By Caitlin Arwyd
Past Lives: The Curling, Twisting and Entwined Tendrils of Time
Coral reef crustacean, Medusa’s hair
A curling, twisting ornament
Glistening and mottled like shadows in water
Light reflects, sinks and returns
Time is a helix twisting with exuberance like a new tendril in spring
My memories are castles and gardens, I look back and into now
They are the unforgotten
Some things never leave you
They are woven into this object, into me
Those citadels sparkle and I borrow memories for today
Weaving, weaving, entwining
I remember the first time I saw Bettina Willner’s work, I was working at Sarah Scout Presents and I saw three glossy, pastel pink, liquorice black and metallic gold sculptures. I remember being struck by the materiality at first wondering what these works were made of. I was bedazzled by the surface and bewitched by its beauty. Loops of clay tightly packed resembled woven baskets, with coils every now and then escaping the knitted surface. From this body of work, I have seen flowers and coral-like forms bloom and burst the surface of these interlaced helices and now in this new body of work Past Lives can see the tightly curled clay opening even further. In Past Lives clay is used as a drawing material, Willner’s forms also oscillate between sculpture, painting and drawing, these lines searching and remembering, reaching back into memories, and returning them to the present in ornate and materially rich forms.
The sumptuously decorated churches of Bernini and Borromini bedazzle the eye with complex manipulations of space, gilded surfaces, inlaid marble, and art works of every kind.1
Michael Yonan speaks about ornamentation in the Baroque period not as superfluous but as a representation of possibility and freedom. A means in which the artwork could express something that the artist could not communicate directly, and states ‘Ornament permits art to be open to the new’.2 Willner’s body of work Past Lives imagines baroque like ornamentation, nature is present in the bold expression of interlaced lines, curving and layered like the snakes in Medusa’s hair. There are coral forms inlayed in stratus of clay, each ribbon is dimpled with texture and dappled glazes on the surface. Present in the two-dimensional works there are spaces in-between the entangled lines as they join across a flattened surface, resembling the detailed wooden carvings on Catholic confession booth screens, tapestries, and lead framework of stained-glass windows. Confessing our inner world through a veil. Juicy apple, the spirit transcends, and we are renewed, a clean slate for new beginnings, anything is imaginable. The possibility of change and new ideas is present in the twists and turns that Willner expertly demonstrates in her manipulation of clay; using the earth itself to dismantle and disobey the grid. There are no white canvases, no straight lines or structured borders employed in her enquiry of painting. There is the existing colour of clay concealed by glazed layers of shadow and light, punctuated with Ruben’s red. Chiaroscuro a technique synonymous with the Baroque period and seen in works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Bernini is present in Past Lives particularly within Wave Tapestry (2023) and its’ relationship with other titles in the body of work. These ceramic paintings celebrate beauty, nature and memory through luxurious surfaces presenting a variety of highly developed techniques.
In Past Lives memories are visited and returned to the present in thinking about time as a non-linear experience. There are new possibilities that arise from understanding and revisiting past texts, past influences, and past lives. Memories can be remade, renewed, and reinterpreted, remembering is giving new life to a past waiting. Walt Whitman said in his poem Song of Myself (1892), ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’, this encapsulates the complexity of a subjective experience, subjectivity within oneself in an engagement with the outside, time ever changing and shifting the subjective experience of the world, and of art. In conversation with Willner she expresses an experience; ‘I have attached a blurb from the book Art Forms in Nature which I thought is interesting. I think I am just surprised that 30 years ago I admired this book and in the last couple of years have been again drawn to unusual life forms in particular coastal environments’.3 Willner conceptualises this subjective space and responds through her artistic practice and Past Lives producing detailed, alluring, and multitudinous curvaceous forms.
