Reduction Results: Rethinking Surface

This morning, after nightmares of flooded glazes, collapsed shelves and shattered kiln elements, I opened the gas kiln to reveal the first batch of my exhibition module work that’s made it through to be glazed. I have mixed feelings about the results but seeing the finished coloured vessels is a huge aid in understanding how I want them to look, even if I haven’t quite reached the point where I’m happy yet. The vessel above has been sprayed with three layers of shino over three of tenmoku. Although oxidising atmospheres are necessary for oil-spot glazes to form in iron rich glazes, by layering these two glazes I found I could recreate a very similar effect. More different to my original tests however is the pink vessel (see below) which I expected to be a slate-like blue from a thin oxblood over a shino. I think perhaps the copper oxide didn’t reduce so much in my test since it was so small. Putting such a feminine, glossy, vibrant pink glaze on an almost violently disfigured, masculine form is a striking juxtaposition. I originally did think of juxtaposing the Peter Voulkos style slashed and punched vessels with delicate, child-like pastel colours to create an unexpected clash. I then chose instead, based on my prior research into reduction glazes to use more traditional, recognisable japanese style tenmokus, shinos and ash glazes so that there was some link to the familiar ‘humble’ functional vessels like the ones we saw at the Leach pottery and that you find in so many studio ceramic collections. I hoped deconstructing these vessels and patching them up would be a metaphor for my own deconstructing and redefining what it means to be a potter and to be part of this long tradition.

The spherical vessel form above is so far, for me, the most aesthetic of all the vessels I’ve made. Perhaps something about the three sections conforms to the golden ratio or perhaps it is simply something to do with the notion of perfect roundness which I’ve often mused about on this blog. Either way, my next stage is to make more of these round forms, some narrower, some larger. The construction is very simple – two bowls stuck together with a thrown and spliced collar. Cutting and sticking back together the pieces as much as possible is also something I must do. The brown vessel below shows what happens when I keep the manipulation to a minimum – there is nowhere for the glaze to catch and pool or break on the edge to a thin wash. The top vessel here however has a beautiful quality of lines which reminds me of the patchwork tarmac in the pavements of Cardiff that I walk on my way to university and back each day. Scars and layers speak of the passing of time.

Since I usually pour or dip glazes, I found it difficult to know how many layers of glaze to spray. Six layers is perhaps not enough although I do like the even coverage achieved with the spray gun. Also unpredictable though is the way the glazes will behave in the gas kiln, even if they’ve been tested many times before. The shino on the jar below was poured on but unlike the orange metallic sparkles like on my previous pieces, this one only turned a crackled off white. These deformed jars are another shape I want to play more with and that will be quick to mass-produce. Since time is becoming of the essence and I’m struggling to control how the glazes look, I plan to mix up six or so oxidation glazes with matte or satin surfaces to layer and test next week. These firings will give me more control of colour and also a quicker turnaround. I’m drawn towards the ridiculousness and humour of these bulky, awkward vessels decorated in soft pinks or baby blues. I like the sleekness and oily voluptuousness of the fake oil spot vessel too though. Hopefully by the end of this week I will have more clarity about the surfaces qualities I want and what they should communicate.

DSC06366 (561x800).jpg

PDP L6 Term 1 The Gesamtkunstwerk Bowl

My work this term has arisen very much out of my experience of wood and anagama firing while on Erasmus at HDK and the vitality in the way the glazes flashed, crystallised and took on a life of their own as a result of the flames in the kiln. My thinking about time in relation to making has been shaped by this experience and as a result I have switched from electric to reduction firing to encourage a livelier capturing of the duration of the firing process.

Feeling my approach last year was too conceptual and not process-based enough to satisfy me creatively I resolved to throw myself into a more of a production potter mode to develop my throwing further this term, however I feel at the moment that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and my work doesn’t adequately illustrate my conceptual ideas. Musing along the lines of roundness as fullness or wholeness and therefore as a metaphor for happiness and a centeredness of form and mind, I’ve been working with juxtaposing forms of roundness for the bowl project to emphasise the round and humble nature of the bowl. I worked especially this term with jars (a cylindrical contrast to the bowl’s hemisphere) and found a lot of satisfaction in learning how to create fitting lids. I enjoy the extra dimension this interactivity gives to a vessel. Listening to Roelof talk about slowness on the kick-wheel at the Leach Pottery encouraged to me try working on one myself. I liked the way the jerkiness of this technique added character to the forms but I found the noisiness of the incessant creaking a big distraction and a constant marking of time that stopped me from reaching my meditative place of flow. It was a valuable exercise to make me more aware of the speed at which I throw and made me think about conserving energy in my actions.

