The Value of Stillness: Curating an Enmeshed Experience

I wrote this essay before Christmas for the Constellation Formative Assignment. It’s the beginning of an investigation into philosophical and ecological ideas which I hope to develop into my dissertation proposal. 

This essay is a proposal for an exhibition: an outdoor installation which explores ideas surrounding relational ontology and ecological aesthetics in order to create an experience whereby the audience’s wellbeing is improved through a raising of awareness of their place in the meshwork of existence. Cut off as we are from our roots, our relationship with the natural world, the planet and non-human agencies or ‘estranged from the stars’ as David Abram so poetically puts it, I am interested in art’s power to ‘renew some of those bearings, to begin to recall and re-establish the rootedness of human awareness in the larger ecology’ (Abram, 1996, pg.261). I have placed myself in the role of artist-curator; the exhibited sculptures will be my own but I am also considering how the work will be experienced in a meshwork of space, environment and human interaction: ‘It could be said that the role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or objects), space, and audience’ (Smith, 2012).

The curator has a responsibility towards society. They have the power to enrich our lives through presenting us with artworks and objects in such a way that we question our way of life and consider ways we could live better. In Terry Smith’s ‘Thinking Contemporary Curating’ he describes a core question posed by curators through the ‘Be(com)ing Dutch’ project of Netherland’s Van Abbemuseum which was ‘whether art can offer alternative examples of thinking about how we can live together today… to put ideas of cultural identity under pressure and examine the process of inclusion and exclusion in the world today’ (Smith, 2012, pg.213). I intend to question our cultural identity and the way we live by taking a critical stance of our current fast pace of life, using this exhibition as a means of slowing down the pace at which the viewer interacts with the artwork and creating an environment that aids contemplation and creates an experience of stillness. Mindfulness as a means of introspection and creating a heightened sense of awareness in the present moment has been a crucial catalyst for my thinking through this project.

The practice of mindfulness appears to be becoming ever more popular in our ever growing, complexing world where people are realising there is truth in the saying less is more. Even Cardiff School of Art and Design is offering mindful meditation courses on Wednesday afternoons. Mindful practice and meditation are described as attempts to alleviate suffering and mindlessness in everyday life through ‘a form of self-regulation of attention that is ‘present-orientated’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.139). Mindful practice that advocates sitting still for long periods of time can be extremely difficult for the uninitiated though. Sitting alone at length to contemplate the inner workings of our own minds can make for uncomfortable but invaluable journeys since ‘stillness produces an existential gap that most people try to avoid by continually talking, thinking, watching TV, checking their berries and tablets, or listening to music’ (Djikic, 2014, pg.145).

Our current society’s interest in finding deeper meaning in everyday life may have origins in the Slow Movement of the mid 1980s which began as a protest against multi-national food companies and became a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better (Wellesley-Smith, 2015, pg.12). It has now become an International campaign, a kind of revolution against our ‘roadrunner’ existence with spokespeople such as Carl Honore advocating the abolition of slow as a taboo, dirty word with connotations of laziness and stupidity, and progress towards a philosophy of ‘good slowness’. The origin of the problem may lie in our approach to time: ’In other cultures, time is cyclical. It’s seen as moving in great, unhurried circles. It’s always renewing and refreshing itself. Whereas in the West, time is linear. It’s a finite resource; it’s always draining away. You either use it, or lose it (Honore, 2005).

This motif of the circle is recurring in describing a certain approach to life and philosophy. Gaston Bachelard in ‘The poetics of space’ devotes an entire chapter to ‘The phenomenology of roundness’. An article in Australian Ceramics quotes from Michael Leunig’s book ‘The Curly Pyjama Letters’ ‘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’ (Leunig, 2001). This metaphor of the day as a container with an inside and outside brought to mind ceramic vessels and was an idea I kept in mind when creating my recent ceramic sculptures, all of which began as circles, rotating lumps of clay on a potter’s wheel. Roundness, cycles and circles especially have recently become integral parts of the work I make, the centrifugal, balanced force of the spinning potter’s wheel being ideal in creating these symmetrical forms. There is something universal about the spinning of a wheel, synonymous with the spinning of our planet and the cycles of our solar system. On our timescale of human existence we perceive time to move linearly but it appears cycles are ubiquitous.

