Jonathan Webster


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Coral Island

I’ve just returned home after taking part in a project on Ikei Island in Okinawa. Organised by Yoshiko Machida (we’re classmates), it was called Coral Island Art Project. It’s a type of collaboration and cultural exchange between Taiwanese and Okinawan based artists, and Yoshiko has curated an exhibition here in Taipei and in Okinawa with work thematically linked with a response to coral.

We lived on Ikei Island for a week, slowly and surely installing. Such a surreal place, unlike anywhere I’ve been. Surreal probably isn’t the right word, it’s the word an outsider would use. It’s actually very real, people live here (only about 250), the village is made up of traditional Japanese houses with some newer buildings scattered here and there. We slept on the ground underneath a mosquito net, in a home inhabited by the ancestors of the owner, who doesn’t live there. ‘Heartbreak Island’ my friend called it. She was speaking personally, but I also understand – we all felt something. Such heartbreaking beauty, and a quietness I’m not used to anymore coming from Taipei. No phone, no internet, but a quietness punctuated by such turbulent and sudden weather!

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I installed my work in a home inhabited by an ancestor. It’s such a relief to install outside of the gallery for a change. To be sure the space presents it’s own challenges and problems, but I would love to find a way to work in a space like this again.

This piece was called 93%. Here is a little something I wrote to accompany it:

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the county’s most significant and iconic national landmarks. Beach culture is central to Australian life, the reef’s beauty is perhaps the most tangible evidence as to why. The most comprehensive survey of the reefs that comprise the Great Barrier Reef was completed in April, finding that 93 percent have been hit by coral bleaching. Coral bleaching occurs when the ocean water warms, sending the coral into distress and eventual death. The mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef comes amid a global bleaching crises that’s only getting worse as the oceans continue to warm.

The installation piece ‘93%’ is made up of one hundred individual, coral shaped, pieces. Ninety-three shapes are cut from white board, the remaining seven are painted. It’s a desperate response aimed at articulating the dread and protest I’ve felt about this issue, an issue largely ignored by Australia’s media and political establishment. Australia is currently in an election year, the results of which could decide the fate of the reef. This work is as much an attempt to raise awareness of this time sensitive issue as it is a response to the loss of a treasure and the degradation of the environment. In responding to these new figures, I’ve also begun to question the social function of art, acknowledging that work like this too often lacks the audience and vocabulary to truly affect change. Rather, art becomes the object of memorial to something of value lost. A kitch monument to a  loss we cumulatively preside over, and do nothing.

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The Okinawan culture I saw on Ikei was unlike anything I’ve seen before. How can I get back there? I only got such a small glimpse inside something very special and I want to know more. Is there a way to return to Ikei? Maybe for longer with a more engaged, ongoing project? I think in spite of the gentle difficulties of the trip, that’s something I’d really like to do. For the first time I’m filled with the urge to learn Japanese, spend time there to better understand the country.

Well let’s not get ahead of things, I’m about to graduate (post coming soon) after which I hope to stay on and get serious about Chinese learning. It’s the next stage, I feel a vitality and importance attached to the act of language learning that I used to only associated with art making. So yes, Chinese first. But I still hope to return to Ikei in the future, with some new project I don’t yet know about.

 

 


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In One Year

Life in Taiwan is often changing and endlessly curious, but one thing it seems unable to provide is the impetus for regular blog updates. I know it’s a combination of Taipei’s endless distraction, the temptations of new friends, the ecstasy of old ones. I just can’t seem to become too serious about regular updates. And that’s OK, the purpose of this blog in my life has changed. It may change back again in the future, or it may move closer to a typical artist’s website (though that’s unlikely). One thing I do miss is the pleasure that comes from developing thought through writing. So in rekindling semi-regular updates, well, I’m hoping it will help me ground my mind in what could be the basis for bigger and better work, exhibitions, and all that good stuff.

The momentum upon leaving Canberra fueled my enthusiasm to continue on with the work I had been planning. But as I say, life here is often changing. The first major change came when I had to leave my first apartment. Not something I planned or hoped for but thankfully for the best. Now I’m in my new place, with a perfectly functional studio space, I wouldn’t change how things went down. What’s more, I’ve found the process of settling and just getting some goddamn work done much more difficult than I expected. I’ve been working, but my things are periodic and lack some quality of honesty or truth that I find hard to define here.

Will They Let Me In?

2015

Will They Let Me In?

