|Imagine theres no countries
and the world will live as one.
1971 was not a peaceful year.
While Brezhnev and Nixon maintained their Cold War distance, either side of the Iron
Curtain, other grievous figures emerged: Dirty Harry, Clockwork Orange,
Erich Honecker and Idi Amin. Twenty-seven years ago, John Lennons plaintive Imagine
seemed a glimmer of reason in a world tearing itself apart.
Today, Lennons impossible dream seems like our everyday reality. Sameness
rather than difference is the natural condition of our late twentieth-century
world. We currently enjoy a homogenizing global culture in which a standard set of
consumer goods is available almost anytime and anywhere in the world. We can find Nike in
Saudi Arabia, McDonalds in Moscow and News Corporation in China. Sometimes it seems wrong.
To paraphrase the famous Zen koan, we hear the sound of one hand clapping.
In bringing the world together, it would be a shame if globalizing technologies served
to erase rather than promote cultural difference. In this case, the best way of achieving
cross-cultural exchanges may be to go offlinebeyond the communication
grid. Late summer of 1998, Haystack organised an International session, presented
by a Welsh blacksmith (Ann Catrin Evans), a Dutch papermaker (Peter Gentenaar), a Fijian
and American wood-carvers (Makiti Koto and Katrina Madsen), a Korean paper-maker (Chunghie
Lee), a Japanese ceramicist (Shiro Otani), and a French-Australian jeweller (Pierre
Cavalan). The very word international seems today almost quaint, by contrast
with the more contemporary global. International retains some hint
of difference within the sameness, whereas global more easily overlooks
In an international spirit, therefore, the challenge at Haystack is to
bring together different cultures from various corners of the world in a way that avoids
platitudes of diversity. While the material results of this mix are difficult
to pin down, Ive attempted as a writer to place this task within a craft context.
Today, craft inherits a way of doing things that is at odds with the mainstream. While
the world is moving away from the bench to the screen¾ from
the typewriter to the word processor¾ it is closing the book
on an adventure that has lasted thousands of years. In an information society,
the advancement of knowledge is usually considered the core story of human civilization.
Often overlooked is the intense struggle with the materials from which our world is made
possiblethe bookbinders behind the theories.
During the idyllic fortnight spent at Haystack, I kept asking myself the same
question¾ is it real? The first reason for suspicion was the
absence of insects. As an Australian, I know summer as a season where an army of buzzing
creatures declares war on human flesh. Like beleaguered soldiers, we wearily exchange the
Aussie salute, waving our hands across our faces to dislodge the flies,
momentarily. Haystack was eerily peaceful in this regard.
The second clue to unreality was the weather. Each day at Haystack seemed to follow the
same pattern. We wake to fogs that surround the island in a mysterious cloud. By
afternoon, sun burns away the mist to reveal sharp blue skies. And at night, wild
thunderstorms light up the woods making day for night. I suspect we are on a
The final and most telling clue to this stage management was the scenery. Id seen
it all before¾ on a computer screen. With an interest in
emerging fields of craft, I had cause to study the most popular non-violent CD-ROM, Myst.
Here also was the network of islands, the geometric wooden architecture, the spruce
forests and the granite meeting the gently lapping sea¾ all
swathed in a misty light. I am tempted to try clicking one of the outdoor light posts, to
see what new screen would emerge.
For the first few days, jet lag blends with culture shock to create a sense of
unreality. But eventually, just as the mist evaporates into the afternoon sky, my
existential vertigo dissipates. For that, I have one special element to thank¾ the culture of Haystack.
At Haystack, visitors encounter not only exquisite works of art, but also the chapped
hands that laboured over them. Many of these are masters, who have dedicated
their lives to the subtle refinement of their medium. But masters are not the majority. At
their hands and feet are exponents of crafts foreign to Haystack, such as table waiting,
surgery or secretarial work.
