Entry into Still: National Still Life Award 2023 – an assemblage

‘30 Tips to DIY and Decorate Your Fireplace Mantel Shelf’

It didn’t get in. There were well over 1,100 entries.


The Still Life genre originated with the Dutch middle class. They accumulated art and collectables subsidised by colonial transgressions. Ownership elevated status in this ‘Age of Reason’, nourishing Modernity’s emergence.

Mantels display archives of sentimental mementoes and precious objects. They often display consumerist effort, an everyday bricolage; sometimes kitsch, sometimes personal curios.

‘Books; Photos; Seasonal Décor; Flower Vases; Candles; Decorative Jars; Pieces of Artwork; Statues/Figurines; Souvenirs from Travel; Collection of Objects; Decorative Rocks/Stones; Lights; Cards You’ve Received; Clock; Mirror; Antique Items; Succulents.’ Casey Watkins, ‘30 Tips to DIY and Decorate Your Fireplace Mantel Shelf’,, 2021.

These objects were all collected in 5 minutes, except for the mirror and clock. I went to a $2 shop – bought cheap Chinese products > labour > capitalism >guilt.

  • Books; My last poetry book and others in the series; a classic – Johan Huizinga ‘Dutch civilisation in the seventeenth century’, where Still life art began – as we think of the genre.[i] Huizinga was amazed that the newly founded Dutch Republic was so highly developed at cultural and economic levels (with Rembrandt, de Hooch and Vermeer, Spinoza, Van Leeuwenhoek, and ‘a booming economy, and successful trade organizations such as the Dutch East India Company (VOC)’. [The VOC was cruel, violent and rapacious]. in 1828, Dutch chemist Coenraad van Houten discovered a way to treat cacao beans with alkaline salts to make a powdered chocolate that was easier to mix with water. The process became known as ‘Dutch processing’ and the chocolate produced called cacao powder or ‘Dutch cocoa’. I am an addict, never knew about the slavery, child labour and forest destruction until a few years ago.

  • Photos; just what I found in my study in a few minutes, could have been any – zuhanden close to hand, bricolage. And in memory of my mother and father, our last holiday together in a caleche in Luxor. My photograph of Ruddy Turnstones I made into jigsaws.
  • Seasonal Décor; flower, ericafolia from our garden, at the moment Eastern Spinebills and Rainbow Lorikeets enjoy the Banksia tree. It will fade –
  • Flower Vases; a metal one Wyn had.
  • Candles; one Wyn had handy.
  • Decorative Jars; cheated.

  • Pieces of Artwork; icon bought 1973-4 Plaka, Athens, gift for my parents. Lighthouse made from the wood of the 1874 Tall Ship James Craig, a three-masted, iron-hulled barque. Presented to me as Sydney Harbour Artist of the Year, 2007. The first time it had been awarded for writing.
  • Statues/Figurines; Green Tree Frog, we had them all over our house until two Green Tree Snakes appeared.
  • Souvenirs from Travel; Vietnamese small bone bottle. Tin box Russia.
  • Collection of Objects; Pebbles collected in 5 minutes from the Women’s Beach, Valla. Jim Ede and Henry Moore were fans of pebbles. Two bottle caps from two of my favourite Belgium beers.
  • Decorative Rocks/Stones; polished agate Mozambique; two-tone stone we found on Valla Beach, looks unreal.
  • Lights; I bought some small LEDS but refused to use them.
  • Cards You’ve Received; just ones happened to find in my wreck of a study.
  • Clock; bought from $2 shop.
  • Mirror; bought from $2 shop. With a checkerboard bonnet shell, collected from one of our beaches, a species of sea snail.
  • Antique Items; Vietnamese small bone bottle, fake antique we bought in Hoi An, have lost the top.
  • One of our succulents originally in a skull (that would not fit on the mantelpiece) – Vanitas theme.
  • Mouse with Christmas decorations and Aboriginal flag. I am aware every day that we live in Gumbaynggirr Country. This Aboriginal flag is tokenism.
  • The antique Red Cedar fire surround I saved from being thrown out from the Balmain Watch House, when I had an exhibition there. Built in 1854, the Watch House (a police lockup) was designed by the well-known colonial architect, Edmund Blackett. I call these objects entities because they have lives.

I hope this assemblage provides a space for conversation – even internal, regarding objects of interest, objects with shared histories and elements of play. The theme is based on Casey Watkins, ‘30 Tips to DIY and Decorate Your Fireplace Mantel Shelf’.[ii]

‘The mantel has served as a space for both sentimental mementoes and grand statements: a backdrop to our domestic lives.’ Sonia Solicari.[iii] Now the mantel is often used to display consumerist effort.

‘I thought how then to make an object which is not so easily defined as an object, and how to add space and still keep it an object painting . . . If the painting is an object, then the object can be a painting.’ Jasper Johns [iv]

‘The more a man knows about individual objects, the more he knows about God. So the knowledge that counts is not, strangely, the knowledge of abstract truths.’ Aldous Huxley [v]

Many cultures preserve relics, objects touched by contact and presence of the supernatural. Ethnic/folk art functions in its culture in ritual and ceremony to link material and spiritual world – the objects were sometimes seen as representing but also possessing supernatural power. All art probably possessed this sacred meaning – as mediators between the 2 worlds.

In west from 15th C onwards, art lost the function of mediating between the sacred and material worlds and gained what?

Sadie Plant writes, ‘It is not just that the relationship to commodities is now plain to see. Commodities are now all there is to see, the world we see is the world of the commodity. And this vision of a united, completed and natural social whole is representation which compensates for the increasing fragmentation and alienation of daily life and belies the existence of all discontinuity and contradiction.’ [vi] Our contemporary utopia consists of cargo.

‘We are today scarcely capable of conceiving politics as a communal activity, because we have become habituated to being consumers rather than citizens.’ ‘Everything is up for grabs, for sale at the right price, because there is nothing outside the market.’ Stuart Jeffries.[vii]

‘Life in contemporary Berkeley, California, where Sixties idealism has given way to fantasies of responsible lifestyle consumerism . . . Utterly everything in his adopted home, an erstwhile bastion of leftism, has been ingested by Capital, which provides affluent cosmopolitans with organic milk, locally sourced menus, and hand-crafted bicycles; families attend protests together on the weekends, but meanwhile Oakland’s nearby poverty ‘remains a mystery that soy lattes in cups of recycled cardboard can’t explain’. Ryan Boyd [viii]




[i] Written by the Dutch historian in 1941, first translated into English by Arnold Pomerans in 1968.

[ii], 2021.

[iii] Sonia Solicari, ‘Mantelpieces: a backdrop to our domestic lives’, Director, The Museum of the Home, 27 Oct 2020.

[iv] Walter Hopps, ‘An Interview with Jasper Johns’, Artforum 3, March 1965.

[v] Aldous Huxley, Island, Chatto & Windus 1962. A utopian manifesto. Utopian writing began with Plato’s Republic then Sir Thomas Moore for its formal qualities. I was brought up with utopian thinking, as a teenager, Timothy Leary’s ‘The Politics of Ecstasy’, not a science fiction but an illegal experiment with experience. Walden was also an experiment with experience.

[vi] Sadie Plant,‘The Most Radical Gesture’, P12, Routledge, 1992.

[vii] Stuart Jeffries, Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern, Verso, 2021.

[viii] Ryan Boyd review of Ramsey Scott, The Narco-Imaginary: Essays Under the Influence, Ugly Duckling Presse, June 2016

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button