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The poetry of transformation:

new work by Christel van der Laan


Ted Snell


THE CERAMIC HONEYCOMB soldering block that greets Christel van der Laan when she arrives at her workbench each day has been the main catalyst for her work since 2009. This humble material with its previously assigned role and status within the making process is transfigured through her skill and imagination into something extraordinary. The poetic transformation she instigates through her direct engagement with the stuff at hand shapes new possibilities, and offers new insights into materials and processes.

The Finnish architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa describes this physical and intellectual encounter as thinking with the hands, a process that initiates a change in our understanding about the world we know and experience.  The thinking hand is a dynamic, evolving and responsive agent that challenges the notion of divine inspiration or inspired vision and places emphasis on the artist’s understanding of the properties of their materials and their exploitation and responsiveness of their inherent qualities.  As he explains, the thinking hand,


… is a metaphor for the characteristic independence and autonomous activity of all our senses as they constantly scan the physical world. Many of our most crucial skills are internalised as automatic reactions that we are not consciously aware of. Even in the case of learning skills, the sequence of movements in a task is internalised and embodied rather than understood and remembered intellectually.1


This process of tacit wisdom as an embodied process is fundamental to our understanding of Christel van der Laan’s new work, which has evolved through a series of micro changes undertaken by the hand, constantly re-tooled by the brain, as it explores options, initiates trials and makes modifications. This transformation, in Plato’s words “… from not being into being is a poesis, a cause for wonder”2  that offers us an insight into the world as it might be. A world of beautiful objects like ‘Coral Brooch’ and ‘Brooch Anemone’, that take us into another realm, a place of fanciful association.  The coral-like honeycomb, the growths of new forms organically emerging, the lightness of touch and the perforated shell of the material itself creates a sense of floating elegance; fragments from another world.  In the more recent version of ‘Coral Brooch’ the addition of mother of pearl reinforces the sense of that special domain of weightlessness, below the waves, where accretion and assemblage are familiar modes of growth and expansion.  Shells cling, corals replicate themselves and new forms develop from multiple processes of accretion, adhesion and abrasion.


In her studio Christel van der Laan adopts similar processes; fabricating elements from the ceramic honeycomb, sanding and filing, cutting into surfaces, wearing away and adding anew when these forms find a partner. From the carved components harmonies and synergies suggest pairings, the possibilities endorsed by proximity leading to a new unity, a subtle bonding that consolidates these relationships.


Other forms of unification take place on the workbench.  The carved honeycomb forms aggregate into the ‘Holy Land’ brooches and pendants when items from her cabinet of curiosities find their partners through judicious placement, happenstance and fortuitous meetings to create that magical transformation from disjunction to coherence, … beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!3 , as the poet Lautréamont so wonderfully framed the Surrealist agenda. The richness and variety of these new associations have a compulsive energy that draws us in to explore each delicate nuance, every connection and linkage.


A sense of wonder or expectation drives her on to see what can be created, what this alchemical process of combination and amalgamation can achieve.  There is a subtle though dynamic tension generated when found objects such as childhood collections, treasured stones, Victorian Fob seal blanks, antique cut steel beads, vintage buttons, building materials and electric parts find happy union with the newly carved elements.  It is at this point that the entire body is engaged in the creative activity, when the brain and all senses are electrified by the possibilities revealed through physically engaging with these materials and by manipulating, re-forming and re-shaping them.  This is the moment of creative insight and innovation, when the thinking hand transforms the world, as we know it, when the entire project is grounded in the tacit knowledge that comes from the hands, as a window of the mind and as its guide, when the poetic impulse to reimagine and reinvest the world with meaning and relevance is realized.


Although alluding to natural forms and processes the poetic transformation that occurs through these works embraces ambiguity and the possibility for multiple readings. Openness and translucency, both in form and meaning, makes the probable and the conditional vital components in our interpretation of these works as they magically open up to our gaze and our touch. As Jorge Luis Borges explains:


The task of art is to transform what is continuously happening to us, to transform all these things into symbols, into music, into something which can last in memory. 4


Her transformation of the world she inhabits enables us to reimagine our own and to lock into memory what is important and significant.  The paired down elegance of her work, its assimilation into our lives as body adornment, as an accompaniment to our everyday activities, infiltrates our sense of our own humanity. Of course in a very real sense the works are also activated by being worn and they have a new life, which moves and engages with our world and becomes a part of us as much as we are changed by them. The process of transformation continues.


1. Juhani Pallasmaa, The Thinking Hand: Existential and Embodied Wisdom in Architecture, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, 2009, p22.

2. Plato, Symposium, quoted in Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2008, p211.

3. Isidore-Lucien Ducasse (Comte de Lautréamont), translated by Alexis Lykiard, Maldoror, Canto 6, Thomas Y. Crowell, 1972.

4. Jorge Luis Borges quoted in the documentary Images of Absence/ Buenos Aires, meine Geschichte, German Kral, 1998.



TED SNELL AM Cit WA is Winthrop Professor and Director of the Cultural Precinct at the University of Western Australia




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