For many of these moonlighters, Haystack is a once in a lifetime experience. Their
ecstatic contact with a sacred site of craft is kneaded back into their normal
lives. We are unlikely to learn how this occurs; we can only imagine the pockets of
respite retrieved from work pressures, when abstract forces are seized like material
threads and woven into acts of substance. In these situations, a paragraph, abdominal
incision or difficult customer is dealt with in the same quiet resolve as a lump of clay
is thrown into a pot.
From what I hear of other craft workshops, Haystack is distinguished by its lack of
elitism. There are subtle ways in which Haystack encourages this collectivity: 24-hour
access, even if not availed, weakens the routine boundary between work and home. In our
normal lives, the daily commute creates an inexorable division between public and private.
We become accustomed to leaving something of ourselves behind, in whichever direction we
travel. In work we forget our solicitude, and at home we ignore our intensity of purpose.
While this is a necessary sacrifice in the emotional economy on which the other economies
run, it is just as necessary that we occasionally leave the door open. Work and home are,
after all, connected. And in Haystack, you need never be ashamed of working in your
pyjamas, or crying at your bench.
During the first few days of the workshops, much time is spent becoming acquainted with
the appropriate tools. As the agents of making, it is critical that our bodies fully
acquaint themselves with their new extensions. Even into the third day, the wood carvers
are still learning how to effectively sharpen their instruments. Meanwhile, in
blacksmithing, the makers spend the first two days bootstrapping themselves
into action by making their own tools.
As a writer, it is difficult not to be infected by this prolonged preparation. It
provides a space in which to contemplate the rudiments of thinking. Taking a
phenomenological line, the craft of thinking is very much about learning how to balance
opposing forces. This balance is maintained by alternation between two
processesbringing together and pulling apart.
In normal life, this process becomes sedimented. We can take for granted both the
bizarre events in Russia and the reasonableness of life at home. But as Heraclitis has
said, The mixture that is not shaken soon stagnates. Where writing can make a
difference is in stirring up the dust¾ in linking what is kept
different, and separating what is normally taken together. Hopefully, such writing might
assist productive pursuits to find a similar balance.
My reflection on Haystack is therefore a journey along the landscape of craft, more
particularly, a path through the valley of oppositions in which craft is situated. My
initial companions were the group who gathered every afternoon in the writers shack
to unravel their thoughts and rest their hands. They helped shape the passage we follow
here. I hope that by the end of the journey, we might have refreshed our understanding of
the broader physics of which individual acts of craft partake.
Hunter and herdsman
The management of things
One of the basic considerations in making concerns maintenance of
materials. Lewis Mumford identified two alternative patterns of care in the distinction
between herdsman and hunter. According to Mumford, the herdsman
survives by nurturing his source of food, whereas the hunter captures his prey with little
regard for the world from whence it comes.
Mumfords bias is against the hunter. For Mumford, the hunter exemplifies a lack
of regard for nature that lies at the heart of capitalism unbounded by responsibility for
either community or environment. As an abstract device, however, this division reflects
two equally valid forms of creative engagement.
A paradigmatic herdsman is the English ceramicist Bernard Leach, who recommended that
ceramicists dig up the very clay they use in their pots. This self-sufficiency extends
beyond the ideology of the 1960s. Today, it is common for paper artists to grow their own
specialist fibre. Many wood artists only use off-cuts to reduce the toll of their craft on
native forests. Craft is home territory for environmental sustainability.
Yet, for every herdsman there is a noble hunter. The hunter lies in watch for an
auspicious moment in which treasure might be seized. Such an approach need not lead to
murder, it can simply amount to scrounging. And at Haystack, there is a tradition of
jeweller as scavenger. The Australian jeweller Pierre Cavalan specialises in assembling a
variety of otherwise useless items into a precious syntax of a necklace or brooch. In
finding happy combinations, such as the seven items that spell Haystack for
his tribute work, Cavalan retrieves the honour of ornament from the excess of branding
that afflicts urban life.
In conversations around this theme, there was a sense that modern life needs to restore
contact with the mode of the hunter. Much consumerism is plainly an enjoyment of the
fruits of hunting, yet foodstuffs emerge anonymously onto supermarket shelves with little
regard for the elemental process of life and death it has endured. At least the act of
killing ones supper provides an honest acknowledgment of the sacrifice necessary for
human life to continue.
