I’ve just come across a text in ‘The Ceramics Reader’ called ‘Reconsidering “The Pissoir Problem”‘ by Bruce Metcalf. In it he describes conceptual art using the definition of artist-philosopher Adrian Piper who suggests we think of conceptual art ‘as being art that subordinates its medium, whatever its medium, to intellectually interesting ideas’.
Metcalf proposes that the difference between being an artist or a craftsperson depends on what you sacrifice. For an artist, the medium is subordinated by the idea. Art is intellectual, or according to Arthur Danto ‘art is embodied meaning’. Craft on the other hand puts the material first, the idea comes second since craft practice is more about labour. These days, Metcalf says, ‘everybody wants to be an artist‘. It’s something I feel resonates with me as someone who came to ceramics from a fine art background. Recently my work has become so much more about the idea than the joy of working with clay. I don’t want to forget what drew me to working in ceramics in the first place through. The ability wet clay had to reshape itself and ‘remake/re-model’ like the Bryan Ferry song (‘Next time, is the best time we all know’) drew me to it, perhaps as a metaphor for a way of continually reshaping and changing my own self. The stubbornness of clay I felt had a lot in common with my own stubborn attitude.
I began to define myself while at HDK as an artist who happens to work in clay. I realised from feedback in tutorials that a lot of the things I made could equally have been made in metal, wood or plastic. Superimposing shallow metaphors about clay suggesting the fragility of human civilisation onto these objects afterwards felt superficial and false. I realise I am starting to sacrifice my material for the idea. But the results from the anagama firing and the fantastic material qualities of the alchemy and metamorphosis of glaze and clay during the process has made me remember that this magic is the thing which really excites me, these objects mean more to me than anything else I made while in Sweden.
As part of our theory course today where Dominique and I discussed the different approaches to our disciplines in Sweden and the UK, we were visited by Gothenburg based Japanese ceramic artist Masayoshi Oya. He explained that since moving to study in the city years ago, his way of working is a fusion of the aesthetics of the two countries. Oya explained that in Japan functional tableware has a higher status than ‘art objects’, which is radically contrary to the west. Since the times of the samurai the society’s approach has been that the most beauty can be found in objects made for ordinary people.
He also described the difference in how both countries expect an object to be viewed over time. The Japanese concept of wabi sabi as he explained it means pots are glazed with a matte surface so that they pick up marks and scratches with use as they age. These imperfections make them more beautiful. On the other hand, in the west we want our ceramic to stay the same over time, to always look as brand new as the day we bought it.
His comments about time reminded me of the Chiharu Shiota exhibition at Goteborgs konstmuseum in which thousands of individual threads have been stuck together showing that an immense amount of time and effort went into making the installations. Similarly to the wabi sabi aesthetic, time has become tangible. By being able to visualise the time taken ( or the age in the case of wabi sabi) we have a greater respect for the art.
Oya explained that his black stain on porcelain signature decoration is inspired by calligraphy and specifically, calligraphy as approached by someone in the west who is more interested in the way the ink breaks at the edges than creating the lines of a Japanese master calligrapher. He spoke of the way swedes like to stack their tableware and have everything matching whereas in Japan it’s more common to have mismatching vessels to serve food it. Rosa recommended a book called ‘A feast for the eyes: the Japanese art of food arrangement’ which discusses further the relationship between Japanese food and utensils from the Jomon period to the present.
Last week I tried to make my own press mould for the first time, not very successfully. My plan is to create press moulds from composite thrown forms so I can build them together into large sculptures. I find it easier to hand build on a large scale with grogged clay, but it’s painful and not very effective to throw with heavily grogged clay, so I will create press moulds of the thrown objects instead. These forms will be for my final individual project . I’ve narrowed the brief down to explore the imagery of in Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, Ch. Thin Cities 3, especially the idea of a network of pipes as underground veins…
“Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished or because it has been demolished, whether the cause is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know. The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city except the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizontally where the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in taps, showers, spouts, overflows. “
I began by bisque firing a form I’d constructed from thrown sections then made a two piece plaster mould of this. The ceramic got stuck in the plaster when I tried to release it, either because I hadn’t used enough soft soap or because I hadn’t placed the middle line in the exact centre.
