Memory

“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.

 

Summative Powerpoint

Slide1

  1. 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.

Slide2

  1. 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.

Slide3

  1. 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?

Slide4

  1. 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?

Slide5

  1. 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.

Slide6

  1. 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.

Slide7

  1. 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

Slide8

  1. 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.  Slide9

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.

Summative powepoint

L4 Subject Summative PDP

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Things can be otherwise – I’m a bucket becoming a fire

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.

 

 

The Philosophy of Balance: Japanese Ceramics and Material Agency

In the 1920s the renowned potter and so called ‘Father of British studio pottery’ Bernard Leach brought to the UK from Japan a ceramic aesthetic completely at odds with the ware being produced by UK companies and studio potters at the time. These pots, greatly inspired by Leach’s close friend and master Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, exhibited an elegance and naturalness of form and spontaneity of decoration that had no counterpart in the west. Emphasis was on abstract patterns, natural coloured glazes (often derived from wood ash) and evidence of the potter’s hand in response to materials. Leach’s work was a marriage of artistic aesthetics from the east and west and my aim is to further explore the nature of his work’s beauty.
I propose that not only was his pottery a balance between east and west, it was also, in the tradition of Japanese ceramic aesthetics, a balance of maker and material, of human and non-human forces and therefore has connections with modern ecological interpretations of material agency. To understand better the nature of this beauty we must first explore some of the Japanese philosophy central to the culture’s ceramic tradition.

Much Japanese thinking, and as a consequence its art forms, stems from a mixture of Shinto, Taoist, Confucian and Buddhist ideology and in contrast to the west, philosophy and religion are often intertwined. In the Shinto tradition of the cult of nature all things natural and even those inanimate; the sun, the mountains, plants and rocks are worshipped and viewed as divine, rejecting the idea of the human mind at the centre of existence. This reverence of nature can be seen as a recognition of the power of matter and materials which is supported by less human-centric philosophers today such as Harman who believes ‘tool-beings unleash their forces upon us’ (Harman, 2002) and describes anything that has an effect on the world as a form of technology, whether manmade or not. In this way, a volcano could be said to be technology, although it behaves independent of human forces. Therefore we might say the volcano has agency and with this thinking comes the suggestion that we are shaped by the world around us as much as we shape it.
This theory has parallels with what political ecologist Jane Bennett calls ‘the vitality of things’: ‘By “vitality” I mean the capacity of things – edibles, commodities, storms, metals – not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own.’ (Bennett, 2010 pg.viii). Bennett challenges the notion that matter is passive and inert. She surmises ‘Humanity and nonhumanity have always performed an intricate dance with each other’ and proposes we look ‘beyond the life-matter binary’. To sum up the western human-centric view of agency ‘The philosophical project of naming where subjectivity begins and ends is too often bound up with fantasies of a human uniqueness in the eyes of God’(Bennett, 2010 pg. ix).
Potters and craftspeople already have an innate understanding of this ‘intricate dance’ of agencies. Working specifically with natural materials reinforces the notion that materials have their own agency and I believe Leach’s work to be an example of an artist exploring Bennet’s ‘vitality of things’, respecting and co-operating with the clay. This is something missing from much of the art history of the west which has traditionally adopted a Cartesian attitude to making, with the belief that everything has an original essence or nature that it derives from. This idea of a ‘perfect original’ may have influenced our emphasis on schematic design in the west. In pottery factories across Europe, imperfections were discarded because they didn’t meet the quality of the perfect original. Rather than celebrating the accidents and individual reactions of the materials in the kiln, they were seen as ‘wrong’, as rejects.
This contrasts directly with the Japanese philosophy of aesthetics where imperfections are seen to be beautiful. For hundreds of years, Japanese ‘unomi’ (tea bowls) have been prized, precisely for their imperfections. Their asymmetry, cracks, uneven rims and crazed glazes were taken to be a unique kind of beauty, a notion we struggled with to understand in the west perhaps until recent times when the aesthetic of ‘shabby chic’ has become fashionable and furniture with signs of wear and tear (whether authentic or not) have become desirable in the home. Traditional Japanese tea bowls for tea ceremonies, when cracked, were not discarded. Instead the cracks were fixed with gold lacquer, emphasising their imperfections. The realisation that the tea-bowl will continue after you are dead is supposed to raise an awareness of the transience of life. This style of Japanese aesthetic characterised by simplicity, natural materials and admiration of imperfections is called ‘wabi-sabi’. Leach’s inspiration is derived from this philosophy and way of living.
I propose that wabi-sabi, as an aesthetic that relies of the co-operation of man and the environment, is a celebration of what we now call material agency or as Bennett calls it ‘thing-power’. Like Bennett, Tim Ingold has similarly explored ideas of a craftsman making as a co-operation of agencies: ‘far from standing aloof, imposing his designs on a world that is ready and waiting to receive them, the most he can do is intervene in worldly processes that are already going on  (Ingold, 2013, pg.21)’.
Soetsu Yanagi, a close friend of Leach, summarises this idea of making best in a letter to Leach ‘we enjoy those pots most which are born and not made’ (Leach, 2015, pg.288). Similarly Ingold describes making as a process of growth, of an interaction, or reshaping of ‘active materials’. Do works of art continue to grow after they have been made? If a tea bowl develops cracks after being used ritually to drink tea from, is the material still growing?