The sculptures I intend to exhibit follow on from this thinking about time, space and balance. They are abstract compositions of wheel thrown forms constructed together by hand, a process in itself which explores the slowing down of the pace of making; while forms on the wheel are created quickly, the stage of splicing these together is slow, contemplative and requires constant adjusting and consideration of balance: ‘The speed at which we do something – anything – changes our experience of it’ (Freeman, 2009). The sculptures are all currently about 30-40cm in length but for this installation I envisage them to be enlarged to about 2m high. Five of these enlarged sculptures, cast in bronze, will be displayed together in the centre of a wide open space in an inner city park, within easy walking distance of nearby shopping centres and offices. I want this cluster of sculptures to be a place of refuge and calm where people can come to sit and contemplate the park in peace when the stress of navigating the centre of town has become too much, somewhere office workers can come to eat their lunch. The number 5 has a special significance in Japanese philosophy as it is situated in the middle of the first 9 numbers and hence marks the centre. In many Japanese dry gardens, rocks are arranged in patterns of 5 (Berthier, 2000).

Jane Edden’s ‘Post Secrets’ public art project has inspired the philosophy which underpins this interest in slowing pace. Explaining the hollow bollards around Cardiff’s St David’s Centre in which she has installed tiny scenes of people, she explains they are intended ‘to be little moments of calm so that when people do bend down and look inside they completely enter another world’ (Edden, 2010). These surprise glimpses into another world momentarily take us away from the noise and colour into a black and white stillness. An important part of my sculptures is that they act as windows onto the surrounding environment, tools which the participator can look through. Holes and openings in the forms will draw the viewer’s attention to the surrounding landscape by framing it in new and unexpected ways. The intention here is to highlight how all our experiences in life are framed subjectively though angles of perspective, that our experienced reality is different to that of anyone else’s. Hepworth described vision as not sight, but the perception of the mind.

The idea of framing the landscape is way of challenging our perception. By drawing a box around a section of three dimensional space we are rendering it into a flat image of two dimensions. I hope to give flesh to Merleau-Ponty’s ideas surrounding phenomenology (phenomenology being ‘an effort to describe the world as we subjectively experience it’ (Abram, 1996, pg.36)) with the hope that by giving the viewer these different frames with which to experience the surrounding landscape, I will provide a space in which it is possible to meditate on our own bodies as subjects of awareness, ‘recalling us to our participation in the here-and now, rejuvenating our sense of wonder at the fathomless things, events and powers that surround us on every hand’ (Abram, 1996, pg.47). The paradox of looking out of a window is that often it is not done to discover what is going on outside but rather to find out what is going through our own minds. We gaze from windows to daydream, for a moment of stillness in a busy day. It is not really an action, more of a state of doing nothing. My argument is that this time is precious and valuable. If more of us spent more time staring out of windows instead of mindlessly going about our everyday activities, the world may be a better place. We would take time to think of our actions, to prioritise and consider what is truly important in our lives. I hope the windows in these sculptures have the similar effect of turning our gaze inward by looking through and outward, creating a space to experience a focused stillness an a more deep connection with the artwork.

The sculptor Barbara Hepworth described our interactions with sculptures almost like pieces of performance art in themselves. Performances are planned or conform to rules to some extent just as our interactions with displayed artworks conform to what is deemed suitable or normal by society. The use of negative space in her sculptures can be linked to a phenomenological and holistic approach of the human viewer connected into a wider framework that includes space, material and environment in an enmeshed experience: The integration with the landscape – one of Hepworth’s abiding concerns – is made actual by these openings, through what she termed the viewer’s ‘sense of participating in the form’ (Bowness 1971, p.12).

By enlarging my sculptures so that people can sit on them and climb through them I hope to encourage playful interaction with the art and a greater sense of ‘participating in the form’, bringing about a kind of ecological awareness of how human and non-human agencies co-exist and have effects on each other. By using the outside space I hope what Tim Ingold describes as ‘a dance of agencies’ becomes part of the work over time – the waring away of the ground where children climb on and off the sculptures, the way puddles form inside them and grass grows up around them will all be unpredictable but will illustrate the way an object belongs to the environment and time as much as the artist.

