Surfing, art and artefacts: asking coastal questions
Over the past few years, I have attended a lot of ‘surf art’ openings and exhibitions. A lot. Mostly they’re quite lovely and colourful and, well, surfy, but mostly I also walk away and don’t much think about them again. I don’t mean to say they’re not good, because they are and people are doing all sorts of awesome things using images of waves, boards, bodies, colours, clouds and the beach, but while they might make me smile or feel good,I suppose they never really teach me much, or make me ask questions. And that’s not a criticism so much as an observation, because making beautiful images, films and objects for their own sake is wonderful and I don’t necessarily want anyone to stop. But there are a growing number of surfy artists I have come to love, whose work is not ‘surf art’, but rather is ‘art about surfing’. The difference is that their work is more than textual, more than art for beauty’s sake, and engages in cultural questions and ugliness and critique.
This ‘art about surfing’ is subversive and disruptive. It is more complex and rich and critical than surf industry art. It asks questions and highlights contradictions and takes nothing for granted and tricks us into thinking and discomfort. It makes our ugliness beautifully and aesthetically visible and available. It draws us in, enthralls us and then gets under our skin. It is political, ethical, sad and beautiful.
And it should be. It should make us ask questions. It should cause discomfort. It should say something new, show us something new.
Last night I had the pleasure of attending the Gold Coast City Gallery for the opening night of Gerry Wedd, Vernon Ah Kee, Michael Aird and Peter Walker’s collective exhibition*. Some of these names and works are very familiar to me – you will have heard me talk about Gerry Wedd’s gorgeous ceramics on here multiple times before, and I have read about and seen images of Vernon Ah Kee’s variously decorated, waterlogged and political boards and films from the Venice Biennale in 2009 – so I was stoked to have the opportunity to hear them both speak (and Michael Aird) and to take a look at their latest works**. Unfortunately as I was fanging down the highway I had the unfortunate interruption of a flat tyre and so missed the first talks, but made it just in time to catch Gerry Wedd. Phew! As I breathlessly entered the gallery, I was greeted by a forest of beautiful, glossy, muted wooden boards, with a backdrop of blue and white ceramic works – urns, plates, tiles and cheeky thongs. The crowd sat amongst the boards applauding Michael Aird as he took his seat and Gerry as he stood.
Gerry Wedd's ceramics are a revelation.
When you first chance upon them, they are a delight and a surprise, so to have the chance to hear him speak more about them was a treat. And I was stoked to hear what Gerry had to say. He talked about how he discovered surfing magazines through his sister, and ceramics through his mother. His love for surfing culture is his own, but his understandings of it, and the ways he expresses these came from his family, giving it a level of intimacy I hadn’t seen before.
He explained the ways he uses urns as a reference to our knowledges of the past, of history, and to what his art will itself eventually become - artefacts. He takes the shapes and styles of our human predecessors, creating objects that echo a past which we know and assume, using them to tell new stories of humanity, sport, travel and the ocean. He uses these historical tools to re-shape our cultural history of surfing, of being Australian. Through his ceramics, Wedd is creating an archive of alternative ways of knowing surfing and surfing histories, cultures and identities. His ceramics - his artefacts - add to what we know about surfing, but more importantly, they add to what is possible for us to know.
Gerry's urns, tiles, thongs, cups and plates bring new names and faces and stories into our homes and everyday. They hang on our walls and act as vessels for our tea. They are stories that we cannot escape as they quietly become a part of our homes. They are beautiful when displayed in a gallery en masse, but I can tell you from personal experience, that they are even more wonderful when they sit in your kitchen cupboard and on your beside table each morning, full of warm morning tea, telling stories throughout your everyday.
But Gerry Wedd is not alone.
Vernon Ah-Kee’s recent works re-colour and redraw other kinds of known objects and artefacts: surfboards. He questions our preferred Australian understandings of the coast as a place for leisure and fun, and instead discusses the beach as a battlefield and a site of ongoing and explicit racism. The images, colours and patterns of his boards, and of the connected films raise the spectre of the European invasion and subsequent settlement of Australia, as well as more recent coastal clashes such as the so-called ‘Cronulla Riots’ in 2004.
Ah Kee’s boards (shaped at Diverse Surf on the Gold Coast) are painted with bright colours on the deck, and gently drawn with portraits of men from his family, charcoaled in underneath.When hung, from one angle his boards compose a tableau of faces and family, soft in form, and from another angle are an earthy composition of colours and patterns connected to his country and place. But for me, what makes them come alive is the way they are dinged and waxed and ridden, with traces of sand, salt and water lodged in the wax and the resin cracks. For the surfers there, this meant something, it made the boards make more sense that those which are made to be hung on a wall, denied the function of their design. I heard one group of guys imagine how cool it would be to know you were the one who had ridden that board; like a secret piece of connection and knowledge to the art.
In a lovely connection, Ah Kee’s work is placed beside and connected to the films of Michael Aird. These films are different to Ah Kee’s coastal questions of culture, race and belonging, and instead are about those moments which are quiet and mundane: stories of everyday living on the coast, about being from and of the coast. Michael Aird tells us stories of his country and history, about the connections to place and family he feels as he boats on the river, reels in a fish, pulls up a crabpot. His films and photos are an attempt to record these moments as significant and to show the personal and cultural power of the everyday. As Michael says in his exhibition catalogue;
For many years I have been conscious of the types of images that are often missing from the photographic record. Most photographs are of people posing for special events, or maybe just simply people when they were together and want to remember that occasion. So looking back at most people’s photo albums, you may not see too many images of people doing what they normally do on an ordinary day in their lives. Simple things like sitting around a campfire or walking through a mangrove mudflat or a shallow creek at low tide, to me are all worthy of being photographed.
The works of all three of these artists, while very different in terms of form and motivation, are linked by engaging with the coast beyond a broad Australian preference for romaticising our relationships to it. Each of these artists is clearly and deeply connected to the coast and the water in intimately personal ways, but each is willing to question the complexities of these connections and their (and our) place within them.
Michael Aird’s films show that the coast is a place filled with mundane moments, but highlights that these are perhaps more significant than the ways we have celebrated them in the past. It is a place of family, home and history, which is both beautiful and troubled. Vernon Ah Kee’s boards, like Gerry Wedd's ceramics, are functional, thoughtful pieces that are more than textual, more than surf. They produce stories and ghosts that are both real and imagined, known and unexpected, familiar and strange, but which make an odd kind of sense. Their objects are not structured or wordy, but are visual, physical, objectified and cultural. They manifest something in my mind and heart and body: responses that I'm not quite sure about yet, but which are something akin to stoke. They make me think. They make me uncomfortable. They make me want to go surfing.
*This exhibition and the associated works connect to an admirable focus by the Gold Coast City Gallery on collecting works which are relevant in relation both to the Gold Coast and the the coast more broadly, establishing their place as relevant to the community they are such an important part of.
**Peter Walker’s public talk about his beautiful wooden boards will be on July 9th. See you there!