Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The intriguing world of tiny exhibitions - Craft ACT shows what small organisations can do

Beyond the big blockbusters, across Australia small and smallish arts and cultural organisations are creating a cultural life with our communities - often below the radar - that belies their size. There are many examples - this is just one. Let's just be grateful and not lose it.

We’re all used to the great big blockbuster exhibitions with all their wow and flutter. They are great. What’s really intriguing though is the world of tiny exhibitions, a babbling brook of activity that flows away – often unnoticed – under the tall timbers of the big institutions.

At Craft ACT at the moment you get four of them at once – in one smallish gallery space. That takes some serious curatorial skill and a big range of talent for a curator to draw on. As a member of the Craft ACT Board I get to go to quite a few of our exhibitions but this set of four really entranced me. Like most other small or smallish arts and cultural organisations we have a strong team to produce our exhibitions – exhibitions coordinator, curator, installation team. Unfortunately, as with other similar organisations, they are all usually the same person – so they have to be good at what they do.

Even, found petals, found cloth, embroidery thread, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist

From East Arnhem Land to Canberra 
Before you even reach the gallery, at the top of the stairs, is a small but beautiful display of handwoven bags in ochre colours from the Ramingining community in East Arnhem Land – as far from Canberra as you can get in Australia. Early career artists Marley and Linda Djangirri Malibirr use traditional craft techniques to express stories of Yolngu culture and country. The work, like many in the other exhibitions, is for sale, but don’t think about it for too long – when I was there almost half were already sold.

Walking into the gallery the first cab off the rank is serence and minimalist, almost bare, but beautiful. Meredith Hughes dazzles with a solo exhibition, ‘Looking for the i in desire’. She uses textile techniques, such as printing, cutting, piecing together like collage and Indian embroidery to explore emptiness linked to such events as family loss. Influenced by Buddhist meditation it is very elegant and spare. Just be careful not to pick up the fabric slips covered in personal reflections and stacked neatly on a plinth – they aren’t samples. A large fan mounted by itself on the end wall is made of pieces of silk from artificial flowers covered in the names of those who have passed away. It’s a very thoughtful piece.

A busier and much bigger set of works makes up the annual ‘Emerging contemporaries’ show, which reflects as much as is possible in one small exhibition, the range of practice occurring across the craft and design sector today. There are fifteen talented artists represented in this exhibition – too many to mention individually here but enough to keep you fascinated by the range and energy of the work. 

High level digital fluency
A common theme is the increasingly blurred boundaries between craft and design practice driven by the growth of the use of digital technology as well as the trend towards handmade objects. As the information sheet notes succinctly ‘Whilst the use of digital technology in craft practice is not new, its growing accessibility and early adoption by emerging practitioners results in an increasingly high level fluency and understanding of the possibilities and conceptual dimensions such technologies can add to craft practice.’ Yet, at the same time, reflecting the central role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, including art and design, in Australian contemporary culture, there are works that draw heavily on traditional country and culture to produce stunning contemporary works – linen fabric, silk scarves and innovative jewellery. These are people who are likely to go on to design and produce better plumbing and lighting (always a good thing), design theatre costumes with a life of their own, produce unique fabric or jewellery such as you have never seen before, hinting at a history stretching far back, and give you something to sit on while you contemplate all this and elegant tables that can be simply folded and put away.

Innovation nourished by cultural diversity 
At the very end of the gallery is a solo exhibition by Australian Korean Mi-Kyung Myung reminding us that Australia culture is very much a culture of diversity, exhibiting the innovative approaches that this nourishes. Using paper of many shapes and colours she reflects the simple elegance of the Korean tradition, with its emphasis on harmony with nature, while also being influenced by the innovative forms of modern Western architecture. Someone once said that if anything new was to be invented it would come out of Korea and this comment went through my mind as I viewed this exhibition, which was both traditional and new.

This is a refreshing example of the creative life of artists and small and smallish arts and cultural organisations that occurs everywhere across Australia and that so often gets overlooked by politicians and governments. It is occurring in my community right now but it occurs in everyone’s community any time. Let’s just be grateful and not lose it.

All four exhibitions run until Saturday 26 March, so if you live in Canberra or are visiting for whatever reason (perhaps you are there representing your local constituents) don’t miss this.

See also

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.


The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival
‘Across Australia, local communities facing major economic and social challenges have become interested in the joint potential of regional arts and local creative industries to contribute to or often lead regional revival. This has paralleled the increasing importance of our major cities as economic hubs and centres of innovation’, The immense potential of creative industries for regional revival.

