Sculpture, 'Art Machine No. I', stoneware, Bernard Sahm, Sydney, Australia, 1976
This ┬?Art Machine No. III┬? criticises art as a consumable item able to be distilled to a simple liquid able to be absorbed with little effort. ┬?Art Machine No. III┬? was part of a show series first presented at the Watters Gallery in 1976 and the sentiments of this show shocked the sensibilities of the time.
Bernard Sahm (1926-2011) trained and practiced as an industrial draughtsman which gave him skills he was to ably use in his ceramic output that frequently included drawn and applied detail. Sahm┬?s intellectual and frequently original approach to his art took up the counter-cultural spirit of the times ┬? especially from the 1970s ┬? but even as early as 1963 James Gleeson in the Sydney Morning Herald noted Sahm was ┬?was never dull or conventional┬?. Over time the nature of Sahm┬?s output increasingly blurred the distinction between ceramics and sculpture while at the same time critiquing society and specifically the art world as with ┬?Art Machine No. III┬?.
After qualifying Sahm worked briefly in the 1940s with the Forestry Commission in country NSW he began studying painting, sculpture, and ceramics, at the National Art School, Sydney (1945-52). During his time there he also worked as a decorator at the Martin Boyd Pottery (1949) and, showing his flexibility, also submitted paintings in the 1948, 1949 and 1950 Sulman Prize and the 1951 Wynne, and Blake Prizes.
Sahm married in 1955 and his travel in Europe with Pam saw Bernard gain more experience in commercial potteries which included six months in 'Gutenhalde Ceramics' in Stuttgart, a year at the Crowan Pottery in Cornwall, UK and also visits to potteries in Italy and Greece. In 1959 Sahm established his own pottery at Mosman, in 1961 he began teaching at the National Art School in 1961 and in 1977 became the inaugural Head of Ceramics, Sydney College of the Arts. During his tenure there he succeeded in introducing a cross-disciplinary approach that reflected his own expansive attitude to materials and technique.
At the same time as he was teaching Sahm industriously continued producing bodies of work that were shown at numerous galleries and institutions. Sahm┬?s work was tremendously varied with only the columnar ┬?pipe┬? shape in many works maintaining a thread of kinship from the 1960s through to the 2000s. After his retirement to a bushland setting in 1984, Sahm turned to nature for his inspiration ┬? but still often large scale and never predictable.
Paul Donnelly, Curator design & society
Gillian McCracken, ┬?Wit and Wonder: The ceramic sculptures of Bernard Sahm┬?, Mosman Art Gallery, 10 June ┬? 16 July 2006, pp10-21
Art Machine series
Taken from Gillian McCracken, ┬?Wit and Wonder: The ceramic sculptures of Bernard Sahm┬?, Mosman Art Gallery, 10 June ┬? 16 July 2006, pp10-21
Featured in archived Craft Australia website (viewed March 2011): http://basement.craftaustralia.org.au/articles/20070622.php
┬?Receiving a grant from the newly established Australia Council in 1974 Sahm was able to take 6 months leave from the National Art School to work on a massive body of work which was shown at the Watters Gallery, Sydney in 1976. This exhibition had multiple themes; one of these was Art Machines Nos. I, II, and III. Art Machine No.II won Sahm the internationally prestigious Gold Medal at Faenza Italy. The invitation for the exhibition announces an exhibition of life size: Pillars of Society, Art Machines, Mind Modifying Machines, Concept Dispensers, Helpful Hints, and Funerary Urns. This was most certainly a daunting range of work and ideas; human scale because he wanted people to relate to them. Writing about this work in The National Times Stuart Littlemore said '(This) is the logical culmination of his personal development. Always fiercely independent - he has retained everything of his superb technique and gone even further from the ground covered by his peers'. (note 13)
Sahm explained to Janine King, one of his assistants in completing this body of work,
In the development of any new art process, what art experience is left - other than through the gut of a human being?.... So that is how Art Machine came about. We've mechanised everything ... In this case I decided that the ceramic pieces were not even to be in themselves works of art, but simply dispensers of works of art, so that they were, in a true sense, functional objects - not to be taken into serious account for themselves. (note 14)
Sahm is now taking the audience beyond the 'robotic men and women' and their docility in accepting a world in which they have little creative input. He challenges the apparently 'sanctified' position of art and considers its role as commodity.
Speaking to April Hersey (note 15) about the exhibition Sahm said
I was surprised at some reactions. I wasn't trying to offend. I was accused of being political. I can't see that ... What I really was doing was centring the exhibition on holy cows of our society. If anything I was trying to be a bit of an evangelist. I think everyone should try to understand what life on this planet is all about. What's it all for? Continuing, Sahm said, there is no "they" or "them", there is only us. ..each of us has the power to influence government of the day and in selecting a leader. 16
There is no doubt that this body of work caused consternation and shocked many sensitivities. But Sahm was not attacking institutions but our attitude and acceptance of the role and function of these institutions. As with previous work he is saying - face up to reality, even if this reality is death, accept responsibility for the shape of our society, including consumerism, media banality and the workings of the law. And in his inimitable way he is also saying - have a good laugh at whom and what we are and what we think. Nancy Borlase in her review in the Sydney Morning Herald wrote of Sahm's 'surprising' work and his 'radical departure into social comment art', describing it as a 'good-humoured send-up of the mortuary business and art for art's sake.' Viewed retrospectively, Sahm's wit is more perceptive and demanding of its audience than mere 'good humour', and he understands the potency of wit in exposing absurdity.
These large scale works are a technical virtuosi performance. Sahm would have taken great pleasure in realising them but would have gone through hell in achieving them. All the elements of his practice - throwing, casting, extruding, moulding and hand-building were used to realise each piece. There are all manner of pitfalls in working with clay at this scale through the stresses and shrinkages of the assembly and drying process and then the firing. Australian ceramic artists were not attempting anything as challenging as this work in the early 70s, and it is not surprising that they took over two years to be realised.
We are fortunate that so many of the pieces of the original collection are in the artist's possession or in accessible public and private collections. We are able to consider the pieces in the art and social context of the 70s certainly, but also as relevant and pertinent comments today. By the time this exhibition was staged at the Watters Gallery, Sydney, Sahm had been appointed Inaugural Head of Ceramics at the newly developed Sydney College of the Arts. He joined others in making proposals for a new structure in the college that would take it in a different direction to other art schools of the period. Sahm, and others, envisaged a structure that could cater for the more diversified and yet specialised demands of society in the mid 70s which would include cross-disciplinary access as well as access to a wide variety of technical construction skills.┬?
Gillian McCracken, 2006
13. Stuart Littlemore, The National Times, April 5-10, 1976
14. Janine King, Pottery in Australia, vol. 15/2 Potters' Society of Australia 1976
editor, Craft Australia
15. Janine King, Bernard Sahm, Pottery in Australia vol 15 no.2 Potters' Society of Australia 1976