2015

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2015

2015

2015

My classes up till now have been very tangentially related (to put it kindly) to my planned graduating body. But perhaps that’s just an excuse for my lack of motivation. No, really, as I said before, Taipei is a land of distractions, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is always somewhere wild to visit, and always something I want to read or watch or talk about.

When I was in art school I thought a lot about a time in which I wouldn’t need to distinguish art from the other rituals of my life. I still long for a future when life and art can merge, when every action is art, and every art-piece becomes the way in which I move through the world. In some ways, I view the past year as that. What is walking through the mountains, reading essays and manga, eating sweet cold ice treats, learning Chinese, if not art? My movements when making, my thoughts and rituals when walking or cooking or lovin’, mirror one another. And this year they have been looking more similar to me than ever before. And I need it. Every day as I work through life in Taiwan, I can feel a coalescence inside me, and it’s leading to the next stage of my time here. It’s the beginning of my second school year, and I’m about to start making full time again.  And it’s going to be so good. I can feel the power behind a year of slow build up pushing against the inside of my body, and if I can be sure to release that energy with kindness, control and sincerity, I think I can do something really good.

Taiwan is an island that doesn’t feel like an island. When I was still settling I felt a sense of unease that was hard to place. Taipei is big, the population is large, and living in this city I forgot about the ocean. I took a hike up one of Taipei’s nearby mountains and to the south could see cold silky cloud stretching over the vast and tightly fecund mountain range that is central Taiwan. I’m barred from that landscape though, it’s a visual density that tempts and repels at the same time. How exciting it would be to wander there! But how physically challenging, how heavy that wet air! Behind me was the east coast, and in the far opposite distance was the west coast. And here I was, I could see both sides of the island at once. It reminded me how truly close we are to the sea.

Mountains

Over the last few months I’ve been thinking about something from a book Shellaine gave me. The book is called Wanderlust, a History of Walking. It says “Walking returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive and vulnerable, but walking itself extends into the world as do those tools that that augment the body. The path is an extension of walking, the places set aside for walking are monuments to that pursuit, and walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it. Thus the walking body can be traced in the places it has made; paths, parks and sidewalks are traces of of the acting out of imagination and desire; walking sticks, shoes, maps, canteens and backpacks are further material results of that desire. Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”

I guess I feel the same way about painting.  My current  project is centred on a walk across Taiwan. The walk will begin on the west coast of Taiwan and end on the east. In a sense, a journey from the two points I saw from the mountaintop. I want to know why the ocean remains relatively forgotten here. Comparable island nations have a long and well-established relationship with the sea that Taiwan doesn’t share. I think the answer is cultural and historical. Elements of Chinese philosophy, Qing era marginalization, 20th century martial law and industry, and even the current constitutional framework have all contributed to a muting of the oceanic culture, though as an outsider I find myself often guessing as to why. Walking from one ocean to the other will act as a reminder of the relative smallness of this country. A literal indication that the ocean is right here, so close but so hidden. “Walking is a mode of making the world as well as being in it.” I keep hearing this line and thinking there must be no better way to answer these questions than through walking. The trip will also provide the space to actually see and document some examples, new and old, of Taiwanese oceanic culture that I’m only peripherally aware of.

On this walk I’ll be making and installing small ceramic objects and larger scale installs. The walk will bring me to locations for installing previously made pieces, and be the starting point of an accompanying painting and photo series. I’ll be making updates on this blog.


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Moving

I can see the signs of the new season. You hear talk of the great European and American nature poets and the effect of the seasons on their lives. Not just their lives, but everyone’s. In some parts of the world the coming of winter means a whole lot more than just chucking on a jumper. The loss of the sun and the loss of that green seems at odds with what it is to be human. And when it’s over the spring brings with it such elation – I can only pretend to understand as I listen to their season songs. 

The dramatic change of colour and atmosphere is something I’ve never truly experienced, but I still feel sudden joy when I notice Canberra shifting. Though here the signs of change are far more subdued and I can’t precisely say what they are. Of course we see slick new buds swelling on the naked suburban tees, but there’s something more, too. A cleanness in the air? A cold clear bite on a quick breeze? Some small new fragrance? 

 Spring Tree Puss Spring Puss Slick

Canberra 2014

 

This year I only got to see the lead up to spring, and on the first day of September I got on a plane and flew to Taiwan. I’m here to study my Masters. It’s exciting being back at uni, after four years pretending I was still a student I can now actually call myself one! I’ll be working on a project examining the role of art as a tool for cultural repatriation in Taiwanese society. I’ll be using this blog for general updates on my work. 

