Material – Does it really matter?

Material – Does it really matter?

A report by Janet DeBoos on the Material Matters conference at ANU

In a world where there is an increasing reliance on mediated experience, there is a case for materiality; but what does it mean, particularly with respect to ceramics? Material Matters, an event (or more accurately, a series of events) in Canberra that took place over four weeks in August this year, sought to examine this question as well as provide a forum for speakers who told stories of their relationship to their material.

The anchor event was a large exhibition of works drawn from the teaching collection of Ceramics Workshop, ANU School of Art. Because of the large and varied nature of the collection (works from visiting artists, alumni, faculty and current students) it was grouped into seven themes, each examining a different aspect of the potential of clay as a medium. The works exhibited represented a poetic connection between material and idea – but not always poetics of conventional beauty. They utilised the material qualities of clay to many different ends, and talked of place, alchemy and process. Each work told a story, some a clearly articulated narrative, some only implied – the kind of stories which take us to quiet places, where our own imagination is the storyteller.

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In addition to this major exhibition, there were several associated exhibitions at ANU School of Art , showing work from the four international visitors – keynote speaker Anton Reijnders and Netty van den Heuvel (from the Netherlands), 2010 NCECA Residency winner from the US Ray Chen, and Christina Bryer from South Africa. Satellite exhibitions were held at the Watson Art Centre, Strathnairn Homestead Gallery, and Beaver Galleries.

In addition to the exhibitions there was clay-based activity everywhere –community woodfiring at Strathnairn (with tutorials by master woodfirers Ian Jones and Moraig McKenna), master classes and workshops conducted by the visiting artists, and a symposium over the penultimate weekend of the event. Papers presented ranged from technical research on local materials (Craig Edwards) through to the way in which clay can be used to address environmental concerns (Shannon Garson and Cathy Franzi) and the singular qualities that specific materials bring to finished work (Kaye Pemberton).

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And although no one definitive answer was provided to the question of the importance of materiality by the papers delivered, it seemed that the value resided in the resistance of the material itself to completely transit the porous boundaries of contemporary art practice: that there was an insistent, almost stubborn, need to be identifiably clay (either the ‘raw’ in Claude Lévi Strauss’ anthropological demarcation) or ceramics (the ‘cooked’), with all the historical and human values that implies. The presenters seemed to imply that even when the intent is trompe l’œil, it is the heft, the density, the feel of the work, the origin of the material, that is part of its meaning … the fact that it is what it is, and not just what it looks like it is, is part of the story of material mattering.

In responding to clay, ceramic artists enter into an engagement that is both seduction and frustration. The siren indeed has her own voice – but it is a demanding one. Anyone who has ever fallen in love with the medium will testify to that. Perhaps this almost obsessive love is because of the considerable technical demands of the medium – if the artist does not fully understand the ‘stuff’ (the material), the vocabulary is meagre, the grammar is poor and what love sonnets were ever written with a limited vocabulary?

“… to show how empirical categories – … such as the raw and the cooked, … the moistened and the burned … can (nonetheless) be used as conceptual tools with which to elaborate abstract ideas and combine them in the form of propositions.”
Claude Lévi Strauss: The Raw and the Cooked, Vol 1, Mythologies 1964 (Eng translation 1969, Weightman)
Material Matters visiting artists

Anton Reijnders, author of seminal text The Ceramic Process (A&C Black), conducted both an open workshop and a master class for the School of Art Graduate Coursework program. “What makes a good terra sigillata?” guided Anton’s very practical approach in the open workshop, with the students making and testing many clay bodies under his guidance. In addition, the intensive five-day master class went to the core of his practice with students tackling questions of meaning and how it is that we make sense of what is around us. Reijnders’ work seeks to offer an alternative to the quick effects and ever-expanding need for entertainment. He says, “My work is very much about giving attention and concentration … something which is especially of importance in our times.” His exhibition was clay-based, showing a combination of large photographs of major installations and several enigmatic mixed media works utilising objects such as found textiles and 3D printed designs. The works had a contemplative and puzzling quality that drew much discussion.


The highly respected Dutch artist Netty van den Heuvel conducted an ‘exploratory workshop in three dimensions’ using clay and found objects. Netty also encouraged an enquiry into the nature of clay and the potential of joining it with materials such as silicone. A series of structured exercises in finding, looking and making led to many highly inventive combinations that brought to mind David Pye’s The Nature and Art of Workmanship. Netty’s beautiful concurrent exhibition, Tintingelen (sparkling), showed the result of a similar enquiry in her own practice. Exquisite photographic prints by Reijnders were also utilised. Fragile porcelain lattices and webs were shown alongside eclectic assemblages of found objects, including a ceramic rabbit and blown glass.

Ray Chen gave a demonstration workshop on the expressive use of clay, and generously shared his techniques for making his large, emotionally charged works. He covered the sculptural requirements of the 3D object and talked about formal relationships between objects. His exhibition of powerful work on the theme of ‘Mother and Child’ continued his maternal homage, a subject that has occupied his output since his mother was first diagnosed with, and subsequently died from, Parkinson’s Disease. Each work consists of two parts, often of different clays as well as finish, and represents the changing relationships as the ‘cared for’ becomes the ‘carer’.


Christina Bryer also conducted a demonstration workshop which unravelled the three interwoven aspects of her work, examining them in the light of her persistent themes: geometry (particularly aperiodic tiling, as seen in Islamic architecture), sacred geometry, and the exploration of non-traditional uses of porcelain. Bryer’s exhibited works were fragile-looking mandalas of layered porcelains and other vitrified white bodies that confounded (through her use of the above geometries) a ‘fixed and final’ reading. They were exhibited in an alcove alongside Chen’s work and provided a quiet and intellectual counterfoil to the intensity of his works.

Janet DeBoos, Head of the Ceramics Workshop at the Australian National University, was curator of the Material Matters exhibition and Chair of the Symposium of the same name. The month long program was an initiative of the Ceramics Workshop and thanks are due to Greg Daly, Joanne Searle, Bernd Weise, Franz Shroedl, Susan Bell, James Holland, Jay Kochel and Julie Cuerdon-Clifford, as well as the various ACT community groups and galleries that were instrumental in making it all happen.

Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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