The Body and the Vessel: Workshop with Matilda Haggärde

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

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

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

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

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The Beauty of Shadows

I’ve come to the realisation that much of my recent ceramic work has been concerned with ‘the vessel’ without myself being conscious of it. The deconstruction of traditional ceramic bowls and cylinders on the wheel and then reconfiguration of these recognisable vessel forms into a new form with openings that also contains space and holds volume has been central to these experiments.
Our seminar discussing the vessel threw up the question ‘Can’t anything be a vessel or a container?’. Everything is made up of something, even atoms contain a nucleus, electrons and forces of energy. Every sculptural three dimensional form with an inside or outside, despite serving no functional purpose contains in it connotations and metaphors, layers of meaning as well as air, space, darkness or light. Many of the traditional South American vessels at the archives on Tuesday were empty but their insides were a secret, invisible from the outside, guarded from view by the shell of the exterior. These forms contained darkness.
I keep coming back to the small tomb sculpture at the Potteries museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Something about this artefact and the way it holds light, containing a spotlight in the darkness of its interior resonates deeply with me. I recently read Tanazaki’s essay ‘In Praise of Shadows’ in which he discusses Japanese laquerware and how it’s subtle beauty can only be appreciated in the dimness of candlelight : “I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still dark pond, a beauty I had not before seen”.

One of the ideas that interested me in the seminar was how objects and things can contain memory, both physically like a USB stick, metaphorically like an old heirloom or more abstractly like the brain and body. My intention though is to focus on something perhaps equally ungraspable  – light. Memories feel real and they’re how we navigate the world and construct our current realities but they are only the creations of a complex organ in the body. Light similarly feels concrete and controllable, but the more you think about it , the more magical and abstract it seems. How can I create vessels that hold light, not in the sense of lamps or candle holders but vessels that hold light and shadow in their form, that capture light (whether natural or artificial I haven’t decided yet) and play with the tones of shadow.

The idea isn’t fully formed yet and I expect to deviate along the way, but it’s a starting point. Light and darkness control our lives. I feel more of my attention will be drawn towards that here in Sweden where the hours of daylight are short in winter but the extreme opposite is the case in summer where up north you can even experience the midnight sun.

I feel especially inspired by an exhibition on at Gothenburg’s public library at the moment, ‘Daylight and Objects’ by Daniel Rybakken, which explores illumination. His collection of sculpture objects made from glass and aluminium that border the line between furniture design and installation art (perhaps like Donald Judd) reflect and diffuse the artificial light in the environment to create the illusion of natural light. His theory is: ‘A lack of natural light in a space can create a feeling of being enclosed. An illusion of daylight creates a feeling of an expanded perceived space by giving information about what lies beyond the physical space. The presence of daylight lowers the contrast between the indoor and the outdoor.’  This knowledge must be known by people who work with space – interior designers and architects. I’m particularly interested in the architect Renzo Piano as an advocate for the use of glass and the importance of buildings that let in light. Perhaps optical illusions with light is a path I should explore in the next weeks.

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Surface Daylight (2009-2011)

 

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Right angle mirror (2010) – the illusion of an object suspended in space

Field: Development into 3D

In my tutorial with David last week we discussed colour theory and the way putting colour on the back of flat planes can reflect the light in a halo of that colour around the edges. As an example he suggested I look at the first year fine art project displayed on the third floor – I hadn’t looked closely enough at these to notice the optical effect before but it makes the images pop. I glued some coloured paper to the back of my cardboard cutouts and the result above shows a very subtle halo of green and red light shining behind them. It reminds me of the hazy reflection of light you get on overcast days like the ones we had at Port Eynon. If I manage to make some of these in porcelain paper clay I could glaze the backs to get a similar effect.

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After Laura’s plaster casting workshop I was keen to try printing onto plaster because I hadn’t tried it before and I saw the opportunity to make more slab-like forms which I could assemble as a kind of theatrical scenery. I rolled coils of clay and pressed these onto an inked up plate, creating walls around different sections. Next I poured in plaster to a thickness of about 1cm and reinforced the back with scrim. I mixed up two lots of 2 pints water/plaster so I didn’t have to do the whole plate at once. I should have been much neater with the clay by cutting walls from a slab because I would have had to file down the edges less this way. The resulting sections are a bit too thick – maybe I could have poured the plaster sooner. On the plus side, lots of detail came out from the intaglio plate.
I then set these upright in a bed if plaster (4 pints) which again, was poured a bit late so looks like icing slapped onto a cake with a palette knife. The scene looks a bit naff and reminds me more of a snowscene with ice and glaciers than a beach. I like the idea of placing a second inked up plate onto the drying plaster then hanging up the sections when they’re dry so the print is shown on both sides.

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I also tried using coloured slips and sgarffito on slabs of clay. Inspired by Morgan’s Vicarious Wednesday talk I tried using paper resist stencils but discovered I have very little patience when it comes to decorating. Hopefully the slabs below will fire black and white.

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Slips brushed on White St.T

I’ve also been working on making paperclay for the first time. Porcelain casting slip can’t be used for this purpose so instead I had to use porcelain from a bag. I dried out the clay then ground it to a powder in a pestle and mortar, added water, then let it slake down overnight. In the morning I poured off excess water and soaked the paper pulp (ratio of 1:3 to the clay) for 2 hours before sieving it (60 mesh) to get rid of excess water. I mixed the paper and slip together by hand but the consistency was very lumpy so Matt showed me how to use the glaze mixer which blends the paper pulp into a smooth consistency.