It might be helpful to think of things wabi sabi then as indexical drawings, documentations of the ways human and non-human forces have an effect on one another. Iversen describes indexical drawings as ‘a registration of something unique’ or ‘graphic traces’ (Iversen, 2012) but more generally we can think of them as an action that causes something to have an effect on another thing. So a tea bowl with cracks from use might be viewed instead as an indexical drawing of time, use or the weather. I would loosely describe Leach’s work as indexical drawings in that his pots are celebrations of the agency of materials. Leach’s work exhibits the tenet of ‘truth to materials’ which became popular with the British arts and crafts movement in the late 19th century after the Industrial revolution and later with the Bauhaus artists working as his contemporaries. The idea of this philosophy was to celebrate materials in their natural state, not to disguise them as something else.
But how exactly do Japanese ceramic aesthetics and Leach’s pots illustrate this co-operation of agencies? Firstly, I propose we look at the style of decoration. Decoration on Japanese ceramics and many examples of Leach’s work can be characterised by two main distinctive features; the presence of large amounts of empty space, and loose, gestural brushwork. Regarding the presence of emptiness, thinking back to the main philosophies of Japan, Taoism teaches that the wholeness that exists in the universe is all in the expression of dual forms e.g. hot and cold or light and dark and so perfection and completeness can only be achieved with the balance of forces. The prevalence of empty space in Japanese art may be an expression of the importance of this Taoist duality – of space and emptiness, or ‘In view of the influence of Taoism and Zen on this art form, the relative emptiness of the canvas can be understood as an evocation of the nothingness that forms the context of all particular things’ (Parkes, 1995 pg.90). This dichotomy of yin yang can be seen in the co-dependency of the will of the human mind and the random forces of nature to create what Leach calls an aesthetic of ‘supreme beauty and truth (Leach, 2015).

