A friend sent me this quote she found on tumblr today. I feel it’s the missing link I’ve been searching for, linking ideas of slowness and memory that I’ve been interested in this term…
“There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting. Consider this utterly commonplace situation: a man is walking down the street. At a certain moment, he tries to recall something, but the recollection escapes him. Automatically, he slows down. Meanwhile, a person who wants to forget a disagreeable incident he has just lived through starts unconsciously to speed up his pace, as if he were trying to distance himself from a thing still too close to him in time.
In existential mathematics, that experience takes the form of two basic equations: the degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.” – Milan Kundera
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.
Today’s skype call was with Irish ceramic artist Kathleen Moroney whose work is concerned with the interaction of space and movement, especially movement you can barely see like the passage of time. She explained how she was inspired by Susan Sontag‘s idea that something is accentuated in the opposite. For example, if something is silent, you can’t help but notice sound and if something is still, you can’t help thinking about movement. In order to explore movement in relation to the whole body, she became involved with dance workshops and learning about Japanese dance theatre called butoh. Her ideas about how dance brings you into a mindful state of being ‘in the moment’ resonated with me because of how I want the work I make to cause the viewer to experience a moment of calm contemplation as if looking out of a window. I was particularly interested about how she spoke of the wheel being the only tool that brings together time, space and movement, and the way working on a kickwheel in particular is so focused on the movement of the body that it’s a kind of performance art. Her spinning tops are an effort to capture that moment just before collapse, the way the clay on the wheel can look still when centred despite spinning at a fast speed.
Kathleen spoke about the importance of being happy in yourself, of feeling ‘centred’ and used the centering of clay as a metaphor. My interpretation is this: when we focus in on ourselves and attain a happiness that can’t be altered by outside events, our energy is focused, whereas if we focus too much outside of ourselves and are not in touch with our own thoughts and motivations, energy is wasted worrying. Kathleen spoke of how for every step we make visible there are hundreds of unseen steps through thought and emotion which lead to an action, so movement begins deep inside us.
She also described the loss of self-consciousness that comes with working in repetition but the paradox of this that when you become used to something, you also stop looking. Which brings me back again to the theme of balance, in life and in art. The forms I have being making recently are an effort to balance form and space, as I remember my old graphic design tutor telling us that the spaces between the words and images are just as important as the words and images themselves. Kathleen explained that in Japanese philosophy (and the wabi sabi aesthetic) empty space is perceived as energy.
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.
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.