The Influence

Artist Jenna Lee discusses the transformative energy of fire in Makiko Ryujin’s Burning Vessel. By Maddee Clark.

Jenna Lee

Shinki (Burning Vessel).
Credit: Makiko Ryujin

Jenna Lee is a Larrakia, Wardaman and Karajarri woman with Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Anglo-Australian ancestry. Her work ranges across disciplines, and includes painting, projection, found objects and sculpture with an emphasis on paper, exploring the transformation of the printed word.

She was the recipient of the Wandjuk Marika 3D Memorial Award in 2020 for her work HIStory Vessels and was recently appointed to the board of Craft Victoria.

For The Influence she has chosen to discuss Makiko Ryujin’s Burning Vessel.

Tell me about Burning Vessel.

I remember seeing Makiko Ryujin’s work for the first time in Craft Victoria. She has been a practising photographer for a long time and began learning traditional Japanese techniques using fire and wood in 2014, and since then she has also described herself as being a woodworker.

She creates these wooden vessels and then burns them to a point. Then there’s an intricate process of sanding back and lacquering, so the objects start off as wood and then become completely transformed into something otherworldly and gorgeous. They look almost like a different element by the time she’s done with them. The finished products are so light and so black. There’s something about charcoal, how glossy it can be.

It’s also such a badass idea to think of her making these woodwork objects and then using a flamethrower on them. There’s a juxtaposition of the heavy-duty, almost violent, certainly extreme way of working that produces the most delicate and soft-looking outcome.

She’s one of the craft-makers I’m saving up to collect, because she’s an expert in her practice. I know she’s spent a long time perfecting the sealant on the vessels, which protects them without changing the look of that charcoal surface. It’s a type of treatment you can use on wood for the exterior of buildings and houses, a way of waterproofing the wood, which she has perfected in a craft setting.

The vessels do look soft but hard at the same time, which is an interesting visual effect.

You should visit Future Remains at Craft Victoria [to see them]; the amazing thing is that you can pick them up and hold them, and they are so light. You don’t expect that lightness. I think the firing process causes the wood to lose density.

Have you tried working with fire?

I have worked with fire, and I’d love to work with it more. I was supposed to travel to Japan this year for a residency, and one of the purposes of that trip was to learn these techniques that Makiko Ryujin uses. I’ve never had a place to do it in a controlled way.

You want it to be uncontrolled because it’s fire but not so uncontrolled it causes damage to your home or you. I’ve proposed work before to galleries that uses charcoal but it can get into ventilation systems and damage other artworks, so in galleries you have to be careful.

I do paper burning with a pyrography pen which I love working with. It’s funny, when I work with the pen I have to do it under the exhaust fan at home to keep it from setting off the fire alarm.

The process of creation Makiko Ryujin uses, burning it to the point it’s almost dust, would be nerve-racking.

Absolutely. There would be a moment where too much is too much, it’ll just fall apart. Looking at some of the objects before being burnt, the cracks aren’t in them, she’s let the fire do that. It would be scary, after she’s spent time carving these perfect vessels, to let the fire do what it wants.

Makiko has got a story about the Daruma dolls, the Japanese wooden dolls that are used to make wishes. There’s a yearly festival in Japan where you take the dolls and burn them all together.

She recalls the memory of these dolls that would be burned and she describes the way they would crack and split and change into completely different objects. The festival is about ends and beginnings and she clearly loves that uncontrolled process of change and transformation. You can picture her as a child staring at this image and it sticking in her memory for a long time.

When I went to Japan for the first time I got a Daruma doll and brought it home. I connected with it but I had no idea the purpose was to burn them. Japan has not only a rich history of craft but a huge respect for craftspeople. Having Japanese background as well, I have been researching paper craft with this in mind, because they are world leaders in paper craft. Paper is used in building, ceremony and a whole range of other things.

There’s a connection I found there to the tradition of First Nations peoples looking around us and using what we have access to, to make and create. I liked that.

First Nations creators often trouble these lines between design, art and craft, too, don’t they? We see the creation of high-concept, real genius pieces of art that are also functional, or could be.

I’m excited by First Nations creations, by fashion and design, the way the field is growing. The way First Nations objects have been collected through history started as ethnographic, not at all as a recognition of the artistry involved or even as a recognition of the craft. Just ethnographic collection. It was only in the late ’80s that even our traditional works would make their way into art museums. It was very recent that you would see a bark painting in an art gallery, to see it be recognised in that way.

Craft provides an access point for everyone in terms of the variations in price point as well. The thing I love about craft, about craftspeople, is that they are people who have dedicated their entire life, being, everything, to a process or a material. You’ve got master ceramicists or woodworkers or textile workers who are dedicating their whole life to that material. You can sense so much of a person through their work, that’s another thing I love about works which walk the line between art and craft.

My formal education is in graphic design, and I’m still very much a graphic designer, but when I started making art more seriously, about three years ago, it was with paper.

The questions around the lines between art and craft, and art and design, those are provocative and interesting to me. Many graphic designers also have art practices, but graphic design is telling someone else’s story: you get a brief and you create a work. But my own art is my story, the things I want to say.

Working with paper craft, I’ve been looking for ways to seal the works and make them strong without changing the look. I think of Makiko, and I know that if you keep working at that, eventually you can get somewhere.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 14, 2021 as "Jenna Lee".

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Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh writer and editor.