Day 23 – The aWay station furniture

I’d like to tell you a bit  about the ‘furniture’ in aWay station. I started my artistic career as a furniture maker and it’s still an important part of my art practice. Most of the furniture in the aWay station was made specifically for it prior to and during my residency. And many other pieces were made by furniture making friends (Yvonne Mouser’s versatile bucket stools and Richard LaTrobe Bateman’s robust split blackwood stool which I work at every day).

aWay station

The are three distinct furniture-ish components in the aWay station that I’ve created – the articulated library, the trestles and the digital stereopticon.

the articulated library

The articulated library was the first piece envisioned for the aWay station. In part, it was a response to the size of the Project Space (1800 sq. ft.); a pretty daunting space to ‘fill’. I considered making a smaller hut or shack inside the space within which to work. Literally a field station that could be relocated to other sites of inquiry after my residency ended. But it seemed a cowardly response to such a generous space. So the shack opened up and spilled out to fill up the Project Space. There is now a ‘working’ space defined by Yvonne Mouser’s bucket stools and the almost overflowing crate of hand crafted whittle chips, a ‘resting’ place with butterfly chairs, rug and banjo at hand, and a ‘sleeping’ place with a folding camp stretcher and handwoven blanket from Oaxaca. The walls of the shack morphed into the articulated library; a set of simple boards and boxes made from Jarrah which can be reconfigured readily and secured with exquisite little brass Japanese sash cramps. The articulated library has constantly changing roles as storage (for books, whittling blocks, tools), display (my whittling efforts, the scaled skin forms, found flotsam) and rehearsal (of the digital stereopticon and its projector).

articulated library in use, with digital stereopticon in progress behind

The trestles were the next pieces conceived and were the first made and installed. They were designed as the main work and display tables for the aWay station. They’ve been amazingly useful and have been the center of all my activities.  They’ll be used purely for display towards the end of my stay as there is just so much work on hand thanks to the ever expanding worry of whittlers.

The trestles are in constant use

The digital stereopticon is the final piece that I’ve been designing and building here at the Headlands and it’s still coming together. One of my initial desires with the aWay station was to dissolve the walls of the Project Space by creating tools that capture and map the external space onto and through the walls of the interior space – visual, auditory or experiential. The digital stereopticon is the distillation of this notion. It is both a capturing device and a viewing device for  digital stereoscopic movies made in the immediate physical environs. I’m going to wait until it’s finished to post images – both of the stereopticon and some of the images that can be viewed through it.

One of my whittling guests, Maggie Sasso, asked a perceptive question which has been playing on my mind over the last few weeks while I’ve lived in the aWay station. She asked what was my attitude to nostalgia? I went to a lot of effort to make most of the furniture in the aWay station from scratch and to use equipment which was not antique, aged or nostalgic. Yet aWay station is clearly connected to the work of other contemporary artists who are interested in the histories of collecting and museology – Mark Dion, Michael C. McMillen (whose extraordinary retrospective just finished at the Oakland Museum of California), Rosamond Purcell, Fred Wilson, David Wilson (of Museum of Jurassic Technology fame) and others. Artist’s who mostly use found and modified objects to create their installations. I greatly admire and enjoy these artists’ work. However, one aspect of some of this work that I don’t relish is their use of illusion: the fact that their works are simulating historical precedents and conjure this history through appropriating materials or objects which have the patina of age and use. Nostalgia is used to draw in an audience through romantic (or sometimes dissonant or uncomfortable) associations and to create the illusion of reality when in fact the tableau are contemporary and fictional. I wanted the aWay station feel more like a Victorian gentlman-naturalist’s study when it was freshly minted – when it had the freshness of new discoveries yet to be made. And for it not to carry any steam-punk, sideshow connotations at all. I hope I’ve been successful, but wonder if an audience fails to make the connection with scientific discovery without the appropriate overt signifiers – either aged mahogany and brass, or stainless steel and pyrex.

I would be interested in hearing your comments on nostalgia and its use in contemporary art in the comments section.


