At first glance artist Miriam Gardiner’s clay babies wrapped in barley conjure a pastoral image to make a romantic poet swoon.
But on close inspection the eerie, blank expressions on the hand-crafted bubs tells a more sinister contemporary tale about Australia’s “invisible birth defect”; foetal alcohol spectrum disorders that affect about one in every 200 children.
Gardiner said she became fascinated by FASD because it was something that could be controlled, simply by not drinking while pregnant.
“The impact of it to society, however, is huge, and Australia is still grappling with collating data effectively, and implementing the findings,” she said. “I also worked with children which were quite possibly affected, so it had a personal effect on me.
“The swaddled sheet babies represent those untouched—I thought the white colour was a nudge towards the purity and innocence of a newborn.”
Gardiner weaves through her work the English folksong John Barleycorn.
He is a metaphor for the cyclical nature of planting, growing, harvesting and then death.
Like the spirit of the grain, Barleycorn is chopped down and slaughtered in his prime and is later “reborn” as beer and whiskey.
Gardiner even grew her own barley at a brewery in Joondalup.
“My work with John Barleycorn and his ‘babies’ was an extension of my graduate work in which I had grown the barley sprouts onto an eight-foot phallic sculpture. These were dried and saved and hand sewn onto the babies to represent new life with foetal alcohol spectrum disorder,” she said.
“The John Barleycorn poem/song (and folklore itself) has always been a source of fascination—it’s link to the land, to our lives. Barley is one of the first crops grown for food and alcohol. [It] resonates with my love of history and the idea that we rely on history to hand down ways of thinking, doing, making, creating.” The Central Institute of Technology lecturer’s worked can be viewed in a show called Alitura, running at the Heathcote Gallery and Museum until August 11.
Alitura is latin for feeding, nourishing, and rearing and also a word for nature.
Gardiner, along with artists Jillian Ciemitis, Del Hemingway and Debbie Oakley explore “the tension that exist between nature and nurture”.
“We have investigated this tension, and our connection with the natural world, through exploration of the environment, folklore, domesticity and the use of metaphor,” Gardiner said.
Oakley said most of us go about our daily lives oblivious to the impacts our actions have on the environment and nature.
“I am full of contradictions,” she said. “I know I have been indoctrinated into believing that I must have a clean house, clean clothes and a full fridge, and I continue to fulfill these expectations, knowing that the overuse of water and cleaning products damages our fragile environment.”
Hemingway said she had a “deep affinity for the diverse landscape of WA”.
“I endeavour to create the colour and feeling of this in my sculptures which can stand alone or as a group,” she said.
by Brendan Foster
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