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!

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Structural Materialist Film

In our second Constellation lecture we began the morning with an introduction to structural and materialist film i.e. films which celebrate the materiality of the process of filmmaking and are anti Hollywood, standing against mainstream narrative ideology. These films are difficult to watch because of their disjointed nature and emphasise creating mood over a clear storyline and dialogue. They explore the possibilities of physical film in many ways such as changes in speed, looping, layering and reversal of images and use of negative and change of tonal colour. These films require us to be active in decoding and interpreting them, not just passive watchers. They remind me of a book of photos I have by Dutch artist Paul Bogaers called ‘Upset Down’. The picture book has no clear storyline, beginning, middle or end and can be read turned upside down and back to front. It explores the juxtaposition of photos in unexpected sequences with the graininess of the material film visible and celebrated. Out of focus, underexposed and overexposed shots only add to the overall aesthetic.

Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky is more contemporary example of this film genre. The narrative is unclear, more like a dream sequence full of unexpected, jarring scenes building up tension and fear. In the faster, more abstract sections, the film sprocket holes are clearly visible, emphasising that this is a film about film more than anything else. These non-linear narratives are of interest to me because one of my favourite film directors Quentin Tarantino uses this technique in many of his movies.

An early example of this kind of filmmaking is Malcolm le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970), a mesmerising experimental film with music composed by Brian Eno (check out Music for an airport). Just as the looping of the horse in motion becomes layered and more complex over time, so does the music, the two tracks played at different speeds becoming more and more out of sync echoes of one another. It also alludes back to the history of cinema and Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope with the horse theme.

My favourite example we were shown is John Smith’s Girl Chewing on Gum from 1976. We start by believing a director is controlling the actors and camera, but as the ‘voice of God’ becomes more and more unbelievable (controlling the pigeons) we realise this is just a street scene which has been narrated over afterwards. With humour, it subverts the illusion Hollywood creates that the director isn’t present, creating the illusion that the world moves for the camera. It raises questions about in what ways the camera and film are extensions of someone’s body.

Week 4 Constellation: Self Reflection

Having discussed how materials and environment hide from view in everyday life I realise that I’m very lucky to be studying ceramics. Unlike other subjects the material is central to our practice. Although with more industrial techniques like press moulding and slip-casting it’s possible to ‘intellectualise’ away the material, when working directly on the potter’s wheel, the clay immediately commands respect and you learn very quickly that you can’t impose yourself on it.

I have also developed my understanding of the arguments surrounding phenomenology (how the body experiences itself in the world) and the idea of the body schema: the ability of the body to feel in relation to space. Lately I’ve been doing lots of throwing and I feel in some ways the potter’s wheel is incorporated into the body schema, like when you drive a car. I forget about the fact that I’m using pressure from my foot to turn the wheel and the changing of speed is done almost subconsciously in relation to my hand movements. As a next step I want to try throwing on a kick wheel to see how taking out that automatic element changes the sensation of the process.

Additionally in the session we read what has been written about the action of ‘from-giving’. According to the artist Paul Klee ‘Form is set by the processes of giving form, which is more important than form itself…Form is the end, death’ whereas ‘Form-giving is life’. This understanding could be important to me as a practitioner because it might influence what kind of work I decide to make. Production throwing seems to be concerned with final form and the repetition of accurate ones. Performance art on the other hand is about the ‘in the moment’ action and not any final outcome or creation of ‘form’.

Another way I might think about form-giving is considering how what I make shows traces of how it was made and the way this brings and object to life. I’ve started thinking about the way potters remove their work from the wheel, some wiring off when the wheel is stopped while others prefer to cut while the wheel is moving to get a series of grooves on the base revealing the direction of movement. Klee’s quote reminded me of something Lucien Freud said: ‘A moment of complete happiness never occurs in the creation of a work of art. The promise of it is felt in the act of creation, but disappears towards the completion of the work. For it is then that the painter realises that it is only a picture he is painting. Until then he had almost dared to hope that the picture might spring to life’.