Confucianism more practically focuses on how this emphasis on duality can be a force for creating a better society, with a balance of forces between the intuitive and rational. For much of western history, the natural, intuitive side of human nature has been repressed when it comes to art. The focus of western ceramics at the time of Leach was on traditional, precise decoration which contrasted starkly with the spontaneous and intuitive brushwork decorating the ceramics of the likes of Japanese potters. Pattern rather than realistic depiction was seen as the highest form of decorating for them. Yanagi hypothesises ‘there are many ways of seeing, but the truest and best is with the intuition…pattern is born when one reproduces the intuitively perceived essence’ (Yangagi 1974, pg.114). Pattern therefore is seen as less removed from nature than what we would call a ‘realistic’ image, since pattern is born from our intuition and bypasses the rational side of our brain, making it more true to reality.
Patterns in the Japanese tradition are closely related to calligraphy. The term ‘hakeme’ is given to the loose brushwork effect of slip applied with simple materials such as cotton rags or slip brushes made of hemp or fibre. Drawing from Dogen’s idea of ‘body-mind’ the Zen aim was to paint with the condition of no-mind with awareness distributed through the whole body so you become the subject and the brush becomes an extension of the body. This union of mind and body is the crux of Eastern philosophy and so many Japanese art forms including the tea ceremony. This has similarities to Ingold’s proposal of ‘making longitudinally rather than laterally’ and the co-operation he describes in ‘Making’: ‘in the act of making the artisan couples his own movements and gestures – indeed his very life – with the becoming of his materials, joining with and following the forces and flows that bring his work into fruition’ (Ingold, 2013). Leach and Hamada’s free style of decorating recognise and respect the agency of clay, glaze materials and tools.
In Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie’s TED talk ‘How to truly listen’ she talks of the difference between someone making music thinking of themselves as a ‘technician’ and someone who sees themselves as a ‘musician’. Good musicians become at one with their instruments, they no longer play the instrument, but play themselves. She describes the way holding drumsticks looser, as if they’ve become part of the arm means she feels ‘at one with the stick and at one with the drum’ (Glennie, 2003) and can play more expressive dynamics but with less effort. The same can be said of the calligraphic style of glaze decoration on Leach and Hamada pots. You can tell from the vitality and energy of their mark-making that the brush wasn’t held stiffly but that the movement was a union of body and tool. Like Glennie, they thought of the arm as a ‘support system’ for the tool rather than as a detached thing.

I suggest this questioning of where the ‘mind’ or ‘body’ ends and tools and materials begin has parallels with one of the main characteristics of Buddhist existence: ‘anatman’, in other words a rejection of ‘the self’. The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna proposed that not only is there no ‘self’, ‘there is no such thing as fundamental essence of nature of anything’ (Billington, 1997),arguing that since the world is in a constant state of changing and ageing, we can only know one thing in relation to another. The Buddhist belief in reincarnation might reinforce the idea that matter is in a constant state of flow and the objects we perceive are only a pause in the flow of materials for a limited amount of time. They may go on changing indefinitely. In his essay ‘On the undermining of objects’ Graham Harman includes Giordano Bruno’s views on matter: ‘there is no genuine form in the world other than the world soul (Harman, 2002)’. This description of the impermanence of things resonates with the wabi-sabi aesthetic. The beauty of forms lies in the fact they are ever changing. Growth and decay is part of life and Eastern philosophy, especially Zen Buddhism teaches that it is crucial to accept this.
Leach writes of Japanese ceramic aesthetics ‘the nature of the beauty discovered by the tea masters is in the first place – non individualistic’ (Leach, 2015). This unique beauty of non-individualism can be seen to stem from the necessity of early Eastern pottery, especially that of white Korean slipware, to be functional: ‘utility is the first principle of beauty (Leach, 2015)’. These pots and bowls were simple utensils made for peasants without any need to be beautiful. In these simple, unpretentious pieces the Cha no yu (tea masters of Japan) recognised an unusual form of beauty which can be summed up with the idea that “merely doing” something is in itself a great source of beauty, implying as it does a state of freedom not bound by concepts of beauty, much less fear of the ugly’ (Yanagi 1972, pg. 173). The freedom in this non-individualistic form of beauty may also refer to a co-operation between material and the human mind rather than the human mind’s imposition on nature.
The focus on dual forms is important to understand Buddhist ideas of beauty. In Buddhism true beauty only exists where there is no distinction between beauty and ugliness. ‘If an article is beautiful, we may say it has achieved Buddhahood (Yanagi, 1972, pg.129) because, like Shinto, Buddhism also seems to recognise of the agency of materials in that it is not only humans who can achieve enlightenment. Objects too can be released from duality. It is only by making objects that are co-operations, that rise above the dichotomy of human and non-human that they can be truly beautiful and honest.

