The Sacrifice for Art and Craft

I’ve just come across a text in ‘The Ceramics Reader’ called ‘Reconsidering “The Pissoir Problem”‘ by Bruce Metcalf. In it he describes conceptual art using the definition of artist-philosopher Adrian Piper who suggests we think of conceptual art ‘as being art that subordinates its medium, whatever its medium, to intellectually interesting ideas’.

Metcalf proposes that the difference between being an artist or a craftsperson depends on what you sacrifice. For an artist, the medium is subordinated by the idea. Art is intellectual, or according to Arthur Danto ‘art is embodied meaning’. Craft on the other hand puts the material first, the idea comes second since craft practice is more about labour. These days, Metcalf says, ‘everybody wants to be an artist‘. It’s something I feel resonates with me as someone who came to ceramics from a fine art background. Recently my work has become so much more about the idea than the joy of working with clay. I don’t want to forget what drew me to working in ceramics in the first place through. The ability wet clay had to reshape itself and ‘remake/re-model’ like the Bryan Ferry song (‘Next time, is the best time we all know’) drew me to it, perhaps as a metaphor for a way of continually reshaping and changing my own self. The stubbornness of clay I felt had a lot in common with my own stubborn attitude.

I began to define myself while at HDK as an artist who happens to work in clay. I realised from feedback in tutorials that a lot of the things I made could equally have been made in metal, wood or plastic. Superimposing shallow metaphors about clay suggesting the fragility of human civilisation onto these objects afterwards felt superficial and false. I realise I am starting to sacrifice my material for the idea. But the results from the anagama firing and the fantastic material qualities of the alchemy and metamorphosis of glaze and clay during the process has made me remember that this magic is the thing which really excites me, these objects mean more to me than anything else I made while in Sweden.

 

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Anagama Firing Day 1 & 2: Packing

Over the past couple of days a group of us current ceramics students at HDK along with some alumni, have come together to pack the 3.5m square anagama kiln at Nääs along with our smaller wood firing kiln ‘Elinor’. We’ll begin firing early Monday morning, working in shifts of four hours per pair until Wednesday night when the anagama reaches about 1300C. Elinor can be fired to temperature in one day so on the Monday we’ll be feeding two kilns simultaneously.

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My vessels for the firing glazed in shino, chun and green celadon

We began by emptying all our boxes and unwrapping our glazed pots. The anagama needed to be swept out before the kiln could be packed and wadding had to be prepared. The recipes for wadding vary but we used approximately 7 parts Alumina to 3 parts Kaolin (China clay) alongside rye, water and a generous shake of sawdust. This makes up a kind of off-white putty which is rolled into small cocktail sausage shapes that stick all the kiln shelves and supports together. Since the anagama slopes inside, the supports don’t lie flat but are angled on the base and need to be stuck down. Small balls of wadding are spat on and stuck to the base of pots before they’re placed in the kiln. It can be knocked off after the firing but without it the coating of ash through the kiln could stick everything together.

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Unpacked and laid out ready to fire

The chun type glazes were placed closer to the back of the kiln because they’re liable to run while glazes that required higher temperatures to melt were put close to the opening where the flame can hit them. Unbisqued work was also put to the back to avoid cracking. This is one of the differences between an anagama and an ordinary wood kiln – in a wood kiln the pots are shielded from the flames while in an anagama they are exposed to them. The temperature is also encouraged to fluctuate in this firing e.g after 1260C we will drop down to 1220, then up to 1270, down to 1240 and so forth to climb steadily, building up lots of layers of ash. We’ll have a pyrometer in the kiln but have also placed eight lots of seven pyrometric cones ranging from 1000C to 1325C in order to measure the temperature difference throughout. These cones are visible in the peep holes down either side of the anagama’s length.

Today we also prepared the daub to seal in the bricks at the kiln’s entrance – 50/50 sand and clay which could be dug up just a few meters away from the kiln, with added water to make a paste. A space for the firebox was kept at the front – here we can push in wood to feed the fire. The base of the entrance is built with alternating columns of soft and hard bricks so that the soft ones can be removed if needed to take out fuel from inside. Around the door too are hard bricks as supports. Some of the bricks at the front had to be sawed and sanded down to make them fit as tightly together as possible.

