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:

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.


Birthday Glaze

20180209_161019 (600x800).jpgRenata held a fun glaze workshop with us in which we made a glaze based on our date of birth. We randomly chose glaze materials to mix in proportion to the year, month and day we were born. By comparing each other’s glazes we could get a good idea of how each material behaves when fired.

My glaze was the result of mixing a high proportion of whiting with some dolomite and ball clay and a small amount of Wood ash. Fired to stoneware temperature the result is a very dry, matte  and slightly flaky off -white/pale green glaze blending into pink lower down in a gradient effect. The ash has pooled in a shiny green line along the base where it has melted. It’s not suitable for functional ware because it hasn’t fully melted, but I’m excited to use it to decorate sculptural forms.

Whiting (calcium carbonate) acts as a flux and also creates matte effects (as does dolomite). Ball clay is a source of alumina and enhances glaze suspension. I want to make a series of glaze tests using the same four ingredients but changing their percentages so that I can get a better glaze fit.


The Meshwork of Objects PDP

My Level 5 study group was Jaqui Knight’s ‘The Meshwork of Objects’ which I chose because I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the holistic approach we took to how objects, bodies and environments are connected in last year’s ‘New Materialisms’. Jaqui introduced us to her own background in film and we discussed the genre of Structural Materialist film as a way to illustrate the concept of ‘Thingliness’. These films celebrate the materiality of film-making and stand as the antitheses of mainstream ‘Hollywood’ narrative ideology. Although difficult to enjoy and decode as they are non-linear and contain unexpected juxtapositions, they manage to render the invisible visible (by bringing to light the thingness of the film strip itself).

As a ceramics student I felt familiar with this concept of celebrating the material and the qualities it possesses, what might be called the non-human agencies at play in the co-creation of an artwork. After all, uniquely to my practice, clay (the material itself) not ideas or concepts is at the core of everything I make. As a material that can be shaped then re-claimed and re-modelled, clay is ideal to illustrate the idea that objects are only punctuation points in the life of things. The fragility of fired clay utensils also serves to remind us that all objects are in a state of flux. When a mug smashes, the object is not destroyed so much as transformed. We are all re-incarnated stars, punctuation points in the flow of matter just as any other object is. This learning has made me question the hierarchy we place ourselves on top of and instead I have been introduced to the perspective that we are simply ‘things amongst other things’.

The most useful aspect of this study group for me was our trip to Cardiff museum. Having visited the museum before to see exhibitions and collections it was a very different experience to look around focusing solely on how the objects had been displayed. I felt I was walking around with a renewed awareness, questioning everything and realising that even the things we take for granted such as the size of the steps, the brightness of the lighting and thickness of the glass have all been designed. This meshwork we had been discussing became visible.

A significant idea we discussed was how the ‘thingliness’ of objects becomes visible only when we are making something or when an object breaks down. We only really consider things in relation to us as humans. In a similar way we only pay attention to space when the usual order is disrupted in some way, for example we are pushed past in a queue.

Previously in my ceramic practice I made objects without much thought about what would become of them in the future. As a result of this understanding that we are all entangled in a meshwork I feel much more responsibility as an artist/designer to consider carefully what I am putting out into the world and how this impacts/ruptures the meshwork. Considering the things I make from an ecological point of view becomes important. Is it really necessary to fire everything I create, which uses up valuable energy? I have also began to consider the practicalities of transporting the work I make as well as what kind of environment I desire it to be displayed in.

At first I felt worried this study group would not relate to my work and practice, after all I don’t think I want to be a curator. Gradually though I came to realise that it is as much a responsibility of the artist as the curator to consider how their work will be displayed as it has a huge impact on what and how the artwork communicates a message.

As a result of working together in class through complicated arguments in academic texts like Bill Brown’s Thing Theory, I feel more confident in deciphering these kinds of philosophical arguments myself as I am becoming more attuned to this style of writing and vocabulary. I still feel as though I understand the concepts to an extent but can’t put a name to the idea as I learnt when I had a tutorial last week with Jaqui. I explained my essay ideas and she suggested the terms ‘ecological aesthetics’ and ‘relational ontology’ were what I was exploring but I still don’t feel entirely confident explaining what these terms mean.

I felt last year I was so involved with looking at context that I failed to dedicate enough time to the other sections of the course. As a result this year I’ve focused more on subject with the aim of improving my throwing skills but as a result I didn’t attend any keynotes this year and missed two of the five constellation lectures. In hindsight I probably should have worked to get a more even balance as these would have been a huge help in writing the essay.

As a result of my study group I have certainly developed a more ‘relational’ way of thinking. The concepts we have explored have challenged my perception of what reality is. I see parallels with this in my recent experiences of cognitive behavioural therapy which suggests the reality we create for ourselves is all a matter of perspective and that if we recognise distorted thinking patterns we can change our emotions and how we perceive experiences. How we can live happier, more fulfilling lives is a key question I am trying to tackle, currently with my work and also by looking through frameworks learnt in Constellation.