I’m encumbered with many half baked ideas. Luckily my little flat has room for a small studio, which I’ve been attempting to set up this week. It means so much to have a studio. Really it’s a place to facilitate the mind, a space in which thoughts become actions of the hands and body. Without such a place I feel less. 

So – first thing’s first. Set up a studio and establish myself in it. There’s no rush to make work at a time like this, I can relax and take things as they come. Walking is of greater importance than ever if I’m to get to know my new home. I feel like I have time, and I want to use it to breath this place in. I want the city to follow me into the studio. I want the work brought out into the streets and mountains. I don’t know what the results will be yet – but I have the time to find out. 


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Ghost Forests

After a year of painting and utterly wonderful distraction, Ghost Forests was completed and opened last week. I’ve spent the last few months hermited away and happily so, looking up from time to time to notice the beautiful sky. Ghost Forests grew out the conversations Eugenie and I had as we walked and drove and explored the hidden places of Canberra. It was Eugenie’s dad who first showed us the redwood grove. I asked her to write an essay to accompany the paintings because her involvement has been fundamental in the creation of this body of work.
Catalog


In 1918, Walter Burley Griffin planted 122,000 giant redwoods in the grassland plains near Pialligo. Griffin was dreaming of the High Sierras. He wanted to give his new city a towering wilderness, a majestic forest reminiscent of America’s Pacific Northwest. Over the course of a few summers, Griffin and his horticulturalists watched as field after field of seedlings turned orange, shrivelled, and died. The advice they’d ignored was right. Canberra’s climate was both too dry and too hot to sustain a population of sequoia. Of the original fledgling forest, in five years over 98% had perished. Only three thousand trees survived.

These survivors are still around. Almost a century later, Jon and I loaded up his car with a paints and a picnic and drove out, past Brand Depot and Duntroon, along the hot flat stretch of highway by the airport. The redwoods appear as a clump of spires on the horizon. Pulling up in the car-park feels surreal. Sequoia have bright, warm needles, distinct from the deeper shade of Canberra’s plantation pines. There’s a little trail that winds off into the distance, marked by baby blazes on two foot poles. By the path at the entrance is a stand of rocks. They’re embossed with bronze plaques: Gary Trayton Bryant, 21.3.34 – 1.9.91. In Memory of Ruth, 13.6.67 – 4.8.94. Both are stamped with the ACT ParkCare logo. Under the first name it reads, Sadly missed by Joanna and all who loved him. Beneath that there is the epithet, He loved these redwoods. As you walk further into the grove, the air stills. Heart-beats slow. The trees are so tall. Sequoia can live for thousands of years. In parts of the glade they grow so closely that the light dims. Potential age hangs in the silence. The world expands, as you move through the breathing of a vast, surrounding forest. Until the sky booms and a Qantas jet rips through the treeline – and you emerge, as Jon and I did, to face brown fields and crackling mountains. The occluded bush, always waiting. Always on the other side.

Canberra is full of strange places like this. It is a city of multiple realities. “The Bush Capital” is metropolitan and wilderness. It is millions of years old and now celebrating a centenary. It is eucalyptus grassland spotted with thickets of birch, poplar and pine, pockets of European and American sensibilities. The ashes of the burned down pine plantation feed the National Arboretum. The closer you get to Parliament House, the greener the suburbs become. Scattered across the grey Canberran bush are streaks of bright foliage, spirits of foreign experience transplanted into Australian soil. This manipulation of the landscape raises immediate questions. What is the tension between the imagined and actual realities of a place? How does a mysticised perception of nature colour the reality of urban life? Why do Australians feel disconnected from the bush? Why do we implant other realities into a landscape that already has its own history, its own stories, its own beauty? How do we supplant Aboriginal histories only to evoke cultures and memories we have never been a part of? Australia has always existed within these contentions. As walkers pass through Canberra’s tiny forests, multiple resonances jut against one another for integrity, space and prominence.

In Ghost Forests Jon addresses these questions. The need to approach these spaces on their own terms guided Jon’s choice of two new mediums for the show: ceramics, and painting on found wood. Wood is a unique surface. Jon says that the grain functions like a natural underpainting. It’s necessary to work with this form, even when imposing an image. Painting on wood also continues Jon’s on-going interest in dissolving the distinction between the work, the studio, the environment and the act of making images. A couple of years ago Jon went out and painted directly on trees. Bringing wood into the studio reverses this trajectory. Still, the hours of walking, searching, sanding and glazing that go into preparing each wooden surface are obvious in every piece. All of these moments are equal parts of the work, as is the changed understanding viewers will bring out of the gallery and into the places Jon depicts.

