This course is taught by Contemporary maker Prof. Elisabeth Holder.

It involves the exploration of materials via an approach which deconstructs a traditional methods. Instead of engaging with a material with the intent of controlling the form which it will finally take, we are encouraged to engage in a dialogue with the material, Allowing the material to determine it’s own form, through it’s own inherent qualities.

First class: Elisabeth enters the room and places 20-odd A4 kraft envelopes on the desk, each numbered. Then she proceeds to pass around a hat full of folded papers, also numbered. Each of us draws a number, and takes the corresponding envelope. Some envelopes are light, flat, empty looking, others have strange protrusions creasing their surface.
My envelope, number 18, is relatively flat and slightly weighty – a bit nondescript.
When all the recipients claim their envelopes, (there are six or so unclaimed. Excess secrets.) we all begin to tear them open. It is like christmas, preparing myself to react adequately, regardless of my impression.

On first impressions:
– Tasteless, odourless, no distinct sound on manipulation (except throwing it against a hard surface)
– amorphous, reformable
– opaque, except when in very, very thin layers, becomes semi-translucent.- oily residue
– leaves traces of itself behind on skin, paper
– Also holds traces of its surrounding.
– affected by temperature, heat makes it more pliable, cold more stiff

Now, we are instructed to remember and consider our first experiences of the material.

*   *   *

I am young, perhaps six or seven years of age. I am in a cubby house made of timber in my back yard, built by my dad. I spent hours in that place, drawing, painting, making potions and perfumes and tea and toys and figurines. Tiny imaginary machines, homes for creatures and toys.
I have a box of coloured plasticine, eight colours or maybe more. I am always careful to keep the colours separate – only ever pressing different colour lightly together, so as it return them to their separate wads of colour when I was finished. it only takes one mistake, for the piece to be forever changed. It wasn’t as though the colours mixed, like my paints did, but rather swirled into an impossible chaos of multiple colours. 
It was summer, and I became distracted by the flowers and sun and insects, so I abandoned my workshop for a few weeks to the heady rhythms of the outside world. Returning to my bench, I found my box of plasticine, transformed by the sun’s glass-house effect on the plastic container from neat wads of colour to one great colourful mass, cast to the interior shape of the box.
I was disappointed, but also mesmerised by this incidental artwork – I stuck a heart-shaped piece of soap in the centre and kept it in my bedroom, in its box, for years. I never touched it again.

*   *   *

Next, we are to take the material, and consider what we might like to do with it. Think about the form we want it to take. I want to see how fine I can make it, stretch it out into one long, striated ribbon, fold it back onto itself, so the light filters through the surface, finding places to hide inside the curves.

And then, we are instructed to make it.

I try stretching the plasticine out – it is surprisingly unpredictable, highly elastic, but not uniform. It tears and ripples. It is at first kind of disappointing, because I know immediately I won’t be able to do what I wanted. Or at least, the material doesn’t want to be controlled as such. So I resolve to let go of my vision and let the material decide on a form. I begin to gently stretch and tear pieces of the material away from the lump, prying it between my fingers. As it gets thin, it warms and changes immediately under the heat of my fingertips. The torn pieces are very fine around the edges, rippled and glassine, like a carnation petal or internal issue. I start placing pieces onto the table surface, layering them, letting them curve and gently bend, finding their own forms. Even after I place them, the pieces continue to change and fall over time, slowly evolving.

The form I make is incredibly voluminous and intricate, like seaweed or some organic material. There is no symmetry or geometry, but there are forces at work – the piece is not static, but rather in a constant, slow flux. Collecting materials from the air around it. Not resisting heat or pressure or time, but gently accepting it.It can never be returned to its original state. Or perhaps, it’s original state doesn’t matter. It is flux, embodied.  

I find myself attributing a kind of poeticism to the material, and feeling a kind of kinship. Like it is teaching me something about experience and acceptance.

After reflecting on our objects, we have a mini exhibition of our explorations. Everyone is given a dozen or so small strips of paper. We are to make a small evaluative statement about everyone else’s works – anonymous, placing the paper face-down next to the work. I have included them below. 

 

Both material and process are an integral part of this project. I am continuing my exploration into materials, simultaneously confronting my fears surrounding them.

