Essay

What makes a man start fires?

Deadweight Loss: The Value of Making

‘Everything is really just one thing for me in terms of my practice. Fine art? Pottery? Craft? Sell out? The most important art I am going to make is all the people desperately trying to buy silly pots online during the opening speeches. I have a vision of a sea of smart phones glowing with e-commerce while an academic waffles irrelevantly at the dais. Is all art merchandise? 1 – Laurie Steer

The Californian band Minutemen is renowned for the brevity of their songs and the sheer aural expulsion that sees musical, lyrical, political and conceptual ideas moved through in rapid succession.

Their first albums exploded in small shards of fully contained hardcore crystals. In their later opus Double Nickels on the Dime (1984) – arguably one of the most conceptually rich albums to fall under the broad rubric of rock ’n’ roll – the songs sometimes stretched to over two minutes, but felt like something where different parts were bolted on and pimped like the SoCal car culture that surrounded them. The same intensity can be found in the feverish attack of Glenn Gould in his first iteration of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1955); and even his later version (1981), humming along, which seems leisurely in comparison, has that same ‘look at this, look at this’ intensity – totally self-absorbed.

Why do I talk about these things? Because some potters similarly work within these frameworks. For some, the idea that a pot, or a sculpture, or a cup or a talisman is something to be pored over ad infinitum is antithetical to their practice. Ceramics carries the peculiar pseudo-zen idea that ‘stillness’ is something to be harnessed and worshipped, and that the rapid-fire cacophony of just making and then moving on is some how antithetical to the polite impulse of the tea ceremony or the shelf.

If you throw pots this contemplative mannerism is amplified. There is a great work by Dunedin-based painter Kushana Bush, The Adoration of the Lucie Rie, that exemplifies this thinking – all that stillness, all that concentration, all praise the mighty bowl.

It’s all well and good, but sometimes you need a bit of punk rock in your life – ‘The Rie as Pink Floyd’ metaphor is my way of suggesting that maybe Laurie Steer is the Minutemen. He takes an idea, squeezes all he can out of it, then moves on to the next thing before the pots have even cooled from the last firing. You see a similar intensity. The total focus on that one thing at the one time you are working on it. Just go! Start-making-stop-thinking, act like someone has set a watch and this is the last thing you are going to make. Use all your powers, all your skill, while the pot sits there spinning. Then get rid of it, ready for the next thing. Then go again until time’s up.

Laurie Steer’s DIY energy and aesthetic extends into the realms of exhibition, marketing and distribution; falling into the split between the worlds of the ‘Art Market’ and the ‘Craft Market’ – although both share some similarities – which is played out in the world of ceramics as it is nowhere else. Ceramics parasitically attached itself to the highbrow worlds of the sanctified gallery space. In the last 10 years ceramics’ scatological presence has been noted in biennales and surveys all over the globe; and in a moment where it’s arguable that the world of the art fair and the commercial are fast becoming more relevant than the aforementioned biennales, ceramics has rightly taken a place in the booths of galleries from the lowest upstart to the bluest of blue chip showing ‘highly decorative “quirky” artwork specifically designed for ‘luxury market’. 2

What makes ceramics so compelling, though, is that it simultaneously finds its natural home in the shop, or even the restaurant. Like the sculpture? Buy the mug! Why not? Even in this exhibition Steer has a bob each way, making this connection explicit. The gallery includes three large sculptural works that seem like a mash-up of Coromandel anti-vax spirituality, anal dentata and the Gamorrean guards from Return of the Jedi. These could be representative of Steer’s side hustle – the whole old-fashioned gallery system. As Instagram has shown, whole empires can be built on a smart phone alone, and these sculptures become living deities representing the loss leader, the now plague-ridden dead world of the art gallery where the real action has shifted online.

Steer’s sea of smart phones alight with e-commerce becomes the real reason for having an exhibition, and his Instagram pot-drops are a FOMO night- mare. Objects are made, sold, marketed in one online vomit that is so belligerent why wouldn’t you want one? You’d be crazy not to be in, and if you don’t right now you could very well miss out.

Steer’s limited editions – each-unique-get-them-whole – and their hot hucksterism is like the super-fan selling a homemade zine at a punk show. He controls the making, marketing and distribution – and let’s face it, who doesn’t love getting something in the post? Ceramics has the peculiar potential of establishing and dismantling vertical systems of commerce. A Steer mug has the same marketability of a Gucci belt buckle or a fluoro Comme des Garçons make-up bag. Can’t afford couture? Here, have this impractical goblet. When Steer hits the big time, so to speak, his strategic self-sabotage plays out in the destruction of the precious object – as seen in his Laszlo Toth-esque destruction of excess stock in his exhibition for Bowerbank Ninow at Sydney Contemporary 2019. Though things don’t work out for these objects, there’s always grinding them back to dust at Driving Creek in the brick crusher. And is there any better way to reveal that the auctioneer’s gavel looks a lot like the vandal’s hammer?

--

1. Instagram direct message to the author, 13 July 2020.
2. Alexander Boynes, quoted in Gina Fairley, ‘Fast-forward 12 months: Four curators’ predictions for the visual arts’, ArtsHub, 28 June 2020, www.artshub.com.au/news-article/opinions-and-analysis/covid-19/gina-fairley/fast- forward-12-months-four-curators-predictions-for-the-visual-arts-260631

Inspired by the value we ascribe to the objects that surround us in daily life, Deadweight Loss explores contemporary making at a moment when ideas of craftsmanship and the handmade have returned to consumer popularity. An obscure economic term, ‘deadweight loss’ refers to the point in the law of supply and demand where an equilibrium between goods in the market and buyers cannot be met. This results in a market imbalance. Three artistic approaches by makers Moniek Schrijer, Laurie Steer and Cat Fooks speak to this tension – between the work being made and it finding a willing home.

Laurie Steer is a potter based in Mount Maunganui. He trained under the late Barry Brickell, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated ceramic artists.

Steer’s work questions and experiments with ceramics production and tradition. While maintaining strong links to ancient pottery techniques and aesthetics, his vessels often sprout strange protuberances or spikes, assuming fantastical forms and suspended somewhere between fine art ceramics and craft pottery. Steer’s work has been exhibited throughout New Zealand and Australia, and he produces an ever-changing line of extraordinarily popular pseudo-domestic ware. Steer holds a Masters of Art and Design from Auckland University of Technology and is also a director of the Driving Creek Railway, Arts and Conservation Trust.

Glenn Barkley is a co-founder of The Curators’ Department and a Sydney- based independent curator, artist and valuer. He was previously senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (2008–14) and curator of the University of Wollongong Art Collection (1996–2007). In 2007–08 he was director and curator of the Ergas Collection. Barkley has written extensively on Australian art and culture for magazines such as Art Monthly , Artist Profile and Art and Australia, as well as for numerous catalogues and monographs. He has a diverse area of interest and knowledge including public art; artist books and ephemera; outsider art and other marginal art forms; public and private collection management and development; and horticulture. Barkley is currently an associate curator of The Curators’ Department.

Laurie Steer, Jack Knives Splatter, 2020 Stoneware, iron glaze and gold. Image courtesy of the artist.