Sunday was Giardini day and this time the artwork that got my heart racing was in the Norwegian pavilion – a massive sculpture made from fibreglass reinforced polyester pipes by Siri Aurdal (b.1937). The wave-like form called ‘Onda Volante’ (sea waves) looked like a giant version of my final centrepiece, the evenly spaced ridges on the plastic even referenced throwing lines. Walking around and underneath the cut tube sections I felt like I did walking around the aeroplanes at RAF Cosford museum, the curved plastic forms riveted together like wings of a giant aircraft. I felt the enclosed space didn’t do justice to it though, it was as if the form was trying to ‘flow’ outside, with tentacles pushing up against the ceiling. I’d love to see it placed in the Yorkshire sculpture park with wide expanses of space all around. Reading up about Aurdal after returning home I’ve discovered she came to fame in Norway in the 60s with large scale interactive sculptures that people could play and climb on, inspired by modular, mathematical forms. My interest in interactive artwork has been re-ignited!
Another treasure was found in the Finland pavilion, where Heledd and I must have spent over an hour mesmerised, watching the very funny ‘The Aalto Natives’ by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen. The installation is part film, part two talking puppets called Geb and Atum, who explore elements of Finnish society, history and national identity. The videos swap between different styles: CGI, hand drawn stop-animation and Muppet style puppets and according to the leaflet ‘explore themes such as nationalism, xenophobia, bureaucracy, and intolerance by way of absurdist satire’. Half the time it felt like a missing episode of the Might Boosh, the other half like a montage of the ABCs of death. I’m still confused as to why the Neanderthal guy had a Liverpudlian accent.
I loved Milena Dragicevic’s colour compositions at the Serbian pavilion. Her abstract paintings ‘Erections for Transatlantica’ drew in the eye from afar with bold colour. The strange, sculptural images are mixtures of her own intuitive drawings with forms taken from outside sources. I thought some referenced Islamic architecture, others forms of microbes and bacteria.
It’s not every day you find one of your friends has secured a place invigilating the welsh pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale, so when I was invited by the fabulous goblin queen herself Heledd Evans (check her out!) to spend a weekend in Venice I jumped at the chance.
Arriving Friday evening, my first impression of Venice was the city at night, which I discovered is when it becomes truly magical. The tourists retreat to their hotels on Lido and the other islands, leaving the dim streets of the centre empty but for the odd watchful cat. The expensive boutiques and tacky tourist shops with their Murano glass, lace and sparkly masks close up for the night. Alleyways and courtyards, lit up by warm lamplights, take on an otherworldly quality of light, the closest I can think of is the chiaroscuro of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks or Magritte’s ‘The Dominion of light’. The air is warm and smells richly of flowers, vaguely of incense and spice. Music seems to surround you but you can never seem to pinpoint where it’s coming from – a saxophone solo beckons in he darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.
Since Heledd was working, I spent most of Saturday alone, making my way around the Arsenale in the morning. At the entrance is the Viva Arte Viva exhibition. In the Pavilion of the Earth, Michael Blazy, a Parisian artist, has arranged a stack of magazines printed with bright photos of travel destinations like those from a tourist brochure. From somewhere high up drips water, gradually eroding the paper, revealing contour lines of colour like the topography on a map. This image of erosion reminds me of the deteriorating of the building facades around Venice where plaster is peeling to reveal a palimpsest of bricks underneath. I read this time based installation as a kind of ticking clock comment on climate change as well as the effect of increasing tourism on the environment of Venice and other tourist destinations.
Further along, in the romantically named Pavilion of Time and Infinity I found Belgian artist Edith Dekyndt’s ‘One thousand and one nights’. Behind a shimmering curtain of silver leaf lies a rectangular carpet of dust, illuminated in the dark by a spotlight. The lamp turns over time and a gallery attendant sweeps the dust back up under the light, lifting dust clouds into the air. The effect is mesmerising.
The pavilion that had the most memorable and powerful impact on me though was undoubtedly the Italian one. The exhibition here called ‘Il mondo magico’ included a very unsettling and yet utterly captivating installation called ‘Imitation of Christ’ by Roberto Cuoghi. Entering into the factory-like setting you’re confronted with a stage on which a mould of a crucified body lies, with all manner of machinery surrounding it. You feel as if you’ve just entered into Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory.