A description of this enmeshed approach comes in an interview in ‘A Brief History of Curating’ where one of the curators explains ‘It was Duchamp who said that it is the viewer who completes the work of art. I think he meant it profoundly, he meant it in every sense. So that says to me that it’s not just numbers, that you need to connect more people with more works of art, but you need to connect people more deeply with works of art’ (D’Harnoncourt, 2008, pg. 192). D’Harnoncourt goes on to explain that in today’s world the internet has a powerful role in connecting people more deeply with artworks. Museum and gallery websites can let us browse collections from the comfort of our own homes and provide us instantly with an abundance of information. This is wonderful and enriching from a museum’s perspective but for the purpose of my own installation I hope to connect people more deeply with the artworks by disconnection from the distractions of the internet, phones and social media. Because of this overload of technology we are never caught up with our own lives or sat alone long enough with our thoughts to really feel stillness. Scientific studies have proven that we take in as much data today as Shakespeare took in in over a lifetime and research into interruption suggests it even takes 25 minutes just to recover from a phone call (Iyer, 2014).

As a result, the setting where these sculptures are situated will be a deliberately wi-fi free zone. This is not a Luddite attack on technology. It is a hope that through temporary disconnection from the digital ‘cloud’, the public can connect more deeply with the physicality of the sculptures and environment surrounding them and feel a greater awareness of the materiality and thingness of the objects by paying attention to light, sensation etc. which ties in with Djikic’s reasoning in earlier paragraphs. It is revealing that ‘many in Silicon Valley observe and “Internet Sabbath” every week, during which they turn off most of their devices’ (Iyer, 2014, pg.43). We are never truly alone when we are with our phones, which most of us carry everywhere. Privacy and solitude can be difficult to find in the city, from my experience, especially living in shared accommodation and sharing a working environment so I hope this is something this installation will accommodate.

My desire to exhibit these objects outside also came from research into how museum and gallery environments influence our experience of collections/art. Thinking about how art can be used to heal or improve our wellbeing, it was first important to understand the ways museums and exhibitions can sometimes lead to mindlessness and stagnation through a concept called ‘museum fatigue’. Bitgood argues that museum fatigue is caused by not one but many (at least seven) overlapping phenomena. My understanding is that this state is more of a mental fatigue than a physical one although walking, bending and stretching can contribute to overall tiredness.

One of the contributing factors is satiation: boredom caused by a decrease in attention because of repeated exposure to similar stimuli. Information overload where the viewer finds a decrease in their ability to process information because of an overwhelming amount was also credited. Similar to this is a phenomenon called ‘object competition’: ‘The object competition effect can be defined as a decrease in attention resulting from simultaneous presentation of multiple stimuli.’ (Bitgood, 2009). Objects compete for attention with other objects. Perhaps this is similar to the stress many people feel confronted with in supermarkets when there is so much choice the experience becomes stressful. Interestingly Bitgood also mentions the peer pressure and stress we feel in an exhibition/museum environment to respond in a ‘correct’ to the exhibits. Do we worry that we haven’t spent enough time viewing an artwork, feeling that we are being judged by others?

The writer Victoria Coren-Mitchell describes her experience of this self-consciousness in art galleries and the worry that she is not appreciating art properly, in an article in the Guardian: ‘I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about.’ (Coren-Mitchell, 2016). I believe this feeling that art is for ‘others’ and can’t be enjoyed without prior specialist knowledge is not unique to the author and is shared widely by the public. Coren-Mitchell also states that the best thing about art galleries is ‘the cup of tea afterwards. Its taste is improved by a sense of achievement, of a well-earned rest, of something done.’ By placing my sculptures in a park, a public place without the connotations of a white gallery wall I hope to remove this self-consciousness. My aim is also to alleviate the feeling of worry that the art is not understood and communicate that art is for everyone, not just a select minority. This is an attempt to shift our perspective of seeing art as something you ‘do’, as an action, to a more present orientated perspective of ‘being’ with the artwork in an environment. In galleries we are so often moving on to the next painting, the next room or space that we do not experience much art in stillness.

