What is Contemporary About Craft?

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The building of Electric Mountain, the Dinorwig hydroelectric power station in Snowdonia

In her 2013 essay ‘What is contemporary about craft’ Julia Bryan-Wilson puts forward eleven propositions about the nature of contemporary craft, encouraging debate about  the relationship between art and craft today. Many of the propositions are paradoxical – Craft is contemporary because it can be found everywhere in contemporary fine art/craft is irrelevant and a romantic leftover of the past. Craft is contemporary because it is a rebellion against capitalism/ craft is contemporary because it is thoroughly capitalist and obsessed with the market. Craft is contemporary because it embraces the digital/craft is contemporary because it retains its tactile quality and connects people in the flesh rather than the digital world.

In all propositions it’s possible to see both sides of the argument. However, I’ve been attempting to define which statements I agree with more and less in order to reach my own definition of contemporary craft. Proposition 5 is problematic to me. It puts forward the idea of craftivism as craft intermingled with activism, something radical and revolutionary. I like the idea of contesting the tyranny of mass production such and the advertisements run by members of craft collectives and the makers movements every christmas to buy handmade presents. Proposition 5 also states that ‘Craft is environmentally conscious and respectful of the earth’s diminishing resources’ which is something I vehemently disagree with. There seems to be some assumption in the ceramics community that what we do is somehow good for the environment because we are learning to be respectful of a natural material and are working ‘slowly’ or in alignment with a  philosophy of the vitality of things. How many ceramic students know exactly where their clay came from or where the cobalt, manganese, chrome oxide etc. was sourced or how it was processed? In the glaze room we are lucky enough to have jars of powders already ground down to mix into glazes but there is nothing to teach us what these materials looked like in their naturally occurring state. I don’t know anything about the workers involved in the chain of events that led to the materials reaching my desk at CSAD, the processes of purifying the chemicals, the impact of the processes on the environment. The electricity and gas used for the kilns are finite resources. The only way the work that would be environmentally friendly is if I dug my own clay, sourced my own glazes and used a sustainable method of firing e.g. using wood from sustainable sources. Close to my home in North Wales, hidden in the hills outside Corris is the CAT (Centre of alternative technology). I wonder if it could be possible to fire ceramics through truly renewable resources – harnessing energy from solar, tidal, wind or hydroelectric resources to fire a kiln without leaving an imprint on the environment.

Image source: https://www.dayoutwiththekids.co.uk/electric-mountain

 

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Full Circle – A Return to Raw Materials

The first self -led project I ever did in clay was an exploration of my environment in North Wales and the qualities of form, materials, colour and texture I could find in my natural surroundings. I took a sketchbook and camera out on walks around my home in the mountains of Snowdonia, collecting earth and sheep wool to mix into the clay and seaweed, sheep poo, dead branches and lichen for saggar firing. My second taste of firing raw materials came with our summer project before the start of university when we collected clay from our local area to test.
Over the past couple of years I’ve drifted away from the use of my own dug up materials but I feel more and more drawn to the idea recently. Perhaps studying abroad, homesickness and my recent enquiries into non-space have made me even more keen to pursue work which explores a sense of place.

 

Above: Vessels from 2015 incorporating raw materials from my environment in rural North Wales. 

While volunteering last year at Art in Clay, Hatfield House I felt particularly drawn to the work of Matthew Blakely (http://www.matthewblakely.co.uk) whose rock-glazed wood fired vessels are decorated with geological samples taken from all over the UK. When you buy a pot of his you also receive with it a CD documenting the journey of collecting the raw materials which make up that individual glaze.

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Pots by Matthew Blakely, Hatfield, 2017

Adam Buick (http://www.adambuick.com/) is another potter who works with the landscape, collecting natural materials and inspiration from the Pembrokeshire coast. On a visit to his studio last week he showed me an old corn grinder machine he uses to grind down his rocks before he mixes them with minerals such as Wollastonite to create line blends. He showed how he uses syringes to accurately measure the blend combinations. For some recently thrown porcelain moon jars he had incorporated the ground stone into the clay body itself. Both Adam and Matthew use simple, rounded forms as a kind of blank canvas for showing off the effects of these natural glazes.

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Tiny moon jars by Adam Buick at Ruthin Craft Centre, 2015

I began to worry that returning to work with my own materials sourced from the landscape might be a big shift from the rest of my work at CSAD but I realise that much of my work has been concerned with memory and place and working in this way will only be a continuation of these themes. I want to follow up on a post about Katharine Pleydell Bouverie’s ash glazes –collecting my own ash to mix up has been something I’ve wanted to do for a while. I plan to get out the book ‘Natural Glazes: Collecting and Making’ by Miranda Forrest which I know we have at my local library.

 

Exhibition review – Jone Kvie’s Metamorphosis

This review is of Jone Kvie’s exhibition ‘Metamorfos’ (Metamorphosis) which runs from February the 24th to May the 20th 2018 at Göteborgs Konstmuseum’s ‘Stena Gallery’ for temporary exhibitions. This exhibition was curated by Camilla Påhlsson.

Metamorfos is the result of a growing investigation by contemporary Norwegian artist Jone Kvie into the dichotomies of body and architecture, weight and weightlessness, nature and the human condition. Equally, it is a celebration of alchemy, of the transformative power of fire and an experiment into what role lighting plays in the way we encounter and perceive sculptures.

This solo exhibition is organized into two conjoined rooms. On entering, the viewer is confronted with a tall white rectangular block that reaches nearly to the ceiling, a monolithic white cube gallery plinth. The artist’s name is stuck on at eye level in tall sans serif typeface, indicative of the exhibition’s minimalist aesthetic. Looking closer you notice this white section of wall is the exact negative shape of the space in the separating wall between this room and the next. This clever curation not only draws attention to the artworks but also to the spatiality of the room itself which becomes an extension of the sculptures. We become more aware of how our own bodies relate to the surrounding environment in scale and movement.