Beyond this, there’s a kind of Eden project biosphere tunnel flanked at the entrance by two shrivelled body forms cast in a silica-like organic material. A sign warns you of the presence of mould spores inside – hinting at what lies beyond. In the dim space, you enter the plastic tunnel lit from the inside with harsh white fluorescent lighting. At intervals there branch off small rounded pods, domes which can be entered by parting the industrial PVC curtains.
You wouldn’t really want to go inside. Each pod is filled with a couple of peculiarly shaped operating tables, on top of which, on beds of black foam lie a couple of cast bodies, shrivelled, shrunken and withered, their surfaces crusted in mould or oozing with slime. The whole thing feels like walking into a dystopian computer game like Fallout, the bodies could be those of the feral ghoul zombies that haunt the radiation polluted wasteland. It’s very disturbing but at the same time you can’t help yourself taking a peek into the next dome, and the next, in the same way many people can’t help turning to have a look when they pass and accident on the road.
Exiting the giant igloo at the far end you come to a wall where dis-formed cast body parts are arranged into crucified Christs but with limbs missing and displaced. The juxtaposition of futuristic space domes and scientific equipment with the religious undertones of the body in the position of crucifixion is an unsettling fusion of past tradition and science fiction. According to the guide booklet Cuoghi is ‘inspired by the Imitation of Christ, an ascetic medieval text that he reinterprets from the standpoint o what he calls a “new technological materialism”. ‘ The tunnel may symbolise the tomb where Christ was buried, and the mould might represent the Resurrection in that it’s a new life form that only blooms and thrives following the death of others.
I’ve been thinking about what it is these artworks have in common. What is it that really interests me? There’s definitely an element of collaboration with outside ‘non-human’ forces – the ability of the dripping water to erode, the randomness of the shapes of the dust clouds and the lack of control over how the mould on the ‘corpses’ grows. There’s also a time based element, these artworks change and develop over time rather than staying static. Might I explore this in my own work, thinking about the constant weathering of rocks and forming of clay that goes on around us all the time? Phoebe Cummings’s work springs to mind.
I spent Saturday afternoon getting lost in the back alleys of Venice, happily stumbling across the design pavilion at the Palazzo Michiel by chance.
Here we are, right at the end of the year, and I finally feel I’ve found a process which really excites me. Combining throwing and hand-building I get the benefit of enjoying two very different techniques – the throwing is cathartic, a quick way of making lots of forms that hold space, then the hand-building is like a giant jigsaw puzzle, intuitive, taking careful consideration of the balance and weight of the piece.
I want to see how far I can push this technique, how big I can build. The individual sections can be thrown fairly quickly, the slow process is the controlled drying and fitting together. Considering pieces were falling off even on this scale, it will be a challenge to create large scale work but I’m eager to try it. I might get hold of a heat gun to have more control over drying, secure joints with extra clay and use foam to prop up the structure as I’m working on it. The final centrepiece above feels organic, like a piece of driftwood or seaweed, but at the same time the even throwing lines and geometry of the form reference the industrial. I had some trouble with sections falling off before firing and during the raku as I tried to pull them out of the sawdust. Fortunately I could get them to stick back together with some epoxy. If building one large sculpture this way is too much trouble I can always fire lots of pieces separately then glue them together afterwards.
The glaze I made was intended to be blue, the same duck egg raku glaze I’ve used before (see recipe here) (with the omission of about 10% of the Tin oxide because it ran out). To get in the awkward nooks and crannies of the concave and convex forms I decided it would be easiest to use the spray gun. I’ll be using the spray booth a lot more often now I realise how easy it is.
I was surprised when the glaze came out of the sawdust a dark pink/purple but I expect it’s to do with ferric chloride left over in the kiln lining from previous firings. I’m pleased with the unexpected results – where the flame has licked the work it’s turned metallic silver and the surface has character and variation with patches of yellow, white, black and texture among the pink and purple. It reminds me a bit of an octopus or a squid reaching its suckers out to grasp its prey, or a homemade robot from Robot Wars. There’s something hostile and dangerous about it, perhaps because of the dark colour. The shadows created with the light from above in the photos give the sculpture a gravity defying look, as if parts are floating. Duncan suggested I should experiment with placing lights inside to see how different shadows can be cast.