When packing it’s important to think of how the flames will flow. Like water they will always take the easiest route so it’s good to have a range of heights on each shelf and nothing too large close to the back which could block off flames to the smaller pots in the narrower end. Since we didn’t have quite enough work to fill Elinor, soft bricks were places in the gaps which will keep the air flowing evenly throughout. Generally the packing hasn’t been an especially difficult process, it just takes a lot of time and shuffling things around. Fingers crossed for the next step!

 

Cultural Differences between Sweden and the UK: Holistic Ceramics

“I think for Swedes, art and design and craft—woodwork, furniture, textile, lighting, ceramics, glass, architecture—very much inform one another,” …“There is not always crossover, but it’s a symbiosis; you can’t have one without the others.” – Saskia Neuman, Global Art Manager at Absolut, Stockholm.[1]

A couple of months ago my course visited Borås Museum of Modern Art to see something I was surprised to find in a modern art museum. Not one, but two exhibitions showcasing artists working in clay. The first was by contemporary Swedish artist Eva Mag and the second a retrospective of work by the more traditional potter Kerstin Danielsson. Clay and ceramics, often designated to the realm of ‘craft’ as opposed to high art worthy of a white wall contemporary gallery space, are something I’m not accustomed to finding at a modern art museum. This surprise encounter led me to think about the role of ceramics in Sweden in contrast to the British scene and ponder the more holistic attitude towards art that seems to be present here.

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Figure 1

Eva Mag’s multimedia work consisted of a film alongside life sized ‘body-forms’ made with clay filled fabric skins, wood and wax. In the video ‘Directions and shapes in a woman’s body’ (2013) Mag very physically manipulates blocks of clay into human form, constructing, deconstructing and finally wrapping the broken off clay pieces in the fabric of her dress. Through the film, the process of moulding the clay is shown to be more important than the final piece itself. Another artwork in her exhibition was a block of clay encased in a sewn fabric shell, suggesting the form beneath but hiding all surface. The design tenet of truth to materials is turned on its head. Like in Jone Kvie’s current ‘Metamorphosis’ exhibition at Göteborgs Konstmuseum where aluminium mimics cardboard, concrete and wood, in Mag’s work the materials are mysterious, disguised as other.

But it wasn’t just Mag’s work that made me question the traditional way I know of working with clay, on my course at HDK I have encountered a similar attitude of openness to other materials. I am surprised by the acceptance of mixed media approaches and alternative decorating techniques to glazes. Third year graduate Sara Kallioinen Lundgren often sprays her distinctive pop art style creations with bright spray paint. Others incorporate concrete, thread and fabric into their work and it seems common to introduce elements other than ceramic in displays – earth and gravel, photographs, video and sound. On our recent ‘Room’ course, one of the ceramics students worked exclusively with weaving and fabric. We have also collaborated with students from the jewellery and textile department to work on performance art pieces. There is the attitude that working things out in a different material first can be valuable.

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Figure 2

Back at my home university however I feel there is a more ‘purist’ and perhaps snobbish attitude to ceramics regarding surface in particular. Glaze chemistry and research is something we are encouraged to master while exploring ceramic surfaces through paint, collage and other techniques is perhaps seen as a ‘lower’ form of decoration as it requires less skill and knowledge. This desire to define ceramics according to more traditionalist attitudes appears to extend to the UK ceramics scene in a wider sense too. In contrast to Sweden, Britain has a huge selection of Ceramic festivals every summer – Art in Clay, Potfest, International Ceramics Festival, Earth and Fire and Ceramic Art Wales to name a few. These are exclusively ceramic fairs that typically last over a weekend. While these, alongside the popular TV show ‘The Great Pottery Throwdown’ have helped bring ceramics to a wider audience and give makers a great platform for selling their work, it may be that they are also contributing to the wider society seeing ‘pottery’ as something distinctly separate from other forms of art. As an example to illustrate this rift in thinking about ceramics, I can take the names given to the BA courses both here and in the UK. In Cardiff I study on an undergraduate course called BA in ‘Ceramics’ while at HDK the course’s title is ‘Ceramic Art’. The names alone suggest less division between ceramics as a craft and as a fine art in the Swedish art world.