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Figure 1

The sculptures juxtapose jarringly with the clean and precise upright structure on which the artist’s name is displayed. Three long twisted bronze poles with their ends encased in rounded blocks of concrete (Stele #1-3) writhe in the space like streetlamps which have been morphed and uprooted by a horrific car accident. Through the placement of these forms the viewer is invited to read them like figures- two lying on the ground like dying soldiers, the other leaning bent against the wall as if injured and in pain.

In stark contrast to the weathered bronze tubes with their green patina, is the lighting. A sequence of strip lights line the walls vertically, the sterility and unforgiving brightness brings to mind a visit to the hospital. It becomes impossible to view the other sculptures without the afterglow of these lights in your field of vision, cutting across he forms. You cannot help but take in the space, the light and the objects as one unified whole.

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Figure 2

Continuing through the tall opening we find ourselves in a second much larger but darker room. On the marble floor is the archipelago of eight separate but visually unified sculpture islands that make up ‘Second Messenger’ (2017). If the first room contained the remnants of a car accident, here the scraps have been composed together in clusters, each containing an element of aluminium and long basalt rock. The aluminium forms are curious, some are metal girders but appear to have the texture of wood, others are more clearly disguised materials – there is an aluminium cast concrete breezeblock and an aluminium rectangle of corrugated cardboard. Again careful placement of these materials brings to life a human dialogue between them. The rocks take on human personalities, one pins a sheet of metal to the wall aggressively, some nestle together horizontally in a close embrace like lovers, others stand upright assertively. With the exhibition’s title we can almost imagine that these are people which have metamorphosed into stone.

Kvie’s exhibition is challenging to comprehend with its depth of metaphorical strata but is ultimately very successful in encouraging the viewer to contemplate the complex ideas which are described in the artist’s statement, namely our association to our present time and what it means to be human. Communicated through the work by the personification of the materials is a realisation that as humans we are ‘of the earth’ instead of distinctly separate from it.

Among my first thoughts of the ‘Stele’ sculptures was that they gave the impression of giant plants, green from oxidation and welded in sections like bamboo shoots. The concrete ends are like the upturned roots of a tree fallen in a storm, making one think of architecture as something which grows from the ground, of a human process as an organic process. This message is reinforced when viewed together with the leaning basalt in the opposite side of the gallery which contains fossilised plants weaving along the surface like blood vessels. On returning back to the first room I began to perceive the original bronze forms as monolithic fossils. This juxtaposition of vitality and lifelessness draws attention to the cycle of life and death and to a realisation that life is contained even in such stative things as rocks, which were formed in volcanic eruptions, requiring huge amounts of energy.

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Figure 3

In the exhibition guide it is explained that the black basalt is a mineral rich in calcium and  ‘Just like all living organisms, we need calcium in order for our nervous system to function correctly and relay nerve signals’.[1] This blurring of distinction between the human and non-human suggests to me an ecological approach similar to British anthropologist Tim Ingold’s explanation of ‘Meshwork Theory’ which imagines humans and non-human things as part of a larger, integrated whole.[2] In his essay ‘Toward an Ecology of Materials’ (2012) Ingold introduces Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reasoning that ‘every living thing, our human selves included, is irrevocably stitched into the fabric of the world.’ This reasoning that we are more intertwined with our environment than we realise might be suggested by the placement of the sculptures in Kvie’s exhibition. Here we walk among the rocks, over and underneath the metal poles. We are not spectators, separate from the exhibition, we are among it.

In ‘Making’ (2013) Ingold writes about how making anything is a collaboration between ourselves and a material and that the material imposes its own constraints upon us, just as we impose our own ideas and forms upon it. This theory of ‘Material Agency’ illustrates modern thinking about the symbiotic relationship of humans and the environment and an ecological attitude towards artistic aesthetics. Matter is no longer passive and inert, waiting for the human hand to shape it. In Kvie’s ‘Second Messenger’ the basalt rocks seem to float magically and weightlessly on a see-saw construction of metal girders, balanced impossibly as if they are agents of their own.

Interestingly in ‘Metamorphosis’, the number of strip lights appears to correspond to the number of separate elements that make up the sculptures. Their length and shape are also echoed in the elongated rock forms and aluminium girders, suggesting there is some link between the two. If each strip light is read symbolically as the partner of another structure in the exhibition, then perhaps they represent the energy and life that is present in each rock and metal form, in the volcanic metamorphosis of molten magma and the fire power that smelted the aluminium. Through this constructed framework we not only experience the exhibition holistically (the lighting, space and sculptures become a whole), we also get a glimpse of an extended holistic world in which humans are the earth, and rocks take on a human vitality.

 

Images:

Figure 1. Stele #2 and #3 (2018) by Jone Kvie

Figure 2. Detail from Jone Kvie’s ‘Second Messenger’ (2017), basalt and aluminium

Figure 3. Detail of fossils in basalt from ‘Second Messenger’ #5 (2017)

 

[1] Full exhibition overview “Metamorphosis” retrieved from: http://goteborgskonstmuseum.se/en/exhibitions/jone-kvie/

[2] Ingold, T. (2010, July). Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. Retrieved from: http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1306/1/0510_creative_entanglements.pdf

 

L5 Final Project Proposal: Hierarchy of Space

Title: The Fantastical Non-Space: Subverting the hierarchy of place

Aim: I want to redefine the way people interact with what might be called the ‘ubiquitous urban landscape’ and more specifically non-places in this environment – spaces that have no identity, diversity or surprise. I am equally interested in the holiness we give to religious sites and places of worship and want to explore how weaving a narrative around the mundane spaces we pass through every day can elevate them to a space of significance.