My research into the subject has brought me a greater appreciation of the beauty of Japanese aesthetics and a greater understanding of how making can be more ecologically interpreted as a joining of forces. I have explored the way Eastern philosophies are tied up with theories of material agency and the way this resulted in a ceramics aesthetic that emphasises the vitality of matter and the importance of working intuitively with materials. This focus on the balance of opposites, of intuition and rationality, freedom and constraint, perfection and imperfection, has stood out as being central to most of the Eastern philosophies and one of the main influences on Leach ceramics. It’s a theory that true beauty lies in the centre of polar opposites, not in any extreme.

Bibliography

Bennett, J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Billington, R. (1997) Understanding Eastern Philosophy. London: Routledge.

Brown, S.G. (2007) Practical Wabi Sabi. Carroll and Brown Publishers Limited.

Bryant, L, Srnieck, N, Graham, H (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Australia: re.press.

Cazeaux, C. (2000) The Continental Aesthetics Reader. London and New York: Routledge.

Glennie, E (2003). How to truly listen [online] Available at <https://www.ted.com/talks/evelyn_glennie_shows_how_to_listen#t-366097&gt; [Accessed 16 May 2017]

Harman, G. (2002). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects. Chicago: Open Court, pp. 15-44.

Hume, N.G. (1995) Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader. Albany: State University of New York Press. Pgs. 77-108 ‘Ways of Japanese Thinking’.

Ingold, T. (2013) Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture. London and New York: Routledge.

Iversen, M. (2012). Index, diagram, graphic trace. Tate Papers Issue 18. Online.

Leach, B. (2015) A Potter’s Book. London: Unicorn.

Yanagi, S. (1972) The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. Kodansha International Ltd.

L4 Constellation PDP

Coming to Constellation with no background of studying philosophy, I found the arguments and concepts difficult to grasp at first. I feel I’ve been introduced not so much to a new field of knowledge but more to a new way of thinking about the world and my place in it. Initially I didn’t feel confident engaging in class discussions, worried I would say something ‘wrong’ or worse, silly, but as the year progressed I’ve realised these debates are more about questioning and thinking independently than knowing information, and I’ve started to grow in confidence and enjoy them. I feel I’ve significantly developed my critical thinking skills as well as my ability to listen to others and engage in debate. I’ve realised that I don’t have to agree with anything or everything, all things can be questioned and picked apart. Previously I’d considered my work in a historical context but not a philosophical one. Constellation has made me think about the theory that underpins my work and I feel it also gives me a deeper understanding and appreciation of the artwork of others.

During the first term my study group was Martin Woodward’s ‘New Materialisms’ – an exploration of the debates surrounding phenomenology. Each week, as a group we took part in a different drawing or making activity and analysed the results. I felt this was a fantastic introduction to constellation because I was able to ground complex theories and ideas in something that felt real and concrete. In contrast, Clive Cazeaux’s ‘Things can be otherwise – an introduction to philosophy’ (my second term study group) was more centred on group discussions. Although I found these more and more valuable as the term progressed, I felt more engaged and remembered what I’d learnt better with interactive activities.
Previously I hadn’t questioned why I wanted to work with clay in much depth but learning about theories such as the agency of materials discussed by writers like Ingold and Jane Bennett have helped me better understand why I’m studying ceramics. For last term’s formative essay I wrote about the hierarchy of senses in society, and the more I researched about society’s oculacentric culture, the more I felt that ceramics and craft have an important role to play in making people aware of a more embodied existence where we pay attention to all our senses.
A book I received for Christmas about practicing mindfulness (which focuses on paying attention to all our senses) was an important catalyst in getting me interested in Eastern philosophy. I felt a breakthrough came for me during a class discussion in ‘Things can be otherwise’ about theories of technology which led to discussions about agency and the difference between eastern and western thought. I felt I’d fallen across something that really excited me. Finally, I could begin to draw connections with the ‘New Materialisms’ study group about how much we shape the world and are shaped by it in return. I found that eastern, specifically Japanese ideology was more in line with my definition of beauty and the values I hold important, so I chose to explore how eastern philosophy relates to material agency in my essay, using the work of Bernard Leach as an example.

