimate knowledge and experience and, as expressed in the Margaret Drabble's quote above, that unexpected destruction of a familiar environment can also lead to an emotional grief that on the surface, appears disproportionate to what had been lost. The loss of forests due to bush fires is not a loss of a personally owned asset; it is the loss of the concept of what the forests had meant to a person, e.g. as a haven, that causes the grief.

Australian artists that have expressed a sense of landscape and place in their work include Wendy Teakel, John Wolseley, Gudrun Klix and Steve Harrison.

Wendy Teakel is an artist who has explored a sense of place in her sculptural and two dimensional works. Teakel's work often references the marks made on the land through agricultural practices. The marks have frequently been made with the found object s that they represent. The use of pokerwork, which leaves burnt and charred traces, refers to the recurrence of bushfires within the Australian environment. The work Fallow is a large work comprising of an immense cruciform on a scared background. The cruciform links to cross roads, as well as the more symbolic cross, a reference to the resurrection and regeneration to the land following a devastating bushfire. The ridges imply the ploughed land, which is overworked and barren. She notes:

The 3D work is literally OF the land - it is the detritus, the memory, the comfortable nest of ideas I construct for myself there. The 2D work is FROM the land - it is my reflections and observations.9

I see echoes of this in my two bodies of work, many of the large floor works have utilized clay from my local environment as well as incorporating marks made from objects found in burnt out home sites. The two dimensional work is more about my reflections on the aftermath of the bushfires, as well as thoughts on the damage done to the environment.

John Wolseley (1938- ) arrived in Australia from England in 1976. In his work Wolseley records his explorations and observations of the environment. He often spends an extended period in a remote location, producing assemblages of drawings and watercolours that combine detailed studies of objects such as seed pods, insects, flowers etc with broader representations of the surrounding landscape. Upon his arrival in Australia he was able to move away from the European conventions and embrace the different and unique Australian environment.

What I would have liked to have done in England, but couldn't because the English landscape has been much painted, has been much explored, that its very difficult to be in a place, and experience it in a full-blooded way, and describe it in a new way. ... Whilst here, I go to places where no European has ever been.10

By immersing himself in a location for weeks or months, Wolseley is able to break down the barriers between the environment and his expressions of the Australian landscape. His works are not simple representations of the landscape. His assemblages reflect the different layers in the environment that he identifies during his extended periods in the field.11

Wolseley observes that many Australian plants such as acacias are rhizomes. This underground or hidden pattern of growth is also found in many rock formations where only a small portion of the entire rock strata is above ground. Wolseley

..is drawn to draw such powerful fragments of the country. I am beginning to understand their relationship to the greater movement of the vast landscapes around it. 12

One way Wolseley works is to prepare a drawing or painting in situ and before leaving the site burying one portion of the work in the ground, under rocks or in trees while retaining the other half. Much later, up to years later, Wolseley returns to retrieve the buried portion. Upon joining it to its pristine partner, the complete work displays collaboration between himself and the environment including the insects, animals and climatic events which leave their mark upon the buried portion. One such work is Buried painting - Mt Gunson 1991-92. The two portions are clearly identifiable yet still retain a sense of completeness. The buried work acts much like a diary, being a record of the unknown forces that have left their mark on the work. This can be seen as a parallel to Wolseley's own practice of keeping visual diaries as records of his observations.

Other recent migrants to Australia may have a different perspective. Gudrun Klix is a ceramic artist who has addressed the issues of a recent migrant to Australia exploring their own notions of place and belonging. Her experiences of moving from a European country (via the United States) to Australia and as such feeling alienation, dislocation and a sense of living within an alien environment is expressed in such work as Wandering Hands (1999). This work is comprised of a large bed of unfired, dried terracotta clay upon which boat-like forms with fingers (or roots) in white porcelain skip lightly across the surface. The vast pool of dried red clay represents the red interior of Australia that Klix explored as away of becoming familiar with her new country. It also stands for the iron rich earth that Aboriginals have used for thousands of years in their rituals and as a way of marking their presence on the land through rock drawings. The boats are metaphors for the migrant experience of often only touching the surface of the cultural and social fabric of their new country. But the roots are also positive in that they at least suggest the possibility of "putting down roots".