Jon Clarkson’s Still life lectures have been valuable in making me think about my ideas in a wider context. I found parallels with my own work and Dutch still life painting in which the artist tries to explore an object or idea by painting its many different facets e.g. a lemon or a loaf of bread. One painting by Juan Sanchez de Cotan is an exploration of roundness by juxtaposing different vegetables. As a result of seeing this I have experimented with photographing my work as a collection in a still life but they don’t really succeed in highlighting roundness through juxtaposing ellipses, cylinders, hemispheres etc. possibly because the subject matter is too familiar and we can’t see the abstract shapes beyond that. If nothing else though it has been valuable to learn how to take professional photos on a DSLR camera for the first time in order to better promote my work on social media.

IMG_0137 (800x535).jpg

Researching the work of Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie I found a softness and gentleness in her ash glazed vessels that embodied the qualities I hoped to convey and so began gathering together sources of ash. However, I discovered a flaw in my approach when I began processing the ash – an entire Tesco bag of rushes produced less than a gram! I had vastly underestimated the quantities I would need. As a result I looked to Phil Rogers’s ‘Fake ash’ glazes and played with layering one of these with a handful of other glazes to produce subtle qualities and pastel colours. For the first time I have been making large enough batches of glaze to dip work which results in a much more even and attractive coverage.

At first I was disappointed with the dullness of the colours but the more time I spent with them the more I grew to love the way the colours, iron spotting and carbon trapping in the shinos revealed themselves to you in different lights. I realised after doing a couple of makers markets that perhaps my work didn’t stand out as much against flashier ceramics but I decided not to compromise on my making. My vessels require the viewer to wait, to allow the object’s subtleties to unfold over time. It seems that ideas about ‘slow art’ and Arden Reed’s belief that ‘paintings can behave like moving pictures’ have subconsciously wound their way into my thinking.

_MG_3790 - Copy (800x534)

Thinking of making and firing not as a means to an end but as processes in themselves, I’ve started looking at ceramists who use firing as performance (Keith Harrison ) and making as performance (Peter Voulkos) with the hope that I can learn more about duration in relation to ceramics. My ideas currently mostly come from reading for my dissertation but I need to start making them concrete. As a result of my tutorial with Claire I plan to begin next term by setting myself a series of challenges which will help me move into larger, more expressive work that will help me realise my ideas better. The vessel form with its embodiment of roundness is a central theme but function feels more of a safety net than a necessity.

 

The Eternal Return

The Eternal Return by Brian Swann

In fall I stomp, bomb and spray them with worse than
agent-orange. They fall as black rain on soup and sinner
alike. And still they come. The locals say, Just sweep ’em up.
I do, again and again, and by first snow they’re gone.
In spring I find fly nurseries in riddled cowpats and think,
well, maybe this year they’ve gone somewhere else, and
I forget them. Until fall when they seep in again through
cracks and they’re everywhere, crawling up windows to
the sun, clustering as satanic clots in corners. Then they fall,
hit the floor singing high-pitched death-songs, dog-soldiers
staked to the spot, spinning on their backs, break-dancing,
flailing legs of thread, flapping mica wings, coming apart.
So I sweep them up, toss them out into the cold where
they will sleep their sleep, dream the same dream all winter
till in spring it comes true again, and the wake, born of dung
to no end save that which made them, serious as the sun into which
they vanish, to return, reconstituted, unresolved.

Swann, B. 2018, “The Eternal Return”, Salmagundi, , no. 199, pp. 68-68,227.