My first experiments with pigskin involved removing the pieces from the feet (which were bought from the supermarket, and later boiled to obtain bone material) which were covered with a mixture of sodium bicarbonate and table salt. They were left in the sun to dry out and preserve. Unfortunately, the skin was crudely sliced, and ended up being thick, lumpy and mostly unusable.

My second attempt at skin preparation involved carefully slicing the material (this time from a back-rib cut of pork) and scraping the fat and ligament tissue using a large kitchen knife. This work-intense process breaks down the fat cells in skin, compressing the layers into a much finer, semi-translucent skin. It also meant that I extracted a vast amount of pure pig fat, which is visible as a creamy white substance in the photos below. I am coping a little better when dealing with animal materials now, and was able to sleep after doing this one…
My hands are visibly softer today, too. I think there is something kind of poetic about this process.

I mounted this new piece onto some wood, stretching it out using pins to keep it from contracting and rolling up. It is now drying, and should be ready for working in a few days.

Meanwhile, I’ve been considering the techniques which I might use with these materials. Scrimshaw is the very old technique of hand engraving into bone or ivory and filling the engraved surface with India ink to create drawings. Traditionally, the imagery depicts maps, animals, typography, portraits and nautical scenes (it was a popular past-time among whalers). I like the poetic metaphor of scarring the surface of the material, making stories into histories. I found a few helpful tutorials: Female scrimshander Viveca demonstrates her technique on mammoth ivory, using oil paint as a fill; Mark A DeCou’s tutorial uses powder horn and printer’s ink; while Michael Sheppard’s site gives an insight into the history of scrimshaw and contemporary applications of the technique. 

I am also fascinated by the idea of marking the skin, either via a crude form of tattooing, or perhaps pyrography. Belgian artist Wim Delvoye tattooed live pigs, which lived as artworks, and were taxidermically preserved post-mortem. Pyrographers traditionally use leather or wood as a drawing surface, upon which marks are burned using a hot metal tip (like a soldering iron). Sue Walters works with some less usual materials like paper and vegetable ivory (tagua nut) and makes remarkably high-fidelity work. I’d also like to try this technique on bone, too.

I have also begun to consider and experiment with other techniques; superfine crochet based on Irish crochet; various types of hand-worked embroidery (cross stitch, needlepoint, whitework, etc.) More on technique in the next few posts, I think.

 

Without overanalysing, I think I am drawn to these intricate, repetitive and time-consuming techniques as a way of transforming and connecting (or is it re-connecting?) with the materials. And those who know me well know also of my compulsive hand-work as an anti-anxiety activity…

I’ve been considerably frustrated by his project over the last week — the mixed responses from people have forced me to rethink my approach.

On one hand, people have been confronted by the process of the project thus far, seeing the full visceral nature of the material, but on the other hand, the feedback I’m getting from other people in the class is that it’s simply not confronting enough through materials alone.

I’ve been thinking a lot about concept and communication through making. someone once said to me that in order to communicate a concept through objects, you must peel back the layers of meaning and metaphor so that the idea is basal. So that the concept can be communicated simply. It seems obvious — viewers will layer their own meanings on to the form, you needn’t weigh it down with excess metaphor.

I began to consider the reasons behind my revulsion of the violent acts, behind the cruelty, the flesh. I thought about the time when I decided to stop eating meat, when the feelings of revulsion were at their highest.

It began in 2003. I was barely 18, in my first semester of a design degree, living at home, It was in January of this year that my home town was hit by serious bushfires. My mother and sister got caught in the path of the fire whilst trying to rescue my sister’s horse, and were seriously injured. My mother received second and third degree burns to over 30%, and my sister over 65%.

In the weeks and months following, both of them underwent multiple procedures and surgeries in an attempt to save their lives. There were kidney failures, collapsed lungs, tracheotomies, amputations, muscle grafts, skin grafts, skin and bone debridement, and multiple serious infections. Bodies deconstructed and reconstructed. Somehow, both of them made it through, and enjoy a relatively good quality of life today (in no small part due to their incredible strength, determination and depth of character).

Of course, the initial shock of learning the ill fate of a loved one is severely distressing, but nothing could have prepared me for the visceral horror I was to experience over the course of that year.

