12 September to 25 October 2014
Lesa Farrant, Banksia Marginata, Slip cast porcelain, 2014. Photo: Grant Hancock
A taxonomy of plastic soup by Marie Littlewood
At first glance Lesa Farrant's work for Scantlings appears as an intricately catalogued index of skilfully reproduced porcelain treasures procured from the tidal regions of her home in Port Willunga, South Australia. Closer contemplation reveals a more complex tension, played out between coastal commentary, the lure of modern manufacture and inventive ceramic technique.
Choosing clay as the medium and referencing the sea as leitmotif in her work, Farrant is already working with two potently charged metaphorical vehicles. Add to this the non-precious material of plastic and the stage is set for a perfect visual drama, complete with social commentary, botanical parody and ceramic prowess.
The clay objects themselves are produced using hand building and slip casting techniques and weigh so little that they are light enough to be pinned to a wall. Their format as curios on display is reminiscent of the nineteenth century style of housing exotic exhibits – rather than the more terrifying two-headed kitten suspended in formaldehyde variety, they are, in their stead, more subtle; mysterious marine foundlings immortalised in porcelain.
This choice is conscious, requiring close proximity to view the ceramic specimens, which in turn creates a sense of intimacy with the pieces. This becomes important when the surfaces of these objects contain small details that carry big messages. By choosing this format Lesa is also providing the viewer with a clever link to the past, to a period in time when our coast was clear.
By comparing early documentation of Australian coastal flora and fauna in 1801 by French artist and naturalist Charles Lesueur to the coast of the current day, we find that our present littoral line up is predominantly plasticised, our tidal zones teeming with trash, a big flotsam finger pointing toward our disposable mechanised mass produced milieu.
Scantlings speak of this new marine world order. Objects that we would not expect to find together are sifted by the currents and washed in on the tide so that today it is not unusual to see a small see through sardine shaped soy sauce container knitted by seaweed to a soft sea sponge. Discarded plastics have made their way into our oceans and onto our shores.
Exploring the surfaces and shapes of Farrant's ceramic foundlings and marine mutants we are provided with an opportunity to ponder this dilemma. We discover strange hybrids that reveal the resting places and possible futures of our discarded plastics.
Farrant paces the delivery of information. She layers the complexity as the work develops, weaving in new concepts by re inventing the sea sponge and coastal flora as plausible varieties of mutation.
Firstly Farrant presents the objects as is, freshly beach combed, plastics alongside naturally occurring sponges and shells. Add to these little containers a new skin, sponge like and organic, causing us to wonder what becomes of these plastic pieces over time. Finally by means of binomial nomenclature and Frankenstein-esque union of natural and unnatural parts Farrant reveals her quiet sense of humour and technical ceramic skill.
It has long been part of popular mythology that the sea has health benefits for many ailments of the human body and soul. We take to the sea when our spirit is weary and in need of uplifting. All that water speaks to something ancient and primal within us. We are connected to this salty heaving mass of marine metaphor and we seek out a relationship with it.
We believe this sensual sea playground, this curer of ills, to be clean, pure, and pristine –after all, we clean wounds with saline don't we? Blown by brisk sea breezes our beaches should be free of our worldly woes and waste. In the time of Charles Lesueur this may have been the case, but ironically today, we have cooked ourselves an unpalatable Pacific of plastic soup.
Plastic is a synthetic polymer made from crude oil and natural gases. Just like clay, it can be cast, spun, moulded, fabricated and extruded. Plastic has displaced many traditional and natural materials like wood, leather, stone or metal and not withstanding ceramics. No victory was won however.
Plastic is not the stuff of poetry. It was never designed to strike a chord in a human heart. Invented for the pragmatist. At best it could expect a moment of gratitude as fleeting as its life as container for the keeping of all things fresh. Never to find it's way to a cabinet or wall as a coveted one off crafted piece of art.
Farrant casts and displays the plastic containers with as much love and care as the naturally occurring foundlings. Restoring some dignity to the once was plastic and perhaps allowing us a moment to enjoy their design and appreciate them as objects in their own right. Might they somehow have less integrity if left in their original incarnation? Thank you Lesa, for assisting us to find some redeemable aesthetic qualities in these plastic assassins. Maybe we might learn to treasure them and keep them a little longer, in so doing prevent as many cast aways?
Farrant continues to be kind to her audience, letting us draw our own conclusions from her body of evidence. She chooses to whisper the message about plastic soup in sun bleached shades of pale porcelain rather than in big red plastic shout it out loud letters.
A much quieter way of delivering an important maritime message, with humour, subtlety and intelligent observation, not immediately disarming the viewer but drawing us in, up close, weaving a ceramic story that begins with the known and freshly found and becomes more fabulously fabricated and fictional.
Marie Littlewood is a ceramicist and writer based in Adelaide. Marie is also a sessional lecturer in arts writing at the University of South Australia.