Why: I want to play with the dichotomy between non-space and the anthropological space by giving unimportant no-places an identity, sense of humour and aspect of diversity and surprise – all the things they lack. In ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ , David Abram uses the example of the clay bowl to illustrate the magic of the everyday : ‘its very existence as a bowl ensures that there are dimensions wholly inaccessible to me – most obviously the patterns hidden between its glazed and unglazed surfaces, the interior density of its clay body’. What we perceive as reality is only a skin of the true essence of our environment. I want people going about their daily routines to get back that sense of wonder you feel at the world when you are a child. I want to give people time to stop and daydream, to think about the spaces we inhabit day-to day and the role of fantasy in our lives.

Background: I first came across the concept of non-places while researching for the room/space project and consequently began working with the non-space of tram interiors to try and highlight the beauty in the everyday, mundane and invisible man-made environments that surround us. I want to develop this further and make work that sits in these environments.

I have also recently been reading about the Slow Movement – specifically Slow food but also about Slow Cities and am interested in how these ideas around slowing down our pace of living so that we have more meaningful encounters with the world around us can be applied to my field of art and design. I will look at examples of art in the public space – graffiti, yarn bombing, guerrilla advertising etc. artworks that draw our attention to the environment.

Method: I plan to create a series of site specific works around the city of Gothenburg, turning non-spaces into spaces of significance or interest. One method would be to create ‘relics for a non-place’ by spinning a made up/fantasy narrative about a space, turning these sites into fictional places of pilgrimage. I am interested in using augmented reality through QR codes or apps such as Augment and Aurasma alongside the sculptures to communicate the made up stories/legends associated with a certain place. I am not sure yet if the work will take the form of a series of photographs.

I intend to use writing as a ‘material’ as well as method for generating ideas for what my work should be about. I have never used this approach before but I would like to try and respond to a space by writing poetry/fiction and then working from that. I want to spin fictional narratives around spaces. I feel inspired after seeing a piece by artist Remy Dean about a fictional letter found in an attic. How important is truth in art if the story is good? I have also been thinking about the work of Jospeh Beuys – Beuys frequently blurred the lines between art and life, and fact and fiction, by suggesting that what one believed to constitute “reality” mattered more in matters of human action, social/political behaviour, and personal creativity than any definition of everyday reality based on traditional standards of “normalcy,” or social codes of so-called “proper” conduct.
http://www.theartstory.org/artist-beuys-joseph.htm

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Joseph Beuys, Sled, 1969
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Beddgelert – The legend of Gelert the Dog
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Mythical Locations on road signs in Didcot, Oxfordshire (once labelled England’s ‘most normal town’)

Keywords: fiction, non-space, unexpected, joy, magic, holy, narrative, relic, religious art, altars, pilgrimage site, humour, truth…

Primary research choosing sites to work with – Borrow a camera and respond through photography, sketching, and writing.
Examples of non-spaces/low spaces : Underpasses (Banehagsgatan)..Concrete
Industrial area tram stops (Gamlestadstorget)
Car Parks (Nordstan)
Centralstation

Also visit and respond to places of worship in the city – Masthuggskyrkan, Oscar Fredriks Church…

Thoughts that arose in the feedback session: 

  • How do I define what I consider a non-space, which writers influence my POV? Can natural spaces also be considered non-spaces? Consider different people’s perspectives of spaces, non-spaces might not be invisible/insignificant to everyone.
  • Do I have a political motivation for the project, what does it communicate about urbanisation and gentrification?
  • Will people stumble upon the artworks or will I create a guided tour/app for people to discover them?
  • Will my stories be entirely fiction or should I research the history of Gothenburg to base some of the information on facts?
  • Will I work with one site or multiple?

Image sources:
http://www.artnews.com/2015/03/20/academic-artist-scholar-shaman-joseph-beuys-on-his-mystical-objects-in-1970/
http://www.notey.com/blogs/road-signs
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMll6yQaH1A

 

‘Stannar Vid’ – Non-Spaces Final Exhibition

 

On Thursday we culminated the Room/Space project with an exhibition of the work we have produced over the last month. My playful and brightly coloured body of work explores the concept of non-spaces and is an attempt to draw attention to the transitional invisible spaces we pass through every day without being aware of them. In order to highlight this my work was presented in alcoves in the arch spaces of the walls in the HDK’s stairwells, spaces we don’t often linger in but which become complex and beautiful architectural spaces once you start to look carefully.

A collection of 14 hand-built sculptures sit inside four shelf spaces of varying height along the staircases, the steps offering the opportunity to view them from many different angles. During feedback it was pointed out that these forms look like little figures interacting with each other, each with a different personality. The space between each of them gives them a sense of isolation though, which communicates the anonymity and isolation of individuals as they interact in non-spaces. Students pointed out that the forms were familiar and look significant in some way, although they weren’t sure where they recognised them from. Perhaps a well-chosen title could be a key to understanding the pieces. Maybe something like ‘Stannar vid‘, which is the automated voice announcement on Gothenburg trams to tell you your next stop. It suggests the way the staircase is a space for ‘getting to’ somewhere else, not a place just ‘to be’.

 

The colours turned out much patchier than I intended but this nod towards rust and weathering also suggests the wear and tear caused by many people passing through a space day in, day out. I need to work on my glaze application, dipping and spraying would have created a more even surface colour than painting on. I’ve learnt the important of thinking ahead to decoration in the making stage too – the manganese in this dark clay has eaten away at the glaze. The red glaze turned out much pinker than I intended – with more time I would have perfected the colour matches by making more glaze tests.

