Cultural Differences between Sweden and the UK: Holistic Ceramics

“I think for Swedes, art and design and craft—woodwork, furniture, textile, lighting, ceramics, glass, architecture—very much inform one another,” …“There is not always crossover, but it’s a symbiosis; you can’t have one without the others.” – Saskia Neuman, Global Art Manager at Absolut, Stockholm.[1]

A couple of months ago my course visited Borås Museum of Modern Art to see something I was surprised to find in a modern art museum. Not one, but two exhibitions showcasing artists working in clay. The first was by contemporary Swedish artist Eva Mag and the second a retrospective of work by the more traditional potter Kerstin Danielsson. Clay and ceramics, often designated to the realm of ‘craft’ as opposed to high art worthy of a white wall contemporary gallery space, are something I’m not accustomed to finding at a modern art museum. This surprise encounter led me to think about the role of ceramics in Sweden in contrast to the British scene and ponder the more holistic attitude towards art that seems to be present here.

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Figure 1

Eva Mag’s multimedia work consisted of a film alongside life sized ‘body-forms’ made with clay filled fabric skins, wood and wax. In the video ‘Directions and shapes in a woman’s body’ (2013) Mag very physically manipulates blocks of clay into human form, constructing, deconstructing and finally wrapping the broken off clay pieces in the fabric of her dress. Through the film, the process of moulding the clay is shown to be more important than the final piece itself. Another artwork in her exhibition was a block of clay encased in a sewn fabric shell, suggesting the form beneath but hiding all surface. The design tenet of truth to materials is turned on its head. Like in Jone Kvie’s current ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum where aluminium mimics cardboard, concrete and wood, in Mag’s work the materials are mysterious, disguised as other.

But it wasn’t just Mag’s work that made me question the traditional way I know of working with clay, on my course at HDK I have encountered a similar attitude of openness to other materials. I am surprised by the acceptance of mixed media approaches and alternative decorating techniques to glazes. Third year graduate Sara Kallioinen Lundgren often sprays her distinctive pop art style creations with bright spray paint. Others incorporate concrete, thread and fabric into their work and it seems common to introduce elements other than ceramic in displays – earth and gravel, photographs, video and sound. On our recent ‘Room’ course, one of the ceramics students worked exclusively with weaving and fabric. We have also collaborated with students from the jewellery and textile department to work on performance art pieces. There is the attitude that working things out in a different material first can be valuable.

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Figure 2

Back at my home university however I feel there is a more ‘purist’ and perhaps snobbish attitude to ceramics regarding surface in particular. Glaze chemistry and research is something we are encouraged to master while exploring ceramic surfaces through paint, collage and other techniques is perhaps seen as a ‘lower’ form of decoration as it requires less skill and knowledge. This desire to define ceramics according to more traditionalist attitudes appears to extend to the UK ceramics scene in a wider sense too. In contrast to Sweden, Britain has a huge selection of Ceramic festivals every summer – Art in Clay, Potfest, International Ceramics Festival, Earth and Fire and Ceramic Art Wales to name a few. These are exclusively ceramic fairs that typically last over a weekend. While these, alongside the popular TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ have helped bring ceramics to a wider audience and give makers a great platform for selling their work, it may be that they are also contributing to the wider society seeing ‘pottery’ as something distinctly separate from other forms of art. As an example to illustrate this rift in thinking about ceramics, I can take the names given to the BA courses both here and in the UK. In Cardiff I study on an undergraduate course called BA in ‘Ceramics’ while at HDK the course’s title is ‘Ceramic Art’. The names alone suggest less division between ceramics as a craft and as a fine art in the Swedish art world.

After further research I discovered I’m not the only one to feel that Sweden has a more holistic art scene than the UK. Stockholm based artist Stuart Mayes (originally from London) in an interview with ‘The Local’ (Sweden’s English language news website) explains: ‘I find the Swedish art world to be more holistic, academic and sustainable. Swedes have a much more inclusive and open attitude towards art. I think the English government has quite a conservative perception of art; they don’t really value it as something important and that doesn’t empower me as an artist.’[2] Mayes isn’t a ceramic artist but his observations may also be true for the ceramics scene. To some extent though, the conservative attitude towards ceramics in the UK and desire to hand down pottery skills in the tradition of the British godfather of ceramics Bernard Leach, can be seen as something positive. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Potter’ in which potters are assigned apprentices to learn their ‘trade’ make sure that traditional skills live on and that the sloppy craft of ceramicists like Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry have something to contend with.[3]
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Figure 3

As a result of working in what feels like a more interdisciplinary environment, my current work has evolved. I have begun to experiment with wrapping fired clay in thread as a form of surface decoration. Our text seminars have encouraged me to look at ceramics in a wider sense too. In these discussions we are each invited to choose a text to explore the theme of the course, however these texts can be anything ranging from a poem to a legal document to an exhibition review. After discovering an article about Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts during our recent ‘Vessel project’ I began working with plaster in a different way to how I have before – creating plaster casts as the finished piece instead of moulds from which to slipcast. The unspoken rules to which I’ve stuck to in the past have been broken. However, since the casting of these forms wasn’t possible without the original clay moulds, isn’t this still ceramic art? Like in Eva Mag’s video, I am still working with clay but it isn’t the final outcome. I find myself eager to explore new ways of making which challenge the idea that a ceramic artist is exclusively a maker of clay objects.

