Three’s a Crowd

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Since I don’t have regular access to a wheel over the holiday, I’ve gone back to the technique that got me hooked on working with clay in the first place – coil building. Being surrounded at home with sculptures from my final college project has inspired these body-like organic forms. Strangely though, the catalyst for making them came after watching the colourful Bollywood romance film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Perhaps the fluid, energetic movements of the dancers was some spark of inspiration. While making I listened to the film’s soundtrack on repeat for hours. I’d like to think that contributed the way the sculptures look almost like dancers in motion, full of tension, with bulging muscles and sinews as if living things are trying to push out of them.

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I didn’t really have a plan in mind, only to get back into making and experiment with the new Potclays premium craft crank I picked up at ICF. It’s great to work with, full of grog so you can build up and up in no time with hardly any trouble. I was considering painting the surfaces but it dries to a pale fleshy colour which is what I wanted.

Over the summer our task is to look for different types of collections and I’ve been thinking: How many of something do you need before it can be called a collection? I’d say three us a safe number, I’d be happy to call these a collection of sculptures. A group of three has a magical significance and conjures up fairy-tale stories: Goldilocks and the three bears, the three witches in Macbeth, three blind mice, but it may also have religious significance e.g. the three wise men or the holy trinity. Despite the cross, I didn’t intend for the work to have any religious significance. Symbols and the way they are loaded with meaning interest me. In Eastern philosophy the swastika is a symbol of good luck and prosperity but in the west we can’t help but associate it with the Nazi party. All it is is a collection of lines but it’s potent with underlying meaning.

I left these forms out in the garden to see how the rain would distort them. I like this visual contrast of the controlled with the randomness of where the water has disintegrated the form.

Siri Aurdal and ‘The Elusive Artist’

I just bought Eline Mugaas’s book about Norwegian artist Siri Aurdal whose huge undulating fiberglass coated sculptures had a big impact on me at the Venice Giardini. After seeing a small photo of Aurdal’s work in a book, Mugaas got in contact with her to find out more. Aurdal’s monumental work was radical in 1960s Norway, crossing the boundaries between sculpture and architecture, but recently she seems to have become just another female artist forgotten in the pages of history.

The book is the resulting images Mugaas collected from Siri’s studio – choc full of photographs, concept sketches, found imagery, collages, design mock ups, work in progress and sketchbook pages and is a real insight into how the artist’s mind works. Wavelike, sinusoidal shapes have become her signature motif inspired by her interest in mathematics and desire for the pieces to become interactive forms to be climbed on, walked through and graffitied over by the audience. I find something fascinating in the cross between organic and geometric form, the raw, polyester pipes a direct link to Norway’s oil industry in the 60s. Her decision to invite artists from the Oslo art scene to graffiti over her work at the opening of her Omgivelser (‘surroundings’) exhibition at that time can be seen as a politically engaged reaction to the seismic social and political changes that took place in 1968. 

There’s very little written information about the artist herself but this mysteriousness just adds to the intrigue. Things, and people too, are always a bit more interesting when you don’t know their whole story. I suppose that’s why I’m so interested in the great unexplained mysteries from the past, from Jack the Ripper to The Dyatlov Pass Incident. When my grandparents were having a clear-out a few years ago the one book I asked to keep was ‘The Reader’s Digest of Strange Stories and Amazing Facts’ – a jumbled collection of sensational unsolved mysteries, myths, legends, hoaxes, superstitions an other curiosities.

That magical kind of halo effect things have when they’re more an idea in your mind that a solid, real thing, is very compelling. I remember being fascinated years ago when reading Lemony Snicket’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ because I couldn’t find any information about who the author really was, Lemony Snicket being a pen name. For the same reason J B Accolay’s Violin concerto No.1 in A minor will forever be one of my favourite pieces of classical music because nobody knows who he really was or even if a composer by that name really existed. Furthermore, I suppose that’s why Kerry Jameson’s dark work holds a certain kind of magic and intrigue because I can find so little information about her online and in books. Is there value to holding back information about your personal self and being an elusive artist? How does this change how we view the artwork?

 

Venice Biennale Day 2: The Giardini

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!

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Siri Aurdal: Onda Volante

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.

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‘The Aalto Natives’ Image: Art Fix Daily

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.

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Milena Dragicevic: Erections for Transatlantica

 

Venice Biennale Day 1: The Arsenale

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 the darkness, a pounding bass thuds across the bay from a cruising party boat.

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Wandering Venice at night – Chiaroscuro

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.

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Michel Blazy – Acqua Alta
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Edith Dekyndt – One thousand and one nights

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.

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Roberto Cuoghi – Imitazione di Cristo

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.

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Lighting at Venice Design

 

Image credits:
https://www.theveniceinsider.com
https://news.artnet.com

 

 

I created a monster

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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.

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Work in progress

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.

 

Centrepiece development

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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.

Funny paint names from paintsewgluechew.com

 

10 images: Centrepiece Pecha Kucha

I collected together these 10 images as a starting point for thinking about this year’s final project – a centrepiece for a table.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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Wouter Dam
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Jo Taylor

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.

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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.

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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.