Tree and root
The organization of things
Experience tending the land has generated its own particular opposition:
the tree that extends as a singular form to the sky, and the roots that dig
deep in their multiplicity through the soil. The tree is a creature of light that absorbs
the energies of the sun towards which it grows. By contrast, the roots are creatures of
dark, which absorb water lying in the depths of the earth. Strangely, they are part of the
This opposition is such a compelling metaphor on which to hang thoughts that two French
philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, developed a whole body of thought around
it. In A Thousand Plateaus, they draw a parallel between trees and the Western form
of knowledge. For Deleuze and Guattari, the tree is hierarchical: many branches serve one
trunk. This arborescent order is characteristic of a way of thinking which
reduces experience to a single entity, such as common sense or
truth. Their hearts lie with its antithesis, which they call
rhizomic. Like the roots of a tree, the rhizomic spreads
horizontally without particular orderit thinks in Haiku rather than sonnets, chance
rather than prediction, waves rather than ripples. Rhizomic forms include potatoes, insect
colonies, burrows, Asian cities and the Internet.
With a French tendency to the absolute, Deleuze and Guattari are defiant about the
virtues of the rhizomic
We should stop believing in trees
Theyve made us suffer too
much. All of arborescent culture is founded on them, from biology to linguistics. Nothing
is beautiful or loving or political aside from underground stems and aerial roots,
adventitious growths and rhizomes.
Dig it! On the surface, Haystack seems an especially good environment to
consider this underground movement: spruce trees rise up from the ground in dead straight
formations, while their roots create a complex web across the soil, to the hazard of many
Yet to simply affirm roots and deny trees is a limited move. While we can appreciate
the hidden powers of the roots, we need to acknowledge that they exist to serve a
higher purpose. These days, it is a little harder to accept that there might
also be a place for a singular truthan island in a sea of relative opinions. We have
swung so far in one direction that we lose sight of the other.
Mind and hand
The construction of things
The human body is an enduring structure on which to hang together
thoughts. Its principle duality is the controlling presence of the mind and the
instrumental powers of the hand. Since the Greeks, the superior power has resided in the
capacity of thought rather than fabrication. Philosophers such as Locke compared the hands
to slaves that must fulfil the duties demanded of them by our consciousness.
This position should be so familiar it barely needs mention. But we know also that
hands do not always conform so obediently to this arrangement. Indeed, there are many
situations where hands might be seen to have a mind of their own, even beyond
our conscious control.
Aristotle called the hand a tool of tools. As a built-in
prosthesis it sometimes has an instrumentality that is foreign to us. The German
late-romantic poet Rilke animates the hands when describing the work of Rodin.
Hands have a history of their own, they have, indeed, their own
civilisation, their special beauty; we concede to them the right to have their own
development, their own wishes, feelings, moods and favourite occupations.
Rilkes kingdom of hands demands more artistic license
than we might otherwise grant a metaphor, but its a useful conceit. The hand as an
agent in itself is often used to estrange us from this familiar part of ourselves, to
appreciate how central the act of making is to the heart of our existence. We are the
stuff of hands before mindshands that pulled us from the womb and held our trembling
With computer technologies, we move further away from that point of origin. As e-mail
replaces hand-written letters, the expressive role of hands in communication lessens.
Though computing is still dependent on the use of handstapping a keyboard and
clicking a mousemovement has been reduced to pressing and there is no place for the
most subtle of manual powers, the hold. But even this minimal involvement of hands will
cease: voice-controlled software promises to grant us an almost telepathic control over
our lives. Unlike throwing clay pots, hands have no integral role to play in the
development of information technologies.
Along these lines Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine and author of Out of
Control heralds a thumbless future. He argues that, while there have been
particular evolutionary developments that were critical for survival, they have no longer
any use once their part is played. Thumbs served in the construction of the tools that
eventually replaced them. Having run their length in the evolutionary relay, hands are
free to kick up their heels (or rather palms).