After further research I discovered I’m not the only one to feel that Sweden has a more holistic art scene than the UK. Stockholm based artist Stuart Mayes (originally from London) in an interview with ‘The Local’ (Sweden’s English language news website) explains: ‘I find the Swedish art world to be more holistic, academic and sustainable. Swedes have a much more inclusive and open attitude towards art. I think the English government has quite a conservative perception of art; they don’t really value it as something important and that doesn’t empower me as an artist.’[2] Mayes isn’t a ceramic artist but his observations may also be true for the ceramics scene. To some extent though, the conservative attitude towards ceramics in the UK and desire to hand down pottery skills in the tradition of the British godfather of ceramics Bernard Leach, can be seen as something positive. Schemes like ‘Adopt a Potter’ in which potters are assigned apprentices to learn their ‘trade’ make sure that traditional skills live on and that the sloppy craft of ceramicists like Rebecca Warren and Grayson Perry have something to contend with.[3]
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Figure 3

As a result of working in what feels like a more interdisciplinary environment, my current work has evolved. I have begun to experiment with wrapping fired clay in thread as a form of surface decoration. Our text seminars have encouraged me to look at ceramics in a wider sense too. In these discussions we are each invited to choose a text to explore the theme of the course, however these texts can be anything ranging from a poem to a legal document to an exhibition review. After discovering an article about Rachel Whiteread’s concrete casts during our recent ‘Vessel project’ I began working with plaster in a different way to how I have before – creating plaster casts as the finished piece instead of moulds from which to slipcast. The unspoken rules to which I’ve stuck to in the past have been broken. However, since the casting of these forms wasn’t possible without the original clay moulds, isn’t this still ceramic art? Like in Eva Mag’s video, I am still working with clay but it isn’t the final outcome. I find myself eager to explore new ways of making which challenge the idea that a ceramic artist is exclusively a maker of clay objects.

 

Images

Figure 1. Detail from How Much Does a Mountain Weigh?’ by Eva Mag. Source: http://www.evamag.se/works.html

Figure 2. Artwork by Sara Kallioinen Lundgren. Source: http://sarakallioinenlundgren.com/

Figure 3. Detail from sculptural piece I made for the Vessel project. Ceramic and thread.

 

 

[1] Van Straaten, L. (2017, November) An Insider’s Guide to the Stockholm Art Scene. Retrieved from: https://www.departures.com/art-culture/stockholm-art-scene-travel-guide#intro

[2]  “The Art Scene in Sweden in Less Competitive” (2010) Retrieved from: https://www.thelocal.se/20150209/my-love-for-stockholm-has-no-limits

[3] Read more about ‘sloppy craft’: Adamson, G. (2008, March/April) When Craft Gets Sloppy, from Crafts no.211, 36-40

Exhibition review – Jone Kvie’s Metamorphosis

This review is of Jone Kvie’s exhibition ‘Metamorfos’ (Metamorphosis) which runs from February the 24th to May the 20th 2018 at Göteborgs Konstmuseum’s ‘Stena Gallery’ for temporary exhibitions. This exhibition was curated by Camilla Påhlsson.

Metamorfos is the result of a growing investigation by contemporary Norwegian artist Jone Kvie into the dichotomies of body and architecture, weight and weightlessness, nature and the human condition. Equally, it is a celebration of alchemy, of the transformative power of fire and an experiment into what role lighting plays in the way we encounter and perceive sculptures.

This solo exhibition is organized into two conjoined rooms. On entering, the viewer is confronted with a tall white rectangular block that reaches nearly to the ceiling, a monolithic white cube gallery plinth. The artist’s name is stuck on at eye level in tall sans serif typeface, indicative of the exhibition’s minimalist aesthetic. Looking closer you notice this white section of wall is the exact negative shape of the space in the separating wall between this room and the next. This clever curation not only draws attention to the artworks but also to the spatiality of the room itself which becomes an extension of the sculptures. We become more aware of how our own bodies relate to the surrounding environment in scale and movement.

