By the time we were invited to write this essay for Calum Hurley and Jordan Leeflang’s exhibition at Craft ACT, the impact of COVID-19 on the world was emerging. What has eventuated – the closing of borders, supply chains paranoia and a surge in nationalistic, often hostile rhetoric between East and West – clouds the kinds of cultural engagement that is at the heart of this timely exhibition. Its incarnation hinges on a series of photographs taken in 2017 during a trip to Japan, a physical, real-world encounter with a material culture. If COVID came 3 years early, this exhibition would not have been possible.
Or would it?
Hurley’s images show an interest in streetscapes and buildings that would be typically ignored by local Japanese, but to Hurley’s foreign eyes are full of unusual or unexpected design choices, styling and visual expressions. Perhaps driven by the knowledge that Japan’s more famous architecture and historical icons are well photographed already, Hurley points his lens at the everyday. But this choice is not the heart of the project. Similar photographs are now uploaded, in the millions and billions, to the archives of Google Street view, Flickr and numerous other internet databases. Digital street views are approaching a seamless virtual experience. The world is being mapped in 2D, and in 3D as well. Photogrammetry, that World War Two modelling technology developed so nations could bomb each other, now allows architects and archaeologists to work remotely. None of this entirely replaces the experience of the real, but it can simulate it sufficiently, depending on expectations. We argued this point amongst ourselves: could Hurley and Leeflang reproduce their work by trawling through the online trove of algorithmically sorted images of Japan? Could they replace the affective experience of a subject afforded by their framing of the lens? Would they grok a cultural impression of Japan without the things that escape digital capture – smells, touches, emotions? The reality is that if they wanted to continue the project today, at the time of writing, on May 26th 2020 in the time of COVID, they would have to try.
This hypothetical challenge is worth reflection because it leads to something more important, something that we think is the heart of this exhibition: the translation of information from one culture and from one medium into another. This is the transmutation of many distinct, idiosyncratic, but mostly hidden design choices from Japanese architecture and urban design into Australian furniture and homewares. At a time when nations are locking up borders, airlines are going bankrupt and international tourism barely exists, it is more important than ever to understand foreign cultures and work towards global empathy, lest we regress back to the xenophobia and intolerances of past decades. The subtlety of Hurley and Leeflang’s contribution, through the medium of design, is an affective contribution, priming the senses for the new and unexpected in the aesthetic dimension. The engagement with foreign culture through design may not be as overt as an overseas trip, but it’s a special component of the interlocking and interweaving mix of global society. Even if the threat of COVID wanes, as we all hope, we should nonetheless forestall a post-COVID surge in international travel. For the sake of the planet, we must consider the heavy and potentially irreversible impact of air transport, freight and cargo emissions on climate change.
Our position on this points to the success of Hurley and Leeflang in their future as professional Australian furniture designers. Currently, our local makers barely compete with foreign imports. Survival shouldn’t be so precarious. We propose that cultural exchange and global understanding is not dependent on physical travel, but neither should it be dependent on the international shipping of goods. Vis a vis, lets invest, and take pleasure, in a resurgence of local design and craft. As Hurley and Leeflang prove in their sensitive works, it is an industry that creates objects that capture the virtual, but which themselves cannot be virtualised: behold, the locally made chair, mirror and table!
Guy Keulemans and Kyoko Hashimoto