Real Thing



'Essays on Blanche Tilden & Damon Moon' Canberra Contemporary Art Space The Real Thing (1999)

Damon Moon: Ceramic lap dancing

It is not without reason that important parts of pots should be known as foot, belly, shoulder, neck and lip, or that curve and angle should often be thought of as male or female.

Bernard Leach A Potter’s Book London: Faber, 1940, p. 19

Damon Moon is a non-ceramicist. Past masters of clay follow his footsteps as he wends a path through the garden of follies. They down their tools and tag along through the garden of conceits, where art is life and life is art, but most of all, confusion is order.

To masters such as Bernard Leach, the true potter participated in the entire production, from digging the clay itself to painting a decorative glaze. Moon is not entirely divorced from that tradition. After all, he buys the ceramic mugs himself. But there is a critical difference.

While previous potters place themselves above the passive consumers of modern peacetime economies, Moon mingles among us. He takes consumerism on face value. The word on each mug proclaims its eventually fate—‘mouth’. This stack of mugs is for our acts of consumption, or so it seems.

Dryly intoning Duchamp, Moon takes these encrusted folk to the cliff edge, where reality gives way to emptiness. He steps out into the void. ‘It’s OK, as long as you don’t look down.’ Like Thales, Moon sets his sights on the stars and marches on blithely. The more terrestrial potters can’t help but examine the earth beneath their feet.

You could say he’s ‘a bull in a china shop’, except he is more like a fox and the shop sells books, not dinner plates. Plainly, Moon is an excellent craftsperson, as the Belle photograph of his work testifies. So why does he turn his back on the workshop tradition? To answer this question, we need to look at the effect of what he has produced.

On first glance, Moon’s work seems quite sensual, if not almost salacious. Moon offers us a seductive photograph of ceramics standing naked before the camera. Without the cover of glaze, our eyes are free to caress their porous surface. Light gently follows the curve of the plate and their flesh-tones suggest a gentle warmth.

What does it mean these days for a ceramist like Damon Moon to eschew the glaze? In concrete terms, it renders the object more or less useless as a vessel. Visually, the matte surface is less reflective than glossy paint. What comes to the fore in its place is a visual texture, where we can touch with our eyes.

Such opportunities are rare. More and more of our public world is transmitted through small screens, such as televisions, computers and LED readouts. While some of these screens come close to representing the rich colours of our world, their ‘texture’ is incapable of representing variety. On a surface level, everything is glass. It is no surprise then, that PhotoShop graphics is characterised by its simulated ‘textures’, such as weaves, paper fibres, and the ubiquitous ‘drop shadow’. Aspiring to the status of a ‘virtual reality’, these simulations are questing to be precisely what computer graphics cannot be—material.

The homogenous texture of a screen world thus creates a hunger for material contact—for the softness of velvet, the resonance of wood, the fluttering of paper. Our haptic apprehension of these materials cannot be digitised. They emerge from the synthesis of sight, smell, sound and touch and cannot be reduced to binary data.

What computers do, however, is to sharpen our longing for this material world. It is intrinsic to the logic of enjoyment that desire is more intense when it cannot be satisfied. Thus nationalism is most virulent when it seems to have been stolen by another people, whether by races that don’t belong or overbearing colonisers. Science fiction fantasies such as Bladerunner and Matrix defer the ‘real world’ to the every end of the film, as a sunset for heroes to ride into rather than a place for them to live.

This logic is well understood by Damon Moon. While Moon’s work suggests sensuous curves, we are deprived of their direct presence. We can only look at the light box. The stack of mugs is arranged to prohibit any human touch. Moon is a ceramist for the post-material age.

Blanch Tilden: Moving Parts

Tilden is jeweller laureate for the information society. Her métier is linking. Like the grass lawns that spread through our suburbs, communication networks reproduce themselves through exponential connections. The buzzwords of our time—convergence, leverage and roll-out—all celebrate the gains in power made through strategic links.

Most of these links are abstract. They take the form of tediously worded contracts, or invisible code. In placing a bicycle chain in a gallery, Blanche Tilden gives this process a material reality. If you look a little closely, however, you will see that Tilden has made a subtle change to the linking device. Rather than steel rivet, bolts made of glass hold the chain together. Tilden’s bicycle chains are thus only for display, and definitely not roadworthy.

But Tilden’s chains should not be viewed in isolation. They are wedded to the context, whether the body or the installation. So what do we see here? On the wall is a collection of Tilden’s exquisite handicraft. Chains in a variety of assortments offer themselves to the touch. They are a joy to handle—the links cascading into the palm like mercury. But we are prevented from touching them by a series of real bicycle chains, strung up as a security chord. The chains are in different conditions, from silver, black and rusted.

The installation recreates the very move that distinguishes Tilden’s brilliant young career. She has craftily transformed an item of practical utility into an expressive medium. Of course, there is the history of the readymade. Duchamp’s veneration of the bicycle wheel figures greatly in the heroic days of conceptual art. But Tilden’s work is more than a readymade. Her intervention is anything but passive: the skilled craftsmanship of their assembly is a homage to the machine itself.

While tuned to the networked society, Tilden’s chains are also at odds with the silicon age. Today’s ‘smart’ machines proudly proclaim ‘no moving parts’, as a guarantee of their reliability. Of course, the loss is sensual. Well-tuned machines grant confidence in the world. The velvety ‘click’ of a Leica camera joined the rank of sensual delights such as honeyed sauterne or Alhambra tiles. Today, things work well and look bad.

Far from nostalgic, these mechanical pleasures anticipate a post-digital era. Already, there have been startling advances in wind-up technologies, where inventions such as the ‘tensator clockwork generator’ mean that mobile devices such as phones, radios and mine detectors can be powered by hand. Far from over, the machine age may be only just beginning.

Yet while technological leaps are made in all directions, the humble bicycle remains settled in its current state of evolution. It is already perfectly efficient for its purpose. A computer chip would make no difference to its functioning. This self-sufficiency makes it entirely suitable as a subject of metal craft, which projects a life into the object that is independent of taste. To give this expression requires great balance and discipline—Tilden’s hallmark.