Creative License

6 November to 13 December 2014

Elizabeth Kelly, Alex Asch, Mariana del Castillo, Dimity Kidston, Geoff and Sarah Farquhar-Still, Tom Skeehan, Ximena Briceno, Mel George, Harriet Schwarzrock, Aaron Garlick, Andrew Carvolth, Sam Cameron, Tim Wallace, and Christine Atkins.

Christine AtkinsNatural State, 2014. Wood and Canberra Centenary number plates. Image courtesy of the artist

Creative Licence by Rosanna Stevens

When I was fifteen I forgot the final lines of a piano piece on stage at the Sydney Opera House. I was so caught up in placing and balancing the pressure of the piece beneath my fingers that in a moment of piercing consciousness I was thrown from my immersed state and found myself blank. It was as though out of nowhere, the language of the piano was foreign to me. My hands loomed still over the keys until the piano's mid-crescendo echo had faded. And in that moment I decided that was it: that was everything I was going to play. I lifted my foot off the pedal, I stood, and I bowed, and the audience gave what I can only call a kind-of horrified, mechanical clap. The labour of a clapper is an unfilterable critic.

In my more radical moments of hindsight, I resist this awful recollection with very forgiving questions: who says what a great performance is anyway? Who says what a piece is? Where are the rules that dictate why and how we frenzy ourselves with creating and understanding creativity? Who made these damned rules?

I ask these questions because challenging the norm gives me the power to reinterpret and resist it. I'm not the first to realise this freedom: in 1918 artist Kasimir Malevich produced his infamous work White on White. The painting features a square, white canvas with a second white square painted onto the canvas. The differentiation between squares comes from the direction of bush stroke each quadrilateral has been committed to. In Moscow, 1919, in a manifesto published alongside the first public exhibition of the work, Malevich wrote: 'I have overcome the lining of the coloured sky… Swim in the white free abyss, infinity is before you.' I recently overheard an art student and her teacher swimming in the white free abyss of Malevich's infinity. 'When I saw it' said the student, 'I just think he decided to plonk a white square on a white square just to stick his finger up at art, because he could. I don't get it.' The teacher replied with, 'Well, you do get it. Because maybe that's exactly what he was doing.'

Only a few years before Malevich, Marcel Duchamp offended audiences with his infamous readymades, particularly, Bicycle Wheel. Experiments in provocation and rule-breaking, Duchamp asked his viewer to let go, and in that helplessness and shock find the motivation to kick and wade toward their own sense of understanding the work. Alternatively, perhaps he also decided to put a thing on a thing just to be an egotist and pay the bills. Either way, it makes you think. There's an entire self-titled, interactive website dedicated to Understanding Marcel Duchamp, and while it's easy to focus on and fawn over understanding the artist's intention, I think what these two Europeans are shouting is the truest, greatest, most exciting message about fantasy: we humans will always make our own meanings. This creative independence we each host is elusive and can be liberating for both the viewer and the maker, if we allow ourselves to drop this frustration with The Rules. Best of all it doesn't matter if that isn't their message, because I have the creative license to say that for me, it is.

But the rules are tricky to abandon: they can be abundant and subtle. In writing this essay about Craft ACT: Craft + Design Centre's Creative Licence exhibition, my words cast a particular rule around the work. It's a soft framework – hands cupping a fragile thing – from which you're able to build your own understanding and resonance.

Rules can also be such an embedded part of functionality that they are taken for granted, their meaning unperturbed. Car licence plates are a rule: a categorisation instilled by the colony and law. We accept what it is for what it does – we accept its rule and its function. The artists in Creative Licence challenge that rule: they see the object – the licence plate – as an opportunity rather than a limitation, and through it they literally bend the rule they have been presented with to create a new shape and purpose, informed by the old.

Among this collection of meditations on reconstructing the number plate, a beautiful melancholy – perhaps an incidental subversion – arises. Christine Atkins places the plates in a spiraled shape over the top of a leaf sculpture, made from discs of tree trunk recovered from around Canberra. The metal path overlayed alludes to the roads built around parliament house, but beneath that simple thick shape rests the delicate whorls of dendrochronology. Dimity Kidson harks back to a childhood of moving around with artist parents, and the ongoing presences of colour and form in her life, to plant the most humble, bright and sweet emblem of Canberra – Wahlengergia Gloriosa – over a panel of plates. Alex Asch confronts those managing swooping-season PTSD with a salient, humoured, and perhaps slightly threatening magpie in a surveying stance, and in doing this illuminates the unbalanced dichotomy between man and bird in the nation's capital. These oscillations between nature and human invention similarly resound in the visions of Harriet Schwarzock and Sarah and Geoff Farquha-Stillr, and it's interesting what the rules can bring to light once they have been played with.

While the number plate celebrates one hundred years since the establishment of a place, these works are, perhaps, a quiet ode to that which constitutes Canberra beyond stories and rules we are familiar and comfortable with. Without being too bravely political, these practitioners have crafted a presence that alludes to the lives and ancestors, languages and songs that expressed themselves on this Canberran-shaped plot long before Duchamp first breathed, let alone set a wheel to a stool.

This is my view, from my home in the farthest of suburbs and my office at the Australian National University. This is the view my education gave me, as my fifteen year-old hands felt The Rules fall away from them, fingers hovering over a dreadfully empty-sounding piano. So I invite you to participate in Creative Licence by taking some of your own, as the indulger in this thoughtfully-crafted collection. Bend the rules you are being offered. Like the practitioner and their number plates, see each work as an opportunity rather than a limitation, to extend your imaginations and concerns. After all, who says what we are allowed to take from the craft?

Rosanna Stevens is a prizewinning speaker and writer currently studying a PhD at the Australian National University. In 2012 she founded literary collective Scissors Paper Pen, and is an Canberra arts advocate with The Childers Group.