I remember in full, vivid horror my first sighting of my mother and sister, in the Intensive Care Unit. Having been airlifted to a specialist unit in Sydney, my dad and I had risen early on the Sunday-after-Black-Saturday to make the three-hour drive [in absolute silence].

In a reclusive ‘mediating room’, we were given a two-hour ‘prep’ from the head burns specialists as to the current conditions. They informed us of the present, asked about the past, and talked only about the immediate future. As if the week after that didn’t exist. They described with typical frankness what the bodily state of the patients were, in numbers and science, in probabilities and cold, hard facts. The full extent wouldn’t be clear for at least a week, but it was at present not promising.

Then, my father and I were led into the ICU.

I will never forget the smell of that place. Heavy chemical disinfectant, masked with a heady, unrealistic floral perfume. Heavily sweet ammonia, struggling to mask the saltiness of stricken bodies, of plasma and sweat and blood and protein. Like one is the antithesis of the other, and somehow they are meant to make a neutral product. There are still certain supermarkets I can’t enter because of that smell.

We were led past elderly people with the rattle of imminent death in their lungs. Past overdoses, past diabetic comas, past organ failures, heart attacks, strokes. Past people hooked up to machines, machines that breathed, pulsed, pumped. Machines that beeped and hummed and beat in a tired, stagnant rhythm. I hated that place. It was a machine. Senseless. Giving and taking life, like some absurd, impulsive god. A Deus ex Machina.

At what was almost the end of the line, I peered through an almost shut curtain, seeing a morbidly obese shape, bloated, heavy, straining under the weight of breath and machine. A swollen, amorphous shape. But when our guides stopped short of the end of the room, I knew something must have been wrong. Very wrong.

That mass of flesh, it was them. One of them. I couldn’t tell which one. Their bodies, in a state of extreme trauma, ballooned up with fluids. So much so, that the skin on their limbs and hands had to be split [through all layers] via scalpel. In this situation, no pressure bandages are applied. The skin was heavily damaged – pink and black, wet with fluids and patched up with squares of mesh dressing – white and soaked with blood and yellowing plasma.

I couldn’t tell them apart. Not immediately, anyway. It is profoundly disturbing to not recognise your own relatives. Those unconscious mechanisms we have for facial recognition hit a wall. I was overwhelmed by this intense absurdity. Simultaneous love and revulsion. The grimace on their faces – massively swollen lips pulled back in what may have been pain, terror, or sheer physical reaction – revealed their teeth. Like what dental records are to the decomposed body, the teeth were the only recognisable remnants of my mother and sister. Yellow-white teeth, still straight, regular, defiant.

I have included below images of patients with similar injuries, which will give you an impression of the physical trauma associated with severe burns – but I must warn you, they are GRAPHIC and REAL and I don’t really think you need to look at them to understand the nature of the subject.

It is impossible to empathise with someone in this state. I say impossible because the I think that if you were somehow able to comprehend being conscious in that horrific state, feeling the sensation (or lack of sensation, as is experienced with severe nerve damage associated with full-thickness burns) of a forever-changed, forever-changing state. I have felt so much guilt for being unable to comprehend that. For dissociating my concept of them from the reality of them. It has taken so long to reconcile those two things. I still have not reconciled my guilt.

So then, what becomes of the KONFRONTATION project? For me, material and process becomes a way to reconcile these memories. More on material and process in the next post.

I must also add this link to the Boston Globe website, as it houses some dramatic imagery from the recent bushfires in Victoria, Australia. The images show the cruelty and fragility of the Australian landscape and the devastating aftermath. Again, your personal discretion is advised.

Sarah_Illenberger4 Sarah_Illenberger3 Sarah_Illenberger5

Sarah_Illenberger2  Sarah_Illenberger1

I ❤ you, Sarah Illenberger. You could be Michel Gondry’s younger, cooler sister.

And come back down.

Art/Design/Life musings collected at Things That We Learn.

KONFRONTATION, pt. 1 details the background to the project.

I have begun exploring bone and horn as possible materials for my project. 

I purchased a piece of hunting memorabilia – a trophy mount of the antlers of a Roe deer (complete with sawn-off skull fragment) – from the local fleamarket.

After a very confronting trip to the butcher, I purchased some cheap bony cuts, including sliced beef shinbone and pig feet. More confronting was having to handle the pieces themselves (having not touched meat for around six years, it is a very alien concept to me…) and extracting the usable material from the cuts.