 

Klara mentioned how she began noticing scratches and paint splatters on the wall which echoed the forms of the sculptures and other students mentioned the key word ‘curiosity’. I believe this display of work has been successful in changing he way we interact with this non-space but equally, by using forms inspired by tram interiors people explained how not only was this space transformed but that when they travelled home on the trams they would be looking out for these forms and textures by searching the other way around. Two spaces transformed in one!

Thanks Will Treasure for some of the photos 🙂

Non-Space and Tram Sketching

For our current ‘Space/Room’ project I’m interested in exploring the phenomenon of ‘non-places’ or ‘non-spaces’. I can’t remember where I first heard about this, but I recall thinking about it after reading Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ and remember thinking when flying from the UK to Gothenburg, how airports are the ultimate ‘non-places’ spaces we move through to get to somewhere else instead of destinations in themselves.

According to Wikipedia: Non-place or nonplace is a neologism coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé to refer to anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”. Examples of non-places would be motorways, hotel rooms, airports and shopping malls. The term was introduced by Marc Augé in his work Non-Places, introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.

The non-place differs from the idea of an ‘anthropological space’- a space where people can share a space that empowers their identity, in that non-places are filled with strangers who remain anonymous and lonely. Non-places can also be subjective though – to a group of friends who choose to spend the day together at a shopping centre and the people who work at an airport, the spaces might not be considered non-places. The idea of transience in relation to ceramics interests me because ceramic material is the opposite of transient in its solidity and durability.

My starting point for this project was to visit and document Gothenburg’s Centralstation – recording sounds, photographing and noting down shapes and words in response to the space. Reading Marc Auge’s chapter about ‘non-spaces’ and Mahyar Arefi’s article ‘Non-place and placelessness as narratives of loss’ helped define more concretely what non-spaces are. These places lack diversity, surprise, ambiguity and livability, we are often fed through these spaces in a system by following a set of instructions, signs or arrows.

Travelling back to the university from the train station I felt lost and unsure of how to continue. I hadn’t felt particularly inspired by this place. Drawing my attention back to the present though I realised I was travelling in another ‘non-space’, the inside of a tram. When travelling on trams as I do every day here in Gothenburg my thoughts are so often elsewhere that had I not payed attention, I probably couldn’t tell you what colour the floor, walls or seats were. I decided to shift my project to highlight the material qualities of the interior of trams in the city, making objects that echo and paraphrase the forms, colours and textures of these spaces which usually remain invisible to those inside them. My intention is to display the work in a different non-space – the stairwells at HDK. I move through these static spaces almost every day of the week. In contrast I remain still in the tram and it’s the space itself that moves with me inside it.

I spent this afternoon travelling on trams sketching the forms and textures I could find around me. Once I began looking I realised how complex and mysterious these spaces are. There are so many buttons and levers, hidden compartments and strange shaped protrusions that suddenly these spaces that seem very mundane and unexciting became landscapes of shapes. Later I photocopied and enlarged my drawings, cut them out and collaged them together into abstract machine compositions reminiscent of ‘robot wars’ creations. The next step is going to be to transform these ideas into 3D. I might use paper maquettes to get a sense of the scale needed for the staircase before starting to work in clay…

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Performance Art Workshop

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Performance piece with group participation

Last week we were set the task of working in pairs with students from the textiles and jewellery departments to create a performance artwork which in some way explored space and the room. On Thursday afternoon we got together to watch each other’s performances. I’m familiar with the work of artists such as Yoko Ono and Maria Abramovic, but this was my first experience of creating my own performance. It turned out to be a lot of fun and yielded some interesting results about how people behave when placed in different situations as a group or individuals.

In the first performance we saw one person trying to catch avocado stones the other was throwing at her inside a heavy ceramic cylinder to 80s disco music. The high energy performance felt like watching an sporting competition. In another performance the three artists each wrote consecutive letters in their turn with black ink on a sheet of paper stuck to the wall. After they’d made their mark the paintbrush was handed to a member of the audience and we were invited to carry on the message. It was an interesting exploration in setting rules – the artists had set rules that they only painted one letter but some of the audience instead drew lines and symbols, some kept to the ‘rules’ that had been set. One of the students splashed the paint onto the paper so it got on the wall and ran down to the floor, out of the set ‘boundaries’ of the paper. One we’d all had a go drawing something the paintbrush carried on for a bit until someone decided for the group that the artwork was finished and placed the paint down on the floor. The result of the final piece was unpredictable. We as the audience had to set our own end point. It’s an interesting exploration of language too, there was a mixture in the class of first languages so perhaps we all expected words to be formed in languages familiar to us.

In one performance three of the students moved around into different positions, engaging each with a different object: an ironing board, a bin bag of clay and a chair. They held each improvised ‘still life’ frame for about six seconds before moving again, carrying forward the linear narrative until the time was up. Another performance involved the two students ‘in power’ placing the rest of us around the room as if we were inanimate objects. It felt like being a mannequin in a shop window.

A couple of the girls invited us to sit inside a circle of thread in silence where they attempted to make eye contact with each of us in turn. The final performance involved two of the students hiding in a corner of the room behind some boxes each working with the material most familiar to them – clay and wood in this case. They didn’t announce the performance had started so you had to find your way to their small room where they created a intimate space of stillness and contemplation, a safe space for themselves into which we felt we couldn’t intrude.

