Plaster casting and Mummified Space

Initially interested in how a vessel can hold light, this project has taken a turn and I now find myself investigating the space inside the vessel. Inspired by British sculptor and Turner prize winner Rachel Whiteread I have begun to cast plaster into my thrown constructions with the hope this will create an extra layer of distance from the original object, rendering the invisible visible and bringing form to something which was originally intangible.

In her 2014 essay ‘Loss and Melancholy in Rachel Whiteread’s Casts’ Sheyda Porter compares Whiteread’s work to Freud’s definition of ‘the uncanny’ because of the way  ‘it refers to something unfamiliar arising in a familiar context and vice versa. ‘ She goes on to explain how French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan defines the uncanny as ‘the very image of lack’ – and what better way to describe Whiteread’s work, turning the inside out and giving form to the void? I hope by using a similar technique I can turn my thrown objects, which show clearly how they have been constructed, into more intriguing objects of mystery which show the part of the vessel you can’t usually see. Porter quotes from Slovenian philosopher/psychoanalyst Salvoj Zizek ‘instead of the vase embodying the central void, the void itself is directly materialized. The uncanny effect of these objects resides in the ways they palpably demonstrate the ontological incompleteness of reality: such objects by definition stick out, they are ontologically superfluous, not at the same level of reality as “normal” objects.” ‘. The whole essay can be found here.

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‘One hundred spaces’ -resin casts of the space underneath chairs (1997) by Rachel Whiteread. Image source:

The process I used means lots of the plaster leaked out. As a consequence the negative form of the vessel’s void also has an inside and outside:

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Form constructed with thrown sections then supported with extra clay. Plaster was poured in the top.
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Once the plaster was set, I destroyed the clay shell around it, feeling like an archaeologist discovering a historical artefact in the ground. The original form is destroyed and the resulting object becomes a ‘memory’ or a ‘ghost’ of the original.
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The plaster form inside shows the throwing ridges that are a negative of the ones on the original thrown form. I’ve been told it looks like a component of a steam engine. 
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I didn’t leave the plaster to set long enough so the outgrowing plaster sections fell off
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The holes in the vessel introduce light into the dark interior.

I was disappointed when the smaller plaster sections fell off, next time I need to be less impatient and let the plaster dry properly before removing the clay. Large air bubbles in the plaster meant lots of the detail got lost too. Interestingly though, these smaller plaster casts reminded me a lots of fossils when I felt them in my hands. Sheyda Porter describes Whiteread’s sculptures as ‘mummified’ space. Similarly fossils are traces or impressions of something that was once living, the soft tissues decompose leaving hard bone and shell which are covered in sediment which hardens into rock over time. Once again, I find myself returning back to the theme of memory.


Vessel Project Development

Following on from my initial proposal to explore light and the vessel I began throwing forms (mainly off the hump) and constructing these together when leather hard. My discovery of the drying cabinet helped move the process along faster but I still made mistakes, misjudging the room temperature and not covering the clay enough or trying to construct the sections when they were too wet and would slump.
In my tutorial with David we discussed how I like the way the light hits the inside of these vessels, in a spotlight which almost looks like a painted brushstroke. The problem with the forms below is that it’s not clear that you are expected to look inside them, there’s nothing to draw the viewer in. How can I invite the viewer to contemplate the inside of the vessel?20180131_124709 (655x800)

At the moment the aesthetics of the outside form seems to be just as important as the inside effect, but I don’t think that’s something I want to lose. The way they look on the outside it important to me, not just how they work conceptually.

David suggest I try making simpler forms to see what is the minimum I need to create the kind of light effect I’m going for. After all, the tomb piece from the Potteries museum, the catalyst for this idea, is a simply made object. The museum emailed back about the piece with information that it dates from c.206BC-220AD and was acquired by the museum in 1937. It’s an unglazed earthenware piece made in China. I explained to David how I like the idea of light as a ‘material’ which is the antithesis of clay, ephemeral and weightless, but I don’t want to go down the traditional road of exploring light and clay through using translucent porcelain or making lampshades. He suggested I consider different ways these vessels can contain light, could light be emitted from them? Should they be displayed in a dark room?

