Introduction to the meshwork

My study group for this year’s Constellation Level 5 is Jacqui Knight’s ‘The Meshwork of objects: Reading, Mapping, Curating’.

In our introduction in week 1 we discussed whether a human is the sole author of an artwork or if the making of something is more of a co-operation of a person and the meshwork they’re involved in, which includes environment, history, culture etc. We also discussed ‘thingliness’ and how objects become ‘things’ when a) they stop working and b) when we make new stuff out of them. This reminded me of Martin Woodward’s lectures last year when we explored how tools and objects hide from view and have a power of themselves because of the way they rupture the order of the meshwork when they stop working or don’t behave as we want them to. Paper for example, might seem stative but we can get a nasty paper cut which shows the material has an agency of its own.

We spoke of Tim Ingold’s powerful theory that everything in the world is in a state of becoming, that objects are only punctuation points in the life of things. The laptop I’m typing this on is made of elements which will continue beyond the timeframe of its use as a laptop as well as beyond our timeframe as humans. This theory is perfectly summed up by the idea of a holistic ‘meshwork’ whereby we are accountable for everything we put out into the world because of a kind of ‘butterfly’ effect. It’s crucial in thinking about environmental issues too. As a ceramic student it is particularly interesting because I put the clay through irreversible chemical changes in the kiln. The ephemeral nature of the things I make can be illustrated by the way the clay I sculpt or throw with can be slaked down, reclaimed and re-formed into a new object.

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Throwing in porcelain

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Nick’s slab built box with my thrown form inside
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Distorting the inside of vessels

I’m throwing in porcelain for the first time. It’s getting easier with practice. At first I found it difficult to knead when it came from the bag but it softens up as you work it. Centering on the wheel is a challenge as it likes to come off, but perhaps this is also because I’m throwing with minimal water. Porcelain is a thirsty clay but using too much water will make it difficult to control so I’ve resorted to throwing with slip instead. I love the tones of light and dark created through these distorted inside forms but how well the light plays on them depends lots on the environment where they’re displayed.

Nick is going to create a plaster mould which we can sit these in and pour porcelain casting slip into to sit them in flat slabs. I found it more difficult to get expressive throwing rings in porcelain so had to use a stick to push them out. Unlike the stoneware bulging and rippling the porcelain wants to hold its form or just collapse completely, there is no middle ground.

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Collaborative drawing

Above are the results of our discussion with ideas for constructing a kind of porcelain igloo or box which you could go inside (or at least put your head inside). We talked about how sound might be distorted as it moves through the twisted vessel forms and how we could use boxed like the one above as bricks to construct a wall you look through. We recorded the discussions so I hope to upload those here soon.

Squares with Two Circles

Arising from our first theory/practice session last Tuesday I’ve identified the artist Barbara Hepworth as a key reference to my project, in particular a bronze work of hers called ‘Squares with two circles’ which I saw a couple of years ago at the Kroller Muller sculpture park in Holland.

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Image: https://krollermuller.nl/en/barbara-hepworth-squares-with-two-circles

I remember I was drawn to this sculpture enough that I sketched it – the simple geometric forms at a slightly jaunty angle and its pleasing sense of balance gave it a kind of purity of form. The fact the lines aren’t parallel gives it an organic quality that helps it fit in with the natural environment. On each side only one of the circles funnels out which gives the two circles different qualities of depth and the way the patina on the surface is lighter in the upper half makes it appear to be dissolving into the sky at one end and firmly grounded on the other. The original form was made in 1963 although copies were made later which explains why there is also one in the Yorkshire sculpture park.

I’m interested in Hepworth’s forms in regard to my current project because of the way they act as framing devices for their environment, the holes referencing windows. Her emphasis is on form and texture rather than colour. I’m interested in the ways the forms I make create different tones of dark and light by the shadows they cast, so how colour is created by the artist in collaboration with the environment.

In the sculpture park the work is displayed outside the Rietveld Pavilion, a building in which you are at once outside and inside. This is an interesting space because of the way it blurs boundaries, the architecture more a huge sculpture you can walk through really. Many more of Hepworth’s artworks are displayed here which is appropriate since her work explores inside forms with carefully constructed positive and negative space.