I worked alongside Sanne, a student from the jewellery department to create a performance which involved us creating an enclosure similar to a sheep pen with a couple of tables and leading the audience one by one into this tightly enclosed space. We kept some ‘chosen’ people on the side and after we’d closed in the ‘pen’ with chairs, we got out a line of chairs facing it and invited the ‘chosen ones’ to sit with us, eat popcorn and watch the people who were trapped in the enclosure before us. The whole performance took place with the Star Wars theme tune playing in the background.
Our idea was to turn our fear of performing in front of the others upside down, by structuring ourselves as the viewers and them as the ones being watched. We hoped the fizzy drinks and popcorn would create the feeling of being in a cinema, but I also compared the performance to the human zoos I learnt about at the current ‘Diorama’ exhibition by Annika Dahlsten and Markku Laakso at the Röda Sten Konsthall.

In feedback about the artwork we learnt that those who were led into the small table room initially felt like they were the chosen, privileged ones, that they were going aboard a space ship (the star wars tune create this illusion), but after the next stage of the performance took place they realised they weren’t going anywhere and didn’t get any popcorn. This quickly ignited a revolution led by one of the students who stepped over the boundary we had created between us and followed by other students the popcorn and drinks were quickly shared between everyone. Those in the power seats felt bad for the others and began to give out popcorn too, but it took a few minutes before people felt comfortable stepping out of the roles the game had created for them.

It was interesting that so many of the performances involved the rest of the audience. Perhaps when you have a fear of performing, including everyone else is a means of feeling less exposed?

Thoughts on Space

This morning we took part in a discussion about spaciality with Mirjana Voukoja who is an architect and PhD student at the HDK. Below I’ve listed some ideas which arose that may become starting points for our next ‘Room’ project:

  • Our experience of space is linear but space has no beginning or ending, it only connects to other spaces. What space comes before or after?
  • In-between spaces such as corridors, airports, train stations…places we pass through in order to get to others.
  • Memory in relation to space – memories of being with someone who is no longer here, how can loss and absence be contained in a space? (Rachel Whiteread).
  • Inside and outside – when you experience the inside of a building the outer wall is no longer just a flat facade, you can imagine the space behind it.
  • The ability of indigenous people and people in the past to navigate with the body in space
  • We use our bodies to divide and understand space…we have a tacit and embodied understanding of space (Interactive Space)
  • Space is all about relationships.
  • We have a global awareness now which means we are able to see our space in relation to the rest of the planet and other countries (e.g. from having seen proof the earth is spherical and in space).
  • How where you grew up influences what you think of spaces – Having grown up in mountainous North Wales I feel a kind of agoraphobia in flat open countries like the Netherlands. Someone growing up in the city might feel the same fear and feeling of being trapped in the countryside or a forest.
  • Politics/power relations concerning space – a hierarchy of height or levels
  • Thinking of space as a material, like clay, light or fabric are a material
  • In ceramics, the space of the artwork is sometimes confined by the space in the kiln and the point at which the clay sags and slumps under weight.
  • Space in the afterlife/beforelife, stages of life and death which we are unable to step into or out from.
  • Drawing the object by looking at the negative space that surrounds it.
  • Oculacentrism in relation to space – we experience the world visually, but how do those with visual impairments experience the same space?
  • Sound in a space – how have artists created sound installations that change depending on how we move through the space?

Image:https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/how-to-build-an-indoor-fort-109414

The Fantasy and Reality of the Vessel

This morning’s discussion on our chosen texts brought up some interesting perspectives  on vessels as objects and phenomenon. A common theme was borders and boundaries – as humans we are ourselves vessels with an inside and outside. Perhaps as a result we like to impose this differentiation on things we encounter in the world. We build houses, containers for us to live and work in and we create boundaries between land and call them countries, containing people within an imaginary line. We are obsessed with imposing order on chaos.

Perhaps viewing our body as an individual vessel, separate from other body vessels breeds xenophobia and lack of empathy. Perhaps we need to expand the vessel that contains ‘us’ to contain all of the planet, all people. One of our texts ‘Escape’, a poem by D.H.Lawrence compares our ego to a cage :

When we get out of the glass bottles of our own ego,
and when we escape like squirrels from turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forest again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Maybe this perspective of the vessel is contemporary, stemming from after the industrial revolution, when we became disconnected from nature, separated by technology. Is technology a vessel? It might be argued that most of us live inside our phones.

The very words we use are containers of metaphor and meaning. It’s all the more clear when you begin to study a foreign language, words begin as abstract sounds, disconnected from anything until you learn their meaning and they become images in the mind, part of the puzzle of a sentence. Our field of vision is a vessel – containing a fictional landscape with distinct boundaries, a fictional landscape we perceive as reality.

In Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space we found a description of the dual dream modes involved with making an object, we can be creating a painting with a goal of an image in mind, but at the same time our mind is wandering off thinking about all manner of other images which must in some way manifest themselves in the final artwork. The final work is the outcome of these two fantasies. It is itself but something else at the same time.

I also found myself thinking about my chosen text – The Rachel Whiteread essay in the context of ‘imagined vessels’ such as in the mathematical ‘Urn Problem’ to work out probabilities or the Physics problem of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Within these problems, the contents of the imagined vessels is a mystery, unknowable. In contrast, Whiteread makes solid the imagined space creating what we might call ‘hyperrealities’ through the destruction of the original object.

 

The Value of Stillness: Curating an Enmeshed Experience

I wrote this essay before Christmas for the Constellation Formative Assignment. It’s the beginning of an investigation into philosophical and ecological ideas which I hope to develop into my dissertation proposal. 

This essay is a proposal for an exhibition: an outdoor installation which explores ideas surrounding relational ontology and ecological aesthetics in order to create an experience whereby the audience’s wellbeing is improved through a raising of awareness of their place in the meshwork of existence. Cut off as we are from our roots, our relationship with the natural world, the planet and non-human agencies or ‘estranged from the stars’ as David Abram so poetically puts it, I am interested in art’s power to ‘renew some of those bearings, to begin to recall and re-establish the rootedness of human awareness in the larger ecology’ (Abram, 1996, pg.261). I have placed myself in the role of artist-curator; the exhibited sculptures will be my own but I am also considering how the work will be experienced in a meshwork of space, environment and human interaction: ‘It could be said that the role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or objects), space, and audience’ (Smith, 2012).

