The Meshwork of Objects PDP

My Level 5 study group was Jaqui Knight’s ‘The Meshwork of Objects’ which I chose because I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the holistic approach we took to how objects, bodies and environments are connected in last year’s ‘New Materialisms’. Jaqui introduced us to her own background in film and we discussed the genre of Structural Materialist film as a way to illustrate the concept of ‘Thingliness’. These films celebrate the materiality of film-making and stand as the antitheses of mainstream ‘Hollywood’ narrative ideology. Although difficult to enjoy and decode as they are non-linear and contain unexpected juxtapositions, they manage to render the invisible visible (by bringing to light the thingness of the film strip itself).

As a ceramics student I felt familiar with this concept of celebrating the material and the qualities it possesses, what might be called the non-human agencies at play in the co-creation of an artwork. After all, uniquely to my practice, clay (the material itself) not ideas or concepts is at the core of everything I make. As a material that can be shaped then re-claimed and re-modelled, clay is ideal to illustrate the idea that objects are only punctuation points in the life of things. The fragility of fired clay utensils also serves to remind us that all objects are in a state of flux. When a mug smashes, the object is not destroyed so much as transformed. We are all re-incarnated stars, punctuation points in the flow of matter just as any other object is. This learning has made me question the hierarchy we place ourselves on top of and instead I have been introduced to the perspective that we are simply ‘things amongst other things’.

The most useful aspect of this study group for me was our trip to Cardiff museum. Having visited the museum before to see exhibitions and collections it was a very different experience to look around focusing solely on how the objects had been displayed. I felt I was walking around with a renewed awareness, questioning everything and realising that even the things we take for granted such as the size of the steps, the brightness of the lighting and thickness of the glass have all been designed. This meshwork we had been discussing became visible.

A significant idea we discussed was how the ‘thingliness’ of objects becomes visible only when we are making something or when an object breaks down. We only really consider things in relation to us as humans. In a similar way we only pay attention to space when the usual order is disrupted in some way, for example we are pushed past in a queue.

Previously in my ceramic practice I made objects without much thought about what would become of them in the future. As a result of this understanding that we are all entangled in a meshwork I feel much more responsibility as an artist/designer to consider carefully what I am putting out into the world and how this impacts/ruptures the meshwork. Considering the things I make from an ecological point of view becomes important. Is it really necessary to fire everything I create, which uses up valuable energy? I have also began to consider the practicalities of transporting the work I make as well as what kind of environment I desire it to be displayed in.

At first I felt worried this study group would not relate to my work and practice, after all I don’t think I want to be a curator. Gradually though I came to realise that it is as much a responsibility of the artist as the curator to consider how their work will be displayed as it has a huge impact on what and how the artwork communicates a message.

As a result of working together in class through complicated arguments in academic texts like Bill Brown’s Thing Theory, I feel more confident in deciphering these kinds of philosophical arguments myself as I am becoming more attuned to this style of writing and vocabulary. I still feel as though I understand the concepts to an extent but can’t put a name to the idea as I learnt when I had a tutorial last week with Jaqui. I explained my essay ideas and she suggested the terms ‘ecological aesthetics’ and ‘relational ontology’ were what I was exploring but I still don’t feel entirely confident explaining what these terms mean.

I felt last year I was so involved with looking at context that I failed to dedicate enough time to the other sections of the course. As a result this year I’ve focused more on subject with the aim of improving my throwing skills but as a result I didn’t attend any keynotes this year and missed two of the five constellation lectures. In hindsight I probably should have worked to get a more even balance as these would have been a huge help in writing the essay.

As a result of my study group I have certainly developed a more ‘relational’ way of thinking. The concepts we have explored have challenged my perception of what reality is. I see parallels with this in my recent experiences of cognitive behavioural therapy which suggests the reality we create for ourselves is all a matter of perspective and that if we recognise distorted thinking patterns we can change our emotions and how we perceive experiences. How we can live happier, more fulfilling lives is a key question I am trying to tackle, currently with my work and also by looking through frameworks learnt in Constellation.

Since exploring ideas around Japanese philosophy last year I have become preoccupied with concepts of stillness and balance as means of helping us to live more meaningful and happier lives. I believe raising an awareness of this entanglement of human and non-human agencies is a source of wonder and celebration, offering a more ecological perspective on life. As a result my essay is a proposal for a piece of public art which encourages a contemplation of the environment and our place in it.

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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.

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.

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
 

Loud colours and sharp lemons

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Above: drawn from touch  Below: drawn from sight

The first drawing is of an object (a metal fastener) perceived by touch alone. The ones below were drawn while looking at that object afterwards.
Drawing the object from touch, there was no pressure to create a ‘good’ drawing. I knew that even my best efforts would probably result in inaccuracies and because of this the drawing appears looser and more carefree than the other two. I took the approach of a continuous line drawing, since this technique felt more appropriate to translate my perception of the object through touch. Holding the fastener in my hand, my finger worked to feel around it in a continuous line motion. In contrast, in the second drawings the lines are much more confident and precise but lack expression and spontaneity.
I find it interesting how my mind imposed memories on the object as I felt it. It made me think of a specific carabiner I thought I’d seen my dad use, so I drew the criss-crossed texture that one had on its grip instead of feeling carefully and discovering the texture was instead vertical lines. I imagined the metal to be dark purple in colour, probably thinking back to the smooth metal texture of a purple camera I owned years ago. I had a much more personal experience of the object by just feeling it.
In the first drawing the metal is a lot thicker than perceived by sight. Might this have something to do with the perception of temperature? The metal felt cold to touch, could this have led me to feel it occupied a larger space, that there was more of it?
The drawing from touch is also noticeably larger, maybe because I felt the need to leave room to accommodate future details on the object I might perceive later on. I felt this approach focused my attention on the process of drawing in contrast to when I drew the fastener while looking at it. This instead focused my attention on the outcome of the activity rather than the activity itself.