Yet at the same time, hands re-emerge in the strangest of places, such as the character
Thing in the television series, The Addams Family. Thing,
the tireless messenger, grants audience from a small wooden box. The object of comedy here
is Things uncanny ability to communicate complex messages and understanding to his
mistress, Mortitia Addams.
Interestingly, the Thing of the recent film versions has been liberated
from the box and freely moves around the world, even on a skateboard. This unshackling of
the hand reflects a change in telecommunication¾ from
stationary pay phone to mobile phone. This re-engineered Thing reflects the supposed
freedoms now possible once we are no longer dependent on location in order to produce
In any Haystack workshop you see a crowd of Things, both dexterously
manipulating materials and dramatically gesturing to fellows. For many office workers,
Haystack is a holiday for the hands, where participants can re-sensitize their
touch, put confidence back into their grip, and fine tune their fingers.
While we enjoy the spectacle of hands playing free of consciousness, like the roots of
a tree we must acknowledge their ultimate dependence on direction from the mind. Just as
German philosophers can talk about the craft of thinking, so we must admit to
the force that guides our hands. In Haystack, the mind follows hand as the night follows
day: evening seminars and readings grant opportunities to think about frames in which to
place our productions.
Rare and common
The economy of things
In a more abstract sense, the relationship between the one and the many
is particularly striking in the way we value objects and events. Our economy is structured
on the value of the rare item, as opposed to the common property. The price of minerals is
directly proportional to their rarity, more or less. By a similar logic, singular events
in a life such as weddings are valued above the routine weekdays in which patterns of
behaviour are repeated. Certainly, in decorative arts collections, rare items such as
one-off porcelain statuettes are featured before objects such as coffee mugs, despite
being more useful to a greater number of people.
The opposition between rare and common challenges writers, whose craft it is to frame
our experience in words. To value only the singular events would be to deny the greater
part of our life. One poet who accepts this challenge is John Ashbery. In this remarkable
passage from Three Poems, Ashbery attends to the way the temporal structure of a
day might provide a logic for the span of a human life that contains it.
[The day] is a microcosm of mans life as it gently wanes, its long
morning shadows getting shorter with the approach of noon, the high point of the day which
could be likened to that sudden tremendous moment of intuition that comes only once in a
lifetime, and then the fuller, more rounded shapes of early afternoon as the sun
imperceptibly sinks in the sky and the shadows start to lengthen, until all are blotted in
the stealthy coming of twilight, merciful in one sense that it hides the differences,
blemishes as well as beauty marks, that gave the day its character and in so doing caused
it to be another day in our limited span of days, the reminder that time is moving on and
we are getting older, not older enough to make any difference on this particular occasion,
but older all the same.
Through foreign eyes this reverence for the epic in the ordinary seems a
particularly American trait. The lineage of writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Richard
Ford consecrate the everyday with an authority, awesome in its modesty.
The obverse of this New England pastoral is Russian romanticism, with its desperate
attack on the inertia of everyday reality (known in Russian simply as being,
or byt). Its most dramatic exponent, Vladimir Mayakovsky, attempted to break
through the callused senses as a service in the greater revolutionary project of smashing
Painting Mondays and Tuesdays in blood
We shall turn them into holidays
Theres no question that Haystack was imbued with the pastoral
spirit. The day had a consistent routinebreakfast, lunch and dinner are all about
equal in their degree of formality and occasion. Yet taken as a whole, the fortnight
session was geared to the final showing, in which work by participants is displayed for
public viewing and private assessment.
Perhaps the most frequent reflection about staying at Haystack concerns our experience
of time. The days lend themselves to a sense of timelessness, yet its end seems to
accelerate the closer it gets. It is a rare sense of commonness.
West and East
The movement of things
At the dawn of the 1990s, it seemed that the time-honoured subservience
of the east was changing. The Asian tiger was growing in confidence, and China
was given the box seat to take over Russias role as the alternative superpower. Then
in July 1997, Thailand abandoned the fixed Baht, which promptly fell through the
floor, taking the rest of Asian economies with it. Since then, Western economies have
continued to flourish, albeit casting the occasional backward glance, while southeast
Asian societies seem to have been thrown back to a quagmire of
orientalismreligious fanaticism and political corruption.
