Traces of Steampunk in Melbourne

A substantial entry in Wikipedia, as well as an illustrated article in the May edition of Metalsmith (Society of North American Metalsmiths quarterly publication) reflects a Steampunk aesthetic that pervades all areas of the visual arts. A Wikipedia definition suggests Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, fantasy and anachronistic technology. Imagine Leonardo DaVinci meets Mad Max in the Thunderdome and their resulting artefacts. Video games, fashion and film such as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland movie have Steampunkinspired costumes and themes.

A History Apparatus - Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993)

A History Apparatus - Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993)

As someone who lives in Melbourne with an interest in sculpture, I’ve been quite curious about a work of public art in Russell Street. The sculpture A History Apparatus – Vessel, Craft and Beacon, by Chris Reynolds (1993) was a collaborative effort of the artist, the Australian Metal Workers Union and Aerospace Technology of Australia. It’s an enduring local example of the Steampunk genre. The Australian Victorian Heritage Register contains history of the interesting choice of site. The Chris Reynolds sculpture is placed on top of a 1930’s public toilet, the first in Melbourne to reflect gender equality. Because of changing sensitivities on access to public toilets, the toilet was decommissioned and capped in January 1994.

There is a hint of Steampunk, perhaps cyberpunk, on a smaller scale in the work of Melbourne jewellery artist Dougal Haslem. Dougal creates jewellery and small objects that are full of whimsy, including zoomorphic and anthropomorphic shapes with intricate moving mechanical parts. There are parts that are recognisable in his work and others that allude to something unworldly. They express an intriguing combination of imagination and mystery.

Dougal Haslem Pants and Drongo (2009) Sterling silver, Copper, Collection object. 75 x 70 x 30mm

Dougal Haslem Pants and Drongo (2009) Sterling silver, Copper, Collection object. 75 x 70 x 30mm

Metalsmiths, watchmakers and engineers too might have strong associations with Steampunk as common components appear to be analog watch or clock parts. The artists in this genre have freedom of expression in abundance, the only thing stopping them is the limit of their imagination.

As technology develops so fast and makes so many useful bits and pieces obsolete, it is sometimes hard to part with interesting facets of a possession, like watches, old computers or broken toys. In the workshop, or on the workbench, parts are saved to be used in another situation, perhaps reconstructed into a piece of art.

Personally, Steampunk connects me to memories of a childhood of racing cars. My father made me a billy-cart with a go-cart motor; mounted on the chassis were bells, levers and mechanical ornaments which made it quite an eccentric vehicle. Playing with Universal joints and gears developed my interest in engineering, metalsmithing and being creative. Each time we choose to recycle rather than discard, we are unleashing some potential Steampunk.

In a Name

There are some core discussions about craft and craftsmanship in our feature book The Children’s Book by AS Byatt. The language around craft is often weighed down in history. Unlike fine art which has comfortably contemporised it’s language along with style, craft has kept its fundamentals, both in methodology and language.

This can be a hindrance both mentally and practically for makers. In highly competitive markets, both in terms of government funding and in commercial settings, you have to be careful what you call yourself. Pigeonhole yourself and you run the risk of only being allowed to take opportunities from one box – the one with your crafts name on it.

I spoke to several makers, who for the sake of ease here we will call jewellers, about the issues surrounding the labelling of their craft. What do they call themselves? Designers? Artists? Jewellers? Gold and Silversmiths? Not surprisingly they offered up different answers to this labelling conundrum.

Liana Kabel, a maker based in Brisbane, has a reputation for turning the brightly coloured plastics of Tupperware into beautiful and wearable pieces. She has a strong online profile and uses social media to great effect to promote her work. Kabel takes a practical half and help approach to labelling her practice

I have the words Art Design Jewellery on my business card/website because I feel in between all these things. I’d say jeweller if I were pushed.

Danielle Maugeri, whose work is stocked throughout Australia, takes a different approach given her complex road to becoming a jeweller.

I have battled with this question for 10 years now. I am formally trained as an industrial designer- but I have never been an industrial designer. I turned straight to making ceramics with no training, then jewellery with minimal training. I call myself a designer/maker. If I say ceramicist or jeweller, those that are these things look upon me as a fake. Does it matter if i have not done the hard yards like them? Granted, I don’t know all that they know…but does this mean I’m not real? Designer slash maker is the best I’ve come up with.

Linda Hughes began as a sculptor before moving into the formal world of study at RMIT in their world renowned Gold and Silversmithing course. Despite this she has allowed herself the ultimate freedom in labelling. When posed the question her email response was a simple one:

1. A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.
2. A person who practices one of the fine arts

New Zealand born, Melbourne based Vicki Mason, displays a more flexibly mindset.

I tend towards calling myself a jeweller. I could use all those other words as I’m all of those as well, but for me personally I decided to keep it simple and jewellery is what I make. I think it’s a term that sums up everything and although it leads to confusion sometimes and the need to explain to others what sort of jewellery I make, it seems more honest to me.

I’m a jeweller, perhaps not as some would know in the traditional sense, but I make objects to wear essentially and this is what jewellery aims for the most part. It is about making objects to be worn.

It’s a big word (jewellery/jeweller) once you start to think of nuances and this can be good I think as it unites all of us who make these objects to be worn, art jewellers, trade jewellers, costume jewellers, contemporary jewellers, studio jeweller etc.

Sometimes I say contemporary jeweller but less so these days and sometimes I call myself an art jeweller but its dependent on who I’m talking to and who how I’m feeling that day.

The way we label ourselves can go some way in indicating to our audience our style and sensibility and perhaps we need to allow for multiple branches from the one tree. At the end of the day we are all makers and that label will always be one to be celebrated.

Connecting the dots: writing for makers

In the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time writing for makers. I’ve written artist statements, funding applications, exhibition catalogues, website content and magazine articles. I’ve had to look at their work with a critical eye and perhaps reveal something that even the maker had not considered. This process is one of collaboration and connection between writer, object and maker.

As a maker myself I can also be confronted by the task of articulating work. Recently I made an exhibition application to recreate a Tennyson poem by making a garden of hand dyed and beaded cotton flowers. ‘Into the Garden Maude’ would be recreated on the gallery floor, with over 700 blooms. I had to make connections between Victorian mourning tradition, women’s handiwork and the parallels between poetry and textiles. Really I wanted to say ‘this exists in my head, fully formed and I want the opportunity to create it’. Often when connecting theory to practice the maker can feel fraudulent. As if attaching a more complex idea to a single object makes you somehow complicit in prescribing more meaning than it actually has.

Craft in a fine art environment does pose a challenge for makers but I think it’s a healthy one. Concerns over functionality, production, marketing can be put aside momentarily. Ideas, tenuous and as they often are, can be teased out and explored. I recently wrote a press release of a jeweller having a major solo show. This was a task the gallery had put to her several months before. She had been so challenged by the idea of distilling her body of work to 150 words that she crumbled under the pressure. She believed somehow the work to be at fault, as if it should come with its own text panel to support its existence. Within 30 minutes of talking to her, gently and slowly about the work, I was able to build a simple paragraph that was cohesive and engaging. There were plenty of ideas there, it was a matter of connecting the dots.

Is writing a skill that makers can or should acquire? From a purely self serving position I  say not necessarily. Inviting someone into your process who can  help navigate through this element of work can be a rewarding and enlightening experience that may have you going in different directions. But writing is just like any craft, with practice, technique and patience it is a skill that can be honed over time and can serve the maker well.