I found information about this work on the Tate website and it discusses the holes in the form: ‘The integration with the landscape – one of Hepworth’s abiding concerns – is made actual by these openings, through what she termed the viewer’s ‘sense of participating in the form’ (Bowness 1971, p.12).’
I want to explore this idea that the audience can ‘take part’ in the form. It’s almost as if the interaction between you and the artwork becomes a performance, because you are not just seeing the artwork but using it as a device to look through, to perceive the world differently through, like a telescope or pair of glasses.
Placement therefore becomes important because what the sculpture ‘reveals’ through the frame will depend on where you stand in relation to it. It was important to Hepworth that the sculptures were displayed in the landscape as she explains: ‘I always imagine the sort of setting I would like to see them in, because I firmly believe that sculpture and forms generally grow in magnitude out in the open with space and distance and hills’ (Warren Forma, 5 British Sculptors (Work and Talk), New York, 1964, p.15)
I believe she may be speaking about the powerful way the changing of natural light and weathering of the material (through the day and seasons) can bring a sculpture to life in a way placing it in a room in an art gallery can’t.

Hepworth quotes from: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hepworth-squares-with-two-circles-t00702

Artist Research: Bryan Newman

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‘Teapots’ stoneware, early 1970s from book: Studio Pottery in Britain 1900-2005
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‘Bobbin tree’ with ash glaze in the V&A
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‘Bobbin tree’ drawings showing different viewpoints
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Stoneware assembled from thrown sections, mid-1960s
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Thrown and reconstructed Bryan Newman sculpture in the V&A

I keep stumbling across and finding myself in awe of work by potter Bryan Newman. A graduate of Harrow School of Art, Newman became well-known in the 1960s for his sculptural pots of townscapes and bridges, but I’m more interested in his making process than his illustrative, popular work. I’m fascinated by the way he has perfected assembling pieces that have been thrown on the wheel into whimsical sculptures. I first remember coming across his work in the V&A when we visited in our first week at CSAD last year but didn’t realise at the time how much the piece I saw there would have an impact on me. When looking for inspiration for my centrepiece  the sculpture above was a catalyst for my idea development.
There’s something almost mathematical about the way his constructs are made up of mainly circles, cylinders, perimeters, circumferences, funnels and curves. They link in with the article I found in the archive about the ’roundness of things’ and have got me thinking about the symbolism of circles and what they represent. Working on the potter’s wheel you can’t escape that circular spinning motion and even working with clay itself is an endlessly repeating cycle of making, drying, firing, making etc. In my essay before summer I wrote about the philosophy of balance and it’s relation to Japanese ceramics in particular. What more fitting symbol of balance is there than the circle of yin and yang?

I really enjoyed the process of constructing with thrown forms for the L4 centrepiece project and inspired by Newman’s work I want to continue to develop this during the coming year. The quick production of thrown forms and the slow, patient and careful process of joining them together afterwards means two very different sets of pace of working are involved.

An Ideal Home: Creating Context

I identified last week that the spaces I wanted to consider in more depth were the tiny windows in the buildings at St Fagans. These are frames that reveal, to a limited extent inside and outside space. As I want to explore the throwing process further I decided to explore the inside of thrown forms. Carrying on from throwing tall, narrow jug forms the first week back, I threw some similar shapes but pushed them to the point where I nearly lost control of the clay’s direction so it bulges. These are thrown in White St Thomas – the photographs below showing the expressive folding landscapes on the inside.

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Nick and I have decided to work collaboratively on this project since we’re interested in exploring similar ideas around optical illusion (e.g. tones of shadow and light created by the form itself and throwing lines), changing perception of objects by subverting the ordinary vessel (such as displaying them horizontally on a wall or from above) and challenging how we engage with an artwork. The aim is to make ceramic objects that encourage people to think about their physical placement in relation to the artwork. By creating frames and tunnels for the audience to look through or into, they will have to move around in a kind of ‘dance’ with the object, getting closer to peer inside and explore this interior space from different angles. In a tutorial with Natasha on Tuesday she suggested thinking of the concept of mindfulness and the pace with which we engage with objects. How can a ceramic artwork make the viewer more mindful? Perhaps having the eye follow the spiral of the throwing wheel into the artwork, like an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, they can be made to slow down the pace at which they’re gazing over the artwork’s surface.

Below are some rough sketches of my initial ideas, thinking about how a collection of these thrown forms can be brought together in a larger sculpture that can be looked through or into…

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Initial Research – St Fagans

Last Tuesday we made a trip to St Fagans National Museum of History just outside Cardiff – an open air museum which contains buildings from different historical eras from all over Wales. We were asked to identify the five things below as a starting point for making.

  1. Functional artefact that intrigues you: Tiny windows

Surprisingly for me, the artefacts that I found most captivating were the buildings’ tiny windows. Lots of the houses at St Fagans where built at a time when glass was expensive or even when windows were uncovered and protected only by cloth or animal hide. As a result most are tiny squares that you have to make a conscious effort to interact with, looking in or out of. To us today, used to big windows that let in lots of light, the tiny windows appear almost prison-like.

