Thinking Out Loud

On the development of 'Testing Ground' at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui

Milly Mitchell-Anyon, Essay 1

Photo Credit

Installation view, Testing Ground, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, 2022. Image courtesy of Sarjeant Gallery

Milly Mitchell-Anyon
Sep 08 2022

Turning our attention to the future requires, as always, a consideration of the past and the historical context that we place the history of craft within. Testing Ground is an exhibition about contemporary craft today, but curating it was very much a process of thinking about history. I find that my process always begins with archival research. The kernel of Testing Ground emerges from an ongoing examination of Dame Doreen Blumhardt’s Craft New Zealand: The Art of the Craftsman (1981), and her assertion that ‘art movements need to be assessed critically from time to time’. In that publication, Blumhardt also asked what craft might look like in forty years time–which happened to be 2021, when I was proposing what might be in the exhibition. Archives of old craft magazines and journals have always informed how I think about craft, and of note were the New Zealand Potter and Craft New Zealand online archives hosted by Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū.

Testing Ground builds on the past but looks to a new generation of makers—how they approach their practice and how they use craft to express contemporary concerns through the act of making. Whether this constitutes new ways of working, adopting new technologies, or thinking about traditional materials and methodologies from a new angle. What really matters is that ideas and concepts are interrogated, testing new ground and paving the way for future conversations about craft. In that spirit, I’ve drawn on a wide scope of sources, many that might sit outside of the traditional art world—from basketball blogs to food television to country music—to help think through these changes and come closer to understanding where we’ve been and where we might be going.

New Zealand Potter (1958-1998) Archives, Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū

When I was researching for Testing Ground, and writing for its accompanying publication, I found that the craft writing that really interested me mostly came from places like the New Zealand Potter magazine. It’s corny, but I like the idealism and collective think-tank vibe that craft publications had in the twentieth century. In terms of how it has affected my curatorial practice, coming back to something like New Zealand Potter is a good way to make sure I’m not repeating the same stuff from forty years ago–and, if I am, that I’m at least adding something substantive to the conversation. It can be reassuring (and sometimes depressing), to go back to an issue and say ‘oh hey, they were also thinking about climate change, but little did they know back then what that would look like today.’ So many of the concerns and issues raised in the New Zealand Potter magazines are still circulating today, perhaps with added emphasis in some areas. Referring to the archive has become my way of seeing what was, or might have been, considered important in pottery and the wider craft sector at that very moment in time. 

Looking back on the archives helps me to think about the historical context that works were made in, the ways that relationships intersected—like how all of a sudden it makes sense that two potters might have been making similar work because they were digging the same clay together, or sharing the same kiln during a firing. And finally, just from an aesthetic perspective, the publications themselves were really beautiful objects, and even in digital form they’re so nice to work with and read again.

Ali Smith, Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2016-2020)

I’d read and really enjoyed How to Be Both, Smith’s earlier novel, which is full of art history and poetry and well-written queer content. But I think the decision to read the seasonal quartet came—as it did for a lot of people—from reading the chapter on Smith and the novels in Olivia Laing’s Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. I’m super into structure and routine, and so set myself the task of reading each of the novels with the actual seasons–I’ve done Autumn (2016) and Winter (2017) so far. I’m about to start Spring (2019). There’s something very affecting in reading them with the seasons, for better and worse. Winter certainly contributed to the feeling of being in Winter. 

Each of the novels are fiction, but they’re grounded in non-fiction events. Autumn was set in a post-Brexit environment, making parallels between Syrian migration to that of post-World War II Europe, declaring this kind of overarching hypocrisy in the current situation. And then she works that around an art-historical narrative about Pop-Art and women artists like Pauline Boty in the 1960s. Smith manages to bring contemporary events into these long historical  narratives—weaving them around and bringing them together. And these links play between each book, even though each has a discrete theme. 

There’s a slightly odd experience of time that comes with reading them now. Smith includes so much historical content and even historical timelines, but the books are an avowed attempt to write truly contemporary novels—they’re about the experience of existing right now. But as time passes and that now changes, there are these small disconnects. Autumn was published in 2016, and it’s full of Trump content and stuff about Brexit, so it’s weird in that you know what happens next with regard to contemporary events. But there’s also this remarkable sort of soothsaying element, of Smith pretty accurately foretelling what we’re now experiencing, through the larger themes and events. I guess I’ll see what Spring brings.

MasterChef Australia

This one kind of goes two ways. In one sense, my relationship to making food or watching food-related content like MasterChef is a literal break from the art world. Burn out is no joke, and finding ways to rejuvenate outside of thinking about art is incredibly important, and MasterChef totally delivers on that front. But if I really wanted to torture a metaphor, there is something about MasterChef Australia that’s actually really close to the ways I think about curating, and kind of an encouraging model for the kind of work I like doing and seeing in the art world. 

