Essay by Rebecca Gallo, 2020
“We trust that [objects] will serve as place holders for things we want to recall and we believe that they have the capacity to call up memories in others.” Laurie Beth Clark in Memory and Postwar Memorials: Confronting the Violence of the Past
“Somehow, in my family, the stories of cherished and lost objects are better preserved than the stories of people’s lives.” Svetlana Boym in Like New: A Tale of Immigrant Objects
In Anne Kwasner’s practice, history and memory are distilled and embedded into objects. She grapples with identity, family history and loss, exploring the potential of objects to act as repositories for both known and unknown pasts.
In a recent article in The Journal of Australian Ceramics , Kwasner described a ceramic coffee set that belonged to her mother. It was gold and maroon, and to Kwasner it was “so beautiful, a tangible link to my history.” But whatever symbolic power she perceived in these objects, Kwasner’s mother did not, and the set was given away. Perhaps Kwasner’s attraction to the coffee set was fuelled by a particular kind of nostalgia: one bestowed upon the children of migrants for a past they never experienced. To her mother, set may have felt like an old-fashioned, uncomfortable reminder of the past, but for Kwasner it was a connection to a life and a culture that she had never experienced first-hand.
There is a vase in my own living room that stands out from my other possessions. It is a cut-glass Bohemian vase, red with a clear-cut pattern of flowers, leaves and lozenges. It belonged to my paternal grandmother, and although I’ll never know the Czechoslovakia it represents, when I look at it I am right back in my grandmother’s Sydney home. I can hear the tick of the gas heater and feel the short velour of the lounge seat slightly coarse under my hands. I can smell dense meat loaf and clear chicken soup. Objects like my vase are mementos of a time and place, like a tourist souvenir. But they are also mnemonic devices: repositories for stories and sensations.
What about souvenirs for places we’ve never been, things we’ve never experienced? Much of Kwasner’s work to date has been a process of giving shape to a hazy and fragmented past. With a dearth of objects that hold stories from her family’s pre-War life in Europe, Kwasner reverse-engineers her own mementos. She reconstructs a version of her family’s past and culture through ceramics, painting, drawing and installation that tie together family anecdotes, research and personal experience.
In her practice, Kwasner paints scenes from family and historical photographs onto found plates; and constructs forms that are deliberately empty or broken: façades of buildings, forlorn shoes. These hollow forms are vessels for memories, or skins ready to be filled with recollections of second-hand stories or half-remembered histories. The smashed and repaired ceramics speak of loss, but also of optimism for what might be made from gleaned fragments.
For her recent series I come with baggage (2019), Kwasner trawled op shops for ceramic plates. She started selecting the plain porcelain kind, gradually moving on to plates with scalloped edges, patterned perimeters, and all-over decoration. These were the sort of plates probably orphaned from dinner sets, dating from an era in the recent past when there was “good” crockery for guests. By the time they found themselves on the shelves of Sydney op shops, they had long been cast adrift, separated from their sets. They might be the only surviving one from two dozen pieces. This dislocation, this sense of being marooned and cut off from one’s group, is paralleled by the migrant experience. Onto these orphaned plates, Kwasner painted from a combination of family photographs (brought when her mother emigrated to Australia from Poland), photos shared by extended family in a Facebook group, and general historical images of Poland.
In the portrait plate titled Grandmother (2019), a middle-aged woman looks to the side, and there is the hint of a smile on her otherwise inscrutable face. A painted rose shows through, a trace of the plate’s former life blooming behind the woman’s eye and cheek. Other images feel familiar, like a textbook vision of Europe between the wars. A man on a fold-out cafe chair, reading the newspaper in the sun. Mother and child bundled up against the cold in enormous coats and chic hats. A family group at the seaside, smiling. Unknown Father (2019) is a street scene cut with the negative space of an outlined figure: a man standing with legs apart, casual, perhaps wearing a beret. Instead of features, there is just the stark white of porcelain staring back. Outlined forms recurs in other works, figures implied by their absence. They are a reminder of the unknowns that these souvenirs can only gesture to: the family never known, the stories not told.
In Kwasner’s process, partial stories and memories are overlaid onto existing textures and images. This process of on-glazing – painting on top of already-glazed ceramics – is both the domain of crafters and propagandists. These days it is considered a purely decorative technique, but for a period from 1918 into the 20s, large stores of Russian Imperial porcelain were painted over with socialist symbols and widely distributed . When Kwasner paints over the floral patterns and genteel trimmings of her found plates, she takes something that is deemed finished and complete, and adds complexity through further layering. She intertwines her own stories with the lives and stories of other, anonymous contributors, creating a new lineage and a web of invisible connections.
When Kwasner makes objects, she does so with an acute awareness of their relationships with people. As Laurie Beth Clark observed in her writing about the culture of memorials, “objects are familiar to us and they are our familiars, in the sense of belonging to our households. They are on close terms with us.” Kwasner’s objects – plates, buildings, shoes – are reminders of things we eat from, live in, wear. They point towards objects in our own lives that act as armatures for our identities, mnemonics for stories about ourselves. Kwasner’s mementos may hook directly into our own pasts, or they may remind us of objects that do. Either way, these are objects designed to be on close terms with us.