10 February to 19 March 2011
Michelle Kelly, Red Cookeina Shelf (detail), 2010, copper, powdercoat, pine.
Hidden Treasures by Annika Harding
Penicillin, gourmet mushrooms, luscious forests, bread, beer, champagne… Spoiled food, plant diseases, mouldy shower cubicles, and slimy garden toadstools. Fungi are responsible for many glorious and grotesque things, and play a vital part in the ecosystem upon which we rely. Michelle Kelly takes humble fungi as her inspiration, creating beautiful metal wall installations and jewellery objects that assert the potency of form and function in the 'fifth kingdom.
Kelly became interested in the fifth kingdom of the biological world, kingdom fungi, during her postgraduate studies in gold and silver smithing. This unusual subject matter has come to hold her interest firmly in its grasp, and upon viewing her work its not hard to see why. The organic sense of form in Kellys work is instantly captivating, and satisfying repetition occurs almost naturally. Behind these formal preoccupations lies a deep-rooted concern with the environment and our relationship with it. Fungi embody all that we take for granted in the natural world; without these quiet organisms life as we know it could not exist.
In many of the jewellery pieces on display in Hidden Treasures, Kelly features the understated Cookeina fungi. The form of these fungi is simple and instantly familiar- semi-spherical 'cups with defined edges, supported by delicate stems. They speak the language of craft and design, from ceramic bowls to mid-twentieth-century lamps, and yet they are unmistakably fungi. A series of brooches present Cookeina on silver bark, bringing to mind fallen trees and forest floors, where fungi play a vital role in the breakdown of organic matter.
The shape of the Cookeina itself follows the design rule of thumb 'form follows function. It has evolved to capture water so that it may reproduce: spores are formed when water fills the cup and are released after the water dries, leaving the inner surface of the cup weakened. Kellys work depicts this natural case of form following function, but what of her own intended function? Kelly aims to make this brilliant but unobtrusive organism accessible and desirable, and also to prompt us to consider what we take for granted in our complex and troubled natural environment. Mission accomplished, and by means of a very simple, elegant form. Perhaps not coincidentally, Cookeina are found in subtropical and tropical climates, and it is these climates that are most at risk from a rise in global temperature due to climate change.
Kellys rings and necklaces feature any number of Cookeina 'cups: 1 cup; 3 cups; 7 cups; 40 cups. Cookeina, like most fungi, are efficient. They grow in multiples, working in teams to decay newly fallen wood. This means that in addition to having an intriguing form, Cookeina have a natural tendency toward repetition. Kelly uses this repetition to create a sense of unity in many of her works, but the seemingly unordered and natural occurrence of the cups shows a willingness to let nature rule over culture in the man-made realm of design. Sometimes, Kellys Cookeina cups grow so close together that the forms become distorted, twisted. They no longer obey the rules of perfect shape and hard edge, but seemingly bend the metal medium to their will. The lighting on Kelly's Cookeina Shelf pieces takes her use of repetition to new heights, creating multiple shadows of differing strengths and temperatures. The effect is a forest of ordered repetition; a methodical takeover by the quiet fungi.
In Kellys high impact wall installations, fungi take over the gallery space itself. Flame Red Installation and Black Installation both consist of an abundance of two-dimensional fungus-like shapes, cut out of copper and bent on one edge to create a bracket that attaches to the gallery wall. It is a striking architectural intervention; a direct challenge to the gallery space as an arbiter of culture over nature. The installations almost look at home on the flat wall, with their flat, smooth surfaces and lines, just as cushiony, slimy fungi look at home on the textured trunk of a tree. But it is at once unsettling and enchanting to see something unmistakably organic dominating an orderly wall, fluid two-dimensional shapes given weight and body by their crisp shadows. Clusters of fungi on the gallery wall assert themselves, while outliers stretch outwards and upwards to conquer.
The powder-coated red fungi in Flame Red Installation signal danger with their vibrant hue, and yet they could reference happy Marimekko prints or detached pieces of an Alexander Calder mobile if it werent for their growth formation and sculptural shadows. The oxidised copper surfaces of the fungi in Black Installation are earthier and could easily blend into a forest scene, but contrast heavily with the white wall. Kelly used lime sulphur to oxidise the copper- a process that echoes the work of fungi in decomposing organic matter. Ironically, lime sulphur is also used to control fungal disease in plants. There is a constant tension in Kellys work, and in the world around us, between man-made and natural.
Kelly revels in this tension, in her works formal characteristics, the materials she uses, and the way her work relates to the gallery space. Through this tension she reminds us that although we like to think were in control, the natural environment of this planet sustains us in ways that we dont fully appreciate or even understand. It is damaged in ways that we are only beginning to understand, and were not sure what the consequences will be. Kelly also reminds us that abstract, geometric forms do not exist alone as man-made inventions. The language of design is all around us and we take for granted its natural origins. The original craftsman is nature, the first designer evolution.
Is there a place for art, craft and design in the consideration of environmental issues? Absolutely. Kellys work asserts that if we look to nature, we can usually find what we seek - whether thats beauty, contemplation, functionality, inspiration; perhaps even the answers to some of the biggest challenges we face.
Annika Harding is a freelance writer and Gallery Administrator at Canberra Contemporary Art Space