Ruminating on roundness again, a consequence of working with the wheel and the circular nature of wheel thrown vessels, I find myself interested in Nietzsche’s theory of the eternal return. Intended as a thought provoking experiment instead of an explanation of the universe, eternal return is the theory that life is endlessly repeating. Existence repeating itself in an infinite cycle through reincarnation is nothing new, cyclical time has been present in many religions from the ancient Egyptians to Buddhism and Hinduism. The idea of cyclical time is something we are not so familiar with in the west because of the rise of Christianity.
Nietzsche’s eternal return differs from reincarnation in that no soul is involved and instead of a new, better or worse life, we experience the exact same one over and over again. The weight that comes with this thought is heavy. On one side, we have the endless, pointless and absurd repeated suffering of existence. On the other, we find a joyful truth, a motivation to live the best life we can so that we will want nothing to be different next time around. He called this joy amor fati, literally, loving one’s fate. I find this a more appealing philosophy to life than the contemporary often reckless and selfish attitude of YOLO.
Nietzsche’s Eternal Return contrasts with the Christian attitude that this life is seen as inferior to the next one, a linear progression from one state to another. In the American Drama series ‘True Detective’ Cole’s character describes time as a flat circle, a closed system on which our lives are played out like films over and over again. Many films have played with the idea of time repeating itself – Groundhog Day, The Truman Show and more recently Happy Death Day and one of my favourites, The Frame. The Frame tells the story of two characters, each watching the other’s life through a TV show in parallel separate universes, and eventually each trying to save the other’s life.
The Big Bounce Theory of the universe postulates that matter and energy is a cycle of contraction and expansion. It’s perhaps not the most popular theory of the universe but it’s interesting to think of this in relation to the things I make. In an Eternal Return I would have made them an infinite amount of times before and will make them over and over forever. In that case there would be repeated, identical vessel forms superimposed on top of one another. What would this look like?

 

 

 

Roundness in Still Life

fruit (800x644).jpg
Juan Sanchez de Cotán – Quince, Cabbage and Cucumber 1602, oil on canvas

In Jon Clarkson’s lecture ‘The Metaphysics of Presence’ we discussed the painting above. A trend in dutch still life paintings was to dissect an object in the composition to depict not just what it looked like but to convey an essence of what the object was in different dimensions. For example, a lemon would be painted peeled, cut in half, sliced and whole all upon the same platter. Similarly bread would be shown as a whole loaf, cut in half and as breadcrumbs.
It might be argued that what the painter above is trying to explore is not a particular object but a more abstract idea of what roundness is. He does this by juxtaposing four different forms of roundness in the fruit/vegetables. First we have the quince, a fairly clearly defined and solid sphere. Hanging below we have the blurrier roundness of the cabbage, a kind of messy roundness wrapped up in leaves but with an underlying sphere as perfect as that of the quince nonetheless. Vegetables would often have been suspended like this in pantries to keep them fresher but here the hanging forms serve the double purpose of outlining a sweeping curve in the composition, a uniting roundness of form. The melon is a more complicated roundness. Lengthways it is oblong but cut across in sections you would have round sections. The cucumber is one step further – not round in any way lengthways but still hiding cross sections of roundness in its cylindrical form.
Why is this interesting to me then? Making forms on the wheel I am confined to roundness, at least until I remove the vessels from the spinning wheel and alter them. My composition for Llantarnam Grange plays with roundness in that I am exhibiting an open bowl, explicitly round in two dimensions since it’s a hemisphere. The jar beside it however is a more subtle roundness in that looking at it side-on it appears as a rectangle but from above it has a clear dimension of a circle. There is an interesting juxtaposition in Cotán’s painting between roundness as we come across it in nature and roundness that we make as humans. The sweeping curve of the composition could however also be implying a natural curve such as the alignment of planets in the solar system. It’s fascinating how universal the themes of roundness and cycles are so it feels significant to explore this on the wheel somehow.
Edmund de Waal’s work has parallels with Cotán’s painting in that both are drawing similarities to subtle differences by depicting forms that are very similar. De Waal works with very subtly different thrown porcelain cylinders in shades of blue and white which are almost indistinguishable. Perhaps making altered round forms such as oblong casserole dishes and photographing them beside round sectioned forms would create an optical effect similar to the slightly wrong angled still lives of Cezanne and by juxtaposing roundness with an almost-roundness I could comment more strongly on what it is.

13MILLER-jumbo-v2 (800x598).jpg
Edmund de Waal installation

Image sources: http://www.khanacademy.org
http://www.nytimes.com

Preliminary Research: Gesamtkunstwerk Bowl

We have been tasked with creating our ‘ideal bowl’ – a bowl which distils into concrete form the main features and characteristics of our ceramic practice. I began by attempting to define vaguely the key elements which make up a bowl – an inside and outside, the ability to contain something, a top and bottom, a wide and narrow part. It appears the bowl is made up of opposites. Roundness I realise defines a bowl in that a bowl which isn’t round is defined by its quality of being a ‘square bowl’ or a ‘triangular bowl’. When asked to contemplate a bowl in our minds, mine is undoubtedly round.

