identity & empowerment through design

Life is more tactile in the tropics

Something I love about the tropics is the impact nature has on all things man-made. It is so difficult for things to resist the elements : the moisture of humidity, rust, paint flaking from the sun, the washing away of roads and crumbling of concrete.

Life is more tactile, more stimulating to the senses.

Working with a women’s shellcraft project on a remote island in the Western Visayas region of the Philippines, it becomes even more apparent how temporal the landscapes are in the tropics.

My colleagues laughed when I added to the well known phrase “Its more fun in the Philippines” that “… it’s also more bumpy in the Philippines!”, because every journey I’ve taken so far – from island hopping, to squeezing into a jeepney or tricycle, or braving the local mini van with the long since broken suspension – the journey is long, slow and bumpy.

Not that I mind that at all – there’s something about the lack of speed and feeling every pot hole in the road that makes me soak up the experience, the scenery, and the village life that happens on the side of the road.

Its something I always miss when I return home, where the roads are sealed to smooth perfection, the speed limits allow you to breeze through the countryside at the blink of an eye, and there is very rarely anything unexpected about a journey – no loads of sugar cane dropped on the middle of the road, or random potholes marked by sticks of bamboo, or buffalos grazing on the kerb with children playing on their backs.

Life is so measured and controlled, so smooth that it loses that feeling of invigoration and stimulation that I gives me the joy and desire to travel.

Life Patterns : decorative detail under the microscope

Whilst visiting Copenhagen, I stumbled upon an intriguing ceramics and textile exhibition at the Danish Art & Design Museum. Set in the textile sample room – drawers upon drawers of fabric and textile examples from around the world displayed in wide oak map drawers – Danish ceramicist and designer Helle Hove has incorporated the existing collection with her own ceramic creations.

“Life patterns is not an exhibition of works in a traditional sense – It is a site specific project inspired by the character and ambiance of the exhibition room – a room similar to a laboratory or “ornamentarium”.” Helle Hove.

Life patterns explores our way of seeing, the room dimly lit with constantly changing hues, emphasising the small details we choose to see.

Each viewer is invited to place a small paper ring on the objects to frame a point which their eye recognised as particularly interesting – the ring presenting a suggestion to the next viewer.

The light in the room constantly changes, the cool and warm tones react to your position in the room, changing the patterns and form of the objects sitting on the tables and the shadows that they cast.

What is most interesting throughout the exhibition is the way the arrangement of objects encourages the viewer to take a deeply analytical and scientific approach to viewing what are clearly decorative objects. Removing the decorative context, in dimly glowing petrie dishes the ceramic shapes become living organisms for the duration of the experience.

Berlin : a concrete canvas for urban expression

Berlin could be described as the Louvre for modern street art – not conventionally navigated like typical galleries or museums, instead through backstreets and underground passages, lit by daylight or the dim glow of street lights. Berlin is a gallery of graffiti, stencilling and tagging that is free to view but exclusive to those who dare to scratch beyond the city’s surface.

The most famous street art example is the remaining stretch of the Berlin wall, a wall which can also be attributed to the growth of this art-form in Berlin. The significance of the area, and the conviction of expression on this concrete canvas demonstrates the power of street art; a form of artistic expression that goes beyond aesthetic appeal communicating political messages and illustrating controversial aspects of local society.

Urban art, in general, is a form of cultural expression, its application within the public domain often inspiring comment or controversy. The social commentary and engagement of the art is influenced by the geographic location of the work in relation to local social demographics – revealing the layers of social classes within a city’s urban landscape.

The more public and visible spaces could be likened to the prime position of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre with full engagement of the visitors and the main attraction. In terms of public real estate, in most modern cities these premium urban canvasses are reserved for commercial billboards resulting in monetary transactions for their tenancy.

Instead of being the centrepiece of a city (the gallery) premium street art canvas walls of urban areas with less commercial interest, off the main retail strips, in back lanes, underneath bridges, along the edges of transit ways and train lines, and even in disused and neglected buildings. The selection of location is symbolic of a movement against mainstream control, and becomes symbolic of a freedom of expression.

Urban art is a form of expression for various minority groups; an artistic movement, a social class, a political belief, a religious faith.

In Berlin the artistic community Tacheles have taken residence in an abandoned building shell on Oranienburger Strasse. The building has become studio space for numerous artists working with reclaimed and recycled objects, re-applied to various mediums including sculpture, jewellery, paintings, installations, performance and graphic arts. The building itself has an intimidating appearance to those who prefer a clean, well-lit, commercially branded city experience: it captures the gritty grime and darkness of the “other-side” of Berlin, and on this flip-side the artists find their inspiration from themes and subjects that are generally taboo in mainstream culture.

In Pakistan, a country in constant political, religious and cultural conflict, graffiti and stencilling was the chosen form of expression for artist Asim Butt. Between 2000 and 2008 he daringly expressed his opposition to local and national politics by using ruined and rubbled walls across Lahore and Islamabad, another topic of taboo within his local culture.

Asim Butt’s profile grew in proportion to his daring application of street art and became a silent but strong voice for many of his countrymen who opposed the political and military directions at that time. His artistic career came to an abrupt end in 2010 when he allegedly took his own life in his apartment in Karachi.

