My study group for this year’s Constellation Level 5 is Jacqui Knight’s ‘The Meshwork of objects: Reading, Mapping, Curating’.
In our introduction in week 1 we discussed whether a human is the sole author of an artwork or if the making of something is more of a co-operation of a person and the meshwork they’re involved in, which includes environment, history, culture etc. We also discussed ‘thingliness’ and how objects become ‘things’ when a) they stop working and b) when we make new stuff out of them. This reminded me of Martin Woodward’s lectures last year when we explored how tools and objects hide from view and have a power of themselves because of the way they rupture the order of the meshwork when they stop working or don’t behave as we want them to. Paper for example, might seem stative but we can get a nasty paper cut which shows the material has an agency of its own.
We spoke of Tim Ingold’s powerful theory that everything in the world is in a state of becoming, that objects are only punctuation points in the life of things. The laptop I’m typing this on is made of elements which will continue beyond the timeframe of its use as a laptop as well as beyond our timeframe as humans. This theory is perfectly summed up by the idea of a holistic ‘meshwork’ whereby we are accountable for everything we put out into the world because of a kind of ‘butterfly’ effect. It’s crucial in thinking about environmental issues too. As a ceramic student it is particularly interesting because I put the clay through irreversible chemical changes in the kiln. The ephemeral nature of the things I make can be illustrated by the way the clay I sculpt or throw with can be slaked down, reclaimed and re-formed into a new object.
Last Tuesday we made a trip to St Fagans National Museum of History just outside Cardiff – an open air museum which contains buildings from different historical eras from all over Wales. We were asked to identify the five things below as a starting point for making.
Functional artefact that intrigues you: Tiny windows
Surprisingly for me, the artefacts that I found most captivating were the buildings’ tiny windows. Lots of the houses at St Fagans where built at a time when glass was expensive or even when windows were uncovered and protected only by cloth or animal hide. As a result most are tiny squares that you have to make a conscious effort to interact with, looking in or out of. To us today, used to big windows that let in lots of light, the tiny windows appear almost prison-like.
I began thinking of how windows are interesting metaphors and remember discussing how in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights they are an important symbol of the division between nature and society, the threshold between the outside and inside world. Looking out of a window you can only see so far, you have a narrow viewpoint. Thinking about today’s ‘Collections’ presentation and how some of the images I chose were linked by the theme of ‘journeys’ ( a journey through life, travel, a walk…) it strikes me that in films looking out of windows often prefigures a long, soul searching journey, or at least the decision that something needs to change.
While researching windows in popular culture I then came across this short but fascinating article called ‘The importance of staring out the window’ which says
‘The point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is, rather, an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds’.
The article goes on to suggest that in a better society people would not have to feel guilty for daydreaming while staring out of windows, it would be seen as time well spent and reminded me of words from a poem called Leisure by WH Davies: ‘What is this life if, full of care We have no time to stand and stare.’
As a result of this train of through, I want to consider ways people could interact with objects I make by looking inside them through openings or ‘windows’ of sorts. I want to explore the spaces inside objects.
Playing around making tall forms on the wheel last week one of my pots got twisted and resulted in a beautiful swirling form inside the vessel. I love the throwing lines that are visible, they have a rhythm to them like a pulse or heartbeat. Could this interior form reference blood vessels, or the concentric rings of a tree trunk? Thinking about the power of repetition relating to collections, what if I had lots of forms similar to this, growing together?
2. Decorative artefact that complements its environment: Hanging objects
Not exactly decorative objects, but the way kitchen utensils were displayed by being hung, especially in the castle’s kitchen interested me. Although they’re useful artefacts they almost become a form of decoration. The rhythm of the vertical lines put me in mind of soundwave graphics as well as the first piece of work I ever saw by Anne Gibbs – a collection of hanging slip-cast forms.
3. Restful space: The Castle gardens
I came to the castle gardens toward the end of our day, looking for somewhere peaceful to sit down for a break. Thinking about working in this kind of environment I thought back to throwing at La Perdrix in France and how I enjoyed the peacefulness of working outside in nature. I decided if I was asked to create an outdoor sculpture to be situated at St Fagans it would be growing out of the lake like the lily pads.