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Figure 1

The sculptures juxtapose jarringly with the clean and precise upright structure on which the artist’s name is displayed. Three long twisted bronze poles with their ends encased in rounded blocks of concrete (Stele #1-3) writhe in the space like streetlamps which have been morphed and uprooted by a horrific car accident. Through the placement of these forms the viewer is invited to read them like figures- two lying on the ground like dying soldiers, the other leaning bent against the wall as if injured and in pain.

In stark contrast to the weathered bronze tubes with their green patina, is the lighting. A sequence of strip lights line the walls vertically, the sterility and unforgiving brightness brings to mind a visit to the hospital. It becomes impossible to view the other sculptures without the afterglow of these lights in your field of vision, cutting across he forms. You cannot help but take in the space, the light and the objects as one unified whole.

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Figure 2

Continuing through the tall opening we find ourselves in a second much larger but darker room. On the marble floor is the archipelago of eight separate but visually unified sculpture islands that make up ‘Second Messenger’ (2017). If the first room contained the remnants of a car accident, here the scraps have been composed together in clusters, each containing an element of aluminium and long basalt rock. The aluminium forms are curious, some are metal girders but appear to have the texture of wood, others are more clearly disguised materials – there is an aluminium cast concrete breezeblock and an aluminium rectangle of corrugated cardboard. Again careful placement of these materials brings to life a human dialogue between them. The rocks take on human personalities, one pins a sheet of metal to the wall aggressively, some nestle together horizontally in a close embrace like lovers, others stand upright assertively. With the exhibition’s title we can almost imagine that these are people which have metamorphosed into stone.

Kvie’s exhibition is challenging to comprehend with its depth of metaphorical strata but is ultimately very successful in encouraging the viewer to contemplate the complex ideas which are described in the artist’s statement, namely our association to our present time and what it means to be human. Communicated through the work by the personification of the materials is a realisation that as humans we are ‘of the earth’ instead of distinctly separate from it.

Among my first thoughts of the ‘Stele’ sculptures was that they gave the impression of giant plants, green from oxidation and welded in sections like bamboo shoots. The concrete ends are like the upturned roots of a tree fallen in a storm, making one think of architecture as something which grows from the ground, of a human process as an organic process. This message is reinforced when viewed together with the leaning basalt in the opposite side of the gallery which contains fossilised plants weaving along the surface like blood vessels. On returning back to the first room I began to perceive the original bronze forms as monolithic fossils. This juxtaposition of vitality and lifelessness draws attention to the cycle of life and death and to a realisation that life is contained even in such stative things as rocks, which were formed in volcanic eruptions, requiring huge amounts of energy.

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Figure 3

In the exhibition guide it is explained that the black basalt is a mineral rich in calcium and  ‘Just like all living organisms, we need calcium in order for our nervous system to function correctly and relay nerve signals’.[1] This blurring of distinction between the human and non-human suggests to me an ecological approach similar to British anthropologist Tim Ingold’s explanation of ‘Meshwork Theory’ which imagines humans and non-human things as part of a larger, integrated whole.[2] In his essay ‘Toward an Ecology of Materials’ (2012) Ingold introduces Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological reasoning that ‘every living thing, our human selves included, is irrevocably stitched into the fabric of the world.’ This reasoning that we are more intertwined with our environment than we realise might be suggested by the placement of the sculptures in Kvie’s exhibition. Here we walk among the rocks, over and underneath the metal poles. We are not spectators, separate from the exhibition, we are among it.