In all its forms graffiti and street art is a contemporary form of expression, a voice for urban minorities. In the past decade the growth of underground culture (or urban minority cultures) has had a strong influence on urban fashion trends from graphic arts, music, clothing and social culture. Street art’s growing influence has seen it emerge with an identity that is connected strongly with contemporary urban culture. As a result in larger cities the acceptance and visibility of street art has become a sign of contemporary cultural development and urban sophistication.

Cultural colour against a grey past : Polish Wycinanki paper crafts

However grey the weather or the past, Polish handicrafts are a complete and vibrant contrast. Distinctly colourful, bold, and contrasting colours are evident across a range of techniques including weaving, wood carving, Wycinanki (paper cut-out), ceramics and embroidery. The use of simple, repetitive and symmetrical designs is characteristic of Polish folk art, with motifs often consisting of flowers, leaves, roosters, horses, peacocks, and other farm animals.

For me Wycinanki was the most distinct craft; although simple it has a contemporary aesthetic as a two dimensional finished form incorporating bold blocks of colour similar to that which could be produced on a computer. The stencil-like finish and layers of different coloured paper shapes is like a material version of Adobe Illustrator.

The hand-carved timber figurines, often of religious characters or animals, were also a stand out. Petite hanging birds of different bold colours and patterns, finished with a gloss lacquer.

The hand-painted ceramics from Poland’s signature manufactory Boleslawiec was a pleasant surprise, particularly for myself, as a lover (and hoarder) of ceramics. The patterns and motifs drew from similar natural inspiration as other local handicrafts, flowers, leaves, birds and other farm animals, but what made these pieces quite distinctive were the bright colours and dense, intricate patterns; these almost mimicking the traditional embroidery techniques through brushstroke instead of needle.

Local organisation Cepelia has been established to promote the production of local handicrafts and has a number of stores across Poland to promote the products.

For further links to Polish handicraft producers, visit the décologist’s facebook page.

The intrepid adventures of a flower hunter

Intrepid adventure these days seems like a fading concept as travel to all corners of the globe is comprehensively documented by photographs and videos streamed online accompanied by personal bloggings of travellers. Very few places seem genuinely remote to the tourist traps, and it is in stealth that the undiscovered and untouched are reached.

Turning the clock back a hundred years or so, the glowing red heart of Australia was a beacon for intrepid adventure luring explorers and scientists from around the world seeking to acquaint themselves with the exotic wildlife and harsh landscapes the country boasted.

One of these was Ellis Rowan, who was neither a scientist nor an explorer – well not of the land discovering kind – she was an artist known as the “the flower hunter”.

I first learnt of Ellis Rowan’s story by reading her biography “The Flower Hunter” which threaded together letters and detailed journal writings into an accurate and inspiring account of her adventures. She was at the forefront in her field – accurately and colourfully drawing and painting hundreds of native floral specimens throughout Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand.

Ellis Rowan, the Flower Hunter, timed her expeditions based on the flowering seasons, which was quite a challenge given the transport options of the time – before reliable motorised transport and before there were any well-established roads in the Australian outback.

Her artworks were created at a time when across the world there was an emphasis on nature, nature brought inside influencing the interior decor of homes across the world. Of note in particular during this period were the decorative floral prints of William Morris applied to fabrics and wallpapers.

Ellis Rowan was also known for her interest and involvement in Australia’s indigenous people, at a time where most of society still believed the indigenous cultures to be primitive and lacking sophistication. Rowan admired their connection with the land and knowledge of the local wildlife, often employing their assistance in her expeditions as guides.

Strangely enough, Ellis Rowan experimented with plastic surgery having a facelift when the procedure was only in its infancy – it was said that as a result she remained expressionless for the rest of her life.

The Flower Hunter: The remarkable life of Ellis Rowan can be read on Google books.

Augarten Wien: an unbreakable tradition

The history of ceramics in Europe, I find, is quite a fascinating one – closely tied to the days of exploration and merchant trade from the East, charged by an elite but competitive cast of Royal families that many European countries boasted in the 17th and 18th centuries. For a country to have its own porcelain manufactory was ticket to this elite level of Royalty, one that ate their cake from plates intricately crafted from secret porcelain recipes and exquisitely hand-painted by highly skilled artisans.

For almost 300 years Augarten Wien has been the epitome of Viennese style – delicate, smooth, clean lines, and forms with movement and expression. Visiting the Manufactory Museum today, their signature style is stronger than ever, collaborating with contemporary designers to present new collections that continue in the tradition of using colourful glazes, delicate detail and dynamic forms.

The Manufactory was established in the early 1700s by Emperor Karl VI, who granted Claudius Innocentius du Paquier the special privilege of being Vienna’s sole porcelain producer after formulating the porcelain recipe (possibly from the earlier established Meissen manufactory in Germany).

Behind the scenes, the Manufactory resembles a laboratory with each step of the production process carefully measured and monitored – a result of many years perfecting techniques down to a fine art. The artisans each complete 3 years of intense training before beginning work for the manufactory and are assigned to a specific area to further hone their skills. The steadiness of hand and sharpness of eye must be inherit in these artisans as they effortlessly paint with surgical precision. I had once heard someone say that to be a surgeon one must have a degree of creativity, so in vice versa, to be a porcelain artist one must have a degree of surgical precision.

For further information visit the Augarten Wien website.