Pattern Recognition is the title of the doyen of cyberpunk William Gibson’s 2003 book. His heroine, Cayce Pollard, is an expensive, spookily intuitive market-research consultant. She is a hyper-sensitive soothsayer, a ‘coolhunter’ with a physical allergy to brand names ‘ the Michelin Man sends her into a complete spin. She is a rare specialist in ‘pattern recognition’, that perception of specific and subtle aspects of group behaviour associated with certain cultural objects, practices and ideas. She zones in on these patterns way before anyone else. Cayce is a highly sought-after human resource for companies competing aggressively in a world obsessed with brand names and the search for ‘cool’. This narrative is no futuristic fiction, it is Gibson’s first novel to be set in the present and relies heavily upon contemporary marketing strategies being implemented around the world today.
Moving from street cool to computer systems, ‘pattern recognition’ is also a frequently used term in the field of artificial intelligence as the process whereby robots or computers recognise faces, speech patterns, handwriting, fingerprints or stock market graphs.
Within Islamic art, pattern plays a powerful symbolic role. For early Islamic scholars, enthusiasm for the theories of Greek mathematicians and philosophers ‘ Pythagoras and Euclid ‘ coupled with an investigative study of geometry enhanced their already deep engagement with astronomy. All this nourished a passion in Arabic culture for infinite pattern. A shunning of realism (on the basis that it would lead to idolatry), a religious enthusiasm for abstraction and the all-encompassing idea of unity combined with these intellectual interests to imbue pattern with the role of intermediary between material and spiritual worlds. Further, the rules of geometric abstraction in patterning offered a clear analogy to religious rules of behaviour.
So, how to connect these specific fields of marketing, computing and spiritual symbolism to the graphic plays or mesmeric repetitions embedded in work by certain contemporary Australian and New Zealand makers’ Pattern Recognition, the exhibition, examines pattern as an energised and expressive language within contemporary Australasian practice. The work consciously investigates strategies of making that are avidly articulated through pattern as surface transformation and pattern as form itself.
A sea-urchin, the night sky, the skeletons of leaves ‘ traces of growth and change can offer fertile ground to artists. Joanna Bone, born in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, moved to Australia in 2002, lured by Queensland’s extreme natural beauty. Since her first forays into the manipulation of the cut-cane technique during her final Masters year at London’s Royal College of Art in 2000, Bone has been inspired by the intricacy of patterns within nature. She transforms these observations through a demanding translocational process of making. Bone pulls multi-coloured cane rods to pencil-thinness, cuts them into lengths, then rolls them onto a gather of hot-formed glass, which is then blown to form her blanks. This is a two-person job, and Bone works with the expert assistance of Carl Nordbruch who happens to live on the Isle of Wight. Bone then transports the glass vessels back to Queensland, where she undertakes the final cutting back process. Bone incises into the surface with a diamond lathe to reveal the feast of colours lurking beneath the striped glassy surface. A soft velvety texture is then created via sand blasting and brush polishing. Bone says:
I love the tactility of the surface, the intricate patterns, the random patterns. I find here an intimacy I become lost in. I love how glass is simultaneously seductive and dangerous.
The vast and ancient topographic landscape of the Goldfields and the southern coast of Western Australia is the source for Helen Britton’s most recent jewellery series. Britton’s brooches appear like energised accumulations of seemingly disparate objects, magnetised together by a potent, urgent and beautiful force of association. Created for the 2005 exhibition, Home Ground, at FORM in Perth, these are Britton’s first works to explicitly reference the landscape of her childhood. After completing her Masters in 1999 at Curtin University in Perth, Britton immediately undertook postgraduate work with Otto Künzli at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, where she continues to live and work. The artist’s longing to revisit WA was an intense spatial and emotional counterpoint to the urban density of Europe where, she says, ‘There is basically no piece of earth that hasn’t been trampled’.1 Over a three-month research period, Britton gathered an eclectic cache of materials: plastic, shell, glass, coral, silver, Broome pearls and Argyle diamonds. Hidden within the finished pieces are tiny fragments of German pressed glass from the 1950s, which act as portals to personal narratives ‘ to estrangement, loneliness, displacement, and to the awe one feels when confronted with the overwhelming enormity of nature.
New Zealand furniture designer David Trubridge, whose initial studies were in naval architecture, describes his ideas as coming ‘from the wild places, edges of turbulence and renewal’,2 and creates, in his own words, ‘forms of elemental simplicity’. Trubridge’s use of hoop pine plywood in lighting reflects his admiration for and distillation of complex natural pattern formations. The idea for Kina, 2005, came from a photo that Trubridge took in Antarctica (he was there as one of the Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellows last December). He says:
I saw a tiny kina (sea urchin) shell in its own, minute ice cave, where it had been dropped on the sea ice by a bird. The shell had absorbed enough heat from the sun to melt the ice around it.
