Shaping the now
The ANU School of Art and Design’s biggest show of the year includes explorations of cultural modernity, Evana Ho reports.
Mahnie Blakey's love of embroidery started with her mother. In her early teens, they used to work on large cross-stitches together: her mother would do the stitches going in one direction, then Mahnie would cross back over them.
“It was great when I was a teen and I wasn't speaking to her,” Mahnie says jokingly. “We could just pass it back and forth.”
The Canberra-bred student is expected to graduate at the end of the year with an Honours in Design. She's making good progress on the pieces that will be featured in the ANU School of Art and Design's Graduating Exhibition – the School's biggest annual event and a highlight of the Canberra arts calendar. Each year, around 100 undergraduate and postgraduate students' work is displayed, spanning all the School's disciplines.
“I want to see how people understand the relationship between digital and textiles,” Mahnie says, in reference to her forthcoming exhibition work. What she's doing is her first attempt at merging coding and embroidery.
“There's a lot of overlap between the two,” she explains. “The first computers were based on punch-card systems. And the first looms worked on the same technology. You would feed punch cards into it, and certain pedals and strings would lift depending on the holes in the card.”
She demonstrates a piece of code she wrote, that takes input from a camera directed at a rectangle of plastic laser-cut to look like a phone, with a grid of tiny holes where the screen would be.
“As you stitch and move, it generates an image on the computer screen that you try and interpret with your stitching into the phone,” she says. “That creates a feedback loop – an immediate back and forth between the digital and the analogue.”
She plans to put a version of her app online, and will feature in the Graduating Exhibition a series of work she's made using that code as well as others. She hopes to display the work others will complete from interacting with the app alongside her own embroideries.
Elsewhere in the exhibition will be Honours in Visual Arts student Bermi Dreyer. Bermi's major is Glass, a medium she describes as “very seductive”.
“You can never predict what it's going to do,” she says. “I can pour concrete and tell you exactly what's going to happen. But with glass, [that's not the case].”
She muses that glass still rewards you, even if it's frustrating: “I just broke one of my pieces this afternoon – but it's still rewarding.”
The piece she mentions is a test work for the exhibition. It comprises components with notches that have been put together to create a certain structure. The ideas underlying it are pattern, glass and digital technology.
The shape of each component will be influenced by the amorphous molecular structure of glass.
“Glass is known as an amorphous solid,” Bermi says. “It's a solid that behaves almost like water at certain degrees. It doesn't have the usual crystalline structure to it.”
She envisages that her final piece for display will measure about half a metre each way and that it'll be a big sculpture comprised of tiny components, with each of those components a simplified version of the amorphous ones.
“I want my final piece to be visually interesting,” Bermi says. “When the viewer sees it, their eyes will keep wandering over it to figure out the beginning and end – like Penrose's triangle.”
Bermi hopes to get a residency after graduation to showcase her work. Long term, she'd like to have her own studio where she could work on commissions and teach people about glass and how to use digital technologies associated with glass.
Mahnie's medium-term plans are to finish the third embroidery that she's working on with her mother. They're about eight months in, and if the other two they completed are any indication, they'll have over a year to go. Beyond that, she'd love to work for a large tech company like Google, which has begun bringing artists onto their campus to examine the future of technology, and ethics of technology, through art.
“I think those are fascinating areas I'd love to work in.”
The ANU School of Art and Design Graduating Exhibition is running from 22 November to 1 December throughout the School.