Glenn Barkley

Back in 2014 when Glenn Barkley announced his well-managed departure as Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art: Australia (MCA), it came as a disappointing surprise to many, as he was the artist’s much-loved champion in that institution. It now seems a long time ago, as he prepares for his first major group exhibition, this time as an artist, and for the 2016 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art. His motivating passion effortlessly flows between visual arts, horticulture and literary histories. Topped with Barkley’s independent curatorial role and his growing passion to work in ceramics, it is a propitious time to chat with him and enjoy some surprising discoveries.

Let’s go to Adelaide first.
In our mind?

Yes! In our minds we shall visualise. Lisa Slade is curating you with other Australian artists in the 2016 Adelaide Biennale of Australian Art: Magic Object, involving all the visual art forms. You’re driving a resurgence in Australian ceramics with other ceramicists. What does it mean to you to be curated for the first time outside the form of ceramics?
Firstly, I can’t believe I’m in the show. And the second part of that is I can’t believe I’m in a show with Gareth Sansom, who I think is one of the greatest artists Australia has ever produced. I think Lisa Slade has taken a risk with me, because I am, as she describes me, an “insider-outsider”, which is how I feel. Up until five years ago ceramics would rarely have been seen in a contemporary art context. It so happens that there’s a group of people in this exhibition who are working in ceramics. There’s myself, Juz Kitson, Ramesh Mario Nithiyendran, Pepai Carroll and Bluey Roberts.

Is it a moment for ceramics?
Ceramics is having a moment, that’s undeniable. But the hope is, when that moment finishes, there’ll be a group of people still standing, and then it’ll also make curators look at what else is happening and who is doing and has been doing great things. So I think in this rush, it’s picking up the new and what’s happening now with younger artists. It’s also about looking back to the people who’ve come before, like Lynda Draper, Jenny Orchard, Peter Cooley, Toni Warburton and Kirsten Coelho, to name just a few. I would say, “You know what? There’s a whole body of work being made, and has been made that deserves a place in a contemporary art gallery. It doesn’t need to be ostracised, it needs to be in the gallery where people can see ceramics within the context of contemporary art.”

So contemporary art should be all-encompassing?
I’m not interested in this idea of what’s contemporary, what’s folk, what craft is and what’s outsider. It’s all contemporary art because it’s being made now, as are things that were made in the past, which is why ceramics appeals to me. I think the term contemporary art is very limiting and often determined by who you show with as much as what you make. One can look at a pot that was made 2000 years ago, and that’s a contemporary piece of art because it exists now. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it didn’t exist in that moment and then disappear, it’s still here.

How has being a curator at the MCA helped your development as a ceramicist?
I’m not naïve enough to be unaware that my position as a curator has helped my career as a potter. There are a number of things that I think as curator that has served me really well but the major one is the idea of looking. I think if you want to be an artist, you need to look, and look all the time. There may be times in your life when you don’t look, you just make, but you need to have a visual knowledge. Twenty years of curating has probably given me a heightened visual knowledge. But you still have to make the work!

What have you learnt from your self-initiated education in the history of ceramics?
Ceramics is constantly eating into itself. You can burrow down into the history; it’s almost what the language of ceramics is about. Ceramics’ history is always informed by what came before, and one culture looking at another to take elements of what they need, then that being adapted by someone else. The history of Chinese ceramics going to Europe, and then European ceramics going back to China, and then the Japanese aesthetic influencing the English, and that influencing Australia. It all seeps out of ceramics’ histories for one to dig through, like a garbage dump. So if you look at my work there are those references to the history of ceramics within it. So there’s a reference to a particular Korean form called the ‘Moon Pot’. There’s the influence of British slipware. There’s the influence of Chinese and Japanese ceramics. Then there’s the influence from the beginning of European porcelain, like Chelsea.

What are you thinking of presenting to Adelaide?
I’m constructing an installation based on the curatorial interest in Kunstkabinett or Cabinets of Curiosities. I’m interested in Kunstkabinett as well. It’s a museum model of everything rather than strictly geological or botanical or whatever. It’s one of those kooky collections where everything is in there. One famous collection was established by Ole Worm, better known as Olaus Wormius, who lived in the 17th century. I’ve taken his idea and turned it into the ‘Museum of the Worm’. So I’m building a space, which is very loosely based on the Kunstkabinett. Then I also started thinking about the garden and how important worms are to the garden. I try to imagine if worms were to build temples, what would they build, what would a worm temple look like? The other thing I started to think about is that worms are like the self-extruders, in the same way that an artist might be. When you read and you look at history and look at objects, and you go to museums and you look at ceramics, all this passes through you into the work, in the same way as the worm passes molecules and wastes through its body. Weird as it sounds, that’s the same way the ceramicist works, well at least how I work.

So it’ll be a total environment installation?
It’s an enclosed space, where one will step into the gallery’s ground floor area. It’s going to be quite intense. To me, it’ll look like this fecund garden, which has grown up in the middle of the space that just happens to be made out of ceramics. So I’m constructing a table and all parts of the table are made of ceramics. On top of that is a wooden base with more stacked ceramics. So it’s ceramics on ceramics. The walls will be covered in tokens and writings, all made out of ceramics as well. I think it’s quite ambitious. A lot of it is self-referential, coding within pots that relate directly to my life, in particular, my relationship with my wife and her family, and the garden in Berry (NSW). Also, there are all these hidden things in there, some of which people will be able to pick up on, but others will be somewhat secret and personal to me. I’ve invested a lot of myself into this work. If it doesn’t have that emotional drive, I don’t know why one would bother to make it.

Magic Object
2016 Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art

Courtesy the artist and Utopia Art, Sydney. 

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