GLASS CENTRAL, CANBERRA
The establishment of this blog was triggered by a number of factors, not the least being a paper that I stumbled across last year while researching a (not entirely)unconnected subject. The paper in question, given by Sue Rowley during the Ausglass Conference of 1993, presented a hypothetical sketch of the Australian Glass Community and it instantly struck a familiar chord. Indeed it appeared to be an astonishingly prescient description of the (Canberra) glass community circa 2007!! So much so that I reckon it warrants a reprint:
Australian Glass Community
(i)‘The glass community’ is likely to be a relatively cohesive community, marked out with clearly defined boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, somewhat isolationist in its attitudes to other art forms.
(ii)‘The glass community’ is likely to be internationalist rather than nationalist or local in outlook.
(iii) Trends in glass are likely to reflect and respond to those in architecture and interior design, more so than those of contemporary arts or even other craft practices. This is a manifestation of a closer allegiance of glass practice to the public and institutional sector than to the domestic domain, both in terms of production (Jam Factory, Meat Market, and art schools) and consumption (commissions, wholesale, architectural, design and manufacturing collaborations.)
(iv) The primary values of ‘the glass community’ are likely to be derived from a modernist formal aesthetic, a craft-based respect for technical virtuosity and sensitivity to the medium and a scientific understanding of the properties of glass. The properties of the material and the ways in which glass is invested with cultural meaning are highly suggestive of a keen interest in abstraction, in the qualities of light, in its relations with the scientific modes of investigation, a cool intellectualism which is strongly associated with certain aspects of modernism in the visual arts. And this appears to be borne out in the practice.
(v) The use of narrative, of cultural meaning, experience and identity, of memory and history, whilst not beyond the range of either the material or individual practitioners, appears not to be the subject of collective and sustained critical investigation by the glass community. Forays into post-modernism are likely to be banal appropriations of a ‘look’ of decorative pastiche, ironic eclecticism and popular culture allusion, but is likely to paper over the critical enquiring intellectual stance of post-modernism towards art and culture. Heaven knows what will happen when post-colonial theory is translated into a design aesthetic! Still that’s probably a few years down the track yet.
(vi) ‘The glass community’ is likely to be a conservative community, protecting privilege and resisting subversive incursions from other art forms and intellectual practices. It’s likely to place a strong value on its ‘disciplinary’ integrity. But this enforcement of the ‘discipline’ is likely to function as a mode of control and a means of reinforcing the existing power structures within the glass community. In turn, its recognition of excellence is likely to be along a narrow band of criteria. A great deal of the practice is likely to be a ‘normal science’ – that is, pushing out the parameters that are constituted from within existing technical and formal parameters.
(vii) Where are the sources of renewal for such a community? I guess at three:
(a) International – European and American – trends in glass, which presumably respond to their specific cultural milieu in varying ways.
(b) Architecture and contemporary design, especially in relation to the public domain.
(c) Insurgency. The generation which in a sense constitutes the founding fathers of glass are likely to seek to extend their authority indefinitely or at least to nominate their disciples as successors: but experience from other disciplines and art forms suggests that new leaders tend to emerge from previously marginalized areas of thought and practice. This can be a bitter time, and seems to be especially so in tight knit communities which have formed their sense of cohesion, identity and value around a core of disciplinary values which appear to be at stake in changes of leadership: concurrent shifts of paradigm, leadership and values can mean painful upheavals.
Well, golly gosh.
I was once told at art school that ‘glassies’ (students in the glass workshop) had been given the not entirely flattering nickname, ‘the penguins’ – “because you lot always waddle around together in one big group, quacking (or whatever noise it is that penguins make) away in unison.” Tragic but true, it must be said. It pays, in glass, to toe the company line. Not that anybody would confess to that – on the contrary the hierarchy will assure all and sundry that there is a healthy respect for, and indeed encouragement of, counter points of view. Well, at the risk of being vulgar, that’s absolute bollocks of course. Canberra is classically cabalistic, frankly, and disaffection is ‘discouraged’. We have a rigid culture of court favouritism and slippered bullying, where success is predicated on anointment as one of a very selectively groomed few, and wannabes are loath to damage their chance of acceptance into the rarefied establishment fold. I had often wondered why people just sat through meetings in absolute silence while the serial acolytes mouthed incorporated approbation and obsequious blandishments – I soon found out, of course. Anyone foolish enough to venture an unsanctioned or, god forbid, unsolicited, independent view is very swiftly knocked back into place. (Snarled at, even! There is obviously a very loose interpretation of ‘respect’ at play.) It’s pure Animal Farm, of course – all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others. So while it might be horribly disappointing, it’s hardly surprising that people are careful not say anything out of place (well, not in the open, or on the record, at any rate.) Late last year I was collared by the Tom Cruise of Australian Glass and berated over remarks that I’d made – allegedly reported to him by ‘eminent people’ (goodness!!) – apropos the appointment of the Director of the new Canberra Glassworks (a misquotation, as it happened.) He rounded off with the warning “This is a very small community and if you want to be part of it you’d better start watching what you say.” To which I replied “Well, actually, I already am part of this community and you know what? My opinions are as valid as anybody else’s.”
I’m not too keen on threats – and they’re usually hopelessly counter-productive at any rate. I’d already been thinking for some time about starting a blog, so the incident really just cemented the determination to kick-start an (authentically) open forum that would give voice to, and highlight, the rich diversity that is the wider Canberra Glass scene. The vibrant Fringe, so to speak – as opposed to the relentlessly promoted ‘usual list of suspects’ who are routinely trotted out, ad infinitum. Not that their work isn’t in the least deserving, but it’s not all that there is – and the repetition becomes a little tedious. This is an era focused firmly on market convention, and the attendant conservatism leads to a very stultified and joyless artistic scene indeed. It’s time to mount the breeches and arc up the insurgency. Otherwise we’re looking down the barrel of an alarmingly inbred and creatively bankrupt scenario indeed. I’m going to leave all the pompous, bombastic pontificating to those who clearly profit from it, and train my sights instead on anything and everything that genuinely catches my roving eye and curious attention…
Megan Bottari, 2007.