Every five years the Hobart Art Prize affords the ceramic medium a moment in the sun, and this year, my first back home for a decade or so, is one such year. Still overcoming the effects of reverse culture shock, I ventured into the the newly revamped Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (TMAG).
The prize is an acquisitive one, for work in two mediums. Previous winners in the ceramic section were Gerry Wedd, 2010 with work of a the borrowed title Silent Spring, a composition of environmental concern. Honed from the detritus observed during city meandering, his work consist of cast of dead birds of unknown cause. Some five years earlier, Fiona Murphy was the recipient with her delicately poised vase entitled Oviform (do birds like to sing and plants like to flower).
This year, however, while the avian subject is still present the judges have reflected a different mood, one that less sculptural and instead pays homage to the utilitarian characteristics of the medium. Kirsten Coehlo’s What we thought we needed, is suite of everyday vessels that reference the exploration and Western settlement of Australia. The majority of the suite is cast in white porcelain with minimal decoration highlighting the lip of each piece, in the style of enamel tin receptacles popular during the 19th century. In this way the artist contrasts the durability of the utilitarian vessels with the delicacy of the ceramic medium. In form the individual components amount to a shallow bowl, jug, bottle, cup and funnel, all fundamental inclusion in the baggage of expeditions. Completing the work is a red canister of simple structure, that the artist suggests, with its iron glaze represents the “russet tones of the landscape of the interior of Australia”. The contrast against the main body of this suite of works is outstanding in tone, but there is much more that may be read into this work. The isolated darker hue may also be read politically as indicative of the indigenous people encountered in that landscape and, perhaps in its minority status, a nod toward the swamping of the original people by white settlement. Indeed given the historical perspective of the invading europeans the individual diversity of shape, replete with soft curved lines, afforded the white components set against the singular block form of the canister, lidded so as to deny intake, may well be conceived as a note on the past tera nulius perspective and incorporated denial of the human condition.
Then again I may be reading a lot into this, but it is the viewer that completes the work.