Artist interview: Sarah Goffman

9 September 2021
On process, research and working with museum collections
Curator Katrina Liberiou chats with Sarah on her new exhibition in the Penelope Gallery, an installation of museum replicas handcrafted from waste materials.

We invited you to create an exhibition in response to the University’s collections. What were you most drawn to? Did anything surprise you?

SARAH: So many objects! It would take me a lifetime to choose favourites. I was delighted by the gold dinar [coin, of Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, Umayyad Caliphate, AD 741–742]. The decorative riji (pearl shell) works by the Yawuru, Karajarri, Bardi-Djawi and Worrorra peoples [inscribed and filled with ochre from the La Grange area, Kimberley region, Western Australia c.1930] are amazing. I’d never put two and two together: the usage of shells as currency (from the sea), and gold as currency (from the earth) and how distorted contemporary monetary culture seems in relation.

I love the juxtaposition of old and new objects and art. Piranesi printsFiona Pardington’s photographs! The giant silver epergne in Coastline. Ancient Greek objects, which I’ve never had any attraction to previously, engendered a fresh enthusiasm. Having visited Greece in the past I’d felt that ‘I’d seen one pot, I’d seen them all’, however this has changed through my studies at the Chau Chak Wing Museum where I’ve learnt to look at the paintings and appreciate them altogether differently.

Can you tell me about your exhibition Sarah Goffman: Applied Arts?

S: My response to the collection is many and varied. The term ‘applied arts’ means arts that apply design and decoration to everyday and essentially practical objects, so I have taken this definition literally in some instances. Taking artistic license (the best license in the whole world) I attempt to reproduce artefacts using thrown away objects and single-use plastics designated for recycling. Initially I was attracted to works from the Silk Road cartel but have found hundreds of other pieces that pique my interest. This exhibition catalogues some of these responses, from the pieces I’ve seen in storage piled up, willy-nilly in their storage bags or containers on standard shelves, to the carefully curated and considered magnificent displays on show. 

I’ve stayed with my motive to make what I’m attracted to, so basically the exhibition features pieces (or copies of pieces) that I wish I owned. There is a large variety of works I’ve made. Each visit has added more enthusiasm for another category and frankly it’s a bit overwhelming.

Plastic replicas of Chinese ceramics

Sarah Goffman, Black and White, 2021. Photo: Chau Chak Wing Museum.  

Can you talk a little about your interest in the orientalist objects of the Silk Road and your interplay with plastic?

S: I’ve long been a lover of Orientalism and the journey of objects along the Silk Road fascinates me. The sharing of designs for commodities and its significance is essentially aesthetic for me. Our contemporary society’s situation of convenient plastics leading to environmental disaster takes on a whole new polemic. I try to use this contemporary medium as it is so abundant and dangerous. The ethics of waste in relation to my work are constantly being considered. A lot of plastics are manufactured in China, and the term ‘plastic arts’ is used to describe three-dimensional art so I thought it would be humourous to name my work after this, as it is made of plastic.

I recently saw the work Seamless (1999/2018) by American artist Sarah Sze who talks about “marking time though objects” which resonated with me when thinking about your practice, would you agree?

S: Absolutely! Each piece exists as a calendar. I may not recall anything about 2005 except when I read the lines on my CV. Art is a diary of my time on earth. French curator and critic Nicholas Bourriaud writes that “I am supposed to be what I read, what I listen to, what I look at”. It connects to French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist Bruno Latour’s observation that “I am what I am attached to”.

green bowl with faces

Sarah Goffman, Greco-Roman recreation, 2020. Photo: Chau Chak Wing Museum.  

Can you talk about your process, how you go about changing a discarded utilitarian object? Is there a moment for you when its transcendence is complete?

S: Sometimes I begin with the object I want to copy, then I have to find or make the suitable form it can be transcribed upon. But other times, I find the material and it will designate its format. Finding the right container or material is a large part of the process and then cleaning it and taking it back to its initial design sometimes takes longer than the actual decorative process! There’s a fantastic moment when I’m in the studio where a piece I’m working on suddenly takes on the decorative elements and is transformed. It’s quite magic actually, and is often when colour has been applied. Often it isn’t until I install the work within vitrines that I can say it is ‘complete’.

Sarah Goffman, Perforated bottles A.D., 2021, PET, acrylic paint, LED lightbox.

Sarah Goffman, Perforated bottles A.D., 2021, PET, acrylic paint, LED lightbox.

Can you talk about your previous exhibitions where you have incorporated museum collections? What was the response?

S: In 2005, I made a version of the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ Scholars table. I was so in love with it; it was the first time I made a direct and as accurate as possible rendition of something I adored. Except I’d heard that in the early days of the gallery the roof leaked terribly and the water would run down the walls, so I got a fish tank and installed the works in it, immersed in water. The works were mainly plastics, so I was highlighting their immiscibility in water.

In 2017 I made an exhibition, I am a 3-D Printer at Wollongong Art Gallery responding to their Mann-Tatlow (donated Asian art) collection, installed in the showcases the ‘real’ works are typically housed in. Taking the entire space, I got to realise a large simulation of what was traditionally exhibited there. The response seemed good; I remember someone telling me they’d been there while a father showed his child, but didn’t understand that what they were seeing were not the actual objects but copies of them. This made me feel really good, not that I’d tricked them, but my objects were good enough to simulate the real!


Sarah Goffman: Applied Arts is the second project in the Penelope Gallery, the Chau Chak Wing Museum’s dedicated contemporary art project space. The exhibition will be on display when the Museum re-opens, after the Sydney lockdown. 

Katrina Liberiou is Assistant Curator, University Art Collection, Chau Chak Wing Museum.

This article is a preview from our upcoming Issue 27 of Muse Magazine.

Featured image (top of page): Sarah Goffman, Perforated bottles A.D., 2021, PET, acrylic paint, LED lightbox.

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