Eve Sullivan For some time you have been collecting and exhibiting monochrome-coloured vessels to various degrees of opacity and translucence. I have seen this kind of display concept in stores like Dinosaur Designs and second-hand clothes shops, in the way that they arrange the clothes mixing what would appear to be otherwise incompatible textures and patterns as well as styles and sizes. Do you see this approach to presenting or trying to make sense of things as yet another indication of how aesthetic theory has filtered down into everyday life? How does this motivate you as an artist, a curator and a declared colourist? Or, how would you describe, your ongoing motivations?
David Sequeira By “filtering down” you infer a hierarchy of thought in which aesthetic theory represents a higher echelon while everyday life (the vernacular) is consider lower … Given the institutionalised nature of art it is hard to avoid such hierarchies. I am interested in exploring the relationship between aesthetic theory and everyday life as symbiotic – arranging colour and placing it in the world is my access to this. Even if a hierarchical structure is relevant to this relationship, it is valid to invert it and claim that aesthetic theory is “filtered down” from the experience of colour … being with it … granting it space and time.
I think about my work as being informed by Eastern philosophy and Western colour theory. My curatorship and my studio practice are inextricably linked. Curatorship can be described as the organisation of thoughts in space …. a process of selection and display, and of ideas manifested as objects, that is designed to generate a certain conversation or resonance. My installations of vessels can be understood within this context.
I started incorporating monochromatic vessels in my works in the mid-to-late 1990s. I travelled through India and Pakistan and became interested in the idea of colour as having an energetic quality within traditions of Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. I spent quite a bit of time in Mughal and Rajput palaces and mausoleums and had noticed that many of the motifs in the marble and sandstone relief work refer to vessels – bottles, vases, jars and other containers. These buildings were spaces of discussion and thinking, poetry, music and dance and I began to consider the symbolism of the vessel and its relationship with lived experience.
The monochrome vases that I use are opaque, symmetrical and made from either ceramic or glass. Sourced from second-hand stores and markets in suburban Australia, they date from the early twentieth century (mostly 1960 onwards). I doubt that many of them have actually been used to sustain the life of flowers. It is more likely that they were used for abstract ornamental purposes. In the context of my installations, the value of each vase is connected with its colour and its contribution to the overall composition of the work (as opposed to its designer, manufacturer, provenance etc.). I am interested in the rhythms and vibrations that are possible when combining colours. Often considered kitsch and discarded by their original owners, collectively the vases form a curious social design history. While the starting point for these installations may have specific cultural references, I am much more interested in a museological approach in which colour is considered and used as its own entity.
ES Thank you, that is a great overview of your inclusive system of objects and the parallel association with music as a poetic metaphor and repertoire. Clearly there is a whole history of expressive agency in collecting coloured vessels. Also, thinking of the transcendental properties associated with colour’s historical association with precious stones, crystal reliquaries and mediaeval church windows as John Gage wrote about in Colour and Culture.
Glass has to be amongst the most visually spectacular and resonant forms of representing colour as light, as other artists working in installation like Frank Hinder, Leonard French and more recently Rebecca Baumann (in her current work for the NGV) have also explored. But going back to these more specific object histories: can you expand on what you mean by the museological? How do you see colour as self-defining, if not in terms of the more specific material and provenance of these coloured objects?
I see these histories as evocative of what I am interested in exploring in terms of local colour, embodied as located areas of research and practice. Perhaps you could give an example through your curatorial and creative practice of how you would classify a museological approach?
DS I use the term “museological” to imply a consideration of colour as its own subject matter. The functions of colour are not limited to descriptive or illustrative purposes which are heavily reliant on form for their existence. In a museological approach, colour can be perceived as a culturally significant entity – complete on its own terms. Yet (within the context of a collection) contributing to a broader understanding of place, time, values and ideas. Free of excessive ornamentation, the vessel forms that I use in my works have an abstract quality. Removed from domestic contexts they become museum scale, arranged on white shelves lining the walls of galleries that are white cubes. The placement of each piece of colour impacts the overall composition of the work. Words such as tone, energy, vibration, harmony and balance are useful in attempting to articulate the types of resonances that are possible.
I’m glad that you brought up medieval glass. I had to use binoculars to notice that every figure in the South Rose Window of Chartres Cathedral bears a vessel of some description. The vases, bottles, chalices and bowls seem so perfectly placed within each circular vignette – often in proximity to a harp or a lute. Colour, glass and music fused together through geometry by a guild of highly specialised artists and artisans.
ES That reminds me of windows I have seen in historic houses and churches, where the pressed or blown glass panes look like the base of the (unformed) vessel, like a stem cell full of potential perhaps? Going back to this idea of the colour museum, how much value do you place in researching the specificity of colour values and the differentiation between these qualities of hue, tone and saturation and other qualities derived from the individual unit of colour and its place in the spectrum? As in the case of Fugue, you clearly defer to the glass maker who crafted these objects. Your role would appear to be defined by the overarching composition, the seriality or harmony of the group arrangement. Do you see this as a way of continuing to enjoy traditional, relational colour freed of individual preference?
DS I tend to think about colour as a medium. This approach frees me up to work in a range of studio practices including painting, photography, sculpture. I don’t do a lot of (book-based) formal research about colour. The physical experience of holding and arranging coloured objects – placing them in varying proximities to each other – is one of my main forms of research. The other is the presentation of the final work. For me this is a highly critical process which sets up the context in which my combinations of colour are experienced.
Fugue is the result of a residency with the Glass Studio at the Jam Factory, Adelaide. All of the vessels (beakers, vases, bowls etc.) in this work were made especially for the project. I selected a colour range and provided the glassblowers with a simple brief: they could alter the basic flower pot shape by varying the height, width and angle of the form and they could vary the colour by altering its intensity. I wanted them to explore their own capacity to generate variation within a set of restrictions.
This was such a rare opportunity for me, and it seemed crazy to limit the project to just my understandings of these aspects of colour when I was working with a whole team of people skilled in the dazzling possibilities of glass. The arrangement (or orchestration) of the vessels on a gallery shelf represents the culmination of the process. Unlike previous vessel projects, much of the impact of Fugue is connected with the phenomena of transparency and light. I wanted to create chords of colour … a single line of vessels that requires the viewer’s time and movement, deeply connected with everyday experience.
Eve Sullivan is executive editor, Artlink.