On the most northern tip of Australia, in Cape York, Queensland’s Wik Women Weavers work through the Wik and Kugu Arts, Crafts and Cultural Centre in Aurukun. Their baskets, traditionally made from cabbage palm and pandanus, are much admired for their delicacy and strength. Mavis Ngallametta is the leading elder for the Wik Women Weavers, and her works are known for their dramatic use of colour and asymmetrical design. Her most recent work radically extends the materiality of the artform, as she casts transparent resin forms from her own fibre weavings.
Ann-Maree Hanna from Toowoomba also works with natural materials, albeit from a divergent perspective, constructing elaborate suspended installations from embroidery thread sewn into skeletal leaves. The muted hue of these works allow their complex structural patterns and surface adornment to sing. Hanna situates her work in cultural, societal and religious conventions as she responds to her husband’s Muslim faith.
Sewing patterns, road maps and computer codes ‘ these and other cultural systems are now being hijacked by artists who wrap them around ceramics and walls to appease new purposes. Inspired by memory and nostalgia, Mel Robson’s work in porcelain explores the coalescence between utilitarian objects and personal narrative. Her black-and-white polished surfaces of eggshell delicacy are elaborated upon using stencilled decals drawn from domestic sources, such as embroidery patterns, and from more enigmatic sources, such as private letters.
Robson’s recent move to the miniature and thimble-scale is a conscious one; she says:
It is the preciousness and intimacy of very small things that I find appealing. I recently worked on a project celebrating a centenary of women’s suffrage for the State Library of Library (see review page 54). I was looking at the ways in which women dealt with many of the changes that occurred during the twentieth century in a domestic context, and textiles was a recurring theme ‘ whether it be dressmaking as a means of financial independence, patchworking and quilting as a way of recording events, or important social interaction around sewing circles etc. The ‘thimble’ developed out of this research and is a reference to many of these stories and this process or pastime.
Robson has always used a minimal palette, working spare, subtle decoration into clean shapes:
My forms are derived from memories of objects from my childhood, Tupperware being a common one. I love the simplicity and clean lines of many of the mass-produced objects from the 1960s and 70s.
For her, restrained decoration is the best way to heighten the translucency of the porcelain and to communicate her ideas:
The black-on-black pieces have developed out of ideas to do with secrets and things less visible, the hidden ¬ particularly within families and domestic environments) ‘ the silent, the untold and the unaccounted for.
I asked Robson about her surface patterns:
I spend a lot of time in libraries sifting through archives, old documents and papers. I often combine both personal imagery and found imagery. I’m particularly interested in the margins that surround personal and collective nostalgia and where they intersect. In the work for Pattern Recognition, I have used stories about my grandmother and letters written by her as a starting point, and then sourced imagery from the time: domestic furnishings, architectural plans for homes, crochet patterns from women’s magazines and maps. Things get forgotten, misconstrued, reinvented, retold and reinterpreted, they fade, they become idealised, glorified, hidden, and what we are left with are remnants, traces, flashes of the past, tenuous, tentative, fragile moments that connect us with what’s gone before. It is this overlap between fact and fiction, truth and myth, which particularly intrigues me.
Dorothy Filshie also works within a monochromatic palette and looks to the past. She has evolved a unique approach to object making. Her delicate and lyrical fabric forms pay homage to Giorgio Morandi’s etchings of enamel jugs from early last century. Filshie constructs extended ‘families’ of vessels from domestic and furnishing fabrics such as tulle, lace, canvas and cotton ‘ fabrics intended for use as reinforcement and support for finer cloth. The shapes honour utilitarian containers, while Filshie’s transparent constructions echo Morandi’s finely drawn linear patterns of light and shade.
Moving from still life to architectural intervention, Sara Hughes’ exuberant manipulation of vivid colour and pattern energises spatial environments as she shifts modes of visual perception. Hughes draws on a wealth of visual and cultural references, and has developed sophisticated application systems that incorporate painted and screen-printed computer-cut vinyl as well as aluminium to transform interior and exterior architectural environments. She says:
I see my work as having a strong dialogue with painting, its history and its contemporary incarnations. The move from traditional supports and onto architectural structures came about through my questioning of how painting can be experienced and how painting relates to the place it occupies ‘ I am interested in the way media in all its forms impacts so much on our everyday experience, my work aims to examine painting’s relationship to new technologies and media.