Feeling judged by others when interacting with art can be stressful; what about stress caused by too many decision making processes, even if they happen to be trivial? In his talk ‘The Paradox of Choice’, Barry Schwartz describes how ‘we mistakenly believe more choice evaluates more freedom therefore better welfare’ (Schwartz, 2005) but studies have shown that in fact, the opposite is true. Too much choice can be detrimental to our wellbeing. Firstly it produces paralysis and secondly as a result we are less satisfied with the result of the choice. In today’s enormous shopping complexes, the chaos of brightly coloured objects and choice can be overwhelming. Uniquely, in ‘Tiger’ stores in the UK, the shopper is fed around the shop in a one direction maze, limiting the decisions that must make about which direction to move. The Danish Flying Tiger store website states that the ethos is of the store as a ‘treasure hunt’ or ‘a playground’ which encourages surprise encounters with objects as you turn a corner. I don’t know if the intention was to limit the choices we must make but it certainly changes our shopping experience.

By having a small number of artworks, on and around which people can sit, eat etc. I hope to encourage a deeper connection with the individual sculptures because there will be less choice of things in the environment to focus on. I want the public to feel something of the deep connection I felt with a particular painting on a college trip to Brussels Museum of Fine Arts a couple of years ago. Since sketching was not allowed upstairs, we spent most of our time on the ground floor hall where there were only a handful of statues and large paintings with large open swathes of space between them. As a result, I spent a huge amount of time in front of a single particular painting called ‘The Fountain of Inspiration’ by Belgian symbolist painter Constant Montald. As a result I felt an unrivalled appreciation and connection with the painting and painter which has left a memorable imprint. Sitting still is underrated. ‘It’s only when you stop moving that you can be moved in some far deeper way’ (Iyer, 2014). I hope to encourage a similar spacious and calming environment around my installation so the sculptures can be experienced intimately from the inside out: ‘By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere’ (Abram, 1996, pg.49 or 270).

Considering in more depth the space in which these sculptures will be exhibited, I have researched the philosophy surrounding Japanese Zen gardens which emphasise minimalism as well as balance between human control and the wildness of nature. This might be viewed (phenomenologically) as balance between human and non-human agencies.  In ‘A Brief History of Curating’ Anne D’Harnoncourt describes the curator’s desire ‘To give people contemplation space – a space that would be both beautiful in itself and lead to interaction with the art.’ The environment sets the scene for the artwork so it is important for my purpose that the space aids contemplation. Works of art extend into their environment.

The courtyard in the centre of the Victoria and Albert museum in London is a good example of a space that creates a sense of restfulness and help give visitors a break from the huge amount of information they must deal with in the museum itself. The open green space has a large but shallow paddling pool in the centre. As a result the paving stones do not go directly through the middle of the courtyard from one part of the museum to the other via the quickest route. Instead, the visitor must walk around the circumference, thus slowing down their pace. We only notice the language of space when it has been abused (Lawson, 2001, pg.6) similar to how I described earlier in ‘Tiger’ shops. How then could I slow down the pace with which the viewer encounters my installation, slowing them down and bringing them an awareness of space and the present moment before they are even close to the sculptures? I might place the sculptures on a small island surrounded by shallow water where you must reach the centre by means of a one way pathway that runs circles around the middle.

An alternative to displaying the sculptures would be to house them in a pavilion like structure. This way levels of interruptive sounds from the outside e.g. traffic and building work could be controlled. At the Kroller Muller Sculpture Park in the Netherlands, an ambiguous structure called the Rietveld Pavilion (so called after its designer Gerrit Rietveld) houses a number of Hepworth’s sculptures. But perhaps ‘houses’ is the incorrect word since the pavilion itself has neither inside nor outside space. Instead it is a series of walls and alcoves, a structure that has no interior or exterior. This idea of blurring boundaries between inside and outside space has much in common with traditional Japanese homes and tea houses which promote a closer integration of humans and the natural world.

Encouraging looking at art from an ecological perspective is more important today than ever. Abram (1996, pg.28) describes our society’s current disconnection from the natural world: ‘To be sure, our obliviousness to nonhuman nature is today held in place by ways of speaking that simply deny intelligence to other species and to nature in general, as well as by the very structures of our civilized existence-by the incessant drone of motors that shut out the voices of birds and of the winds; by electric lights that eclipse not only the stars but the night itself; by air “conditioners” that hide the seasons; by offices, automobiles, and shopping malls that finally obviate any need to step outside the purely human world at all.