The curator has a responsibility towards society. They have the power to enrich our lives through presenting us with artworks and objects in such a way that we question our way of life and consider ways we could live better. In Terry Smith’s ‘Thinking Contemporary Curating’ he describes a core question posed by curators through the ‘Be(com)ing Dutch’ project of Netherland’s Van Abbemuseum which was ‘whether art can offer alternative examples of thinking about how we can live together today… to put ideas of cultural identity under pressure and examine the process of inclusion and exclusion in the world today’ (Smith, 2012, pg.213). I intend to question our cultural identity and the way we live by taking a critical stance of our current fast pace of life, using this exhibition as a means of slowing down the pace at which the viewer interacts with the artwork and creating an environment that aids contemplation and creates an experience of stillness. Mindfulness as a means of introspection and creating a heightened sense of awareness in the present moment has been a crucial catalyst for my thinking through this project.

The practice of mindfulness appears to be becoming ever more popular in our ever growing, complexing world where people are realising there is truth in the saying less is more. Even Cardiff School of Art and Design is offering mindful meditation courses on Wednesday afternoons. Mindful practice and meditation are described as attempts to alleviate suffering and mindlessness in everyday life through ‘a form of self-regulation of attention that is ‘present-orientated’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.139). Mindful practice that advocates sitting still for long periods of time can be extremely difficult for the uninitiated though. Sitting alone at length to contemplate the inner workings of our own minds can make for uncomfortable but invaluable journeys since ‘stillness produces an existential gap that most people try to avoid by continually talking, thinking, watching TV, checking their berries and tablets, or listening to music’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.145).

Our current society’s interest in finding deeper meaning in everyday life may have origins in the Slow Movement of the mid 1980s which began as a protest against multi-national food companies and became a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better (Wellesley-Smith, 2015, pg.12). It has now become an International campaign, a kind of revolution against our ‘roadrunner’ existence with spokespeople such as Carl Honore advocating the abolition of slow as a taboo, dirty word with connotations of laziness and stupidity, and progress towards a philosophy of ‘good slowness’. The origin of the problem may lie in our approach to time: ’In other cultures, time is cyclical. It’s seen as moving in great, unhurried circles. It’s always renewing and refreshing itself. Whereas in the West, time is linear. It’s a finite resource; it’s always draining away. You either use it, or lose it (Honore, 2005).

This motif of the circle is recurring in describing a certain approach to life and philosophy. Gaston Bachelard in ‘The poetics of space’ devotes an entire chapter to ‘The phenomenology of roundness’. An article in Australian Ceramics quotes from Michael Leunig’s book ‘The Curly Pyjama Letters’ ‘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’ (Leunig, 2001). This metaphor of the day as a container with an inside and outside brought to mind ceramic vessels and was an idea I kept in mind when creating my recent ceramic sculptures, all of which began as circles, rotating lumps of clay on a potter’s wheel. Roundness, cycles and circles especially have recently become integral parts of the work I make, the centrifugal, balanced force of the spinning potter’s wheel being ideal in creating these symmetrical forms. There is something universal about the spinning of a wheel, synonymous with the spinning of our planet and the cycles of our solar system. On our timescale of human existence we perceive time to move linearly but it appears cycles are ubiquitous.

The sculptures I intend to exhibit follow on from this thinking about time, space and balance. They are abstract compositions of wheel thrown forms constructed together by hand, a process in itself which explores the slowing down of the pace of making; while forms on the wheel are created quickly, the stage of splicing these together is slow, contemplative and requires constant adjusting and consideration of balance: ‘The speed at which we do something – anything – changes our experience of it’ (Freeman, 2009). The sculptures are all currently about 30-40cm in length but for this installation I envisage them to be enlarged to about 2m high. Five of these enlarged sculptures, cast in bronze, will be displayed together in the centre of a wide open space in an inner city park, within easy walking distance of nearby shopping centres and offices. I want this cluster of sculptures to be a place of refuge and calm where people can come to sit and contemplate the park in peace when the stress of navigating the centre of town has become too much, somewhere office workers can come to eat their lunch. The number 5 has a special significance in Japanese philosophy as it is situated in the middle of the first 9 numbers and hence marks the centre. In many Japanese dry gardens, rocks are arranged in patterns of 5 (Berthier, 2000).

Jane Edden’s ‘Post Secrets’ public art project has inspired the philosophy which underpins this interest in slowing pace. Explaining the hollow bollards around Cardiff’s St David’s Centre in which she has installed tiny scenes of people, she explains they are intended ‘to be little moments of calm so that when people do bend down and look inside they completely enter another world’ (Edden, 2010). These surprise glimpses into another world momentarily take us away from the noise and colour into a black and white stillness. An important part of my sculptures is that they act as windows onto the surrounding environment, tools which the participator can look through. Holes and openings in the forms will draw the viewer’s attention to the surrounding landscape by framing it in new and unexpected ways. The intention here is to highlight how all our experiences in life are framed subjectively though angles of perspective, that our experienced reality is different to that of anyone else’s. Hepworth described vision as not sight, but the perception of the mind.