Rather than exploring light though making simpler forms I decided to go the complete opposite way and construct much more complicated function-less vessels using the sort of components you’d use to put together a teapot. I felt I was getting hung up on the ideas side and not making much so I took a series of sketches I made while thinking of the idea of a ‘vessel’ last weekend and I’m seeing how these translate into three dimensional forms. I find I enjoy this way of working through ‘play’ a lot more. Following a trip to Brussels Musical Instruments Museum I began to sketch made up machines and musical instruments. I thought about how the first objects I made for this project (above) it on legs or a foot like telescopes or microscopes, and the idea that they look like they could be used for a certain function.

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Tests clays with coloured stain (made by MA student Emily)

I am still interested in working with the inside of the vessel though but I’m unsure how to go about it. How should the inside and outside relate? Should they be different colours? Back at college I a made a series of photos showing the inside of rubber gloves. They completely skewed your sense of the scale of the object, the photos looked like the insides of the body or colourful tunnels you could walk through. The same effect can be seen here: with photos showing inside musical instruments. I’m thinking of ways the sculptures could be used as photographic devices, but if I used them as pinhole cameras or coated the insides in light sensitive emulsion, I would only get the view looking out. What I really want is to document the space within. I wish I could shrink to the size of an ant and explore these spaces from the inside.

One next step I’m keen to explore is to take these forms into the plaster room, I want to create moulds of them and stitch together the slipcast sections to create bigger, more complex forms. I also want to try casting plaster into the constructed clay form, then making a mould of that, a literal mould of the inside. It might help to find some other artists who explore light and ceramics or the inside space of the vessel.

The Body and the Vessel: Workshop with Matilda Haggärde

Yesterday we took part in a workshop held by HDK graduate Matilda Haggärde who currently works with dancers and the Gothenburg opera to explore the potential of clay in performance. She began by speaking about her own background and her performance piece in which she builds coils of clay around herself until she is enclosed in a pot, which she then breaks open and emerges from, like a butterfly from a cocoon. Although it’s a simple idea, the action evokes many metaphors. It also reminded me of a workshop I took part in years ago with an artist called Zoe Robertson who creates monumental jewellery and objects to be explored through movement and the body.

jj (700x720)Next we took part in a ‘body scan’ exercise where we all closed our eyes and Matilda took us through a kind of guided meditation but with the aim in mind of feeling where our bodies held tension or felt heavy. During this exercise I became very conscious of the hardness of my spine against the flat surface of the chair and kept having to shuffle to feel comfortable. I began to think about how the softness and delicacy of our skin juxtaposes the strength and harness of our bones, and also of the skin as a kind of stretchy container for these hard objects.  I wasn’t sure how to express this in clay so I began with a large scale charcoal drawing, trying to stretch the lines over imagined shapes.

The forms I drew felt visceral and grotesque – I realised I was thinking more and more about what lay underneath the skin, the blood vessels, intestines and internal organs. The final drawing looks like some organic system or machine. I also noticed as I worked into my drawings that they seemed to sprout tumours or cysts. Being prone to develop benign skin cysts myself, I am somewhat fascinated and at the same time repulsed by these strange growths. They are somehow of the body yet not connected to it in any way, similar to how when you are pregnant, your baby is at once part of your body but also a completely separate being.

I began to build on top of the drawing by pressing coils into my hand to try and lift some imprint of its creases and link them together in a way inspired by the technique ceramicist Claire Curneen uses, with tiny gaps in-between suggesting the fragility of the skin. I also began overlapping sections of clay to create the impression of plates of armour, thinking about the protection the skin gives to all that is inside. When I became bored of this making technique I reverted back to the charcoal, drawing the clay shape I made. The idea was to try a ‘ping-pong’ method of making like artist Kate Haywood uses – going back and forth between drawing and sculpting to see how one can influence the other. I like my drawing much more than the effect of the clay on top which just looks flat and fiddly. Transposing it up to a much larger scale would feel more ‘of the body’ because the space the body occupies would be mirrored in the space the clay occupies. The drawing from the clay just looks a bit like a phantom duck!

