Sunday was Giardini day and this time the artwork that got my heart racing was in the Norwegian pavilion – a massive sculpture made from fibreglass reinforced polyester pipes by Siri Aurdal (b.1937). The wave-like form called ‘Onda Volante’ (sea waves) looked like a giant version of my final centrepiece, the evenly spaced ridges on the plastic even referenced throwing lines. Walking around and underneath the cut tube sections I felt like I did walking around the aeroplanes at RAF Cosford museum, the curved plastic forms riveted together like wings of a giant aircraft. I felt the enclosed space didn’t do justice to it though, it was as if the form was trying to ‘flow’ outside, with tentacles pushing up against the ceiling. I’d love to see it placed in the Yorkshire sculpture park with wide expanses of space all around. Reading up about Aurdal after returning home I’ve discovered she came to fame in Norway in the 60s with large scale interactive sculptures that people could play and climb on, inspired by modular, mathematical forms. My interest in interactive artwork has been re-ignited!
Another treasure was found in the Finland pavilion, where Heledd and I must have spent over an hour mesmerised, watching the very funny ‘The Aalto Natives’ by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. The installation is part film, part two talking puppets called Geb and Atum, who explore elements of Finnish society, history and national identity. The videos swap between different styles: CGI, hand drawn stop-animation and Muppet style puppets and according to the leaflet ‘explore themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, bureaucracy, and intolerance by way of absurdist satire’. Half the time it felt like a missing episode of the Might Boosh, the other half like a montage of the ABCs of death. I’m still confused as to why the Neanderthal guy had a Liverpudlian accent.
I loved Milena Dragicevic’s colour compositions at the Serbian pavilion. Her abstract paintings ‘Erections for Transatlantica’ drew in the eye from afar with bold colour. The strange, sculptural images are mixtures of her own intuitive drawings with forms taken from outside sources. I thought some referenced Islamic architecture, others forms of microbes and bacteria.
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in he darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.
On Saturday I visited Collect 2017 the ‘international art fair for contemporary objects’ at the Saatchi gallery in London – an impressive and richly diverse display of ceramics, textiles, metal, jewellery and glass by makers from 37 of the world’s leading galleries. Of all the incredible objects on display I found myself drawn to the quieter, smaller scale artworks, especially the enamelled stoneware sculptures of French artist Chloe Peytermann (www.chloeterre.com). The upturned bottle shapes are called ‘atolls’ which I’ve learnt are kinds of ring shaped reefs or islands formed on coral. This accurately describes the ring formations of glazes on the flat surfaces that bubble in thick dollops of colour.
I like this idea of using the base of the vessel, the part that’s usually hidden from view, as the focal point. It’s a good flat canvas to work with glaze flow and thick application. The forms look like they were thrown and I expect they’re open at the other end but I was too afraid to pick them up since they cost £300 each! This is the one thing that frustrated me at Collect, the prevalence of ‘do not touch’ signs when so much of the work looked irresistibly tactile. Accompanying the Atolls series on her website is the quote by French author Maylis de Kerangal “I like the idea that the experience of memory, in other words the action of remembering, transforms the place into a landscape, metamorphoses the illegible spaces into narrative.” The idea of the experience of memory and how it differs from truth is a thread I’m interested in pursuing in the Cafe society project and leads on from trying to replicate the shape of a mug I remembered from home.
The colour scheme of speckled pastels with patches of vibrant pink and blue reminded me of the work of Ben Fiess who makes functional jars with cork and elastic band stoppers. I like the effect of juxtaposing eye-popping colours which conjures up memories of the candy colours of jars on the shelves of old fashioned sweet shops. For me they evoke childhood camping holidays to the New Forest where the arduous bicycle expeditions through hornet infested woodland were amply rewarded with a visit to Lyndhurst sweet shop. When I think of it I always think of Roald Dahl’s account of the sweet shop he and his friends always visited on the way back from school, funnily enough, in Llandaff.
Ben’s website www.bfiess.com is well worth a visit, he’s got a quirky selection of mixed media drawings as well as an ongoing database of research into glaze recipes and clay bodies.
From my childhood obsessions with the Jonathan Creek series, reading Patricia Cornwell and religiously watching Tim Burton movies, it seems I’ve always had a quiet fascination with the macabre. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when deciding on a piece of work to write about from the Coca York ceramics collection, there was no question in my mind it would be one of Kerry Jameson’s creepy creations.
The one piece in particular I’ve chosen is ‘The Dancing Bears’, a 2010 work from her dark and disquieting series ‘Collect’ which also features a frenzied fox and a crying monkey. It’s a pair of standing bears, the tallest about 30 cm high holding a red concertina and with a rope tied around its neck (although hanging loose as if he has just broken free); the shorter one leaning on a gnarled walking stick. Both bears are covered in a mangy, matted, woollen texture which looks as though it would be rough to touch. They peer at you from terrifyingly animated glass eyes. Something about the fur reminded me of an old teddy I used to own, threadbare and worn from years of use. I expect the piece was made in the artist’s windowless west London studio although according to her website she currently she lives in Singapore, teaching at the school of arts there.
Jameson’s absence from social media and the lack of personal information on her website adds to her sculptures’ intrigue and mystery. However lack of information also means I don’t know exactly how the bears were made but I hazard to suppose they’re most likely hand built from earthenware. I’d like to know what kinds of supports she uses when building. Might there some kind of armature to begin with? Despite the sharp claws and gaping mouths I thought the smaller bear looked almost comical with his squat legs, too small to support the bulky body. His fur stops halfway down, below which is a sgraffito texture made with angry looking marks to give the impression of fur with what looks like black and red slip. This gives him the appearance of wearing a pair of high-waisted trousers (could this in fact be a caricature of Simon Cowell?!)