The Kunstformen contains 100 beautiful lithographic plates which show a multitude of unusual life forms: Radiolaria, Foraminifera and other forms of microscopic life; jellyfishes, starfishes, calcareous sponges, star corals, barnacles and other sea life; mosses, lichens, red algae, ferns, fungi, orchids and other plants; and turtles, moths, spiders, bats, frogs, lizards, hummingbirds, and antelope…In addition to being marvellous renderings, these plates have long been noted for the peculiar emotional appeal that they have for most viewers.4
The natural world is a key influence in this body of work and in her wider practice, like nature untamed so too are Willner’s structures. Like currents in sea tides the curled lines in Sea Lilly and Venus Shell (2023) ripple outward and inward, punctuated by spaces as if a stone or pebble has broken the water’s surface. Though waved and coiled lines fired clay continues to harness the malleability and movement of a living organism. The ocean breathes in and out, jellyfish tendrils slip through water molecules and dance in the push and pull, seaweed dark and deep swaying under the surface. Ernst Haeckel’s detailed drawings of microscopic life published in Artforms in Nature brings these tiny forms into contact with the human eye, this increase in scale brings these minute creatures into an understanding with the human body. The manipulation of proportion and scale come into Willner’s artistic practice seeing architectural forms influence. ‘Art deco, Baroque buildings creep in. I think because of my European heritage and being taken to Europe as a 12-year-old for three months we visited a lot of cathedrals, ornate gardens, and castles’.5
Minimizing the monumental scale of these grand and elaborate buildings also brings into a scale the human body. Instead of the engulfing embrace of a mighty cathedral, Sea Lilly, Wave Tapestry, Faded Fresco and Venus Shell (2023) bring frescos down from high arching ceilings into direct contact with the viewer enhancing a subjective reading. Bettina Willner’s sculptures impact the inner world of the viewer. Whilst Baroque architectural ornament was structurally unnecessary, its importance was instead an expression to deride classicism in search of new ideas, ornament had social power.
The language of baroque ornament was often classically inspired, as we have seen, but as the seventeenth century progressed, the classical language of architecture began to coexist and combine with architectural motifs deriving from diverse sources.6
Diverse source materials create in Willner’s practice unique and inspired works of art, employing ceramics to defy the structural components of traditional ceramics practices, that of cups and bowls, and instead her practice is rooted firmly in contemporary visual art. Memory, subjectivity, nature, and architecture proliferate into the world in luxuriant forms.
The feminine divine
Curved and curious, wandering gold
A rich inner world, blooming with flowers
I am enchanted, and transcended by time
Cooled by sea spray
I pick up a shell and hear the ocean in my body’s pulse
1 Yonan, Michael, 'Ornamentation', in John D. Lyons (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Baroque, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018)
2 Yonan, Michael, 'Ornamentation', in John D. Lyons (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Baroque, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018)
3 Email correspondence with Bettina Willner, 23 May 2023.
4 Ernst Haeckel. 1974. Art Forms in Nature. Dover’s Pictorial Archive Series. New York: Dover Publications.
5 Email correspondence with Bettina Willner, 23 May 2023.
6 Yonan, Michael, 'Ornamentation', in John D. Lyons (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the Baroque, Oxford Handbooks (2019; online edn, Oxford Academic, 10 July 2018)
Bettina Willner is an artist working between Naarm (Melbourne) and Gunaikurnai (South Gippsland). Practicing over two decades, Willner draws inspiration from the natural world, helping shape her ceramic sculptures and drawings. Walks in nature along the Gippsland coast bring forth layers of curls, twists, and coils into her hand-built sculptures. Time and the helical nature of ideas and experience also underpin her work, entwined lines like the snakes in Medusa hair wrap and twist around each other. Memory and her subjective relationship to ancient cities, architecture, both organic and of human design are also present in the development of her ideas and forms. Glistening bronze, deep ocean blues, stipples of black and red, pastel pink and sand like glazes coat clay drawings, reflecting the deep thought and connection Willner has to the aura of time and nature. Ornamentation is present in Willner’s work drawing on Baroque aesthetics and art history. Like the helical columns of Bernini’s baldachin, Willner celebrates an ornamentation that desires complexity, metaphysical connection, and multiplicity.
Willner studied at Monash University completing a Bachelor of Fine Art (1988-1991), and Wangaratta TAFE completing a Certificate in Design (1987). She has exhibited widely in Melbourne and Sydney at; Gippsland Art Gallery, Gippsland, Sydney Contemporary, Sydney, Metro Gallery, Melbourne, Caves, Melbourne, Saint Cloche, Sydney, Daine Singer, Melbourne, C3 Contemporary Art Space, Melbourne and Bundoora Homestead, Melbourne. Willner has also exhibited in design and art events in Melbourne and Sydney including Spring 1883, Melbourne, NGV Design Fair, Melbourne, Melbourne Art Fair, Melbourne and Art Fair Sydney Contemporary presents, Sydney. Willner’s work is in private collections, Australia, USA, United Kingdom, Indonesia.