The Antipodean Steampunk Show
Words by Claire Hielscher
The decadent, over-engineered, and hyper-real world of Steampunk has arrived at artisan in Fortitude Valley. Beginning here in Brisbane, the Antipodean Steampunk Show is destined to travel to 11 different locations, including Ipswich.
Co-curator of this show, Simone Jones, explained how each of the 21 artists included in this show have a strong conceptual basis, all operating in some way with Steampunk as a movement, style and genre. Physically and visually banded together by artisan’s original Queenslander edging, painted black, it is clear that this is a show that wishes to emphasise the local artisan, as well as the worldwide movement that is Steampunk.
Originally a literary movement in the United States of America, Steampunk offers a strange vision: an alternative history in which culture is built around the predominance of steam-powered industry. A reaction to the pessimism of cyber-punk’s gritty vision of a world over-run with senseless machinery, Steampunk emerged as an optimistic view of the role of technology in cooperation with humanity. In this version, the world is one driven by exploration and adventure, by beauty and betterment. Inspired by the stories of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the Steampunk aesthetic is one of goggles, gauges, cogs and gears, dirigibles and ray guns, as well as top hats, lace and lasers.
As Jones explains about this show in particular, the trend of Steampunk is toward the re-usable and sustainable. In our current era of over-consumption, it seems that Jones is correct when she declares Steampunk not to be a fad. Instead, it represents a greater move of the niche into the mainstream, the moderating of conscious design toward a reworking of everyday objects into luxurious necessities with beautiful detail achieved with skill and exquisite craftsmanship.
Artist Caleb Heinselman was my favourite example of this work in the show. Adapting modern devices with old world sensibility, Heinselman modifies iPad and iPhone devices to invigorate the over-consumptive style and ubiquitous similarity of these devices. Instead of a bland iPod-compatible stereo system, Heinselman incorporates gramophones and elegant handles as a shout out to beautiful (yet still functional) over-design. “It’s completely over-engineered . . . but how could you not love it!” declares Jones. Likewise, in Heinselman’s example of a “fully-functional” ray gun, the use of an old vacuum cleaner with the original elephant detail from the device’s body (made in Sweden) represents a move away from the slickness of the uniform, and instead looks towards detail in the daily functional. In Heinselman’s work, along with many of the other artists in this show, beauty and functionality are held and suspended in both time and space.
A term only coined in 1987, steampunk began as a search for a term that would encompass this style and aesthetic — one that is distinctly multitudinous in medium and execution, yet bound together by a specific attitude and appreciation. Some featured artists that Jones points out, such as Kate O’Brien and Chanelle Collier, do not define themselves solely as Steampunk artists. Rather, they incorporate elements of the aesthetic into their work. In Collier’s work, the use of layered book sculpturing from “The Scientific American” is, without question, stunning and intricate. However, the destruction of the past in the form of Verne’s short stories from 1903 raises questions about the line between art and craft, as well as the question of purpose behind such alterations of historic objects.
Overall, this show is one that has been lovingly and intelligently curated. With items ranging from the maritime to the animated, it is something that can be visited and enjoyed more than once. The artisans are local and international, professionally trained and self-taught. Despite their differences, all of them share a clear love for their work and an appreciation for the strength behind imaginative design.
THE ANTIPODEAN STEAMPUNK SHOW runs until 15 December at artisan: www.artisan.org.au.
CLAIRE HIELSCHER‘s work has been featured in Australian Art Collector, UN Magazine, Stilts and OffStreet Press. She is also Editor of a new Brisbane street press, GrandioCity.