Hand vs. Machine
Fiona Pardington’s The Popular Recreator at Starkwhite is made up of 12 white dinner plates hanging on one wall, along with 6 cups and a saucer. Each piece of ceramic has been adorned with an image in a selection of muted colours, which Starkwhite refers to as a suite of photographs. I think the images could be more accurately described as prints of historic engravings, even though they may well have been transferred using a photographic process. Pardington has salvaged old images and objects before in previous work, such as with the medical textbooks of Tainted Love, and the cast portraits of Ahua.
With The Popular Recreator, one of Pardington’s key concerns is our loss of skill in the face of modern technology. Of course she is no stranger to the digital – her wonderful still life photographs ooze a mysterious energy oscillating between reality and artificiality. The images used for the current show, however, are all decidedly analogue: single-colour engraved illustrations taken from the 19th century encyclopedia The Popular Recreator: A Key To In-Door And Out-Door Amusements. So what did people do before electronics came along? Some of the amusements are readily identifiable: archery, photography, shadow-puppetry, kite flying, gardening, spinning tops, palmistry, and art. Several others are rather more obscure, but all represent an acquired skill. The “eye-cups” (iCuptm?) are particularly intriguing. With the eye image located on the interior, someone is watching you with every sip you take. Unless you are left handed. The eyes are judging you because of the amount of time you waste playing Candy Crush.
It has always been the role of the artist to contrarily swim upstream, now – seemingly as some kind of push back against the ubiquitous screens of the virtual – tactile materials are on the rise in our art schools. At Elam ceramics are everywhere. According to Art Guide Australia, ceramics are the new video. It seems to me that a new wave of artists who have grown up on Photoshop, and with Instagram filters, feel the need to get down and dirty with raw materials, return to the source, spin fibres, carve wood, dig their own clay, and so on. It could be a neo-Arte Povera movement, as a response to the Global Financial Crisis. Or maybe its part of a wider trend: the current generation’s craving for ethical, hand-made, sustainable products, with verifiable supply chains, and ‘conflict free sourcing initiatives.’
Either way, the trickery of digital manipulation no longer seems so novel and exciting when you are immersed in it everyday. When not a single image can be automatically assumed to be genuine we have to put ourselves into our photos – to prove that something actually, physically, happened, and we were really there when it did. We crave the solid, the verifiable, the real. Isabelle Graw has a theory that painting remains popular because, of all the arts, it most closely captures material traces of the artist’s immediate activity. As such its inherent value, or essence, lies in its apparent indexical ability to store an absent artist’s life. This Marx-ian quality of ‘labour in its congealed state,’ would seem to apply even more aptly to the new ceramics.
Unfortunately Pardington’s work at Starkwhite is a few steps removed from the hand. The ceramics appear to be commercially mass-produced bisque fired plates and cups, to which Pardington has applied the selected images before glazing. The functional use value of the crockery seems to be a significant factor here. They feel like consumer items, and very well pitched to the seasonal gift buying spirit. Starkwhite were prepared for a brisk trade on opening night with ribbons and boxes to hand. I’m sure they will be popular.