The Learning Federation
Please refer to Conditions of use (This item contains non-TLF content)

image icon 'Seat of state', 1982

'Seat of state', 1982
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a chair made in 1982 from scrub timber by Gay Hawkes (1942-). Measuring 178 cm x 59 cm x 61 cm, the work is composed primarily of tree branches that have been curved and bent to make a four-legged chair. The seat of the chair is an irregularly shaped slab of wood. The legs and armrests are made from thick tree branches that pass upwards and downwards through this slab. The two sides of the back of the chair are extended from the legs and finish in a shark-fin-like shape at the right. The frame of the chair back consists of a series of thinner branches that run diagonally across the space. Some areas of the timber are sanded and smooth, while others appear to have retained their natural features, particularly knots and bark.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a work by Gay Hawkes, who is a well-known sculptor and bush-furniture maker - Hawkes graduated from the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1962; after teaching in Tasmania, then England and Canada (1966-67) in 1979 she returned to study at the Tasmanian School of Art; she commenced working in wood in the early 1980s and continues to work as an artist and travel widely; since 2000 her work has included installation events and operas incorporating sculpture, politics, food and furniture; a constant feature of her studio art practice has been her use of natural and recycled timbers to make furniture items that reference, in different ways, the artist's sense of social justice and sense of historical connection with the Australian landscape and its people
  • is a variation on a political theme that has been central to Hawkes's work - the term 'chair of state' is used to describe the ceremonial chair used by a head of state, such as a monarch or a president; a strong advocate for an Australian republic, Hawkes has made works that suggest Australia should have its own ceremonial symbols of nationhood; by presenting such a seemingly fragile and makeshift object with its preposterously high back (its pretensions of grandeur), the artist is deliberately mocking the idea of having a chair as an imposing symbol of power; in 2000, Hawkes presented a national touring exhibition titled 'The Queen of Australia show', which included four thrones and fourteen full-size figures of the Queen of England dressed in a variety of absurd Australiana costumes
  • is a gesture challenging the idea of conformity - in today's world, furniture is often designed and marketed in module form to fit within a particular d├ęcor or architectural form; in this context, Hawkes's rustic chairs invariably appear to be defiant individuals; Hawkes has commented that 'As a sculptor, part of my practice is to make ephemeral, celebratory gestures within a society which is sedentary, materialistic, enamoured of the indestructible'; she has also said that she takes delight in making pieces which 'undermine conventional expectations of furniture'
  • effectively communicates ideas through the use of materials - Hawkes has always made a point of using found or recycled materials in her practice, including branches and stumps left after tree-felling or oddments of demolition timber; in working with these materials the artist usually retains some of the original surface qualities, such as paintwork, in recognition of previous histories; in 'Seat of state' the artist has deliberately retained some of the original natural surfaces to acknowledge nature as a partner in the creative process
  • acknowledges Australian bush-carpentry traditions - when Hawkes first started making bush furniture in the early 1980s she made a number of Jimmy Possum type chairs; Jimmy Possum was a legendary chairmaker in the Deloraine district of Tasmania at the turn of the 19th century who made a style of chair called 'Bush-Windsor', so-named because the design superficially resembled the English Windsor chair; the essential difference was that Jimmy Possum's chairs did not need stretchers between the legs for support - the strength of the construction lay in the fact that the four legs passed through the slab seat and supported the arm rest, which in turn supported the outside back spindles; 'Seat of state' acknowledges this Jimmy Possum legacy through its adaptation of the 'legs through the slab seat' device to provide strength in this lightweight structure
  • is made from recovered natural timber - the wood used for this chair is horizontal scrub ('Anodoptalum bitlandulosum'), a timber that grows in high rainfall areas in southern and western Tasmania; the name 'horizontal scrub' originates in its ability to grow along the ground at different levels and bend at right angles or re-root itself along the main trunk; intricate tangles of this scrub are found in deep, dark gullies and are usually very difficult to harvest; because of its strength and pliability it was used extensively in colonial times for such things as axe and mallet handles, as well as furniture components
  • reflects a trend in later 20th-century Australian art and design towards the use of found or recycled materials - this trend was underpinned by a range of political and social perspectives advocating a return to nature in all aspects of daily life; it also stimulated an increased awareness of the pollution caused by the consumer 'throw-away' society and advocated the need to recycle resources; in this sense, Hawkes's practice of using felled and discarded timbers, driftwood or demolition scraps is a deliberate, political act
  • references the status of the chair within modern design - furniture was accepted as a design object by some of the most influential art movements of the early part of the 20th century; within this tradition, chairs have been prominent in terms of being vehicles for creative and technically experimental ideas and technologies; a significant number of 'modern classic' chairs are now recognised, including the 'Hill House ladder back chair', 1903, by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928), the 'red and blue chair', 1917, by Gerrit Rietveld (1888-1964), the 'Wassily chair No B3', 1925, by Marcel Breuer (1902-81), the 'Barcelona chair', 1929, by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), the 'Eames lounge chair', 1956, by Charles Eames (1907-78) and Ray Eames (1912-88), and the 'Lockheed lounge', 1986-88, by Marc Newson (1963-).