The food-art connection for me probably goes back to @curatorsgottoeat, an Instagram account run by Alexie Glass-Kantor, who, among other things, curated the Australian pavilion at Venice this year. I was introduced to the account when I was at the ICI Auckland Curatorial Intensive in 2019. Our cohort was having dinner at Samwoo Vietnamese Cafe in Ōtāhuhu, sitting at a long table, and someone showed me the account because it was a mirror of what we were doing—sitting at the table together and sharing a meal. Curators gotta eat after all.

MasterChef is the big one for me, though. It used to be this really frenetic, cutthroat, and kind of mean show with the original judges. There’s this weird era of food reality television that was suffering from some kind of Simon Cowell hangover and thought that what people wanted to see was winners and losers and people getting taken down. But for MasterChef, once the new judges came in, it became a totally different show. There’s still process, development, execution. But it’s nicer, more caring and encouraging, with an emphasis on collaboration and growth. There’s still a critique process, but it’s constructive and about these people growing as makers. Honestly, if the art world was more like the last few seasons of MasterChef Australia, I reckon we’d be in a better spot.

Doreen Blumhardt (ed), Craft New Zealand: The Art of the Craftsman, (Auckland: Reed Publishing, 1981)

This was the book that I used as the basis for Making Conversation (2019), my Dowse Art Museum Internship exhibition. I wanted to look back at the time of the publication, to think about the past and the conversations we were having around craft then. Testing Ground is entirely focussed on the present and the future but, weirdly, the book has been a guide for me again. Instead of literally thinking through what Blumhardt was looking at in the moment, it’s been almost an exercise in thinking about what she might put in a craft anthology like Art of the Craftsman if she was making it today.

I think some of the significance of this book has been created by history as much as the work itself. By that I mean that there are not many big craft books or anthologies–Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania (2019) is kind of the next big thing after Blumhardt’s Craftsman. And so it gets this totemic quality by being the major reference for craft for some while. That makes thinking about it more interesting and more challenging. The status of craft was different in the 1980s. The book is primarily divided into sections by genre, and then there’s a section just titled ‘Four Artists’, which groups together four makers that didn’t fit into any of the other boxes. There’s this recognition within the book itself, that categories of craft were starting to break down or meld together. So it's really interesting to compare the methodologies of that moment in time with ours.

And then there’s just the figure of Dame Doreen herself, and her legacy. We often talk about there not being much craft history, at least in the same sense as art history in general. And that’s really the whole point of the Blumhardt Foundation—supporting internships, curators, creating serious conversations about craft within art history in Aotearoa. Her commitment to craft represents a belief and investment in craft infrastructure in Aotearoa, which is always a source of inspiration. 

Billy Joe Shaver, I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal (But I’m Gonna be a Diamond Some Day), Columbia, 1981 

To be honest, I just really like this song. But I guess it’s also a way of talking about my relationship to materials and materiality as someone working a lot in the craft space. Last year, I went to Granity, just north of Westport. Twice each day, in the morning and the evening, a train goes past with 15-20 carriages of coal. I don’t think I’d properly appreciated the materiality of coal before seeing those trains. When I lived in Dunedin, you could see the coal-fire smog on cold days from my flat in the Glen—the knock-on effect of burning this hazardous material. But stacked in the train cars, it was just there, all this stuff, and in such quantities. On that same trip, I went up to the historic coal mine at Denniston. When it’s in the earth, coal isn’t a bunch of dusty little rocks. It’s warm, and sparkles in the light, and is kind of beautiful. To be clear, this isn’t me coming out as an advocate for fossil fuels, it’s more like an anecdote about how close attention—and especially different kinds of attention—to matter, even the most seemingly straightforward of materials, opens up new ways of thinking about and relating to the world around us. 

On the other hand, Billy Joe’s song is about constant self-improvement. That can be such an icky value, especially in the age of wellness capitalism. But there’s something so charming about this guy—forty years ago, in a pre-meditation app world—singing about becoming steadily better and using this ancient metaphor of coal in the earth turning into diamonds to do so. When I was working on Testing Ground, I kept listening to it over and over again and there was something about the mix of earnest aspiration and that idea about coal that just really resonated. Exhibitions definitely aren’t diamonds, but they are things to work on with patient and methodical care until they shine in a certain way. 

Milly Mitchell-Anyon, Essay 2

Photo Credit

Milly Mitchell-Anyon infront of 'Testing Ground', Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, 2022. Image courtesy of Sarjeant Gallery

About the Author

Milly Mitchell-Anyon is an art historian and curator from Whanganui, Aotearoa. In 2021, she was appointed the Blumhardt Foundation Curator for 2021-2022 which culminated in the exhibition and accompanying publication Testing Ground which examines the practice of eight contemporary craft practitioners in Aotearoa. Milly is currently the acting Assistant Curator at Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui and has previously worked at Dunedin Public Art Gallery, The Dowse Art Museum, and Puke Ariki Museum. She has recently been appointed as a board member on the Blumhardt Foundation and as a Civic House trustee on the Whanganui Regional Museum board.

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