“I basically do product design, but quite recently I have been combining this way of doing it with craft, and mainly weaving,” Mr Catalán de Ocón told ABC Radio Darwin‘s Liz Trevaskis from his studio in Barcelona.
With his PET Lamp project, Mr Catalán de Ocón travelled to five art centres in as many continents, using recycled bottles and local weaving techniques to create brightly coloured lamp shades.
But learning about the kinship systems in the East Arnhem Land community prompted him to break with tradition.
Where previous collaborations had produced thousands of lamp shades, this one produced just two woven together by eight local women using native plant materials and ancient techniques.
The resulting works are large, irregularly shaped weavings in luminous, earthen tones, woven together according to the women’s relationships to one another.
Project born from mission to creatively recycle
In 2011, Mr Catalán de Ocón was travelling through Colombia and became involved in an art project about rising levels of plastic waste in the Amazon River.
“They were interested in having my perspective as a product designer, and I thought about instead of recycling, reusing, because there was no infrastructure in those areas for recycling, it was about turning the object into something else,” he said.
The object in question was a PET bottle, which Mr Catalán de Ocón noted had a short shelf life compared to the time it took to decompose.
While he could not single-handedly fix the problem of plastic waste, he thought he could use intelligent product design to make a statement about it.
Drawing inspiration from the shape of a Japanese tea whisk, Mr Catalán de Ocón recognised a similarity between certain looms and the shape of a plastic bottle that had been cut to pieces.
“You have a knot, which is the screw top, and then you have the body of the bottle, which you can cut in strips, and that becomes like a loom you can weave onto,” he said.
Taking this logic a step further, the product designer realised the issue of mounting plastic waste and the art of weaving were both somewhat universal.
There are few crafts, he said, as ancient or widely practiced as textile weaving.
“So we turned it from a container into a lamp through the use of local craft, which was very strong in Colombia,” he said.
“It’s two realities which can mix together.”
He travelled from Colombia to Chile, Ethiopia and Japan, weaving lamp shades with disfigured plastic bottles and local designs.
In 2016, after being commissioned by the NGV to bring the project to Australia, he decided the project’s next location would be Ramingining.
A cross-cultural experience
Over six weeks, Mr Catalán de Ocón became embedded in the remote community, consulting and collaborating through long working days with the Bula’bula artists.
He likened the experience of living in the remote community (about three days’ drive from Darwin) to travelling back in time.
“Little by little, we managed to get into that world.
“We know we only really arrived in the very surface of it, but you realise how deep it is and how different it is — the way of understanding the land, the way of understanding life and time.”
While the designer had produced about 15,000 lamps in previous workshops, Mr Catalán de Ocón decided this time they would work towards just two.
“They were telling us their stories, we were going out to the bush to pick up the materials, doing the whole process so we could spend a lot of time together,” he said.
“At a certain point, each weaver did an individual piece and we started joining them together according to family links and family bonds with the weavers which were doing the lamps.”
One of the pieces is now on display at the NGV Triennial.
The other hangs in the studio in Barcelona where Mr Catalán de Ocón fields calls from weaver Lynette Birriran every couple of days — an ongoing touchstone between their two very different worlds.
“She tells us what is happening in Ramingining, what the weather is like, how are things going on,” the designer said.
“We tell them how is the lamp, if it’s showing here or there.
“She enjoys it a lot — we send pictures and it’s quite an experience.”