4. Disturbing space: Bedroom at Abernodwydd Farmhouse
Carved into the headboard of the large sturdy four-poster bed was the word ‘death’ and a stick man holding what looks like a bow and arrow. It made me think of how much history the bed had, generations of families must have been born and died in the very same one. This farmhouse and the other ‘long-house’ Cilewent Farmhouse were dark, smoky and claustrophobic spaces even in the brightness of mid-day and would have only been lit by dim rushlights.
5. A building with an interesting human narrative: Prefab house ‘Tin palace’
This aluminium bungalow is an example of the prefab houses that appeared after the second world war to house people who had lost their homes in the bombings. With so many refugee crises in the world today, the housing crisis and people losing their homes due to rising water levels, it felt relevant to today’s world. These bungalows were manufactured by factories that produced aircraft during the war. Rather madly, a factory which, during the war created war machines to destroy homes, in peace time became a factory to rebuilt homes.
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’
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.
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.
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.
“People don’t live on the Disc any more than, in less hand-crafted parts of the multiverse, they live on balls. Oh, planets may be the place where their body eats its tea, but they live elsewhere, in worlds of their own which orbit very handily around the centre of their heads.” Terry Pratchett – The Last Continent
“All we have to believe with is our senses: the tools we use to perceive the world, our sight, our touch, our memory. If they lie to us, then nothing can be trusted.” Neil Gaiman- American Gods
“He wondered whether home was a thing that happened to a place after a while, or if it was something that you found in the end, if you simply walked and waited and willed it long enough.” Neil Gaiman – American Gods
“Look at me, more than thirty years have passed and I am different. It’s not true that memories stay fixed in the mind, frozen: they, too, go astray, like the body. Yes, I remember a time when I was different. I would like to be the girl in the book: I would be happy also just to have been her, but I never was. It wasn’t I who attracted the Englishman. I remember that I was malleable, like clay in his hands. My love affairs…that’s what interests you, right? Well, they are fine where they are: in my memory, faded, withered with a trace of perfume, like a collection of dried flowers. In yours they have become shiny and bright like plastic toys. I don’t know which are more beautiful” – Primo Levi – A Tranquil Star
“Distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.” – Jonah Lehrer
“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased, ” Polo said. ” Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” – Italio Calvino
Reading Italio Calvino’s ‘Invisible cities’ is raising some interesting questions. The chapters on city and memory stand out in particular. In the book, according to Marco Polo, all the cities he describes are in fact Venice and having now visited the place myself I’m thinking about what my memory of the place was like. Someone else visiting the city might have a completely different impression of it. The word ‘Venice’ would conjure up two different realities for each of us, and who’s to say which is the ‘real’ Venice? Before you go to a city you have an idea of what it will be like based on your memory of other cities. When you go to a new one, you compare it to other places you’ve been, leaving you with a different view of what the past was like. The past is ever-changing.
To what extent does memory shape the self? Without my memory would I be just a shell? I think of Jason Bourne, battling against his amnesia, trying to piece together fragments of the past, being hunted down for somebody he used to be. I look back at old photos of myself and say that was me but sometimes I have no memory of being that person. Other times, when I do remember, I suspect the memories are warped and exaggerated. The cells that made up that old me died years ago, physically I have been replaced with new matter but my memory is the thread that ties me to these past selves.
SKILL I have significantly developed my throwing skills and now feel much more confident on the wheel.
IDEA I enjoy the process but rather than seeing it as a means to an end, I see it as the start of a process of construction.
CONTEXT I feel inspired by the work of Gordon Baldwin I saw at COCA York as well as Carnia Ciscato at Collect ’17 who hand-build with thrown forms. Unlike slabs the clay holds some of the energy and motion of the wheel and has a springiness and tension to the touch. IDEA I’m interested in the idea of a piece showing traces of how it was made.
IDEA Idea of trace and memory was important in café society project. I wanted to create mugs for a café that would be a piece of home in Cardiff for when I felt homesick and missed the wild, rural landscape of North Wales. I hope to saggar fire them with combustibles from home so the surface holds a physical trace of the landscape. I focused on throwing a particular shape – a mug I remembered from home, but when I found a picture of it afterwards I realised my memory of the object was different to reality. How reliable are our memories?
IDEA This idea of the unreliability of our senses was further explored in Constellation – New materialisms. We drew an object from touch then from sight and it made me think about what I think I know as opposed to what I actually know. How does our memory influence how we interpret the present?
SKILL/CONTEXT I enjoyed the screenprinting field lab where we learnt about colour theory and played with the placing of colour. I’d already been interested in learning how to make coloured slips and thinking of the clay more as a canvas for painting on but the field project inspired me to work more in colour, especially for the pop art oil lamps.
