“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased, ” Polo said. ” Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” – Italio Calvino
Reading Italio Calvino’s ‘Invisible cities’ is raising some interesting questions. The chapters on city and memory stand out in particular. In the book, according to Marco Polo, all the cities he describes are in fact Venice and having now visited the place myself I’m thinking about what my memory of the place was like. Someone else visiting the city might have a completely different impression of it. The word ‘Venice’ would conjure up two different realities for each of us, and who’s to say which is the ‘real’ Venice? Before you go to a city you have an idea of what it will be like based on your memory of other cities. When you go to a new one, you compare it to other places you’ve been, leaving you with a different view of what the past was like. The past is ever-changing.
To what extent does memory shape the self? Without my memory would I be just a shell? I think of Jason Bourne, battling against his amnesia, trying to piece together fragments of the past, being hunted down for somebody he used to be. I look back at old photos of myself and say that was me but sometimes I have no memory of being that person. Other times, when I do remember, I suspect the memories are warped and exaggerated. The cells that made up that old me died years ago, physically I have been replaced with new matter but my memory is the thread that ties me to these past selves.
Sunday was Giardini day and this time the artwork that got my heart racing was in the Norwegian pavilion – a massive sculpture made from fibreglass reinforced polyester pipes by Siri Aurdal (b.1937). The wave-like form called ‘Onda Volante’ (sea waves) looked like a giant version of my final centrepiece, the evenly spaced ridges on the plastic even referenced throwing lines. Walking around and underneath the cut tube sections I felt like I did walking around the aeroplanes at RAF Cosford museum, the curved plastic forms riveted together like wings of a giant aircraft. I felt the enclosed space didn’t do justice to it though, it was as if the form was trying to ‘flow’ outside, with tentacles pushing up against the ceiling. I’d love to see it placed in the Yorkshire sculpture park with wide expanses of space all around. Reading up about Aurdal after returning home I’ve discovered she came to fame in Norway in the 60s with large scale interactive sculptures that people could play and climb on, inspired by modular, mathematical forms. My interest in interactive artwork has been re-ignited!
Another treasure was found in the Finland pavilion, where Heledd and I must have spent over an hour mesmerised, watching the very funny ‘The Aalto Natives’ by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. The installation is part film, part two talking puppets called Geb and Atum, who explore elements of Finnish society, history and national identity. The videos swap between different styles: CGI, hand drawn stop-animation and Muppet style puppets and according to the leaflet ‘explore themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, bureaucracy, and intolerance by way of absurdist satire’. Half the time it felt like a missing episode of the Might Boosh, the other half like a montage of the ABCs of death. I’m still confused as to why the Neanderthal guy had a Liverpudlian accent.
I loved Milena Dragicevic’s colour compositions at the Serbian pavilion. Her abstract paintings ‘Erections for Transatlantica’ drew in the eye from afar with bold colour. The strange, sculptural images are mixtures of her own intuitive drawings with forms taken from outside sources. I thought some referenced Islamic architecture, others forms of microbes and bacteria.
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in he darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.
SKILL I have significantly developed my throwing skills and now feel much more confident on the wheel.
IDEA I enjoy the process but rather than seeing it as a means to an end, I see it as the start of a process of construction.
CONTEXT I feel inspired by the work of Gordon Baldwin I saw at COCA York as well as Carnia Ciscato at Collect ’17 who hand-build with thrown forms. Unlike slabs the clay holds some of the energy and motion of the wheel and has a springiness and tension to the touch. IDEA I’m interested in the idea of a piece showing traces of how it was made.
IDEA Idea of trace and memory was important in café society project. I wanted to create mugs for a café that would be a piece of home in Cardiff for when I felt homesick and missed the wild, rural landscape of North Wales. I hope to saggar fire them with combustibles from home so the surface holds a physical trace of the landscape. I focused on throwing a particular shape – a mug I remembered from home, but when I found a picture of it afterwards I realised my memory of the object was different to reality. How reliable are our memories?
IDEA This idea of the unreliability of our senses was further explored in Constellation – New materialisms. We drew an object from touch then from sight and it made me think about what I think I know as opposed to what I actually know. How does our memory influence how we interpret the present?
SKILL/CONTEXT I enjoyed the screenprinting field lab where we learnt about colour theory and played with the placing of colour. I’d already been interested in learning how to make coloured slips and thinking of the clay more as a canvas for painting on but the field project inspired me to work more in colour, especially for the pop art oil lamps.
SKILL Influenced by the paper stencils we used in the field screen printing I learnt how to use the laser cutter to cut my own paper stencils for the pop art project, with crisp sharp lines to suggest advertising graphics and mass production. Also with these oil lamps I began exploring the idea of building with thrown forms, and discovered the difficulty of controlled drying.
