Designwork 03: The Supply Chain Curated by Guy Keulemans as part of the NGV's Melbourne Design Week
5 – 23 March 2019
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First coined in 1982, the term ‘supply chain’ is well recognised, but not very accurate. The word ‘chain’ suggests a linear direction, a link from one location to the next, or a link from one material state to another. In truth, supply chains are not chains, but networks. Their links bifurcate and branch into many directions as their products are made and transported. The linear supply chain of any particular material is internetworked with the supply chains of the tools that shape it, the things that package it, and the vehicles or buildings that transport or house it.
This network model of the supply chain presents some challenges for satisfying contemporary consumer demand. Just for example, there is a clear emerging interest in vegan furniture and homeware products, but how can we be sure that not just the product itself, but every branch of a product’s supply chain network is free from animal products?
The contributors to Designwork #3 have enthusiastically engaged with research, mapping and evaluating supply chains both local and global. Their critical contributions illustrate how contemporary supply chains are complex, and how they are susceptible to breaking, or even causing catastrophe. And yet, they show how there are also strategies and alternatives that ameliorate such catastrophes, or otherwise exert a degree of control with the power to avert their contingency.
Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge when evaluating a supply chain is that supply chains generate waste. As a paper artist, Benja Harney’s studio material is almost exclusively paper. Coupled with a concern, and perhaps a doubt, that his building’s recycling services are fit and proper, he turns his paper offcuts into furniture. Dale Hardiman takes the concept of reuse and applies it to home-building. Construction waste is the single largest source of waste in Australia, so Hardiman asks, can builders make furniture themselves from the refuse of their labour? Such uses of waste illustrate that supply chains don’t end in the making of a single product, and perhaps don’t ever end at all, but continue forward to include future transformations of material, both wanted and unwanted.
Sean O’Connell, motivated by the inherent obsolescence and waste potential of inexpensive home appliances, takes apart a humble electric kettle. Subjecting its many components to high voltage electrical imaging captures the idea that we should asses our materials and products with rigorous and shocking scrutiny, even as the resulting images create something entirely different; an insight into the paradimensional world of electrical life.
The inter-networking of supply chains that cross our globe is aptly demonstrated in the research of ceramicists Alana Wilson and Nicolette Johnson, who discover that in many glazes there are likely to be materials from every continent on earth. Metals and minerals, both rare and common, are sourced from the most desirable locations. For ceramics, such supply chains are well established, even ancient, but they are no less global for other disciplines. Makiko Ryujin and Michael Gittings trace the journey of the iron and nickel they use in their work from Australia to China and Canada, and back. The recalled Takata airbags investigated by Jonathan Ben-Tovims were assembled in Mexico, where the factory mishandled propellants. They failed to keep proper manufacturing records, and this error complicated and delayed the global product recall when the airbags were discovered to be injuring motorists in collisions. Problems of distance in supply chains, in this case lack of oversight, but in other cases labour offences or environmental crimes, are a key reason for emerging localist agendas both in politics and in design. Nonetheless, catastrophes lead to opportunities: Takata, facing bankruptcy, was taken over by a Chinese competitor. And in this exhibition, Blake Griffiths sourced leather from the million or more fish killed in the Menindee Lakes and Darling River earlier this year – a consequence of excessive use of water for farming. This timely work is a dark and critical reflection of capitalist capacitiesto exploit disaster.
Such disasters are strongly motivating for experimental designers. Tulla Carson takes issue with the unrelenting pace of industrial development and proposes slow designing instead. Her choice to forgo power tools in the creation of her work is neither commercially practical nor easy, but for a girl raised on the northern New South Wales coast it offers a personal respite from the intensity of Sydney city living. Slowness is reflected in her use of limestone, a material formed from the bodies of sea animals over millions of years. Kyoko Hashimoto chooses to work with local sandstone and coal for similar reasons; as geologically ancient materials she feels they command deep respect, a consequence of her Shinto influences. Hashimoto’s place-based making strategy attempts to address her personal concern for distance in supply chains, but is faced with challenges. In the process of sourcing her materials from within the Sydney bio-region she discovered her kangaroo leather was tanned using tree products grown in South Africa. Ironically, the tree is an Australian wattle.
Lack of transparency in supply chains is known technically as ‘mystification’. Many products by virtue of surface detailing or hidden methods of production are likewise mystified. Henry Wilson’s contribution unmasks production processes in failed casting prototypes. Such failures are valuable to industry because they indicate how to fix manufacturing problems. The risk when presenting such objects – the same risk taken by this entire exhibition perhaps – is that such presentations don’t show the customer or consumer what they may really want: a world free of worries. On the other hand, there is the chance to illustrate material richness. This is seen in the colours and surface effects of Wilson’s lamp, which has come straight out of the sand mould without further finishing.
Material richness and richness of tradition are the themes of Liz Williamson’s response to problems of textile supply chains. West Bengalese embroiderers are economically marginalised by demanddriven design in the fast fashion and textiles industries, and can be financially compelled to work on low-paid, low-skilled piecework. In order to help them preserve their traditional techniques, Williamson fosters their creative engagement with new international markets. Designers like Williamson work according to principles of ethical crosscultural supply chain engagement, as set out by initiatives such as Sangam’s Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft and Design.
Lastly, this exhibition includes works that demand control. These designers set themselves limitations that instrumentalise their works as critical responses to burgeoning supply chain problems. Elliat Rich and James B. Young argue all claims for the rights to extract, process and ship mineral resources are suspect at the intersection of sovereignty and sustainability. The chair they carved from sandstone in Alice Springs – sandstone formed under Australia’s prehistoric inland sea – is transported only virtually, reconstructed via augmented reality technology in the gallery. Clearly the environmental aspects of transporting such a heavy work are significant, but the work also raises transcultural issues. Should we only be concerned with the energy and material costs of supply chains, or are there cultural costs? This question is in the context of a chair made from a rock on a mining leasehold, with uncertain legal arrangements for future access, within the unceded territory of the Arrernte nations.
Luca Letteri then takes the position that if all supply chains beyond the designer are suspect, then a designer must use the resources of his own body to ensure propriety. His use of nails, blood, hair and urine as materials of design may be, on the face of it, somewhat disquieting, but is a righteous attempt to avert the suffering, catastrophe and contingency within contemporary supply chains.
Guy Keulemans is a researcher and experimental designer at the University of New South Wales Faculty of Art and Design.
Designwork is a series of annual exhibitions dedicated to showing the best Australian design in a commercial gallery context. The series is presented as part of the NGV's Melbourne Design Week, a partnership with Creative Victoria.