In praise of the Berra
‘When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere’, In praise of the Berra.

Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left
‘Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems increasingly to come around almost before the preceding one has passed on. At a pre-election ACT arts forum contenders in local elections pitched their policies and plans. There was too much talk of infrastructure and public arts, not quite enough of local, regional and national (and international) synergies and nowhere near enough of the crucial role of operational funding and the importance of creative industries and the clever and clean knowledge economy of the future’, Like Christmas and Easter, election time seems to arrive before it has even left.

Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century
‘On a day and night which was bitterly cold – as cold as Canberra has been this year, with the hint of snow clouds overhead – I was reminded why I live here. As we wandered along after a full day of cultural institutions and design events, looking for somewhere to eat we impetuously popped into Restaurant Eightysix and even more impetuously were able to get a table. I had forgotten reading somewhere that famed long-former Adelaide chef, Christine Manfield was here for the month, cooking up an Asian-inspired menu. How much better could it get?’, Eating out in a cold, funky city – Canberra comes of age in the Asian Century.

Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world
‘Design and the language of design is very broad – much broader than architecture or industrial or graphic design – the forms we are most conscious of. Design is also very much about processes and the development of concepts across almost all areas of human activity. This means it also has a high relevance to the development of policy to solve pressing social challenges, moving beyond the world of design to embrace the design of the world. In a highlight of DESIGN Canberra this year, respected Dutch presenter Ingrid Van der Wacht led discussion about the relevance of design to innovative policy – from local, highly specific policy to grand strategic policy designed to change whole regions and even nations’, Design for policy innovation – from the world of design to designing the world.

National and local – putting arts and culture upfront
‘Arts and cultural policy is an important way out spelling out why and how arts and culture are important to both Australia as a whole and to specific states and regions. Developing arts and cultural policy for the ACT is unique because it is both the capital of the nation – hosting most of our national cultural institutions and a strong international diplomatic presence – and at the same time, an important regional centre.’ National and local - putting arts and culture upfront.

Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts
‘Asked in the most recent Senate Additional Estimates hearings about cuts to Ministry for the Arts funding in the Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook review, the Department of Communications and the Arts replied that there were cuts of $9.6m over the forward estimates. This seriously understates the cumulative long-term magnitude and effect of these cuts and underestimates, just as with the national cultural institutions, the long-term damage. Yet this is the real and permanent impact – a compound effect of creeping cuts’, Collateral damage – the creeping cumulative impact of national arts cuts.

Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?
‘With a Coalition Government which now stands a far better chance of being re-elected for a second term, the transfer of the Commonwealth’s Arts Ministry to Communications helps get arts and culture back onto larger and more contemporary agendas. This move reflects that fact that the new industries in the knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, are both clever and clean. Where they differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture and are a central part of projecting Australia’s story to ourselves and to the world. In that sense they have a strategic importance that other sectors do not’, Full circle – where next for Australian national arts and culture support in the 21st Century?

Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture
‘A far more important issue than arts funding is how can the broad arts and cultural sector become a better organised, effective voice for arts and culture and its wider importance for Australia? Changes like this happen because they are able to happen – because decision-makers think they can get away with it. The arts and culture sector and its supporters have to be influential enough that decision-makers think carefully about the importance and the standing of Australia’s arts and culture and weigh any decisions they make carefully in terms of the strategic needs of the sector. These current dire circumstances may provide the opportunity we have needed to look seriously at this question’, Time for the big picture and long view for arts and culture.

Valuing the intangible
‘We are surrounded by intangible cultural heritage – Indigenous and non-Indigenous – and often it’s incredibly important to us but we can’t seem to understand why or put a name to its importance. So many issues of paramount importance to Australia and its future are linked to the broad cultural agenda of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). In particular they are central to one of UNESCO’s key treaties, the International Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.’ Valuing the intangible.

The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future
‘The swan song of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, ‘Creative Business in Australia’, outlines the experience of five years supporting Australia’s creative industries. Case studies and wide-ranging analysis explain the critical importance of these industries to Australia’s future. The knowledge economy of the future, with its core of creative industries and its links to our cultural landscape, is both clever and clean. Where the creative industries differ completely from other knowledge economy sectors is that, because they are based on content, they draw on, intersect with and contribute to Australia’s national and local culture’, The clever business of creativity: the experience of supporting Australia's industries of the future.

Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture
‘The developing creative industries are a critical part of Australia’s future – clean, innovative, at their core based on small business and closely linked to the profile of Australia as a clever country, both domestically and internationally.’ Creative industries critical to vitality of Australian culture.

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