Having spent time in the study groups analysing small passages of complex essays in detail, such as Joseph Jastrow’s ‘The Mind’s Eye’ I have learnt that by dedicating time and attention to pieces of writing that at first glance seem inaccessible, I can slowly begin to understand what the author is saying. As a next step I need to spend time practicing reading the style of academic writing I’m becoming more familiar with through Constellation. I feel the time I’ve already spent has been rewarding and enlightening as I begin to find connections between the theories of different writers. Although, having read Tim Ingold’s ‘Making’ I now know that academic writing doesn’t have to be dry and difficult to follow and this has reinforced the importance of knowing the audience you are writing for. What I especially like about Ingold’s writing is that he gives examples of activities he’s done to illustrate his theories, and like the activities we did in our study group, it makes them more memorable.

I felt the keynotes were a bit of a lottery, some being worthwhile but others not so much. One that really stood out for me was Cath Davies’s ‘Purple Haze’ in which she discussed how Art Nouveau had a heavy influence on 1960s Psychedelia culture. I became interested in the theory that nothing is really new, elements of past trends are just re-configured and combined with the present. I recognised this was why I’ve had an obsession with Quentin Tarantino films, because of how well Tarantino knows his film history. When potter Geoff Swindell visited CSAD to demonstrate his making techniques, he spoke openly of his distaste of potters today who work in the tradition of Bernard Leach, making pots that resemble those from ancient Japan. Although I agree it’s important to move with the times, before I dismiss this ceramic tradition as being old fashioned I want to better understand it so I can learn from it, hence why I wrote the essay about Japanese ceramics and philosophy. While constellation addresses theory, I feel what may be missing from my course is the historical context. I attended some of Jon Clarkson’s fine art lectures, but we have no equivalent for ceramics.

Above all constellation has taught me to ask questions even if at the present moment I can’t answer them. While subject deals with what and how I make, constellation deals with the equally important ‘why’. It has given me a more holistic approach to life and making, now that I begin to see the interconnectedness of materials, tools, the body and the environment. As a practitioner, this has made me more interested in exploring art that can be interacted with and is currently feeding into my centrepiece project where I hope to make a table centrepiece that can be played as a game.

Raku firing and Zen Buddhism

Raku is a low-firing method of making pottery. It has its origins in the time of the shogun (military dictator) Hideyoshi towards the end of the sixteenth century (Momoyama period) in Kyoto, Japan. Hideyoshi wanted to encourage the tea ceremony and called upon his tea-master Sen no Rikyu to mastermind the ceremonies. A potter called Sasaki Chojiro was commissioned by the palace to hand carve tea bowls from Rikyu’s designs using tile making techniques.

Rikyu moved the tea ceremony in a new direction, towards a new form of ceramic expression called wabi sabi – peasant-like, monochrome ceramics with minimal decoration. The growth of Zen Buddhism (Sen no Rikyu was a Zen Buddhist monk) had replaced the lively, extravagant tea ceremonies of the past with solemn rituals that emphasised the transience of life. These tea ceremonies held spiritual significance and were associated with the Zen ideas of living in the here and now, finding peace and significance in something as mundane as drinking tea and appreciating every act as a unique event. The idea is to look inward for meaning to life rather than outside our existence like in Christianity and other faiths.

Wabi sabi is an aesthetic that embodies the principles of Zen Buddhism. It emerged  in Japan as a reaction to the lavishness, luxury and grandeur of the nobility and it’s essence was to find beauty in imperfection and embrace the natural cycle of growth and decay. The aesthetic incorporates a number of qualities: humility, asymmetry, authenticity, simplicity, tranquillity and the organic forms of nature, the complete antithesis to today’s fast paced, mass produced, disposable culture.