During the international campus, one of the few pieces of news to filter through
concerned the bombings at Planet Hollywood in South Africa. Along with continued tension
between the US and Iraq, it seems as though little has changed since the medieval battles
between the Christian and Muslim empires. East-west rivalry has outlasted the industrial
revolution, world socialism, global capitalism and the information society. How is it that
this little planet got divided up into two halves?
Though the title of Asia goes back at least to ancient Greek times, it is very much a
Western invention. The Chinese name for it, Yazhou, is itself borrowed from
abroad. This difference has usually been a negative one: to the east are the inscrutable,
barbaric and inhumane peoples.
One of the most powerful antidotes to this global split has been the post-colonial
movement in Western academic circles. It has become common in the universities to question
the whole existence of the orient as a Western construction. The Palestinian
writer, Edward Said, claimed that the exotic picture of the east did not exist in reality,
but was constructed to service the careers of Occidentals who found causes to
upholdparticularly the rescue of antiquities from contemporary Arabs.
One dangerous side-effect of the post-colonial critique is that it can transform all
encounters with the other into simple projections of our own sense of the
exotic. Too much self-consciousness can be disabling. Is there any point in meeting
a Chinese if all I do is project my own fantasies onto him? We still need to
encounter a different way of thinking, simply to understand ourselves.
To this end, we need to think again how west is west and east is east. The Western
manner of starting things from scratch, whether in systems of knowledge or agriculture,
bears obvious fruit in the advancement of science and technology. Its antithesis is the
more traditional understanding of the world, which is by definition less systematic. This
is how the Western authors such as François Jullien characterise Chinese
seems to weave along horizontally, from one case
to the next, via bridges and bifurcations, each case eventually leading to the next and
merging into it. In contrast to Western logic, which is panoramic, Chinese logic is
like that of a possible journey in stages that are linked together.
In the terms we have established thus far, the eastern way of knowing is
rhizomic: it progresses without constant reference to a core system of truth. As such, it
is attuned to the flows of events, or chi, that characterize natural patterns
in material and social life.
While there are many examples of where such reasoning clashes with the Westsuch
as impatience with the evasive responses of its oriental hostthere are many lives
that intersect the two, and in doing so inform us how they might co-exist. Yoko
Matsubayashi, the teaching assistant for the visiting Japanese ceramicist Shiro Otani,
presented an artists statement in her talk to Haystack faculty:
I lie somewhere between East and West, rural and urban, winter and
summer, inhibited and wild,¾ yin and yang. This
relates to the situation that I am in. I am between two different cultures. I am in
America, but I am Japanese.
I only know I like clay. Clay helps to express my imagination that changes every day. I
feel as if I am water. In winter the river freezes. After a heavy rain, the water rages.
Water takes on any shape and changes freely. Water can be ice. Water can evaporate into
air. But water is water. I live in two cultures, but I am I.
These dualities offer a series of threads from which meaning can be
woven. There are ways clearly to organise alliances between them. The Oriental offers a
rhizomic knowledge that privileges the daily cycle and contemplation, rather than the
hands-on Occidental approach that seeks the rare core of truth from which all else will
Yokos reference to materials, in this case the element of clay, indicates how
those working with the poetry of materials can explore the intersection between two forms
of life. The physical continuity of the world persists through ideological difference.
Here we move to the next duality, between matter and its meaning.
Life and art
The enjoyment of things
Within the discipline of sociology, across many different cultures,
there is one fundamental division that can always be found in the analysis of our
behaviour. It can be so obvious as to seem insignificant, but its pervasiveness is
profound. The division concerns the practical and expressive dimensions of
behaviour. There are acts motivated by practical considerations, in which the resources
necessary to maintain life are gathered. Complementing these are acts whose intention is
not practical, but expressive. You buy a car. You not only consider its mechanical
condition (practical), but by virtue of its public status you must also consider its
It was the psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who discovered a parallel difference in the
construction of self. In this picture of childhood, the development of creativity depends
on two interrelated factors: boundary and space. The child has to have a sense of security
(practical), but within that security there must be space for play (expressive).
