ARTLOOK #8 | February 2005
Photo Eric Blaich
Artwork 8 Gated City by Merrill Orr, 2003
By Merrill Orr
10 February – 20 March
The Hoop of the World, Ceramics
It is not only the number of pieces in the exhibitionThe Hoop of the World that makes an immediate impression on visitors to Craft ACT. The artist, Merrill Orr arranges the ceramic works in the gallery with deliberate care, creating three spaces in which the viewer is invited to interact with the work. The intensity of the artist's vision is conveyed through the repetition of form.
Seventy ceramic towers, ranging in height from about 60 to 120cm, entice the viewer to move through the installations and to notice the many and varied surface designs, textures and subtle differences in colour. Playing 'which is my favorite' is a challenge, with each piece presenting as a uniquely detailed and finished individual. Made from extruded rectangular tubes, each work is topped with a thrown section that references traditional architectural features including domes, spires and finials.
A set of three shattered and broken towers, part of a somewhat disorderly group at the beginning of the show, seem a somewhat heavy-handed reminder of September 11. I was surprised to learn that the effects were accidental. Steel rods are fired inside many of the works to provide flooring for special objects that the artist places inside the ceramic walls, but in one firing the steel exploded from the pieces to produce the dramatic effect.
In some instances, the steel has left surface markings, like tears flowing from strangely positioned eyes, while candles illuminate others from the inside. This interaction between the inside and the outside invoked by physical perforation directly expresses the artist's metaphor. Each ceramic body is a person, upright in carriage, self contained and holding individual concerns, yet able to relate to the outside world and to others.
I was drawn to a pair, near the centre of the second installation, that bend towards each other, their heads together in conversation. They seem to emphasise the un-connectedness of the other works, which are positioned in a circle, on clustered plinths that vary in height. The effect is one of a crowded city, but at the same time there is fragmentation within the group and a strong sense of individual isolation. The viewer is induced to reflect on why this occurs in our urban society. Is it because we cling to our own patch of ground? Does socioeconomic position or visible difference alienate us from our fellows; or is it culture and language that divides us? The story of the tower of Babel springs to mind easily in the midst of Orr's city.
Orr insists that people are all basically the same. Her conviction comes from the formative experience of living with a string of international exchange students during her childhood. Her conviction that individual differences make the world a richer, more interesting place is reflected in her work. Carved, scraped, incised and pierced patterns add fabulous surface detail to her buildings and suggest a postmodern mix of cultural influences. Georgian chants along with Hopi, Navajo, Tibetan and Islamic calls to prayer are combined in an equally eclectic sound track which, along with the scent of frankincense, provides a rich sensory experience and suggests the artist's concern with things spiritual.
Art works that focus on the spiritual are sometimes so obvious as to be tedious, or so abstract as to be inaccessible. Orr manages to find a balance between formal space and sensory stimulation where imagination takes the viewer on a journey that parallels the physical movement through the exhibition. The ceramic medium, which is fundamentally about transformation, seems eminently suited to the intention. Eight works in a perfect circle mark the points of the compass and the journey's end with the achievement of balance and order. If you, like me are still in transit and have not yet reached that destination, take the time to breathe and contemplate Orr's creation.
The name of the show derives from a vision experienced by Black Elk: 'I was standing on the highest mountain of them all and round about me was the whole hoop of the world. And I saw the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight.' It is appropriate that the show is part of the Multicultural Festival this year as the viewer cannot help but to find references to distinctive decorative traditions in Orr's surface designs. This aspect of her work also raises the idea of a global cultural journey and suggests that a harmonious balance might be achieved in the future through equitable exchange.
Ann McMahon is a freelance writer, artist and critic