Since exploring ideas around Japanese philosophy last year I have become preoccupied with concepts of stillness and balance as means of helping us to live more meaningful and happier lives. I believe raising an awareness of this entanglement of human and non-human agencies is a source of wonder and celebration, offering a more ecological perspective on life. As a result my essay is a proposal for a piece of public art which encourages a contemplation of the environment and our place in it.


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.


Composite Forms and Inside Spaces

Photos of a series of greenware sculptures I’ve been working on. Thrown and assembled in White st Thomas stoneware.


On the roundness of things

On Friday we spent the morning with Jon Clarkson in the ceramics archive room discussing the relationship between art and ceramics before having a chance to explore the archive documents ourselves. I came across an inspiring article in ‘Australian Ceramics’ magazine (47, #2) dating from July 2008. Written by Phil Elson it discusses ‘the roundness of things’ 

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The article raises some interesting philosophical ideas

‘This is what pots can do for us: take us to places that otherwise may be inaccessible – places that remind us of the roundness of life.’

When explaining what he means by this metaphor he quotes Mr Curly (a Michael Leunig character): ‘what seems vital is whether or not the day is spacious, in which case the roundness of the day is perhaps the most important factor. After all a round day holds happiness most successfully  – happiness itself being a rounded shape… it is the roundness of life which matters. A round life is surely a happy life – and I dare say – it is a good life’. 

I was struck by how beautiful this idea is, and it speaks to me of how simple pots are often the most wholesome and honest. There’s a stillness to Elson’s work that suggests the ‘presence’ he feels while working ‘in the moment’ with clay.

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He describes how you lose yourself in the moment while working with clay as: ‘We allow ourselves to be still, to be lost, to be in our own skin‘. This reminded me of a concept called ‘flow’ described in Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s eponymous book about the psychology of happiness. In a state of flow you focus so much on something e.g. a particular activity that you feel a special kind of stillness and contentment. I definitely feel this is true of the throwing process for me.

Elson also mentions coming to a point of unease about the work he was making three years previously and even considering giving up making pots altogether until a friend told him “The greatest contribution you can make is to be as close to yourself as you can possibly be.” This is a profound sentence and can be applied to everything in life. Surely to understand ourselves, what motivates us, what our fears are and to be honest with ourselves about our feelings is the first step to understanding what we are going to make. It feels sometimes as if the shapes are making themselves, pushing themselves out from our actions into existence.

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Quoting Bernard Leach he further suggests the pots we make are us : ‘The pot is the man: his virtues and vices are shown therein…no disguise is possible’. As someone who constantly and painfully compares myself to others, to be reminded that everything I make is unique and only I could have created it in that exact way, is a reassuring thought that my place here is somehow valuable.


I created a monster

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Here we are, right at the end of the year, and I finally feel I’ve found a process which really excites me. Combining throwing and hand-building I get the benefit of enjoying two very different techniques – the throwing is cathartic, a quick way of making lots of forms that hold space, then the hand-building is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, intuitive, taking careful consideration of the balance and weight of the piece.

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Work in progress

I want to see how far I can push this technique, how big I can build. The individual sections can be thrown fairly quickly, the slow process is the controlled drying and fitting together. Considering pieces were falling off even on this scale, it will be a challenge to create large scale work but I’m eager to try it. I might get hold of a heat gun to have more control over drying, secure joints with extra clay and use foam to prop up the structure as I’m working on it. The final centrepiece above feels organic, like a piece of driftwood or seaweed, but at the same time the even throwing lines and geometry of the form reference the industrial. I had some trouble with sections falling off before firing and during the raku as I tried to pull them out of the sawdust. Fortunately I could get them to stick back together with some epoxy. If building one large sculpture this way is too much trouble I can always fire lots of pieces separately then glue them together afterwards.

The glaze I made was intended to be blue, the same duck egg raku glaze I’ve used before (see recipe here) (with the omission of about 10% of the Tin oxide because it ran out). To get in the awkward nooks and crannies of the concave and convex forms I decided it would be easiest to use the spray gun. I’ll be using the spray booth a lot more often now I realise how easy it is.

I was surprised when the glaze came out of the sawdust a dark pink/purple but I expect it’s to do with ferric chloride left over in the kiln lining from previous firings. I’m pleased with the unexpected results – where the flame has licked the work it’s turned metallic silver and the surface has character and variation with patches of yellow, white, black and texture among the pink and purple. It reminds me a bit of an octopus or a squid reaching its suckers out to grasp its prey, or a homemade robot from Robot Wars. There’s something hostile and dangerous about it, perhaps because of the dark colour. The shadows created with the light from above in the photos give the sculpture a gravity defying look, as if parts are floating. Duncan suggested I should experiment with placing lights inside to see how different shadows can be cast.

This project has definitely been more process driven than idea orientated. Because of the raku there’s something dirty-looking, perhaps ugly about the piece. In the context of a centrepiece this links back to ideas I had at the beginning about dirty dishes. It’s not something that would put your mind at ease during a meal, for me it conjures up anger or a raging storm. I began by calling it a monster but maybe a storm would be more appropriate. It interests me that it looks very different depending on where you sit at the table. It’s dynamic, like the conversation at a good dinner table should be or it might also reference broken crockery. I’ve moved very far away from my original ideas of an interactive, functional object. I hope it would be an inspiring conversation starter.