The idea of framing the landscape is way of challenging our perception. By drawing a box around a section of three dimensional space we are rendering it into a flat image of two dimensions. I hope to give flesh to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas surrounding phenomenology (phenomenology being ‘an effort to describe the world as we subjectively experience it’ (Abram, 1996, pg.36)) with the hope that by giving the viewer these different frames with which to experience the surrounding landscape, I will provide a space in which it is possible to meditate on our own bodies as subjects of awareness, ‘recalling us to our participation in the here-and now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand’ (Abram, 1996, pg.47). The paradox of looking out of a window is that often it is not done to discover what is going on outside but rather to find out what is going through our own minds. We gaze from windows to daydream, for a moment of stillness in a busy day. It is not really an action, more of a state of doing nothing. My argument is that this time is precious and valuable. If more of us spent more time staring out of windows instead of mindlessly going about our everyday activities, the world may be a better place. We would take time to think of our actions, to prioritise and consider what is truly important in our lives. I hope the windows in these sculptures have the similar effect of turning our gaze inward by looking through and outward, creating a space to experience a focused stillness an a more deep connection with the artwork.

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth described our interactions with sculptures almost like pieces of performance art in themselves. Performances are planned or conform to rules to some extent just as our interactions with displayed artworks conform to what is deemed suitable or normal by society. The use of negative space in her sculptures can be linked to a phenomenological and holistic approach of the human viewer connected into a wider framework that includes space, material and environment in an enmeshed experience: 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).

By enlarging my sculptures so that people can sit on them and climb through them I hope to encourage playful interaction with the art and a greater sense of ‘participating in the form’, bringing about a kind of ecological awareness of how human and non-human agencies co-exist and have effects on each other. By using the outside space I hope what Tim Ingold describes as ‘a dance of agencies’ becomes part of the work over time – the waring away of the ground where children climb on and off the sculptures, the way puddles form inside them and grass grows up around them will all be unpredictable but will illustrate the way an object belongs to the environment and time as much as the artist.

A description of this enmeshed approach comes in an interview in ‘A Brief History of Curating’ where one of the curators explains ‘It was Duchamp who said that it is the viewer who completes the work of art. I think he meant it profoundly, he meant it in every sense. So that says to me that it’s not just numbers, that you need to connect more people with more works of art, but you need to connect people more deeply with works of art’ (D’Harnoncourt, 2008, pg. 192). D’Harnoncourt goes on to explain that in today’s world the internet has a powerful role in connecting people more deeply with artworks. Museum and gallery websites can let us browse collections from the comfort of our own homes and provide us instantly with an abundance of information. This is wonderful and enriching from a museum’s perspective but for the purpose of my own installation I hope to connect people more deeply with the artworks by disconnection from the distractions of the internet, phones and social media. Because of this overload of technology we are never caught up with our own lives or sat alone long enough with our thoughts to really feel stillness. Scientific studies have proven that we take in as much data today as Shakespeare took in in over a lifetime and research into interruption suggests it even takes 25 minutes just to recover from a phone call (Iyer, 2014).

As a result, the setting where these sculptures are situated will be a deliberately wi-fi free zone. This is not a Luddite attack on technology. It is a hope that through temporary disconnection from the digital ‘cloud’, the public can connect more deeply with the physicality of the sculptures and environment surrounding them and feel a greater awareness of the materiality and thingness of the objects by paying attention to light, sensation etc. which ties in with Djikic’s reasoning in earlier paragraphs. It is revealing that ‘many in Silicon Valley observe and “Internet Sabbath” every week, during which they turn off most of their devices’ (Iyer, 2014, pg.43). We are never truly alone when we are with our phones, which most of us carry everywhere. Privacy and solitude can be difficult to find in the city, from my experience, especially living in shared accommodation and sharing a working environment so I hope this is something this installation will accommodate.

My desire to exhibit these objects outside also came from research into how museum and gallery environments influence our experience of collections/art. Thinking about how art can be used to heal or improve our wellbeing, it was first important to understand the ways museums and exhibitions can sometimes lead to mindlessness and stagnation through a concept called ‘museum fatigue’. Bitgood argues that museum fatigue is caused by not one but many (at least seven) overlapping phenomena. My understanding is that this state is more of a mental fatigue than a physical one although walking, bending and stretching can contribute to overall tiredness.

One of the contributing factors is satiation: boredom caused by a decrease in attention because of repeated exposure to similar stimuli. Information overload where the viewer finds a decrease in their ability to process information because of an overwhelming amount was also credited. Similar to this is a phenomenon called ‘object competition’: ‘The object competition effect can be defined as a decrease in attention resulting from simultaneous presentation of multiple stimuli.’ (Bitgood, 2009). Objects compete for attention with other objects. Perhaps this is similar to the stress many people feel confronted with in supermarkets when there is so much choice the experience becomes stressful. Interestingly Bitgood also mentions the peer pressure and stress we feel in an exhibition/museum environment to respond in a ‘correct’ to the exhibits. Do we worry that we haven’t spent enough time viewing an artwork, feeling that we are being judged by others?

The writer Victoria Coren-Mitchell describes her experience of this self-consciousness in art galleries and the worry that she is not appreciating art properly, in an article in the Guardian: ‘I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about.’ (Coren-Mitchell, 2016). I believe this feeling that art is for ‘others’ and can’t be enjoyed without prior specialist knowledge is not unique to the author and is shared widely by the public. Coren-Mitchell also states that the best thing about art galleries is ‘the cup of tea afterwards. Its taste is improved by a sense of achievement, of a well-earned rest, of something done.’ By placing my sculptures in a park, a public place without the connotations of a white gallery wall I hope to remove this self-consciousness. My aim is also to alleviate the feeling of worry that the art is not understood and communicate that art is for everyone, not just a select minority. This is an attempt to shift our perspective of seeing art as something you ‘do’, as an action, to a more present orientated perspective of ‘being’ with the artwork in an environment. In galleries we are so often moving on to the next painting, the next room or space that we do not experience much art in stillness.