 

Images

Figure 1. Detail from How Much Does a Mountain Weigh?’ by Eva Mag. Source: http://www.evamag.se/works.html

Figure 2. Artwork by Sara Kallioinen Lundgren. Source: http://sarakallioinenlundgren.com/

Figure 3. Detail from sculptural piece I made for the Vessel project. Ceramic and thread.

 

 

[1] Van Straaten, L. (2017, November) An Insider’s Guide to the Stockholm Art Scene. Retrieved from: https://www.departures.com/art-culture/stockholm-art-scene-travel-guide#intro

[2]  “The Art Scene in Sweden in Less Competitive” (2010) Retrieved from: https://www.thelocal.se/20150209/my-love-for-stockholm-has-no-limits

[3] Read more about ‘sloppy craft’: Adamson, G. (2008, March/April) When Craft Gets Sloppy, from Crafts no.211, 36-40

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Room/Space Project Development

20180312_151307 (600x800)With two weeks left to go of the Room project I think it’s time for reflection on how the project has developed so far and how I intend to bring my exploration of ideas to culminate in a final installation.

I chose the HDK’s black grogged stoneware clay to begin making with, the graininess makes it ideal to hand build with because it keeps its form well. At first I worked quite strictly from the collages I made from the earlier tram drawings but discovered quickly that this ‘steampunk’ aesthetic wasn’t what I wanted. I don’t like the way the clay is manipulated to look like metal or rivets, instead of celebrating the qualities of this material I am hiding it. I realise that since this bothers me perhaps the tenet of ‘truth to material’ is somewhat important in my work.

After a tutorial and discussing with others I decided to focus on simplified forms instead of details. I still preferred my collages to the clay models, so this week I took the approach of collaging clay to create more two-dimensional ‘illustrations’ of my illustrations. These were made by rolling thin slabs and assembling them roughly and quickly together when in a leather hard state. The rough edges and unfinished, breaking apart look is an attempt to capture the fuzziness of how the memory of a place appears in our mind.

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In a group tutorial today a few people commented on the fresh and spontaneous way these objects feel because they have been constructed quickly and fairly sloppily. Although I would like to see the sculptures on a bigger scale it would be hard to get the same effect of haziness and sketchiness.  20180321_131528 (800x400)Looking for a semi-matte base glaze with which to experiment I found this simple recipe online at https://ceramicartsnetwork.org/daily/ceramic-glaze-recipes/low-fire-glaze-recipes/easy-peasy-cone-04-glaze-recipes/

Satin Base Glaze Cone 4 (1168C)
Frit                  50                    (used Borax)
Kaolin             20
Dolomite        30

I added 10% coloured stains in different proportions of colour to this to try and match the colours found in tram interiors in Gothenburg. The orange, yellow and light blue are prefect although the pink was supposed to be red and the blue is too purple. Unfortunately on the black stoneware these glazes bubble but I still intend to use these glazes to decorate my original ‘sketches’ in clay – the haziness of the colour might work to reflect the blurriness of memory and the patchiness might reference the dirtiness of the trams.

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Over the next two weeks I’m going to continue working with this collage technique but in a white low firing clay, hopeful the juxtaposition of these ‘sketched’ sculptures and a smooth, uniform and neatly coloured glaze will create impact. I’m going to try working on a slightly bigger scale so that there is some different in height levels in the final staircase exhibition. I have tried placing some objects on the stairs already to see how they look in this different context but the dark colour of the clay means they are lost against the surroundings. I hope the bright colours will change this and create a sense of playfulness and intrigue. I also plan to create more accurate blue and red glazes, a grey and a lemon yellow. 

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A Gothenburg tram interior : http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/T_Gothenburg.html

Plaster casting and Mummified Space

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

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

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‘One hundred spaces’ -resin casts of the space underneath chairs (1997) by Rachel Whiteread. Image source: https://www.wikiart.org/en/rachel-whiteread/untitled-one-hundred-spaces-1997

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

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

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

Vessel Project Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

 

 

 

 

The Body and the Vessel: Workshop with Matilda Haggärde

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

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

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

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

Structural Materialist Film

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

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

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

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