Steve Harrison:

All of my work is made from raw materials that I dig up in my immediate locality. ... I am trying to make work that represents me, my locality and my self-reliant philosophy.13

All of Harrison's recent work has been made from material found within a 50 km radius from where he lives and works in the Southern Highlands of NSW. He uses locally collected rainwater onsite to make his own firebricks and wood from his own orchard for fuel. Harrison is committed to self sufficiency in his work. Where ever possible Harrison aims to use only locally available materials in all stages of the making process. Toni Warburton, in her review of Harrison's exhibition in the Legge Gallery in Sydney, uses the work terroir to describe his work.14 Terroir, often used to describe the influence on the soil, climate and growing conditions for the resulting character in a wine, can also be used to describe Harrison's work. As a wine reveals something of the place in which it was grown, Harrison's pots reveal something of the place from where he has collected his materials. The dark body shows the high iron content in his local materials while the glazes are also iron based, covering a spectrum of palest blue to dark tenmoku and iron spot glazes.

Harrison has also titled many pieces with the name of local landmarks which

... places the work firmly in, and of, the Southern Highlands.15

Harrison's work, while on the surface is closely linked to an Anglo/oriental tradition, becomes more due to its materiality and the intent of the artist. They are of a singular place and could not be of any other. I believe that in his work Harrison has developed a uniquely Australian ceramic vocabulary.

As a material the clay is crucial to my exploration of these ideas. Clay has long been used for work dealing with land issues as it itself obtained from the earth, being one of the most abundant materials. In some contexts it can stand in for the land itself. Like other ceramic artists I try to use clay's limitations such as shrinkage, unexpected cracking, together with its attributes of colour, permanence and malleability as reference points back into my work and concepts.16 This often means responding to the work as it comes out of the kiln with an open mind and not bound to preconceived notions of what the work should have looked like. This is for me the essence of why I am drawn to clay as material. One ceramic artist who is regarded as being in the forefront of working with clay in a manner unconstrained by tradition or convention was Peter Voulkus.

Peter Voulkos (1924 - 2002) was an American ceramist who is regarded as changing the face of ceramic art in the 20th Century. Voulkos once said, "There wasn't a crack I didn't like". 17 In his early work Voulkos produced classically thrown pots, dishes and casseroles. Although a superb thrower of domestic functional ware, for which he won many prizes, it is for his vigorously thrown and assembled stacked bottles and large plates that Voulkos is now recognized as one of the most influential ceramic artists in the past 50 years. Through the 1960's up to his death in 2002, including ten or so years when he turned to bronze, Voulkos worked with clay in a manner that was innovative and controversial. Voulkos slashed, gouged, embedded and scored the clay and as such the work became a record of how it was made.

How he does it is what it is about.18

Voulkos saw possibilities and beauty in cracks and torn edges. His way of making through spontaneous improvisation and has often been compared to the action painting style of Jackson Pollack. However Voulkos' spontaneity was coupled with an extensive knowledge and understanding of the material and how far he could take it. That he then could and would push it further is how he created works of such presence and power.

Evolution of studio work

It was always my intent to produce a series each of two dimensional and three dimensional works.

Doing etching as complimentary studies within my BA had a clear influence on my final ceramic work. I was drawn to the possibility of combining such disparate materials such as paper and clay into the same body of work.

Two dimensional work

My initial 2D work involved life size drawings of the plant Greater Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus). It was the proliferation of these plants in the fired affected areas that first piqued my interest in this topic. The initial growing stages of the plant involve very large, velvety green leaves growing in a rosette at the base with tall spikes of yellow flowers arranged in an upwards spiral to a point. Damage to the spikes can result in the division of the spikes into a candelabra shaped top. By the end of summer the plants have dried to a brown/black stalk, with the leaves desiccated and twisted. The flowers become seed pods (each plant is capable of producing up to 25,000 seeds) that spiral to the top of each spike. In this state the plants become quite sculptural and where dense, tower over all other grasses.

Due to the height of the weeds, some of which are up over 2 metres in height, to accurately reproduce the scale I used continuous rolls of Chinese calligraphy paper on which to draw. Starting from the top of the plant I would draw in a continuous manner, moving the paper up over the easel, down to the roots. This paper also provides a degree of translucency which would enhance the images if hung in such as way as to be viewed from both sides.