Feeling judged by others when interacting with art can be stressful; what about stress caused by too many decision making processes, even if they happen to be trivial? In his talk ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz describes how ‘we mistakenly believe more choice evaluates more freedom therefore better welfare’ (Schwartz, 2005) but studies have shown that in fact, the opposite is true. Too much choice can be detrimental to our wellbeing. Firstly it produces paralysis and secondly as a result we are less satisfied with the result of the choice. In today’s enormous shopping complexes, the chaos of brightly coloured objects and choice can be overwhelming. Uniquely, in ‘Tiger’ stores in the UK, the shopper is fed around the shop in a one direction maze, limiting the decisions that must make about which direction to move. The Danish Flying Tiger store website states that the ethos is of the store as a ‘treasure hunt’ or ‘a playground’ which encourages surprise encounters with objects as you turn a corner. I don’t know if the intention was to limit the choices we must make but it certainly changes our shopping experience.

By having a small number of artworks, on and around which people can sit, eat etc. I hope to encourage a deeper connection with the individual sculptures because there will be less choice of things in the environment to focus on. I want the public to feel something of the deep connection I felt with a particular painting on a college trip to Brussels Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago. Since sketching was not allowed upstairs, we spent most of our time on the ground floor hall where there were only a handful of statues and large paintings with large open swathes of space between them. As a result, I spent a huge amount of time in front of a single particular painting called ‘The Fountain of Inspiration’ by Belgian symbolist painter Constant Montald. As a result I felt an unrivalled appreciation and connection with the painting and painter which has left a memorable imprint. Sitting still is underrated. ‘It’s only when you stop moving that you can be moved in some far deeper way’ (Iyer, 2014). I hope to encourage a similar spacious and calming environment around my installation so the sculptures can be experienced intimately from the inside out: ‘By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere’ (Abram, 1996, pg.49 or 270).

Considering in more depth the space in which these sculptures will be exhibited, I have researched the philosophy surrounding Japanese Zen gardens which emphasise minimalism as well as balance between human control and the wildness of nature. This might be viewed (phenomenologically) as balance between human and non-human agencies.  In ‘A Brief History of Curating’ Anne D’Harnoncourt describes the curator’s desire ‘To give people contemplation space – a space that would be both beautiful in itself and lead to interaction with the art.’ The environment sets the scene for the artwork so it is important for my purpose that the space aids contemplation. Works of art extend into their environment.

The courtyard in the centre of the Victoria and Albert museum in London is a good example of a space that creates a sense of restfulness and help give visitors a break from the huge amount of information they must deal with in the museum itself. The open green space has a large but shallow paddling pool in the centre. As a result the paving stones do not go directly through the middle of the courtyard from one part of the museum to the other via the quickest route. Instead, the visitor must walk around the circumference, thus slowing down their pace. We only notice the language of space when it has been abused (Lawson, 2001, pg.6) similar to how I described earlier in ‘Tiger’ shops. How then could I slow down the pace with which the viewer encounters my installation, slowing them down and bringing them an awareness of space and the present moment before they are even close to the sculptures? I might place the sculptures on a small island surrounded by shallow water where you must reach the centre by means of a one way pathway that runs circles around the middle.

An alternative to displaying the sculptures would be to house them in a pavilion like structure. This way levels of interruptive sounds from the outside e.g. traffic and building work could be controlled. At the Kroller Muller Sculpture Park in the Netherlands, an ambiguous structure called the Rietveld Pavilion (so called after its designer Gerrit Rietveld) houses a number of Hepworth’s sculptures. But perhaps ‘houses’ is the incorrect word since the pavilion itself has neither inside nor outside space. Instead it is a series of walls and alcoves, a structure that has no interior or exterior. This idea of blurring boundaries between inside and outside space has much in common with traditional Japanese homes and tea houses which promote a closer integration of humans and the natural world.

Encouraging looking at art from an ecological perspective is more important today than ever. Abram (1996, pg.28) describes our society’s current disconnection from the natural world: ‘To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence-by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.

In summary my proposal is for a phenomenological installation which promotes a closer relationship with ecology and environment. I hope that through the presentation of the artwork considered as an experience in a meshwork that includes space, time and environment, the audience’s perception of themselves in relation to other objects and beings can be challenged. My intention has been to design an anti-museum fatigue experience whereby the audience, after experiencing the artwork feels an improvement of wellbeing because of a sense of participation in the present moment. I believe that this experience would promote a space for meditative and healing stillness in our otherwise hectic lives.

 

Bibliography:

Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the Rocks – The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden. Chicago, Ill. : University of Chicago Press

Bitgood, S. (2009). Museum Fatigue: A Critical Review. Taylor and Francis Group, pp.93-111.

Bowness, A. (1966). Barbara Hepworth: drawings from a sculptor’s landscape. London: Cory Adams and MacKay.

Coren-Mitchell, V. (2016) Yes, great art. Can I go now? The Guardian, [online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/04/art-bores-me-glad-other-people-like-it [Accessed 01. 12. 2017].

Djikic, M. (2014). Art of Mindfulness: Integrating Eastern and Western Approaches. In: Ie, A. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons, pp.139-146.

Honore, C. (2005). In Praise of Slowness. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/carl_honore_praises_slowness

Lawson, B. (2001). The Language of Space. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Obrist, H.U. (2008). A Brief History of Curating. Zurich: JRP/Ringier.

Putnam, J. (2009). Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium. London: Thames and Hundson.

Smith, T.E. (2012). Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York: Independent Curators.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice. [Video File] Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice

Wellesley-Smith, C. (2015). Slow Stich: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art. London: Batsford.