This expressive-practical division is a rich device for looking at an individuals
attempt to make a life. While much of our care is spent securing the material structure of
our lives, it is at least equally important that this work allows for a space which is
enjoyed for its own sake. The most common element in this space is family.
But family is not the only means by which this expressive culture is maintained.
Traditionally, Sunday has been the exception from the working week, when non-utilitarian
display is encouragedSunday best. In major cities where most people
live, Sunday is becoming an endangered species. It has been argued that our expressive
opportunities are declining with the advance of capital and the disappearance of the
sacred. In these conditions, people often turn to art in order to secure that expressive
bubble for themselves.
As an island, Haystack draws many people who are trying to escape their worldly success
and pursue an activity for its own sake. These students are almost as distinguished as the
Faculty, although in different fields.
Take the case of Nancy Klimley, technical director for Rhythm n Hues, a Los
Angeles animation company. Klimley is well known for her animal modelling, seen in Coke
advertisements and films such as Babe, which has pioneered the synthesis of
movement in fur. Despite this success, she searches for a space beyond the demands of
othersa creative oasis where forms spring forth spontaneously.
So much of my work is based on making other people happy. Its
exclusively: Is my boss happy? Is his boss happy? Is the client happy? Is the movie
selling so the public is happy? When Im doing my own work its just for me.
Working on some of the most powerful graphic computers in existence,
Klimley takes time out to sit on a floor and carve into a block of wood. Such expressive
moments are critical in staking out a creative life.
We are conditioned to believe that such moments are the exclusive prerogative of
artists, though any life would be bereft of meaning without similar opportunities to
define itself beyond practical needs. It seems an important legacy of the arts and craft
movement that we acknowledge opportunities for expressive realization in all walks of
life. Everyone has a right to lay claim to craft.
When you look deeply enough into any profession, you will find a craft metaphor. Take a
profession we dont normally associate with craft, such as dentistry. Apart from its
financial success, dentistry lacks the expressive opportunities of craft. Like surgery,
good dentistry is invisible. The mark of a professional is to make it seem as though no
work has been done on a persons mouth. This is diametrically opposite to crafts,
where the mark of the maker is essential to the worth of an object. But we can find this
mark back in the roots of dentistry.
Not all cultures treat dentistry as a purely medical profession. Until the Papal Edict
of 1215, European dentistry was the province of monks, whose responsibility extended to
other barber-isms such as cutting corns and extracting bladder stones. This
tooth-drawing was an intuitive craft with little or no science. Thus anyone with practical
skills could pursue a spot of dentistry.
The legendary American patriot Paul Revere pursued his fathers profession of
silversmith through the production of tea sets for the Boston aristocracy. But he also
applied his craft to dentistry, where he manufactured artificial teeth. This link with
jewellery remains today. At a local dental institute, a crown and bridge specialist is
known as the goldsmith of the profession. It is bench lore that jewellers
treat a trip to the dentist as an opportunity to purloin a spare file or probe. Listen to
the sounds of a jewellery workshop and you will hear the familiar sound of flexi-drive air
drill, excavating and polishing.
This romance with jewellery is the antithesis of contemporary dentistry. The emphasis
on prevention implies a negative picture of dentistry¾ the
less the better. There is no place in this kind of professional identity for an
appreciation of the subtle manual skills required to conduct such fine work in a space
that is wet, upside down and labile. One dentist reflects on an early influence:
My own dentist had a great pride in workmanship. I knew him as a person.
I can remember the time when my father and he were building a caravan each together and
his pride as he produced something to a thou. It always wasevery little
bit of woodwork was to a thousandth of an inch. His craftsmanship with wood and furniture,
cabinet making was terrific. Some of the fillings he did for me, 35-40 years ago are still
in place in my teeth and still functioning well, even though he has left this world some
10-15years ago. So the work goes on much longer than we do sometimes.