I was also interested in exploring ways in which to incorporate earth and clay colours into the paper. The use of local materials would be a way of "re-planting" the drawing back into the landscape from which the original plants were pulled.

Although I enjoyed these drawings as an adjunct to my clay work, it was my introduction to a new ceramic material Keraflex porcelain that provided me with the exciting opportunity to explore these images on a clay body that readily availed itself to producing two dimensional works.

Margaret Carlin, Regeneration Red Series, 2007

Keraflex porcelain tape is bought in thin, extruded, flexible sheets in either 0.5mm or 1.0mm thicknesses. Based on an industrial product, Keraflex is comprised of ceramic raw materials together with an organic binding matrix which burns out when fired. In the green state, Keraflex is very flexible and is capable of being handled with an ease that other porcelain sheets cannot match. Once high fired, Keraflex is as translucent as other porcelains at that thickness.

Keraflex has a different surface on either side of the sheet. Each of these coatings has a different quality that can be exploited. One side is smoother and less water resistant, while the other allows for oxide decoration to be wiped off without trace and provides more of a tooth.

In the first attempts with the Keraflex I exploited the dual-sidedness of the sheets to produce drawings that when illuminated revealed the drawing on the reverse side. I also exploited Keraflex's potential for layering. In its green state, Keraflex is able to be cut into shapes and then laminated using a specialized slurry to build up layers. By drawing on each of these layers before and after cutting, a drawing of several depths is possible. Due to its translucency, once fired the different layers are able to be seen when back-lit.

Concurrent with the experimentation with mark making and glazing, I was also striving for a more stylized depiction of the landscape in order to better refer to a sense of place.

In examining my earlier drawings on the Keraflex, I wanted to extend myself to attain a more minimal or abstracted approach to expressing my concept. My drawings originally had been about using the Greater Mullein as a metaphor for or representation of the effect of clearing the land to such an extent that native bush recovery was not possible. In moving away from the explicit representations of the Mullein, my next series of drawings on the Keraflex were quite complex.

The next series of drawings involved the use of local clay I had dug from my around my suburb. I applied the clay to the surface in large hand gestures. I felt that these gestures could be used to speak of the range of hills behind Duffy. I also incorporated very fine lines to refer to the visual dominance of the Mullein.The lines were made by incising very fine lines into the Keraflex and using oxide to inlay into the cuts. Great care was needed to ensure that the cuts weren't too deep as these would come apart during the firing and split the piece. There was a high loss rate until I could achieve the right balance between producing enough of an incision to hold the oxide and not cutting too deeply so as to cut right through the sheet of Keraflex.

Although the bush fires were the catalyst for this whole body of work, up to this time I had resisted a direct representation of the fire. I had been more interested in the aftermath than the event itself. However I found that this method of working enabled me to provide a representation of the fire without being too explicit. The incision also speaks of damage to the environment from such an event.

Three dimensional work

As part of my MVA studies I was keen to take advantage of the facilities in the Ceramic Workshop to work on large scale ceramic pieces. In a personal studio practice it is often difficult to make large work (over 800mm) due to space constraints within a private studio, as well limited access to a large kiln. Being able to make work on a scale that is much larger than I have previously undertaken has been an opportunity to develop new skills and gain invaluable experience.

Margaret Carlin, Regeneration #2 (detail), 2007

My first explorations in the 3D aspects of these series of works involved trying out different forms to reference landscape using clay. The mountain range behind Duffy has been very important for me in establishing a sense of place following the fires. Although the surrounding landscape has been altered irreversibly, the hills remain the constant. Therefore the hills became the starting point for the forms that I first developed.

I then began to explore other forms, returning to more solid terracotta works. In order to construct large scale work in clay, additions to the clay body are usually required. Additions such as grog to provide a tooth, and some fibre, often paper pulp, add to the handling qualities and can reduce the incidence of cracking during the drying process. It was in the preparing of such a clay body which led me to develop the first of the forms that ultimately led to the final form that I am now using.