IDEA Realised with this technique that I was interested in the theme of balance. It’s something I have explored a bit in the past, exploring how the body balances on my foundation course. CONTEXT I came across Lisa Krigel’s stacking forms at Made in Roath and became interested in the compositions of balancing dirty dishes in the kitchen. CONTEXT My constellation essay examines the philosophy of balance in relation to eastern philosophy and the ceramics of Bernard leach, looking at balance creates harmony in art as well as everyday life
CONTEXT After coming back from France and playing games around the dinner table I wanted the centrepiece to be interactive or a kind of game. However, I was much more interested in taking a process driven rather than schematic approach, so worked through playing with the clay.
CONTEXT Wouter dam inspired forms.
SKILL Going back to the idea of trace, I like work that shows signs of how it has been fired as well and am drawn to more experimental firing techniques such as raku and the pit firings we did with Mick and over Easter. I like the firing being an experience in itself not just something that has to happen. Reading about mindfulness and Eastern Philosophy has made me not want to think of any part of my making process as a means to an end, but as an experience to be enjoyed of itself.
I feel this year I’ve focused (although not as much as I could have) on improving my throwing skills. It’s a process I enjoy, but rather than viewing it as a means to an end, I see it as more as a starting point for the process of construction, much like artists Wouter Dam, Carina Ciscato and Walter Keeler.
I began the first project ‘Many a Slip’ trying to repeat throw a particular form – that of a distinctively shaped mug I remembered from home. I discovered though, when I found a picture of the actual mug, that my memory of the object was distorted, a caricature of a mug. This made me think of how unreliable memory is and blind drawing exercises in the New Materialisms Constellation study group explored these ideas of how we perceive with our senses further. This idea of memory and trace fed into the ‘Cafe Society’ project. My cafe was to be a piece of home in Cardiff, somewhere I could go to escape the busy city and feel I was back in the wild, mountainous landscape of North Wales. The layout of the place would be similar to my favourite coffee shop in Dolgellau – T.H.Roberts, the old ironmongers, the top floor kitted out with second hand sofas, and they would serve the local speciality – Popty’r Dre’s honey buns.
I made a series of my ‘home’ mugs which I hope to saggar fire tomorrow with combustibles sourced from the Dolgellau area – seaweed and shells from Barmouth beach and sheep wool and lichen from the farmers fields on the foot of Cader Idris. I want the surfaces of the mugs to show a physical trace of my home. The project has made me think of the things I take for granted and how your memory of a place can change when you move away and grow older. It makes me think of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir novel series – about an alternative underworld Aberystwyth which he only began to write about when he moved away from the place.
With the handbuilding of thrown forms I find myself returning to the theme of balance, which happened to be what I wrote my final Constellation essay about. I find my making process if becoming more and more process driven rather than schematic and pre-planned. I find I like to play with the material and discover ways sections want to fit together harmoniously and naturally rather than trying to bring a drawing or plan into being. This thinking has definitely been influenced by learning about ideas of the agency of materials in Constellation. I feel as a result though that I’ve abandoned research a bit and work in sketchbooks less than I used to.
I noticed this change of thinking most when I came to the final ‘Centrepiece’ project and originally wanted to make an interactive piece or a game, but realised I didn’t want to work to a plan. It’s also becoming more and more important to me that what I make shows a trace of how it’s been made. This is why I like the flow of throwing lines and marks where the fire has licked the clay in kilns that aren’t electric fired. I hope to move away from the standard oxidation electric kiln firings next year. I’d especially to learn how to use the gas kilns for reduction firings and look more in depth at alternative firing methods like raku, saggar and wood firing. I liked the unexpected, uneven results and surface textures you get this way, like the ones on my final centrepiece.
Looking through my blog I feel it would help to post a summary of my developing ideas at the end of each week next year so I can see a more clear progression. Also I’d like to upload films of myself working so I can more dynamically document the skills and techniques I’m learning.
For some reason I find throwing and turning bowls more difficult than other forms. I can never seem to get the thick clay out of the base and they tend to end up with strange ridges. The pearlescent glaze here was supposed to be a gloss white but looks like it needed more than one layer.
Layered on top of another glaze the opalescent effect might work but I don’t like how watered down it looks revealing the clay underneath here.
The bowl with the oatmeal glaze is my favourite – it’s got rings of different shades of orange with a subtle texture and green tinging where it’s pooled at the base. I like the detail of the running green glaze around the rim too – a touch of Lucie Rie!
The green bowl has a pleasant mottled antique green colour – white slip with smooth satin opaque yellow green on top applied to bisque ware. I like the visible brush marks and the colour variation where the thickness is different.