Recently I’ve been reading Oli Doyle’s book ‘Mindfulness, plain and simple’ which highlights the way meditation and mindful practice which stem from the discoveries of the Buddha can help us live happier lives. I felt the raku firing we took part in on Friday was a kind of practice in mindfulness because we were forced into the ‘here and now’ while having to continually watch the kiln, adjusting the gas depending on the height of the flames, checking how much the glaze had melted and concentrating on moving the hot ceramics carefully with the tongs.

In ‘A Potter’s Book’ Bernard Leach explains how the thick and porous nature of the clay used for raku tea-bowls made them bad conductors of heat so the hot tea could be held comfortably in the hands. At the beginning of the 20th century Leach brought the idea of raku back from exotic Japan to his studio in St Ives. Later, raku was re-invented in America during the 1970s, moving away from the idea of truth to materials and Zen philosophy and ‘the anti-machine ethic so beloved by the reactionary camp in the ceramic world went out of the window as space-race materials were pressed into service for kiln linings, and glass-fuming technologies for post-reduction treatments'(Jones, 1999, pg. 22). Western raku (like the one I took part in) differs from the eastern technique in that the pots are placed in a reduction chamber rather than left to cool in the open air or quenched straight away in cold water.

Raku firing is an exciting and rewarding process. First the work is bisque fired and glazed then the raku kiln is fired quickly to a temperature of about 900C with the pots inside. Through the top of the kiln it was possible for us to watch the glazes melting. Because the clay undergoes thermal shock, it’s important to use once-fired, grogged, stoneware clay rather than the LF i’d been throwing with. The only work I had suitable were slipcast shapes. We tried raku firing work that hadn’t been bisque fired but this only resulted in the work exploding in the kiln because of its high water content.

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One of the raku kilns firing

The pots were removed from the kiln after about 45 mins red hot with tongs and placed in an airtight container (a bin) of shredded paper and hemp wood chips. As they are moved into the colder air outside the kiln they undergo another sudden temperature change which produces cracks in the glaze. The lid is then placed back on and the bin left to stand in a ventilation chamber. This technique is known as smoking and is an ideal way to get rainbow coloured surfaces from a copper matt glaze. The smoke produced from the combustible materials is trapped and creates a reduction atmosphere in the bin but some oxidation also occurs to the glazes when the lid is lifted off. Carbon from the smoking highlights the cracks in the glazes and turns the naked clay black.

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Lifting work hot from the kiln into the bin of wood chips and sprinkling more combustibles on top.

After being left to smoke in in the chamber for an hour the work is lifted out with tongs and dipped into cold water- yet another thermal shock. The water washes off some of the carbon and combustible material but they need to be scrubbed with a sponge to reveal the surfaces properly.

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Pots after being dipped in water, ready to be scrubbed.

I enjoyed being more directly involved in the firing process than I am with an electric kiln and the physical and slightly terrifying activity of moving the work when it’s red hot.

RESULTS

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Side with shiny copper glaze and wax resist

Where I sponged on the copper matt on top it’s more green/brown. I don’t like the washed out blue of the cork stopper. Although the effect is very striking I find it a bit too showy for the aesthetic I’m searching for in my work. This bottle form isn’t suited to raku because it’s narrow and has a small base so is prone to fall over in the kiln.

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Reverse side of bottle

This side I glazed with Pale satin duck-egg blue raku glaze found in Linda Bloomfield’s ‘The handbook of glaze recipes‘. I like the fresh colour and the fine bubbly texture. A stripe of copper matt was brushed on top and resulted in rich shiny greens. The pattern on the bottle shows through black with carbon where wax resist was brushed on. The blue came out in patches of purple which reminds me of port wine stains on skin.