Fortuitously, at this time when I was first resolving the problems of making such large ceramic works, Anton Reijnders was the visiting artist to the Ceramic Workshop. Anton has extensive knowledge and experience in making large ceramic forms. His assistance and advice in the technical aspects of making large work was invaluable. Fortunately Anton has recorded this knowledge in his book The Ceramic Process19 , which has become an invaluable resource. Anton's input directly influenced the composition of the clay body used, drying and firing schedules.

Margaret Carlin, Regeneration #8 (detail), 2007

From Anton's advice I now incorporate jute fibres in lieu of paper pulp. The extra length provided by the jute fibres reduces the incidence of cracks during drying as well as providing additional strength when moving the work once it is dry enough to be fired. The jute is cut into 4 cm lengths and mixed into the clay. They then act as a binder which holds the clay together more effectively than the shorter paper fibres. Also on Anton's advice, I used a deflocculent to replace some of the water. This helps to reduce the amount of shrinkage and the possibility of cracks as the piece dries.

Each of the large works has a different surface treatment as a reflection of variations in the landscape. Each one is worked quickly so as not to belabour the surface and retain a quality of freshness in the surface. Very few tools are used and many marks reflect my hands and arms. The scale of the works reflects the length and reach of my own body. This provides a physical connection to the making of these works that adds to the conceptual integrity of the series.

The range of surface treatments speaks about landscape that has less or more human influence or interference. Very few glazes have been used, and some have been treated with soda ash applied directly to the surface. I was keen to retain the sense of materiality of the clay in the work. Where slips or glaze have been used this has been to provide a narrative or contextual aspect, e.g. mapping details, to further explore the concepts of place. Due to my local suburb having a very iron rich clay sub-soil I have been able to incorporate this material in to some of the works.

Margaret Carlin

Footnotes

  1. Drabble, Margaret, A Writer's Britain: Landscape in Literature, Thames and Hudson, London, 1979 p270
  2. Jock Marshall, The Great Extermination., in Tim Bonyhady, The Colonial Earth, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2002, p 3
  3. Fitzhardinge, L. F. Old Canberra and district 1820 - 1910, in White, H.L. (ed), Canberra: a nation's capital. Sydney, ANZAAS,1954, P 15, in RB Lansdown, "Changing values towards the environment as exemplified in Canberra" in George Seddon and Mari Davis (eds) Man and landscape in Australia Towards an Ecological Vision, Papers from a symposium held at the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra 30 May - 2 June 1974,Canberra 1976, p332.
  4. Ibid p 333 - 335
  5. Ibid p 331
  6. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, Harper Collins, Bath, 1995, p 10
  7. Jay Appleton, The Symbolism of Habitat, Seattle ; London : University of Washington Press, c1990 p89
  8. Gary Catalano, Intimate Australia: The Landscape and Recent Australian Art. Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, p 19
  9. Mahood, Kim, Wendy Teakel Recent Works, Canberra 2002
  10. Wolseley, John, in Sasha Grishin, John Wolesley Land Marks, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1998, p 39
  11. Grishin ibid p 40
  12. Wolseley, John, "Landscape- Inscape" from DeCryse, J and Sant, A (eds) Our Common Ground, A celebration of art, place and environment, Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (Tasmania) & the Centre for Environmental Studies, Tasmania, 1994, p 97
  13. Steve Harrison participant: Ceramic Art London website accessed: http://www.ceramics.org.uk/artistInfo/entry_177.html
  14. Warburton, Toni, "balmoral blackware" in The Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol. 46 #1, April 2007, p 21
  15. Harrison, Steve, "magic dirt Blackware of the Southern Highlands', in The Journal of Australian Ceramics, Vol. 46 #1, April 2007, p 78
  16. Glix, Gudrun, artist statement accessed from : http://www.usyd.edu.au/sca/Gudrun_Klix.htm
  17. Pollex, John, "Ceramic Screens", in Ceramics Technical, No. 20, Sydney, 2005 p 22 -3
  18. Rose Slivka, in Rose Slivka and Karen Tsujimoto, The Art of Peter Voulkos, Kodansha International, Japan, 1995, p 14.
  19. Anton Reijnders, The Ceramic Process, A&C Black, London, 2005

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