Over the last six months Glenn Barkley has been producing a series of earthenware pots and objects that respond to catastrophic events across Australia. Twenty-six works tell the story of natural disaster from the artist’s perspective.
The title of the exhibition, What do the birds say?, is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’, in which the narrator apologises to his editor for producing a short manuscript. Like birds chirping, the book serves as an unpretentious message demonstrating that life still exists in a devastated world. Vonnegut’s inquisitive bird returns in the very last line of the novel, leaving us with the unanswered question of what life is like in the aftermath of tragedy — life’s most devastating enemy.
Eschewing traditional techniques and forms, Barkley has crafted his own distinctive style that infuses literary quotes and references with embellishments that tell a story. Twigs and prunings join a variety of glazes to create eccentric vessels that respond to the artist’s surroundings. This combination of interests draws upon the artist’s love of reading and literature, gardening and nature, to create messages in Barkley’s bottles.
"I have been making this body of work for the last tumultuous six months. I rode out the bush fires over Christmas from the relative safety of Berry, looking from afar while my hometown burnt and the places where I grew up were razed to the ground. How can you make art in the midst of all this? How can you make it in the midst of a plague?
I hear the sound of tearing pages and the roar of burning paper
All the crimes and acquisition turn to air and ashen vapor.
(Dave Rawlings, I Hear them All)
Anyone seeking to find any sort of direct reference to the environmental crisis will find it lacking here - I fire the kiln, I use resource rich materials. It seems as if all those systems of making need to be dismantled and rethought. The trade off to make within the environment in which you live needs to be real and optimistic.
So tweet with me and widely spread
Your olive wings; embrace my head
Fly with me ‘til we are dead
And one with the birds
(Bonnie Prince Billy, One with the Birds)
My brother told me of walking on the beach at Cudmirrah, a place that looms large in my dreams and imagination and telling me of all the dead birds on the beach – all the birds, every kind. I thought about that as I made these works, as I tried to do something beautiful and contemplative in the face of all that sadness."
- Glenn Barkley