This project has definitely been more process driven than idea orientated. Because of the raku there’s something dirty-looking, perhaps ugly about the piece. In the context of a centrepiece this links back to ideas I had at the beginning about dirty dishes. It’s not something that would put your mind at ease during a meal, for me it conjures up anger or a raging storm. I began by calling it a monster but maybe a storm would be more appropriate. It interests me that it looks very different depending on where you sit at the table. It’s dynamic, like the conversation at a good dinner table should be or it might also reference broken crockery. I’ve moved very far away from my original ideas of an interactive, functional object. I hope it would be an inspiring conversation starter.
Although originally I wanted to make a centrepiece that worked either as a marble run or a game, I’ve ended up making purely sculptural shapes. Such an interactive object would require planning and designing but I’ve been more interested in exploring the properties of clay and responding intuitively to the material, essentially making it up as I go along. As a result I’ve been continuing to develop the technique I used on the oil lamp project, throwing forms then cutting them up to handbuild with. The resulting forms have a tension and springiness when held that wouldn’t be possible to achieve with slabs. It’s as if they hold a trace of the energy and movement involved when throwing.
I’ve also been experimenting with throwing shapes that show signs of the material’s agency, which I explored in my recent constellation essay – vessels with ridges and throwing lines visible. I’m interested in showing the movement of the clay on the wheel and pushing the clay to the point it’s nearly collapsing to achieve a balance between what I want and what the clay wants. According to the Japanese philosophy I’ve been reading, balance is the way to achieve true beauty!
I find the throwing lines in the above ‘Wouter Dam’ inspired form aesthetically pleasing but they stop and start instead of flowing seamlessly through the sculpture. I want to find a way of letting the flow of clay on the wheel speak and uniting these sections together into an individual sculpture that flows as one. I visualise it as one giant jigsaw puzzle.
I used ‘Brighton rock’ coloured household paint from Wickes to colour this test piece, in order to see quickly how it would look with a uniform, flat bright colour. The collection of paint pot samples in the store got me very excited, as did the whimsical names the colours had – I’ve often wondered how people come up with such seemingly random names as ‘dusted fondant’, ‘nordic spa’, ‘desert wind’, ‘wellbeing’ and ‘sweet dreams’. I’ve always been interested in the relationship between colour and words and it’s something I’m interested to explore in future work.
I collected together these 10 images as a starting point for thinking about this year’s final project – a centrepiece for a table.
Since we’ve just returned from a week in France, I immediately began thinking of how sharing meals around the dining table there each night bought us together as a ceramics family. Nearly every evening meal was followed by games around the table, especially ‘Werewolves’ – could the centrepiece incorporate a game in some way? Perhaps the narrative of the game ‘Werewolves’ could be displayed or the object could hold a pack of cards… This first photo was taken using the Theta S app and a 360 degree camera. Depending on where you sit at the table, the centrepiece will appear slightly different; perhaps I could play with optical illusion.
I found this piece by Ian Godfrey when we visited the ceramics collection at the V&A and love the little quirky drawers that remind me of an advent calendar. Fortune cookies or cards could be held in the drawers of my centrepiece for dinner guests so it becomes interactive. Maybe the drawers could be filled with unusual objects and after each meal the guests are challenged to pick some at random and make a story up about them. I want my centrepiece to be fun.
Kerplunk – I remember this game from my childhood. Could it be made in clay? The sticks and marbles could be slipcast…
After looking at Lisa Krigel’s work I’ve been keen to explore how thrown forms can stack, which could be another possible starting point. I’ve been in the kitchen photographing our dirty dishes and the asymmetrical compositions that can be made with these everyday objects are pretty exciting. Could I make a beautiful object inspired by these items in their dirty, rejected state? The cycle that kitchen utensils go through could be something to explore – they are used, become dirty, then washed and cleaned again to be used. You would never find dirty pans on display in the centre of a table at the start of a meal, so the idea of a beautiful centrepiece inspired by them seems fun. I like the small details like the lip in the glass measuring jug in the photos. As a starting point for the project I plan to see what other compositions I can make in the kitchen and sketch them from different angles.
I want to develop my throwing skills during this project but am particularly interested in artists who use the wheel in unconventional ways. The artists above have hand constructed thrown sections to make flowing sculptures that demonstrate the circular motion of the wheel.
I love Gareth Mason’s expressive use of glazes. Another potter who throws but distorts the thrown form. Abstract surfaces really show off the material qualities of clay and glaze and the gold might hark back to the opulence of antique centrepieces. I could get lost in the rich texture and abstract landscape of a centrepiece with this kind of surface for a long time.