Pale satin duck egg-blue (cone 9):
Borax frit                                    42.5
High alkaline frit                     42.5
China clay                                    15
Bentonite                                      5
+ Tin oxide                                    15
+ Copper oxide                            0.5

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Glaze tests on slipcast banana
  1. Duck egg blue (more purple where applied thinly)
  2. Duck egg blue with copper blue on top – water colour effect sky blue but not very interesting texture
  3. Shiny copper blue on its own – darker blue with hints of purple
  4. Shiny copper with duck egg blue on top – this combination has the most interesting colour variations
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Glaze tests on slipcast ‘grape bunch’ glass bottle

Top half: white raku glaze splattered with copper blue which has turned purple. Bottom half matt copper painted on top of white crackle. I wish I’d glazed more of the form but was scared to in case it got stuck in the kiln.I like where the matte copper turns iridescent and shows emrland greens.

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Bottle dipped in white crackle with thick duck-egg blue brushed on top. I like the way the white underneath makes the colour look brighter. Teacup on top dipped in copper matt turned dark grey with little colour variation.

GLAZED POTS RESULTS

On Tuesday we took part in a glaze application workshop and our results came out the electric kiln on Friday too. I’m really happy with these LF bottle forms and like how they work as a series because of their variations in heights and shape.

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  1. Bottle dipped halfway down in yellow, dipped in blue up to base of neck then dipped in yellow at the rim. Patterns brushed on with red iron oxide, white and green sponged on patches.My favourite decoration. It’s busy and I tired to balance the shapes.
  2. Bottle dipped in white glaze with small area un-glazed. Manganese oxide splashed on top with a thick brush then turquoise self-mixed glaze splattered over.
  3. Manganese oxide and red iron oxide painted on under transparent. White and yellow pattern painted on top. Yellow becomes very feint when painted on top of white. I like the shape of this bottle and the way the vertical edges balance with a curved shoulder which hasn’t slumped like the others and a thin neck. I’d like to explore this form further.
  4. Dipped sideways in green, matt cream and manganese splattered on top. This fused to the kiln shelf at the base where the glaze ran (applied too thickly).

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I’m not as taken with this bowl’s decoration. The inside was dipped in blue and manganese oxide, turquoise glaze and red iron oxide brushed on the outer surface which looks patchy.

http://www.utne.com/mind-and-body/wabi-sabi
http://www.2000cranes.com/Raku.html
Jones, D, 1999. Raku, investigations into fire.Marlborough: Crowood.

Sensory Hierarchy and the Arts

We live in a visually hegemonic society. In our western culture seeing is synonymous with thinking and knowing the truth of the world, therefore vision is privileged as the noblest of the senses (Pallasmaa, 2005, pg.14). In contrast our other, cruder senses such as taste and smell are privately experienced and consequently associated with ‘feeling’ the world. Touch especially is downgraded as the lowest, dirtiest sense. We can trace this view of senses as far back as Aristotle: ‘Hearing and smell, thinks Aristotle, are purer than taste, so similarly superior [to sight], and touch remains at the base’ (Paterson, 2007). We have only to look at everyday sayings to see that vision has become analogous with understanding e.g. the idioms ‘that’s clear now’ and ‘brought to light’. This illustrates our ‘dis-embodied’ mode of thinking where truth is associated with knowledge from seeing and thus removed from the body.

In the art world this hierarchy is visible in the dichotomy of art/craft. The sacred, serious ‘fine art’ we come across in galleries like the Tate e.g. paintings, videos and installations are experienced visually and aurally. We are discouraged and most of the time prohibited from touching these works of art. Meanwhile consider the twee and lowly ‘craft’ that we find in the gallery gift shops or at a Christmas market. At craft fairs visitors are actively encouraged to pick up and physically feel the work on display.
Of course this frowning upon of touching art in galleries is often because the artworks have accumulated value over time and are historically significant so must be protected from damage. But what of work that is contemporary? So occupied are we with the idea of the object itself being precious, how we experience the object is overlooked. There is something almost surreptitious about touching work in a gallery that is not advertised as ‘participatory ‘or ‘sensory’ art: ‘Vision and hearing are now the privileged sociable senses, whereas the other three are considered as archaic sensory remnants with merely private function, and they are usually suppressed by the code of culture.’ (Pallasmaa, 2005, p.16). In other words, touch appears to be something which embarrasses us.