First, the pieces are simmered for a long while in water with a bit of detergent. This helps break down the fat, marrow and remaining tissue. For me, the smell was horrendous. It was rich and heavy, and loaded with the artificial citrus of the soap didn’t help. It smelled like an old kitchen. In fact, the whole 32sqm of my flat smells like an old kitchen, despite all the windows being open, and copious amounts of air freshener. A part of me keeps telling me I shouldn’t deny myself the full extent of the experience, but my nausea dictates otherwise…

Scraping off the excess flesh and removing the marrow was also less-than-enjoyable… The marrow became this sloppy, gelatinous mass, which was to be pushed out with a brave finger. Fortunately, it revealed on one piece a stunning area of lacy, porous bone. Less than ideal for traditional carving, perhaps — but something I’d like to exploit.

After boiling away the tissues, the bones are to be sunned for at least a few days. Thitutorial on bone preparation details the rest of the process, which I am yet to complete. This succinct supply and prep list is also really helpful. Luckily, most of the tools can be found on a jeweller’s bench, and I will happily improvise where necessary.

Luckily, I also obtained a small piece of pre-prepared cattle bone to play with. It is a beautiful material, dense and chalky, with subtleties of texture and colour throughout. It polishes beautifully, too. My preference is to use a nail bufffer (the dispoable kind, usually with two emery surfaces and two buffing surfaces adhered to a cushioned board), which is what I often use on my melamine pieces, after initial emery (anything up to 600). 

The smell released from the bone from carving is also pungent (though not as much as the boiling, fortunately). It has the distinct smell of umami – the proteinous aroma present in meat, mushrooms and human semen… 

I’ve included some pictures of this intitial research below, but I should warn you in advance – it’s not so nice to look at. But then, we’re all part of the system, right?

Roe deer trophy mount, sliced

Roe deer trophy mount, sliced

Roe deer trophy mount, sliced

Roe deer trophy mount, sliced, with skull piece

Cattle shinbone, after initial boiling

Cattle shinbone, after initial boiling

Cattle shinbone, in different stages of preparation

Cattle shinbone, in different stages of preparation

Cattle shinbone, after initial boiling

Cattle shinbone, after initial boiling

Pig feet, ready for boiling

Pig feet, ready for boiling

Pig foot, ready for boiling

Pig foot, ready for boiling, knuckle intact.

Tools for working with bone

Tools for working with bone

Roe deer trophy mount, large red deer antler, cattle shinbone

Roe deer trophy mount, large red deer antler, cattle shinbone

{N.B. This post has been edited for clarity.}

“Konfrontation” is the name of one class I am taking, led by Dutch designer/maker Herman Hermsen.

The aim of the project is to create one or a series of objects (which may or may not be wearable) which in some way deal with the concept of confrontation. This could be a confrontation between viewer-and-object, viewer-and-wearer, maker-and-object, or myriad other combinations.

My response to this brief is to create a series of wearables which deals with our individual capacity for violence and the acceptance (or, for the most part, inacceptance) of this very human attribute. It is confronting and difficult for the average person to accept that they could willingly kill, physically harm or cause pain to another sentient being (be it animal or another human). However, we are faced with this prospect every day. Humans eat and use animal products; and wilfully exploit and harm one another.

So how do we deal with these ever-present threats to our composure?

For the most part, we don’t kill our own meat, skin our own hides our gut our own fish. Our animals come from factories — plastic wrapped, pre-minced, de-boned, tanned, canned, safe and inert. We are not the slaughterers, not part of the violence. Behind doors, from field to supermarket to plate. Through avoidance comes transcendence, apparently.

And likewise, when faced with the prospect of human-to-human violence, we document it with morbid curiosity — film, television, hi-res, full-colour glamour-horror — we recoil in disgust, and are compelled to disgust; to dissociate ourselves from the violence; to avoid admitting our own capacity for violence. Our humanness. So creates necessity for such spectacle. So we can constantly recoil. So we can remind ourselves of how much we are “not that”.

Enjoying our avoidance over the 6 o’clock news while eating a steak dinner.

But I cannot deny myself that I do not have this capacity. In fact, I want to embrace it. The beautiful thing about being human, having free will, is our ability to make choices. Knowledge is bliss. I am not advocating violence, by any means. Suffering is the consequence of violence, and suffering is terrible. We must remember, we all have the capacity to suffer.