Given the access to goldsmithing equipment and previous metals, it is
not surprising that jewellery is a popular past-time for dentists and dental technicians.
One of the curious discoveries in exploring the craft identity of a profession is the
inverse reaction that takes place. Individuals will seek outside their work a way of
counteracting the bias of their profession. A heart surgeon might confess to cooking
without recipes in order to counter the obsessiveness encourage by life-threatening
techniques. One particularly philosophical dentist pursued an art outside the surgery of
crude rural sculpture. This had only limited success:
I quite like fiddling. I'm from the country originally and I always
liked doing this. I'm always disappointed, though, that my attempts at rural manufacture
always turn out to be too neat. I have never found out how you get that raw rudeness into
rural manufacture if you like.
There is a fascinating genealogy to be constructed of secret
marriages between different walks of life. For many participants, Haystack is almost an
affair of the hands, allowing them time out from the day job in
order to renew the expressive mystery at the heart of creation. This is the way
Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas idealises work:
We might wonder if we should not recognise an element of art in the work
of craftsmen, in all human work, commercial and diplomatic, in the measure that, in
addition to its perfect adaptation to its ends, it bears witness to an accord with some
destiny extrinsic to the course of things, which situates it outside the world, like the
forever bygone past of ruins, like the elusive strangeness of the exotic. The artist stops
because the work refuses to accept anything more, appears saturated. The work is completed
in spite of the social or material causes that interrupt it.
Less removed from life than art, craft has the license to recover
expressive moments from the most practical of activities.
Inside and outside
The location of things
Ripples of this dialogue extend beyond an individual life to grander
questions of national identity. With the fall of communism in the 1990s has come a rash of
nationalism. As the nation state collapsed in Eastern Europe, xenophobic sentiments grew
like weeds between the cracks. Each of these racisms held to a dream of
self-sufficiencyif only we could rid ourselves of the otherthe
Muslims, the Croats or the Serbswe could finally control our destiny. In recent
years, the Pauline Hansens One Nation Party in Australia has been running a
similar line about the growing proportion of Asians.
The contrary movement is towards difference, and the embrace of
what is other. The most celebrated centrifugal moment is marriage, where the sexual and
kin difference is brought together. We know this tendency politically in the support of
minorities and celebration of cultural difference. Enjoyed to excess, it can lead to a
denial of ones own place in the world, in favour of those who are more
different, exotic and other. Of late it has been dampened by the label
political correctness, which is a way of discounting any dialogue with
interests beyond the mainstream.
Without an ideological push, the default position seems to view national traditions in
isolation from each other. This certainly is a picture encouraged by the displays of
decorative arts in museums. The reality is usually quite different.
Many myths of national identity have as their founding moment a borrowing from
elsewhere. A striking case for this symbolic exogamy is the identification of countries in
Western Europe with the Levant. Grundtvig, the great reformer who planned modern Denmark,
proclaimed Denmark is historys Palestine. Similarly, the
great historical figure of Jacob Cats, also known as Father Cats, whose moral
verses informed Dutch empire of the 17th century is eulogized as the one
Whom Holland made Jerusalem. While England was celebrated in verse as the New
Jerusalem, there was much identification at the height of the British Empire with the
ancient Phoenicians. Figures like Matthew Arnold, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and
William Gladstone all professed an association between the modern English and the noble
race of seafarers. Such an identification served to strengthen their link with the source
of history in the Semitic peoples, without the perceived dolour of the Hebraic races.
Such borrowing is particularly strong in the national craft traditions. The dominance
of porcelain in Western Europe is of course a Chinese borrowing. The eighteenth century
China mania is just one of many waves of Oriental influence that have swept
But take a specific case like Russia. Many of their major crafts turn out to be derived
from Japan. In the early 20th century, various items were imported for gift
shops, including a figurine of a Buddhist sage, known as Fukuruma, brought from the
Japanese island of Honshu. This doll contained others nestled inside it and its popularity
sparked the Russian tradition of Matryoshka. Also among those imports were exotic items of
lacquer-ware. This provided the basic structure and technique for the miniature painting,
the finest expression of Russian craftsmanship found today. Lacquer-ware was the communist
displacement of icon painting, which itself was borrowed directly from the Greeks along
with the Orthodox faith in the 10th century.