  1. I share your perspective on ‘nostalgia’ as regards the work of Dion and the others you mentioned, and appreciate your articulating the distinction between theirs and your own approach. I think they (the approaches) all share an underlying desire to articulate an ‘aesthetic of science’, which is where the ‘nostalgia’ comes in, even in your own work. If this were not the case, and actual science was ensuing, the lab equipment would be off-the-shelf, IKEA or some such. I think Dion has worked effectively with the idea of matching a kind of contemporary laboratory vernacular into some of his projects, but the ‘nostalgia’ thing remains up for grabs, given the final outcome (museum installation as entertainment). In my own work, I draw from the literary distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ and view my own work as the latter and Dion’s as the former. It may simply boil down to the venue and audience of any body of inquiry, and whether it’s only about aesthetics or aesthetics plus something else, perhaps useful..


    1. Scott. Yes, fiction vs. non fiction is a good distinction to make. The aWay station is a real construction for a real purpose which has been used by more than 40 people already in its short life. It has the dings and chocolate pop-corn stains to prove it. I agree that that use function as opposed to display/entertainment function is at the core. Thanks for your thoughts – and your whittling!


  2. Agreed. I would definitely place this project and your work in general in the non-fiction category, which is one of the reasons I love it. The ‘fiction’ stuff at a certain point just seems like window dressing to me, more like theater or film production (which is another funny bit of territory the clan of artists you mentioned toy with)..


    1. I wonder why I mistrust that hollywood/disney aspect? I love McMillen’s work which is such a tribute to the tools and histories of hollywood.
      Perhaps in my case, it’s an excess of seriousness.
      It is all entertainment after all, isn’t it?


  3. isn’t all artisanship somehow nostalgic? harking back to the days when people used their muscles in production related activities, rather than in the gym? inviting people to a whittle-in doesn’t look like an excess of seriousness to me, more about a shared experience, sitting around somewhere other than a dinner table doing something silly, seriously. in venice there were many space-filling strategies on view, most involving spectacle in some way. a lot of simple ideas blown up to fill magnificent rooms. some where interesting of course, but the pieces i enjoyed most were things which didn’t even try. in the russian pavilion i was impressed by documentation of a bunch of people getting together in the snow to unravel a 20 kilometer roll of string, then go home. i know these days one has to look like an expert, but it’s oppressive don’t you think? so i’d say rather than entertainment, its a question of spectacle, and how to resist it. when considering the whittling my first thought was, this is like knitting: don used to do a lot of knitting, but his expertise nowadays dictates that he perform wood related magic. perhaps a sewing circle might be a nice idea. because the “value”, as far as i’m concerned, shouldn’t be located, or invested, in the things, but in the energy that flows between people, engaged in some kind of collective imagining. our culture persistently works against this. the money is in the mastery.


  4. Christopher. Thanks for chiming in. I agree about the activity being paramount. I loved the whittling circle of people with all sorts of experience all savoring something that humans have been doing since before we were Homo sap.The whittling for me isn’t so much about displaying woodworking skills as stripping them down to their bare essentials – hand, knife, wood.
    Virtuosity is of course important to me. It’s evidence of a life lived, and experience gained. So I’m not so sure about the Russians with their ball of string! Artisanship will always be relevant – perhaps even more so in the post-industrial world. Painting only became interesting when photography removed its use function. Similarly craft is now interesting when we don’t need it to create everyday objects.
    The money is in the mystery!


  5. so no interesting painting earlier than the mid 1800s? was painting’s use function removed by photography? perhaps photography allowed painting to forget about its representational modalities, for a while anyway. i guess artisanship will always be relevant, just because we have opposable thumbs and like to use them. but since craft is no longer needed to create everyday objects, why use it to create everyday objects? you know, if the machine allowed painting to ditch representation, it should allow craft to ditch everyday objects! that’s why the whittling works so well, it’s got all the opposable thumb action in play, but stays humble. its just like the russian ball of string, you had to be there.
    but there’s another thing, virtuosity as evidence. hmmmm. . .


    1. “if the machine allowed painting to ditch representation, it should allow craft to ditch everyday objects! ”
      But painting can now fiddle about in the realm of representation without being a slave to it, similarly the crafted object is part of the DNA of the crafts and forms part of its language. We don’t make objects because we have to (though we DO of course) but because we can!! Which I believe was why Neo kept fighting Mr. Smith!


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