Since for press moulding it doesn’t matter that the plaster is completely sealed together (unlike slip casting), I used glue to stick the broken plaster pieces together.
This afternoon I’ve been making press moulded shapes ready to start sticking them together tomorrow to build large lattice structures.
Alongside these I’ve been throwing functional ware for the anagama firing we’ll do at Naas in a couple of weeks. These 500g bowls are a little on the heavy side, I’m still a little afraid I’ll turn off too much clay and end up with a hole. I’m been experimenting with the angle and depth of the footrings to see what looks best…
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’
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.
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.
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.
“People don’t live on the Disc any more than, in less hand-crafted parts of the multiverse, they live on balls. Oh, planets may be the place where their body eats its tea, but they live elsewhere, in worlds of their own which orbit very handily around the centre of their heads.” Terry Pratchett – The Last Continent
“All we have to believe with is our senses: the tools we use to perceive the world, our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted.” Neil Gaiman- American Gods
“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.” Neil Gaiman – American Gods
“Look at me, more than thirty years have passed and I am different. It’s not true that memories stay fixed in the mind, frozen: they, too, go astray, like the body. Yes, I remember a time when I was different. I would like to be the girl in the book: I would be happy also just to have been her, but I never was. It wasn’t I who attracted the Englishman. I remember that I was malleable, like clay in his hands. My love affairs…that’s what interests you, right? Well, they are fine where they are: in my memory, faded, withered with a trace of perfume, like a collection of dried flowers. In yours they have become shiny and bright like plastic toys. I don’t know which are more beautiful” – Primo Levi – A Tranquil Star
“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” – Jonah Lehrer
I just bought Eline Mugaas’s book about Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal whose huge undulating fiberglass coated sculptures had a big impact on me at the Venice Giardini. After seeing a small photo of Aurdal’s work in a book, Mugaas got in contact with her to find out more. Aurdal’s monumental work was radical in 1960s Norway, crossing the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, but recently she seems to have become just another female artist forgotten in the pages of history.
The book is the resulting images Mugaas collected from Siri’s studio – choc full of photographs, concept sketches, found imagery, collages, design mock ups, work in progress and sketchbook pages and is a real insight into how the artist’s mind works. Wavelike, sinusoidal shapes have become her signature motif inspired by her interest in mathematics and desire for the pieces to become interactive forms to be climbed on, walked through and graffitied over by the audience. I find something fascinating in the cross between organic and geometric form, the raw, polyester pipes a direct link to Norway’s oil industry in the 60s. Her decision to invite artists from the Oslo art scene to graffiti over her work at the opening of her Omgivelser (‘surroundings’) exhibition at that time can be seen as a politically engaged reaction to the seismic social and political changes that took place in 1968.
There’s very little written information about the artist herself but this mysteriousness just adds to the intrigue. Things, and people too, are always a bit more interesting when you don’t know their whole story. I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in the great unexplained mysteries from the past, from Jack the Ripper to The Dyatlov Pass Incident. When my grandparents were having a clear-out a few years ago the one book I asked to keep was ‘The Reader’s Digest of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’ – a jumbled collection of sensational unsolved mysteries, myths, legends, hoaxes, superstitions an other curiosities.
That magical kind of halo effect things have when they’re more an idea in your mind that a solid, real thing, is very compelling. I remember being fascinated years ago when reading Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ because I couldn’t find any information about who the author really was, Lemony Snicket being a pen name. For the same reason J B Accolay’s Violin concerto No.1 in A minor will forever be one of my favourite pieces of classical music because nobody knows who he really was or even if a composer by that name really existed. Furthermore, I suppose that’s why Kerry Jameson’s dark work holds a certain kind of magic and intrigue because I can find so little information about her online and in books. Is there value to holding back information about your personal self and being an elusive artist? How does this change how we view the artwork?
“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.