In summary my proposal is for a phenomenological installation which promotes a closer relationship with ecology and environment. I hope that through the presentation of the artwork considered as an experience in a meshwork that includes space, time and environment, the audience’s perception of themselves in relation to other objects and beings can be challenged. My intention has been to design an anti-museum fatigue experience whereby the audience, after experiencing the artwork feels an improvement of wellbeing because of a sense of participation in the present moment. I believe that this experience would promote a space for meditative and healing stillness in our otherwise hectic lives.



Abram, D. (1996). The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon Books.

Bachelard, G. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press.

Berthier, F. (2000). Reading Zen in the Rocks – The Japanese Dry Landscape Garden. Chicago, Ill. : University of Chicago Press

Bitgood, S. (2009). Museum Fatigue: A Critical Review. Taylor and Francis Group, pp.93-111.

Bowness, A. (1966). Barbara Hepworth: drawings from a sculptor’s landscape. London: Cory Adams and MacKay.

Coren-Mitchell, V. (2016) Yes, great art. Can I go now? The Guardian, [online] Available at: [Accessed 01. 12. 2017].

Djikic, M. (2014). Art of Mindfulness: Integrating Eastern and Western Approaches. In: Ie, A. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Mindfulness. John Wiley & Sons, pp.139-146.

Honore, C. (2005). In Praise of Slowness. [Video File] Retrieved from:

Lawson, B. (2001). The Language of Space. Oxford: Architectural Press.

Obrist, H.U. (2008). A Brief History of Curating. Zurich: JRP/Ringier.

Putnam, J. (2009). Art and Artifact: The Museum as Medium. London: Thames and Hundson.

Smith, T.E. (2012). Thinking Contemporary Curating. New York: Independent Curators.

Schwartz, B. (2005). The Paradox of Choice. [Video File] Retrieved from:

Wellesley-Smith, C. (2015). Slow Stich: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art. London: Batsford.






Speed and Memory

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

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.

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.

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.


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:

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

Glennie, E (2003). How to truly listen [online] Available at <; [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.

Referencing Theory

In last week’s constellation lesson we started to discuss how to cite relevant theories to support our observations. Here I’ve attempted to rewrite last week’s post about the exercise of drawing from touch and sight:

I find it interesting how my mind imposed memories onto the clip as I felt it. I came to think of a specific carabiner I thought I’d seen my dad use, and so drew the criss-crossed texture that one had on its grip instead of the vertical indentations which are visible in the second drawing. Attempting to make sense of this ‘mistake’ is the theory that ‘The familiar will always remain the likely starting point for the rendering of the unfamiliar; an existing representation will always exert its spell over the artist even while he strives to record the truth’ (Gombrich, 1960, pg.72). In other words, I filled in the gaps in my understanding with ‘preconceived prejudices’ and drew not what I felt but what I expected to feel. This would also account for why I imagined the object to be purple in colour, because the cold metal texture felt similar to a purple camera I once owned.
As a result of my own memories and experiences, by feeling the object I created a much more personal drawing than when I drew it from sight. In this way we can look at drawings as things that contain part of the maker and his/her mental world, simultaneously looking outwards and inwards, to the observed or imagined world, and into the draughtsman’s own persona (Pallasmaa, 2009, pg.90-91.). If the exercise of drawing from touch and then from sight was repeated with a group of people drawing the same object, I would expect the pictures drawn from sight to be more similar to one another. There would be fewer gaps to fill in the participants’ knowledge. However, even when drawing from sight it’s possible our memories and preconceptions still play a part and that ‘our waking worlds are made different by the differences in what engages our interest and our attention (Jastrow, 1899). We each perceive and experience our own individual reality.

Gombrich, E.H (1960), Art and Illusion, Oxford: Phaidon
Pallasmaa, J (2009), The Thinking Hand: existential and embodied wisdom in architecture, London: Wiley
Jastrow, J (1899) The Mind’s eye, Popular Science Monthly, Vol 54