I began thinking of how windows are interesting metaphors and remember discussing how in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights they are an important symbol of the division between nature and society, the threshold between the outside and inside world. Looking out of a window you can only see so far, you have a narrow viewpoint. Thinking about today’s ‘Collections’ presentation and how some of the images I chose were linked by the theme of ‘journeys’ ( a journey through life, travel, a walk…) it strikes me that in films looking out of windows often prefigures a long, soul searching journey, or at least the decision that something needs to change.
While researching windows in popular culture I then came across this short but fascinating article called ‘The importance of staring out the window’ which says

The point of staring out of a window isparadoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds’.

The article goes on to suggest that in a better society people would not have to feel guilty for daydreaming while staring out of windows, it would be seen as time well spent and reminded me of words from a poem called Leisure by WH Davies:
‘What is this life if, full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.’

As a result of this train of through, I want to consider ways people could interact with objects I make by looking inside them through openings or ‘windows’ of sorts. I want to explore the spaces inside objects. 

Playing around making tall forms on the wheel last week one of my pots got twisted and resulted in a beautiful swirling form inside the vessel. I love the throwing lines that are visible, they have a rhythm to them like a pulse or heartbeat. Could this interior form reference blood vessels, or the concentric rings of a tree trunk? Thinking about the power of repetition relating to collections, what if I had lots of forms similar to this, growing together?

2. Decorative artefact that complements its environment: Hanging objects

Not exactly decorative objects, but the way kitchen utensils were displayed by being hung, especially in the castle’s kitchen interested me. Although they’re useful artefacts they almost become a form of decoration. The rhythm of the vertical lines put me in mind of soundwave graphics as well as the first piece of work I ever saw by Anne Gibbs – a collection of hanging slip-cast forms.

3. Restful space: The Castle gardens

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I came to the castle gardens toward the end of our day, looking for somewhere peaceful to sit down for a break. Thinking about working in this kind of environment I thought back to throwing at La Perdrix in France and how I enjoyed the peacefulness of working outside in nature. I decided if I was asked to create an outdoor sculpture to be situated at St Fagans it would be growing out of the lake like the lily pads.

4. Disturbing space: Bedroom at Abernodwydd Farmhouse

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Carved into the headboard of the large sturdy four-poster bed was the word ‘death’ and a stick man holding what looks like a bow and arrow. It made me think of how much history the bed had, generations of families must have been born and died in the very same one. This farmhouse and the other ‘long-house’ Cilewent Farmhouse were dark, smoky and claustrophobic spaces even in the brightness of mid-day and would have only been lit by dim rushlights.

5. A building with an interesting human narrative: Prefab house ‘Tin palace’

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Image: www.peoplescollection.wales

This aluminium bungalow is an example of the prefab houses that appeared after the second world war to house people who had lost their homes in the bombings. With so many refugee crises in the world today, the housing crisis and people losing their homes due to rising water levels, it felt relevant to today’s world. These bungalows were manufactured by factories that produced aircraft during the war. Rather madly, a factory which, during the war created war machines to destroy homes, in peace time became a factory to rebuilt homes.

On the roundness of things

On Friday we spent the morning with Jon Clarkson in the ceramics archive room discussing the relationship between art and ceramics before having a chance to explore the archive documents ourselves. I came across an inspiring article in ‘Australian Ceramics’ magazine (47, #2) dating from July 2008. Written by Phil Elson it discusses ‘the roundness of things’ 

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The article raises some interesting philosophical ideas

‘This is what pots can do for us: take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.’

When explaining what he means by this metaphor he quotes Mr Curly (a Michael Leunig character): ‘what seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully  – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’. 

I was struck by how beautiful this idea is, and it speaks to me of how simple pots are often the most wholesome and honest. There’s a stillness to Elson’s work that suggests the ‘presence’ he feels while working ‘in the moment’ with clay.

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He describes how you lose yourself in the moment while working with clay as: ‘We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin‘. This reminded me of a concept called ‘flow’ described in Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s eponymous book about the psychology of happiness. In a state of flow you focus so much on something e.g. a particular activity that you feel a special kind of stillness and contentment. I definitely feel this is true of the throwing process for me.

Elson also mentions coming to a point of unease about the work he was making three years previously and even considering giving up making pots altogether until a friend told him “The greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.” This is a profound sentence and can be applied to everything in life. Surely to understand ourselves, what motivates us, what our fears are and to be honest with ourselves about our feelings is the first step to understanding what we are going to make. It feels sometimes as if the shapes are making themselves, pushing themselves out from our actions into existence.

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Quoting Bernard Leach he further suggests the pots we make are us : ‘The pot is the man: his virtues and vices are shown therein…no disguise is possible’. As someone who constantly and painfully compares myself to others, to be reminded that everything I make is unique and only I could have created it in that exact way, is a reassuring thought that my place here is somehow valuable.