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.

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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.

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.

 

Layering slip and glaze

Here I’ve tested to see what effects can be had when layering slips and glazes onto ash white stoneware.

  1. White slip with turquoise glaze on top produces crazing in straight lines underneath a patchy shiny green.
  2. Reversing the above with the white slip on top creates a dry, textured matte surface which doesn’t flake or peel.
  3. My favourite – yellow/green glaze with blue slip painted on top forms islands of matte dark blue over a shiny surface with a very painterly effect. I like this rough, uneven texture which might look exciting on a large scale.
  4. The same as 3 but with turquoise glaze on top – this looks like a painted landscape with lots of variations of blue and hundreds of tiny bubbles encased in the surface.

I expected the slips to run off the surface when fired but the addition of glaze works to stick the raw and bisque fired clays together.

 

Testing my clay

Firing tests
The test tiles I made from clay sourced from my local area in North Wales were fired at different temperatures between 1000C and 1280C. It’s possible to see just from the images below that this clay is low-firing since it even begins to warp and turns a dark  red/purple at 1100C. Any higher than this and it begins to melt to fill the tray, bubbling and becoming metallic. Visible on the tile fired to 1000C are white deposits on the clay which are probably sodium and potassium salts. These act as fluxes and indicate the clay may start to melt as it gets to higher temperatures, which is proven on the higher fired tiles. Clays high in silica tend to puddle at higher temperatures. My raw clay is a dark green-grey colour which suggests the presence of carbon.

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Raw clay
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1000C
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1100C
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1200C
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1280C Oxidation
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1280C Reduction

Porosity
To test for porosity I boiled the test tile fired to 1000C for 1 hour. I weighed it before and after boiling. The tile turned out to weigh exactly the same before and after (80.2g), showing when fired to this temperature it has a porosity of 0. The clay has reached it’s maturing temperature at just 1000C so it’s a very low firing clay.

Shrinkage
After air drying the 10cm line on the tiles shrunk to 9.4cm showing a shrinkage of 6%. However, after firing to 1000C it shrunk further to 8.5cm which is a shrinkage of 15%.

I also weighed out a 100g ball of the clay and fired it to 1000C. The fired ball weighed 76.3g – a 23.7% decrease in weight.

Acid test
To test for the presence of limestone (calcium carbonate)  in my clay, I placed a small lump in dilute hydrochloric acid. No fizzing (carbon dioxide released) took place which proves there was no limestone in the clay. This is supported by the fact geological survey maps show no evidence of carbonate materials in the area I sourced it.

Glaze tests

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The three tiles above show slip made from my clay brushed on the left hand side. Different amounts of glaze materials have been mixed with the clay along the tiles. The first tile shows my clay as it mixes with wood ash. A ratio of one part clay to two parts wood ash produces a warm khaki colour. Equal measure of both creates a dark brown while a ratio of two parts clay to one part wood ash makes a dark purple/brown. The wood ash on its own is on the right hand side of the tile.

Below this is the clay mixed with potash feldspar. A small amount of this feldspar mixed with my clay produces very reflective brown glazes, however a very small amount of clay produces a subtle and attractive pale blue-green like a blackbird’s egg. Potash feldspar (also known as Orthoclase) is the commonest of the 12 types of feldspar. It’s an important glaze material and is used as a flux in bodies.

Below this is my clay mixed with whiting creating different shades of green. My application of the glazes is a bit splotchy, next time I know to paint on more than one layer and aim for a more even coating. I like the effects of mixing two parts potash or whiting to one part clay and I plan to make up a batch of these greens to use on vessels.