The thing I am most interested in are these ‘safety mechanisms’ we have in place, in order to somehow deny our own capacity for violence.  Constructs to protect our selfhood, our identity. 

My intent is not to create an overtly political or evangelical statement, but rather an enlightening one. I want to create beautiful objects with the remnants of violence. To explore the tension between self-identity, beauty and violence. I strongly feel that the statement is far more powerful if the audience draws conclusion of their own accord, rather than being smacked in the face with it. The last thing contemporary art needs is another misanthrope.

More importantly, I will confront myself within the process of making these works. Having been a vegan for five years (which I am no longer; as of December 2007 I have been a vegetarian) I have begun to accept the nature of human experience and my own capacity for violence, my own “humanness”. So I am willingly partaking in the cycle, buying animal parts, preparing and using these materials, these remnants of violence.

Now, onto the background research:

OurDailyBread1 OurDailyBread3 OurDailyBread2 OurDailyBread4

The film Unser Täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread) demonstrates the concept I want to explore. It is an un-narrated documentary constructed solely out of footage from inside food-production factories, in the form of a series of rhythmic, composed vignettes. There is no overt political, moralistic or evangelistic overtones, rather the hypnotic effect of repetitive production lines is what is so compelling.

The next instalment will document practical research – materials, techniques and aesthetics.

{N.B. this post has been edited for clarity.}

Next: KONFRONTATION, pt. 2

13CapturedConversations Anti_War_speeches AIDS2008LouiseBufardeci Landscapes2004LouiseBufardeci Starter_Pistols2005LouiseBufardeci GoverningValues2004LouiseBufardeci

Louise Bufardeci is an Australian artist based in Melbourne who works primarily in textile pieces, subverting traditional techniques in order to explore political, ethical and social tensions. My personal favourite is the series Starter Pistols, which uses bargello, a traditional Florentine needlepoint technique, to map sound waves of gunshots from various weapons from around the world.

latvian5 latvian5 latvian3

latvian6 latvian2 latvian4
 

Anyone who loves knitting, crochet, tapestry, bargello, cross-stitch or 8-bit graphics will likely be as enraptured as I am in these traditional Latvian mittens.

These 4,500 pairs of mittens were made for the NATO summit held in 2006 – each pair hand-knitted, and decorated with traditional and regional symbols and patterns. Even the colour scheme holds symbolic significance — not to mention being incredibly unique and beautiful.

Segue to: Colour lovers

Seriously, one of the best websites out of the web 2.0 revolution. Users can make, share and hijack one another’s colours,  schemes and patterns. The inbuilt colour-scheming software is — gasp! dare I say? — better than adobe’s highly intuitive colour interface. On top of creating colour schemes in HEX, RGB, CYMK or HSB values, you can download colours in a number of user-friendly formats. It will even calculate the perfect colour combination according to set colour principles (complementary, analogous, triadic and split-complementary). Another fab feature is that you can upload an image, and the software will pixelate it so you can pick out the most appealling scheme from the image.

Need I go on?

Having been so quiet of late deserves explanation….

It looks as though I’ll be going on exchange to Germany early next year, to study at the Fachhochlschule Dusseldorf – {University of Design & Applied Sciences, Dusseldorf}.

As such, I’ve been busily designing a portfolio, making a website, writing applications, a curriculum vitae – not to mention all the other travel necessity nasties. Moreover, it’s sent me into a bit of a financial panic (just like the rest of the general populus, I suppose…) so I’ve decided to get cracking and start selling some of my wares.

Happy_Accidents

Hence – Happy Accidents. has been launched!

I’ll be selling hand-made and hand-altered wares including jewellery, vintage clothing, paper goods and other small treasures. I think I’ll try as bet I can to document the process here, which could be helpful to other budding Etsians. Feedback I always appreciated, too!

I’ve listed a small few items, with more to come on a weekly basis. I’ve tried to refine the colour palette and aesthetic to keep it graphic and eye-catching, and reflect the pieces. It’s surprisingly difficult to create decent product photography without the use of studio equipment — currently I’m using sunshine and polystyrene sheet (as reflectors).

Watch this space. 🙂

a

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