When I first encountered Hughes’ Paisley works, I was intrigued by their distorted yet culturally potent tone. I asked her about this series:
I have an ongoing fascination with ideas and concepts that relate to patterns in a variety of different contexts. In 1999’2000 I was using patterns that could be read as being specific to certain cultures, yet I was more interested in how these motifs had migrated and how readings of pattern change over time. I was concerned with the way in which decorative patterns accumulate layers of meaning through colonisation, trade, time and migration. I researched the history of a range of decorative patterns and fabric patterns and found that many were highly politicised. Paisley has taken many different forms, from the Kashmir shawl to Laura Ashley to the psychedelic. It is this crossing of the decorative and the functional with the highly loaded symbol that interests me. In recent works I have used fabric and digital patterns to allude to more complex ideas of how patterns create a structure.
Hughes’ interests in pattern and computing systems collide in her work, Software for Ada, 2002¬’2003, which explores the binary pattern of code. The artist explains:
These works reference Ada Lovelace and her contribution to Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, the precursor to the modern-day computer ‘ In my most recent works, tessellating squares have been distorted and stretched, reflecting contaminating computer virus patterns from which the paintings take their names.
In the 1970s, a cultural group known as ‘otaku’ began emerging in Japan. Otaku is a generation that embraces consumerism and is deeply engaged with manga, anime, sci-fi and compter-hacking. Its sensibilities have firmly infiltrated contemporary Japanese arts practice and industrial design. Takashi Murakami, an artist born in 1962, is of the otaku generation – his ‘superflat’ style is based on both the Japanese pre-modern art tradition and post-modern otaku products 3.
Although Hughes is not directly influenced by the otaku world, she is concerned with how traditional forms can be interpreted through new technologies, leading to new invented hybrids. She explains:
I have aways had a strong interest in graphic art forms, and that is reflected in my own work. Also, during the 1990s I spent some time living in Hong Kong – a postmodern environment in its most extreme. I think this influenced my understanding of space and speed. Space got flattened, squashed, pulled and tipped upside down; this was the city the film Bladerunner was modelled on! In relation to the ‘superflat’ and architecture, my interest is to acknowledge the architecture, but not make work that blends into it. I want to change the dynamic of the space, [and] vinyl gives me the ability to stretch around corners, reach onto the ceiling and floor, I can stick [it] anywhere … I have gone from collecting stickers to making my own – the vinyl works are like big overblown stickers. Which comes back to ‘superflat’ and the desire for fantasy and transportation to another world.
Patterns of behaviour
And back to coolhunting ‘ Damien Frost, who is based near the surf on Australia’s east coast, invents complex interplays of the familiar and the strange as he fabricates seductive websites and smart graphic interfaces in digital and print mode. His animation, created specifically for Pattern Recognition, builds on the conceptual touchstones embedded in Gibson’s novel. In Frost’s transition through myriad digital frames, we see Cayce Pollard’s acute visual reading of contemporary street culture materialise (and dematerialise) before our eyes. Frost weaves his own narrative into the mix as he thinks about the visual and conceptual presence of branding: its reason for being, its strategic placement, its compulsive magnetism, its economic culpability and its social aftermath.
2005 has been quite a year for the artists in Pattern Recognition; Joanna Bone has won the prestigious Ranamok Prize for Contemporary Glass Art, David Trubridge’s Kina was announced as a prizewinner of the International Furniture Design Fair Asahikawa in Japan, while his international standing was acknowledged with his appointment as tutor for Vitra Design Museum’s Summer Workshops both this year and last. Robson’s ceramics were selected for this year’s Ceramics Biennale in Seoul and Sara Hughes won the prestigious Wallace Art Award Prize in New Zealand. Working across different materials, these exceptional artists bring to their work a vast pool of thinking about patterns that infiltrate natural, cultural and behavioural worlds, as their ideas ignite into tactile, spatial and digital form.
1. Helen Britton, in Andrew Nicholls, Home Ground, exhibition catalogue, FORM Contemporary Craft and Design, Perth, 2005, p.11.
2. David Trubridge, at
3. Hiroki Azuma, ‘Superflat Japanese postmodernity’, a text delivered at the MOCA, Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, 2001, see
All other quotes from artists are in conversation with the author, October 2005.
Rhana Devenport is co-curator of Pattern Recognition with Andrea Higgins, Manager of Public & Education Programs, Biennale of Sydney and Guest Editor of Object.
This article was first published in Object magazine, issue 48. Object magazine is published bi-annually by Object: Australian Centre for Craft and Design.