SKILL Influenced by the paper stencils we used in the field screen printing I learnt how to use the laser cutter to cut my own paper stencils for the pop art project, with crisp sharp lines to suggest advertising graphics and mass production. Also with these oil lamps I began exploring the idea of building with thrown forms, and discovered the difficulty of controlled drying.
IDEA Realised with this technique that I was interested in the theme of balance. It’s something I have explored a bit in the past, exploring how the body balances on my foundation course. CONTEXT I came across Lisa Krigel’s stacking forms at Made in Roath and became interested in the compositions of balancing dirty dishes in the kitchen. CONTEXT My constellation essay examines the philosophy of balance in relation to eastern philosophy and the ceramics of Bernard leach, looking at balance creates harmony in art as well as everyday life
CONTEXT After coming back from France and playing games around the dinner table I wanted the centrepiece to be interactive or a kind of game. However, I was much more interested in taking a process driven rather than schematic approach, so worked through playing with the clay.
CONTEXT Wouter dam inspired forms.
SKILL Going back to the idea of trace, I like work that shows signs of how it has been fired as well and am drawn to more experimental firing techniques such as raku and the pit firings we did with Mick and over Easter. I like the firing being an experience in itself not just something that has to happen. Reading about mindfulness and Eastern Philosophy has made me not want to think of any part of my making process as a means to an end, but as an experience to be enjoyed of itself.
I feel this year I’ve focused (although not as much as I could have) on improving my throwing skills. It’s a process I enjoy, but rather than viewing it as a means to an end, I see it as more as a starting point for the process of construction, much like artists Wouter Dam, Carina Ciscato and Walter Keeler.
I began the first project ‘Many a Slip’ trying to repeat throw a particular form – that of a distinctively shaped mug I remembered from home. I discovered though, when I found a picture of the actual mug, that my memory of the object was distorted, a caricature of a mug. This made me think of how unreliable memory is and blind drawing exercises in the New Materialisms Constellation study group explored these ideas of how we perceive with our senses further. This idea of memory and trace fed into the ‘Cafe Society’ project. My cafe was to be a piece of home in Cardiff, somewhere I could go to escape the busy city and feel I was back in the wild, mountainous landscape of North Wales. The layout of the place would be similar to my favourite coffee shop in Dolgellau – T.H.Roberts, the old ironmongers, the top floor kitted out with second hand sofas, and they would serve the local speciality – Popty’r Dre’s honey buns.
I made a series of my ‘home’ mugs which I hope to saggar fire tomorrow with combustibles sourced from the Dolgellau area – seaweed and shells from Barmouth beach and sheep wool and lichen from the farmers fields on the foot of Cader Idris. I want the surfaces of the mugs to show a physical trace of my home. The project has made me think of the things I take for granted and how your memory of a place can change when you move away and grow older. It makes me think of Malcolm Pryce’s Aberystwyth Noir novel series – about an alternative underworld Aberystwyth which he only began to write about when he moved away from the place.
With the handbuilding of thrown forms I find myself returning to the theme of balance, which happened to be what I wrote my final Constellation essay about. I find my making process if becoming more and more process driven rather than schematic and pre-planned. I find I like to play with the material and discover ways sections want to fit together harmoniously and naturally rather than trying to bring a drawing or plan into being. This thinking has definitely been influenced by learning about ideas of the agency of materials in Constellation. I feel as a result though that I’ve abandoned research a bit and work in sketchbooks less than I used to.
I noticed this change of thinking most when I came to the final ‘Centrepiece’ project and originally wanted to make an interactive piece or a game, but realised I didn’t want to work to a plan. It’s also becoming more and more important to me that what I make shows a trace of how it’s been made. This is why I like the flow of throwing lines and marks where the fire has licked the clay in kilns that aren’t electric fired. I hope to move away from the standard oxidation electric kiln firings next year. I’d especially to learn how to use the gas kilns for reduction firings and look more in depth at alternative firing methods like raku, saggar and wood firing. I liked the unexpected, uneven results and surface textures you get this way, like the ones on my final centrepiece.
Looking through my blog I feel it would help to post a summary of my developing ideas at the end of each week next year so I can see a more clear progression. Also I’d like to upload films of myself working so I can more dynamically document the skills and techniques I’m learning.