The Beauty of Shadows

I’ve come to the realisation that much of my recent ceramic work has been concerned with ‘the vessel’ without myself being conscious of it. The deconstruction of traditional ceramic bowls and cylinders on the wheel and then reconfiguration of these recognisable vessel forms into a new form with openings that also contains space and holds volume has been central to these experiments.
Our seminar discussing the vessel threw up the question ‘Can’t anything be a vessel or a container?’. Everything is made up of something, even atoms contain a nucleus, electrons and forces of energy. Every sculptural three dimensional form with an inside or outside, despite serving no functional purpose contains in it connotations and metaphors, layers of meaning as well as air, space, darkness or light. Many of the traditional South American vessels at the archives on Tuesday were empty but their insides were a secret, invisible from the outside, guarded from view by the shell of the exterior. These forms contained darkness.
I keep coming back to the small tomb sculpture at the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Something about this artefact and the way it holds light, containing a spotlight in the darkness of its interior resonates deeply with me. I recently read Tanazaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ in which he discusses Japanese laquerware and how it’s subtle beauty can only be appreciated in the dimness of candlelight : “I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen”.

One of the ideas that interested me in the seminar was how objects and things can contain memory, both physically like a USB stick, metaphorically like an old heirloom or more abstractly like the brain and body. My intention though is to focus on something perhaps equally ungraspable  – light. Memories feel real and they’re how we navigate the world and construct our current realities but they are only the creations of a complex organ in the body. Light similarly feels concrete and controllable, but the more you think about it , the more magical and abstract it seems. How can I create vessels that hold light, not in the sense of lamps or candle holders but vessels that hold light and shadow in their form, that capture light (whether natural or artificial I haven’t decided yet) and play with the tones of shadow.

The idea isn’t fully formed yet and I expect to deviate along the way, but it’s a starting point. Light and darkness control our lives. I feel more of my attention will be drawn towards that here in Sweden where the hours of daylight are short in winter but the extreme opposite is the case in summer where up north you can even experience the midnight sun.

I feel especially inspired by an exhibition on at Gothenburg’s public library at the moment, ‘Daylight and Objects’ by Daniel Rybakken, which explores illumination. His collection of sculpture objects made from glass and aluminium that border the line between furniture design and installation art (perhaps like Donald Judd) reflect and diffuse the artificial light in the environment to create the illusion of natural light. His theory is: ‘A lack of natural light in a space can create a feeling of being enclosed. An illusion of daylight creates a feeling of an expanded perceived space by giving information about what lies beyond the physical space. The presence of daylight lowers the contrast between the indoor and the outdoor.’  This knowledge must be known by people who work with space – interior designers and architects. I’m particularly interested in the architect Renzo Piano as an advocate for the use of glass and the importance of buildings that let in light. Perhaps optical illusions with light is a path I should explore in the next weeks.

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Surface Daylight (2009-2011)


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Right angle mirror (2010) – the illusion of an object suspended in space

Mythical Geographies

David suggested I work from my Port Eynon drawings on a larger scale using charcoal and to consider positive and negative spaces in order to think about how to start working three dimensionally from my sketches. I used the graphic work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as a source of inspiration. His balance of black/white and positive/negative space has fed into today’s charcoal drawings below. Chillida’s 2D work translates well into sculptures because of how well defined the lines and forms are. My drawings are a little more ambiguous, the forms melt in and out of the paper and it’s difficult to say where lines start and end, which make it hard thinking of these as objects in clay. These drawings are inspired by the landscape but are not of any landscape we would recognise – they are almost Dali-esque in their blobiness…

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I started exploring space by photocopying my drypoint/monoprint, sticking these to mountboard then cutting out forms which slot together. These remind me of the rock formations higher up on Port Eynon beach. I like the way cutting up the forms distorts the surface pattern, the lines are no longer recognisable to me and take on a kind of life of their own. I also like the way these flat objects remind me of theatrical scenery.

I’m thinking of recreating the decoration by using slips and transfers on porcelain slabs. I like the quality of line and depth of tone/pattern a lot, they remind me a bit of the illustrations of Dave Mckean. I don’t feel very confident working with slabs and I don’t know much about printing onto ceramics so this is an opportunity to gain some new skills. Verity Howard’s work might be worth looking into in more depth.

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