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Sieving the slaked down porcelain before adding paper pulp
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Glaze mixer

I made up an ink with black underglaze, a small amount of borax frit to make it less powdery (about 5% is ideal) and copperplate oil. The powders were sieved through 200 mesh then the oil was added gradually, applied to the plate and rubbed off with scrim the same as with the intaglio ink. This afternoon I built a wall around the plate and poured in the porcelain paperclay slip with the hope it will be dry by tomorrow with the ink printed on. The underglaze should stay on when fired but it will need a transparent glaze to seal it. I’m worried the clay might not dry in time for tomorrow’s assessment so I may try using a heatgun to speed up the process.

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Inking up the plate

Frank Stella/Verity Howard

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La Penna di Hu

A sculpture is just a painting cut out and stood up somewhere – Frank Stella
David suggested I look at the work of American abstract painter Frank Stella. I’m particularly interested in his sculpture, in particular the series of monumental metal wall reliefs he made during the 1980s and 90s. The sculpture above is mixed media on etched magnesium, resin and fibreglass. It’s really hard to get a sense of what it’s like in life from the photo but the shadows behind make it float almost weightlessly. Wall reliefs are something I’ve never thought much about before but they’re interesting because they tread the line between painting and sculpture, 2D and 3D. I like this ambiguity.

My paper cut outs remind me of the work of ceramic artist Verity Howard who exhibited at ICF this year. She creates slab built work which is drawn and monoprinted onto exploring a sense of place. Verity’s mountain-like forms called ‘A Ley Landscape’ are a response to Victorian photographs documenting Alfred Watkins’s research into ley lines in rural Hertfordshire. The surfaces were monoprinted onto with grey slips which give the shapes a grainy, mysterious quality much like old black and white photos. She also created a series exploring windows and looking through them. A chiaroscuro effect is created by contrasting the dark clay body with porcelain inlays to suggest warmth and light inside buildings. I’m drawn to how her work conveys a sense of stillness and contemplation of the landscape.

I’ve been thinking lots about how the flat forms I am printing onto and constructing with are a lot like the painted scenery ‘flats’ for shows at the theatre. Painted sceneries are similar to the way the landscape of our everyday lives manifests itself in our memories and dreams. They are two dimensional and simplified and similarly, the landscape in our minds doesn’t exist in reality. It’s distorted and intangible, made up of two dimensional snapshots.

Images: http://www.toledomuseum.org
http://www.canwoodgallery.com
http://www.degreeshow.mmu.ac.uk
https://www.verityhowardceramics.com/

Mythical Geographies

David suggested I work from my Port Eynon drawings on a larger scale using charcoal and to consider positive and negative spaces in order to think about how to start working three dimensionally from my sketches. I used the graphic work of Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida as a source of inspiration. His balance of black/white and positive/negative space has fed into today’s charcoal drawings below. Chillida’s 2D work translates well into sculptures because of how well defined the lines and forms are. My drawings are a little more ambiguous, the forms melt in and out of the paper and it’s difficult to say where lines start and end, which make it hard thinking of these as objects in clay. These drawings are inspired by the landscape but are not of any landscape we would recognise – they are almost Dali-esque in their blobiness…

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I started exploring space by photocopying my drypoint/monoprint, sticking these to mountboard then cutting out forms which slot together. These remind me of the rock formations higher up on Port Eynon beach. I like the way cutting up the forms distorts the surface pattern, the lines are no longer recognisable to me and take on a kind of life of their own. I also like the way these flat objects remind me of theatrical scenery.

I’m thinking of recreating the decoration by using slips and transfers on porcelain slabs. I like the quality of line and depth of tone/pattern a lot, they remind me a bit of the illustrations of Dave Mckean. I don’t feel very confident working with slabs and I don’t know much about printing onto ceramics so this is an opportunity to gain some new skills. Verity Howard’s work might be worth looking into in more depth.

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Narrative and Metaphor

This week’s subject based field focus was on narrative and metaphor in drawing.

We drew inspiration from last week’s exercise of drawing our individual pathways through the university and the way these lines crossed and intersected when laid on top of one another. This, we thought, was symbolic of the way our lives are woven together like individual threads in a messy ball of yarn. The pathways through the building could be metaphors for our journeys through life, full of twists, turns and unexpected encounters. We considered how all of us group members were like converging lines at this point in time, although for some of us, our lines had crossed previously, sometimes with us being aware and sometimes without.

Originally we wanted to use tracing paper to layer line journeys in different colours but decided the effect would work just as well by drawing them all together on a large sheet of paper using different colour sharpies. It was a really fun activity to do because we found ourselves trying to devise storylines for the characters whose ‘life lines’ we drew. A black line for a reclusive character who’s only interaction is with the shopkeeper on the corner street who he meets on the rare occasions he leaves the house. A complicated tangle of lines for a couple having an affair. The parallel lines of two siblings growing up together then gradually going their separate ways. The undulating lines suggest the ups and downs of life. The physical activity of drawing on such a large sheet of paper required us to climb over it and lean in awkward positions a bit like when playing Twister – the game itself a kind of metaphor for entanglement and the crossing of lives.

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