Likewise, with this hierarchy of senses comes a hierarchy of materials. It could be argued the more you manually use your hands, the less status the object you make has as a piece of art. Arguably the most superior ‘high artworks’ are purely conceptual and have not even been touched by the artist at all: ‘Some art is more equal than others. Like a urinal – bringing that into a gallery, that’s really radical. And a shark, bringing that into a gallery – oh my God that’s an amazing thing. But a pot, now that’s craft’ (Grayson Perry, 2014).
As a ceramics student I work with what could be considered as the lowliest of all materials. In Descartes’s ‘chain of being’, clay would rank alongside mud and gravel, far below metals, plants, animals and humans in the hierarchy of importance. However, working with this ‘lowly’ material emphasizes the significance of the sense of touch. The consistency of the clay must be felt before you begin to work with it – how plastic or short is it, how wet or dry, fine or grogged and what the texture is like. Ceramics is a field which forces us to challenge our oculacentric way of thinking. When throwing it’s necessary to feel the thickness of the vessel’s wall and to weigh the balance of a cup in your hands.

According to the anthropologist David Howes ‘sight is opposed to touch as mind is opposed to body’. In his essay ‘Sensory Basket Weaving 101’ he explores the basket weaving tradition of the Amazonian Desana Indians and explains how ‘the different colours, odours, and textures of the reeds, vines, wood fibres, and palm fronds which are used in basketry refer to elements of Tukanoan mythology, sexuality, and ecology’. However, despite the uniqueness of these multi-sensory objects, Westerners prefer to collect the more visually striking work of other Amazonian tribes. Because of the way we are conditioned to perceive, we are blind to the layers of meaning that can be contained in objects that need to be ‘sensed’ not only seen: ‘Our experience and knowledge is more than visual; it is embodied’ (Johnson, 2001).
Likewise, in museums it is often only the most visually striking art and artefacts which are on display. Objects that are less exciting to look at are concealed in the storerooms, despite the fact they may have unique auditory or tactile qualities (Howes, 2007). Because of our oculacentrism we are missing out on a deeper, more embodied experience of our cultural history. On a recent trip to the Centre of Ceramic Art in York we were invited to handle a selection of fragments of work by Gillian Lowndes. They were not part of the collection on display because they were small and not visually as exciting, however by physically feeling the work I discovered a landscape of rich texture which my eyes were unable to perceive. As a result I felt a whole new appreciation of Lowndes’s work and her innovativeness in combining materials and pushing the boundaries of studio ceramics.

In addition to Howes, Pallasmaa argues that our Western society’s oculacentrism and this accepted idea of the ‘dis-embodied mind’ have led to ‘alienation, detachment and solitude in the technological world of today’. Despite the benefits of social media, the importance of touch in relation to human contact is lost as we increasingly use technology to communicate and socialize. Although the use of technology in the context of art and craft presents wonderful new opportunities, we should not forget the importance of the handmade.
As a result, we need to begin to take craft seriously. We live in a society obsessed with immediate gratification, be it fast food, our obsession with consuming and accumulating material wealth which is often disposable. We surround ourselves with plastics, distancing ourselves from the processes of making and the source of the materials themselves. By supporting craftspeople and the handmade over the mass-produced, addressing this visual hegemony and appreciating a more embodied existence we can begin to create a more environmentally aware and sustainable society.

Bibliography

Alfoldy, S. (2007) Neo Craft: Modernity and the Crafts. Nova Scotia College of art and design: The Press.

Auther, E. (2010) String felt thread: the Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art. Minnesota: Regents of the University of Minnesota.

Johnson, M. (2007) The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press.

Pallasmaa, J. (2005) The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the senses. London: John Wiley and Sons.

Paterson, M. (2007) The senses of touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies. Berg Publishers [E-book] Available through Google books website <http://books.google.co.uk&gt; [Accessed 4 December 2016]

Perry, G. (2014) Playing to the gallery: Helping contemporary art in its struggle to be understood. UK: Penguin.