I have written before about the roundness of things and have been recently looking at how time is connected with roundness and vessels. The bowl can be used as a metaphor for the day in that we often speak of having a ‘full day’ into which we ‘couldn’t fit enough time to do everything’. Time is often cyclical too which reflects the motion of the throwing wheel, my preferred method of working. The philosopher Roger Pol-Droit in ‘How Are Things’ muses poetically on his meetings with unremarkable things in the world; a bowl is one of them. He says of bowls ‘When the Bardo Tbödol , the Tibetan Book of the Dead, gives as its unit of time for a prayer or a ceremony, ‘the length of a meal’, it means this: the interval of a stomach, a bowlful of time.’ He goes on to say the bowl is ‘a thing of thresholds, of beginnings and endings…the thing is present when life starts up and gathers strength, and when it wanes and grows languid.’

In order to help me think about what the qualities of my ideal bowl would be I’ve chosen three bowls by other artists whose work I admire. I first came across Kathleen Standen‘s (http://www.kathleenstanden.com) sculptures in her book ‘Additions to clay Bodies’ and was instantly attracted by the contrast between the smooth insides and rough outer surfaces of her forms. Adding organic additions and coloured stains to porcelain she succeeds in making unique thick walled asymmetric, raggedy vessels which reference tools used in the fishing industry such as buoys and floats, hinting to her past as a marine biology student. I like how her work references geology and the weathering of rock in a very tactile sense which ties in with the interest I have in what Natasha calls ‘sensory geography’. In order to create the forms Standen presses stained clay bodies into plaster moulds to create defined stratified layers of  coloured clay. Although I’m not particularly interested in this making technique, I’m drawn to the asymmetry of form and organic quality of the torn rim.

kathleen-standen-dock-pool.jpeg (1) (550x550)
Kathleen Standen http://www.bluehousegalleryschull.com

Martina Lantin ( http://www.mlceramics.com)is a ceramic artist I only came across recently while browsing a magazine. She works in a similar way to Brazilian Potter Carina Ciscato – throwing forms then cutting them up and altering the shape at leather hard stage. This technique was something I became very interested in last year on L5 since it throws in another challenge of timing on top of the throwing process. Playing with balance and asymmetry on a near-perfectly symmetrical thrown form appeals to me. Perhaps this wouldn’t have to come from altering the form itself however – presenting an odd number of bowls in a collection could similarly interrupt the equilibrium. Without leaning too much on the Japanese concept of wabi sabi which I believe is over used and inappropriately relied on to excuse a badly made piece of ceramics, there is something very appealing and human about asymmetry. However at odds with this is that things that are human often come in pairs too – meet, eyes, hands, ears etc – it’s an interesting dualism.

I fist saw a collection of Julian Stair‘s bowl shaped cups at CoCA York. Stair’s work is embodied by the clean lines and muted colours which are typical of today’s trend for minimalist pottery (take Jono Smart for example). His vessels suggest the possibility of function even if their unglazed surfaces celebrating the naked clay surface, aren’t designed with function in mind. Stair explores the anthropomorphic nature of vessels through different scales from domestic to monumental funeral urns and by grouping small vessels together creates an almost human dialogue between them. By placing different colours together, much as an abstract painter would he draws our attention to the subtleties in shades of grey, brown, green and blue, creating quiet compositions of contemplation.  There is a solemnity to all his work, not just those focusing explicitly on the theme of death.

julian s
Julian Stair ‘Three Cups’ http://www.artfund.org

 It’s important for me to remember the humbleness of the bowl and its connection to eating and comfort when getting lost in researching ‘art bowls’, bowls which are more sculptural than functional.  While browsing through my flatmate’s Simply Nigella cookbook the other day I came across a section titled ‘Bowlfood’. For Lawson ‘‘bowlfood’ is a simple shorthand for food that is simultaneously soothing, bolstering, undemanding and sustaining’. Eating from a bowl is about comfort eating in the most innocent, infantile sense. Of the three artists above, Stair’s is what I feel most closely correlates to what I want to express artistically at this moment in time. For me the artwork above  embodies the familiarity of the bowl vessel form and the elemental entanglement of the human-clay-natural world relationship.

 

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.

 

Bibliography:

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: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/04/art-bores-me-glad-other-people-like-it [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: https://www.ted.com/talks/carl_honore_praises_slowness

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: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_on_the_paradox_of_choice

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

 

 

 

 

Slowness, Balance, Roundness

‘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’.

How can we change our approach to time in order to stop our mindless ‘roadrunner’ existences and live more meaningfully ‘in the moment?’. Carl Honore suggests we stop thinking of ‘slow’ as a taboo, dirty word with connotations of stupidity and laziness and start working towards a ‘good slow’, living at a slower pace and rhythm of life.