Could my centrepiece be a kiln? I was disappointed we didn’t get to fire our kilns in France but with more time I would have designed and built a more complex design. Objects could be fired inside then attached on in some way so they become part if the finished piece. The process and result then become one and could serve as a conversation sparker at the dinner table.
It was pointed out to me that my pop art oil lamps have a visual resemblance to the assembled structures of Lisa Krigel, a potter working at Fireworks clay studio, Cardiff and ceramic lecturer at the USW. Her 2016 work ‘Eighteen storeys‘ from the National Eisteddfod is a collection or stacked thrown vessels that reference a city skyline in perhaps Shanghai or Kyoto, drawing from the Brechers’ photographs of industrial architecture.
The only time I’ve seen her work in life was at a gallery during Made in Roath last year. At the time I liked the use of natural grey-green and blue sea-tones to complement the neat, architectural forms, but I felt the symmetrical stiffness of the towers made then lack character. I was excited to find images of similar towers on her website with teapots included, the spout and handle adding a pleasing, quirky asymmetry. Now that I know these objects are functional too, disassembling into cups, saucers, bowls and teapots (even the wooden display plinth can be used as a chopping board!), I have a new appreciation for her playful ingenuity.
This idea of assemblage, more than one item coming together to form a whole, is similar in Ben Fiess’s storage jars. I like the idea of being able to play with a ceramic object, to take it apart and put it back together (sometimes in new ways). Thinking of the way things stack, that ever growing pile of dirty dishes (admittedly mostly mine) beside the kitchen sink could prove to be an unexpected source of artistic inspiration.
For our first collaborative field project with the maker and fine art students we worked in the ceramics studio. Our project was to create a clay sculpture on the theme of light by exploring the way still lives can create abstract patterns of light and shadow.
We began by setting up still lives of objects we found interesting then used projectors to cast shadows from these onto large sheets of paper. Charcoal and biro were used to trace the patterns of light and shadow, rendering the objects together in abstract form.
We tried using a photocopier to enlarge sections of these collaborative drawings but found it difficult to get the settings right. I wish I’d put my name down for a workshop on how to use the photocopier effectively! Some materials like the scrunched up strips of masking tape above made crisp shapes of flat shadow however others like glass bottles, were a lot more difficult to render because of the distorted way light reflects through them.
The next stage was to create a relief using cardboard and we decided to each recreate sections of the drawings we liked the most then make an abstract collage of these aspects of the still life. We spent a long time arranging and re-arranging shapes to get a sense of balance. From the start we were drawn to the green netting we found because of the delicate, intricate lattice pattern it cast. We noticed our still lives reminded us of underwater scenes – the forms looking like seaweed and sunken treasure.
The next step was to use this cardboard relief as the basis for a clay sculpture. We decided to explore through pre-reflexive play to begin, trying to recreate details we liked individually from this collage in clay. We tried pressing the clay into the cardboard shapes, pressing the netting into clay and using the cardboard shapes as stencils.
We had a lot of fun during this stage of the process but frankly the result just looks a bit naff! In it’s earlier stages the design looks considered but we ended up throwing everything at it with an enthusiastic approach of ‘more is more’. The final piece looked like the crumbling, ivy entwined ruin of a fairy-tale castle (one who’s architect was fond of geometric shapes). Since none of us had used the extruder before we were eager to have a go even though the forms it created had nothing to do with our original design. The task taught us an important lesson – that a work of art can be pushed too far! Our approach was one of ‘see what happens’ rather than a pre-planned design. We spent lots of time trying to achieve a sense of balance in the cardboard collage and should have spent the same amount of time with the clay. It was a struggle to construct because we discovered pieces with intricate detail cut in dried a lot faster than other slabs and tended to crumble. Making the lattice forms in paper clay may have made them stronger or we could have dipped material in slip.
The finished first piece
On reflection, we would have been more successful making a series of small sculptures rather than throwing everything at one piece. We had lots of interesting patterns and forms – the geometric circles in squares combo, the lattice clay sheets, the plant-like slabs and the repeated leaf pattern. There was just too much going on! During the rest of the week we managed to create a new, simpler sculpture. We tested to see what results our sculpture would produce by taking it back to step one – placing it in front of a projector. It has an interesting juxtaposition between the geometric box form and the organic flowing vine-like slab sitting on top.