What I find most exciting and unique about Jameson’s work is that to her, the process of firing is just the beginning of a piece. Rather than despairing over unexpected cracks and things gone wrong she sees these ‘failures’ as opportunities to create something new so her sculptures become collages of fragments stuck together. To re-assemble them she uses a mixture of kaolin (china clay) and glue. The breadth of materials she incorporates into her work is astounding: seeds, buttons, stones, shells, glass eyes, feathers, canvas, hessian, jute (a course material derived from vegetable fibres), clay cement, lead glazes, oxides and acrylic to name a few. There’s an immediacy and spontaneity in the way she decorates without too much deliberation which gives the work life. It’s interesting to see so many sketches on her website. It seems drawing is an important part of her thinking process and there’s a fluidity and child-like nature to her large, expressive ink drawings which is reflected in her making and decorating.
Other pieces by her in the museum included a series of big pots illustrated with people being chainsawed and having their limbs pulled apart by wolves, in a slip-decorated technique that reminded me of red and black figure panting on Greek vases. There was also a series of six terracotta figures on horseback, swords brandished in the air and a curious headless statue holding six tiny kittens in each arm. Maybe I’m particularly drawn to the surrealism in her work and the humour this brings. There are definitely undertones of violence throughout much of it though. But then who doesn’t enjoy being unsettled once in a while? Why else would we watch horror films?
In Ceramic Review issue 267 (2014) Jack Tan draws parallels between Jameson’s work and a particular Dr Who episode ‘The empty child’ In which a boy in a gas mask haunts the streets of the London Blitz at night calling ‘Are you my mummy?’ He argues it’s this juxtaposition of familiarity or nostalgia (dressing the sculptures up in a ‘soft’ material skin like a teddy bear) with horror (distorting the figure and gluing on sharp teeth and piercing eyes) that gives the sculptures their power and appeal. In ‘A Time before Wolves’ (Ceramic Review 271, 2015) Andy Christian aptly refers to her work as ‘cuddly toys that bite’.
I was surprised to discover that Jameson first studied ceramics at Central St Martins before completing an MA at the Royal College of Art in 2009. Her work is so darkly unorthodox and peculiar, it’s easier to believe it sprung out of some grotesque nightmare than that it was the result of years of hard work and experimentation. Images from her degree show suggest an interest in myths and legends (Romulus and Remus), religious iconography, museum artefacts and themes of death and fear but with animal imagery throughout. A large proportion of her earlier works were dog sculptures in buff grogged clay, covered in an opaque white slip with colour on top.
Her work took a new turn in 2010 after she visited the exhibition ‘The Sacred made Real’ at the National Gallery in London, a collection of religious art from the Spanish golden age which included polychrome wooden sculptures. Artists like Gregorio Fernandez (1576-1636) wanted to achieve the same level of realism in sculpture as they could on canvas so they added details like glass eyes and human hair to their works. ‘The Dancing Bears’ have a definite visual reference to traditional salt-glazed stoneware bear jugs that were popular in England in the 18th century when bear baiting was still a legal sport. African fetish figures are another major influence– idols worshipped for their magical powers often with staring eyes, gaping mouths and decorated with nails and shells. Her choice of sombre and earthy colours reminds me of prehistoric and aboriginal art.
When first introduced to the ceramics course, we were each asked to choose from a selection of ladybird picture cards which most appealed or best described us. One of mine was the ladybird ‘Story of clowns’. Something about the fine line between the humorous and sinister had resonance with me. It must have too with Anthony Shaw who’s recently become an avid collector of Jameson’s work.
Today’s visit was to Craft in the Bay, Cardiff to take part in a workshop organised by Dr Natasha Mayo. We worked alongside local A level students to problem solve and took a look at Craft in the Bay’s new exhibition ‘Drawing Inspirations’ which examines the relationship of drawing to the artists work.
We discussed different ways artists use drawing to inspire designs such as printmaker Claire Florey-Hitchcox who uses drawing as a pre-design for her woodblock carvings and ceramicist Richard Heeley who explores the energy and rhythm of markmaking to create a decorative surface.
We began with the challenge of joining two strips of paper together by folding only, then were asked to transform a rectangle of A2 paper into a vessel. Our pair’s approach drew on my previous knowledge of how to make an origami cup although we had to improvise and make the paper more flexible so it would stand upright.
The next task was to create a spoon from paper. Aware that we had drawn from past knowledge for the previous task we tried a more intuitive approach this time, folding the paper with the idea of making a plaited stem like a love spoon. I feel our designs were very economical – we were careful not to waste any of the material.
Next we used the spoon to mark make with Indian ink, then to draw the paper spoon using the spoon which was a lot more challenging exercise. We developed our markings from the first sheet but rather than running wild, we took a more linear approach and thought of how our marks could convey the presence of a 3D object rather than only drawing 2D patterns.
Over lunch we were tasked with finding objects in the environment around Cardiff bay to make drawing tools from. We then used our new tools to draw with the ink, free to take any approach we liked. My plan was to work in a generally organised manner from the left to right of the page exploring mark making with typography (our previous mark-making with the ink had reminded me of calligraphy) but still working freely enough to explore the limitations of the new tools.
Today’s experience has taught me that the process of playing with materials and developing ideas is just as, if not more important than the final outcome.