The show’s collection of ceramics also makes use of found objects. For Jon, wooden material corresponds to a process of personal exploration. These ceramic pieces are designed to evoke the tea-sets of colonial Australiana, place-based souvenirs which manufacture a distorted, sentimental attachment to the landscape, modelled on the English countryside. Jon’s work does the opposite. In making images on cups and saucers his aim is to cut through habitual complacency and bring an expanded awareness into the patterns of every day life. While ceramics may make the point most explicitly, all of the paintings in Ghost Forests share this intention. By entering Canberra’s glades and plantations Jon has attempted to open himself completely to the huge reality of what they are. The introduced forests of Canberra are the product of an invader culture, a symbol of the agenda to supplant and obliterate the rightful Aboriginal owners of this land. At the same time, they are living beings. They have their own existences. They can be loved. Canberra doesn’t have an easy history, or a magnificent beauty. Attempts to give it these things have failed. What remains is uncertain and demanding. But between the redwoods and the bush there is a difficult richness. Open, and it will fill you.

Eugenie Edquist, Canberra 2014

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He Loved This Place

Multi-Culti

Cloud

These Two Extraordinary Women

Ghost Forests is showing at ANCA Gallery until the 27th of April. 1 Rosevear Place, Dickson ACT 2602.

 


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The wave from HK to Sydney

I need to catch this flight today. I need to hit that sweet spot. Like that spot on the crest of a wave, it will either pull you with it or leave you in its wake. My flight to Beijing was not for me. I couldn’t get back there and that’s okay. But the feeling is that of being left behind by the wave. I missed it.

I will not miss the next one. I am ready to come home and my home is ready for me. I will catch the next wave, I will let it take me. I am no longer scared of letting my body go. I will get on the plane and let it carry me home. Into the arms of my love, on into my studio and my work. Into the 2014. I am going to miss you, HK and Taiwan, but I think the wave has the power to carry me back. I feel like I could ride this one for a long time.


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Indoor Mists

This work is a result of one month spent working in Beijing as part of the Red Gate Residency program. It must be said that, as a city to create in, Beijing can take a lot from you but it can also give so much back. It’s difficult to explain how it feels when dissolution is met by true and subtle beauty, I’ve known this many times.  Here I’ve experienced heartache and joy, isolation and prosperity, and an overwhelming understanding that I am doing the right thing. As I worked and as I walked, I always came back to this feeling. “I am meant to be here,” I thought “This is hard, this is exhausting, and I am building my soul.”

This work inhabits space in a way I find very pleasing. It’s unobtrusive and quiet, as mist should be. As an obstacle it takes some getting used to, in the first week or so I caught wool and fluff on my hair and cloths. But you incorporate this new thing into your daily habits and soon I was moving around as naturally as if the room were empty. When I took it down on my last day in Beijing, I felt dizzy and lightheaded. Disoriented, as if my body had been spun around several times and then told to walk a straight line. It was so much a part of my space, of this place that had been my brief home.

I feel a strong urge to return to Beijing. I need to grow in many ways before I go back. I need to learn Chinese. I need to continue building my soul. And when I see Beijing again, how will she greet me? How will I greet her? I really want to know.

Indoor Mists 1

Sit down

Indoor Mists 2

Indoor Mists 3

Looking in


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The Surprising Smell of Australia

un-felted

Slowly, slowly, slowly I’m exhaling mist – its physical form through physical action. I’ve been holding my breath for one entire year, and now, as I breathe out, this is what’s forming in the condensation. And oh boy am I breathing heavily. I’ve been busy rolling, rolling, rolling these long strands of fog out of softly coloured wool.

“You look like you’re making noodles.”

I wonder if people who make noodles hurt this much in the morning. Every day I wake with a groan. But I love this feeling, my aching body feels real and present. It’s making something true, something it needs to. This pain is the feeling of growth.

As I walk through the streets and parks I pretend I am walking through a classical Chinese landscape. Beijing is so far removed from these images and yet if you squint you can see yourself  as that eremitic wanderer. In Canberra, when I walk though the streets and parks, I imagine myself as forest-dweller, sometimes a fairy tale figure. In many ways the project reminds me of home but it’s the smell of the work that’s the strongest trigger, something I didn’t expect. It’s the wool.  I need to wet it in order to felt it, and the smell seems such an Australian experience that it’s comforting to return to it every day. And every day I’m a little less sore as my body accommodates. Odd sadness here is frequent but these feelings assure me I’m on the right path.

early mists           early mists

layering

steed

At the Temple of Heaven

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