Far from being an exception to the self-contained evolution of traditions, this
foreign knowledge at the heart of creation is endemic to a dialogic
understanding of identity. We are for others, or as Lévinas writes: My being is
produced in producing itself before the others in discourse; it is what it reveals of
itself to the others, but while participating in, attending, its revelation.
While I might take the exogamous position, I cannot exclude the
necessity of identity. I simply maintain that we need to provide a space for difference.
The chorus for this today consists of a variety of movements. The call for protection of
biological and linguistic diversity is based on the threat of globalization as it leads to
a homogenisation of the natural and built fabric of the world.
In Australia, this call is acknowledged in the political movement known as
multi-culturalism, which is based on a notion of nationhood that embraces
cultural difference. The value that enables this difference to flourish is derived from
the reformist spirit of a convict colonyeveryone deserves a fair go.
But there are limits to this. The challenge is to open the doors without losing the
walls. How do we expose ourselves to foreign influence without losing our own sense of
identity completely? The danger is to panic at this point and brick over the doors. The
best counter to this closure is a recognition that our identity comes from outside.
From that comes a particularly effective synthesis, such as James Joyces Ulysses,
which draws on the ancient Greek epic in order to depict the very everyday life of
Dubliners. As the Germans would say, it takes a long journey to get to where you started.
The journey taken in this instance has navigated through a series of oppositions that help
constellate the meaning of craft. To the left is the range of the one: hunter, tree, mind,
rare, west, life and inside. This is the isolated individual who reaches for the absolute
at great risk of life. To the right is the series of the many: herdsman, root, hand,
common, east, art and outside. What is important here is the interconnection between
elements, rather than their intrinsic identity. Clearly, identity and difference are part
of the same landscape.
To maintain these two forces, it is necessary to create a space between them. Haystack
functions as a space in which we can contemplate the relationship between these two forms
of life. On its ideal journey, we can gather and hunt, observe trees and their roots,
engage our mind and hands, enjoy the rare and the common, relate East to West, carve art
out of life, and find ourselves in others. By the end, we should be back where we started.
The world seems a strange place after a fortnight on Deer Isle. I spent my first
night out of Haystack in Bangor with Pierre Cavalan, a compatriot jeweller (though of
French birth, he is an honorary citizen of the United States of Australia). To begin the
evening, we chose to hit the real grit hard and see a movie. As it had yet to open in
Australia, we decided on the Truman Show, the film by an Australian about how
unreal American reality can be. I had obvious reason to recall my first doubts at the
authenticity of Haystack.
Filing out of the cinema, through the featureless mall interior, we made our way
outside. There, on cue, a taxi was waitingthe same taxi we had taken to the mall.
Haystack now seemed positively real by comparison with reality outside.
John Ashbery Three Poems Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972
Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari A Thousand Plateaus Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press, 1987 (orig. 1980)
François Jullien The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in
China New York: Zone (trans. Janet Lloyd), 1995 (orig. 1992)
Bruce Kirmmse Kierkegaard in the Golden Age of Denmark Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1990
Emmanuel Lévinas Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority The
Hague: Martinus Nijhoff (trans. Alphonso Lingis), 1979 (orig. 1961)
Emmanuel Lévinas Reality and its shadow in The Lévinas Reader (ed.
Sean Hand) Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989 (orig. 1948)
Vladimir Mayakovsky `Cloud in Trousers Mayakovsky: The Bedbug and Selected
Poetry (trans. Max Hayward & George Reavey) Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1975 (orig. 1915)
Rainer Marie Rilke The Rodin Book Rodin and Other Prose Pieces G.C.
Houston (ed.) London: Quartet, 1986 (orig. 1902)
Simon Schama The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the
Golden Age London: Fontana, 1991 (orig. 1987)