In ‘Making’ (2013) Ingold writes about how making anything is a collaboration between ourselves and a material and that the material imposes its own constraints upon us, just as we impose our own ideas and forms upon it. This theory of ‘Material Agency’ illustrates modern thinking about the symbiotic relationship of humans and the environment and an ecological attitude towards artistic aesthetics. Matter is no longer passive and inert, waiting for the human hand to shape it. In Kvie’s ‘Second Messenger’ the basalt rocks seem to float magically and weightlessly on a see-saw construction of metal girders, balanced impossibly as if they are agents of their own.

Interestingly in ‘Metamorphosis’, the number of strip lights appears to correspond to the number of separate elements that make up the sculptures. Their length and shape are also echoed in the elongated rock forms and aluminium girders, suggesting there is some link between the two. If each strip light is read symbolically as the partner of another structure in the exhibition, then perhaps they represent the energy and life that is present in each rock and metal form, in the volcanic metamorphosis of molten magma and the fire power that smelted the aluminium. Through this constructed framework we not only experience the exhibition holistically (the lighting, space and sculptures become a whole), we also get a glimpse of an extended holistic world in which humans are the earth, and rocks take on a human vitality.

 

Images:

Figure 1. Stele #2 and #3 (2018) by Jone Kvie

Figure 2. Detail from Jone Kvie’s ‘Second Messenger’ (2017), basalt and aluminium

Figure 3. Detail of fossils in basalt from ‘Second Messenger’ #5 (2017)

 

[1] Full exhibition overview “Metamorphosis” retrieved from: http://goteborgskonstmuseum.se/en/exhibitions/jone-kvie/

[2] Ingold, T. (2010, July). Bringing Things to Life: Creative Entanglements in a World of Materials. Retrieved from: http://eprints.ncrm.ac.uk/1306/1/0510_creative_entanglements.pdf

 

Non-Space and Tram Sketching

For our current ‘Space/Room’ project I’m interested in exploring the phenomenon of ‘non-places’ or ‘non-spaces’. I can’t remember where I first heard about this, but I recall thinking about it after reading Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ and remember thinking when flying from the UK to Gothenburg, how airports are the ultimate ‘non-places’ spaces we move through to get to somewhere else instead of destinations in themselves.

According to Wikipedia: Non-place or nonplace is a neologism coined by the French anthropologist Marc Augé to refer to anthropological spaces of transience where the human beings remain anonymous and that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”. Examples of non-places would be motorways, hotel rooms, airports and shopping malls. The term was introduced by Marc Augé in his work Non-Places, introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.

The non-place differs from the idea of an ‘anthropological space’- a space where people can share a space that empowers their identity, in that non-places are filled with strangers who remain anonymous and lonely. Non-places can also be subjective though – to a group of friends who choose to spend the day together at a shopping centre and the people who work at an airport, the spaces might not be considered non-places. The idea of transience in relation to ceramics interests me because ceramic material is the opposite of transient in its solidity and durability.

My starting point for this project was to visit and document Gothenburg’s Centralstation – recording sounds, photographing and noting down shapes and words in response to the space. Reading Marc Auge’s chapter about ‘non-spaces’ and Mahyar Arefi’s article ‘Non-place and placelessness as narratives of loss’ helped define more concretely what non-spaces are. These places lack diversity, surprise, ambiguity and livability, we are often fed through these spaces in a system by following a set of instructions, signs or arrows.

Travelling back to the university from the train station I felt lost and unsure of how to continue. I hadn’t felt particularly inspired by this place. Drawing my attention back to the present though I realised I was travelling in another ‘non-space’, the inside of a tram. When travelling on trams as I do every day here in Gothenburg my thoughts are so often elsewhere that had I not payed attention, I probably couldn’t tell you what colour the floor, walls or seats were. I decided to shift my project to highlight the material qualities of the interior of trams in the city, making objects that echo and paraphrase the forms, colours and textures of these spaces which usually remain invisible to those inside them. My intention is to display the work in a different non-space – the stairwells at HDK. I move through these static spaces almost every day of the week. In contrast I remain still in the tram and it’s the space itself that moves with me inside it.

I spent this afternoon travelling on trams sketching the forms and textures I could find around me. Once I began looking I realised how complex and mysterious these spaces are. There are so many buttons and levers, hidden compartments and strange shaped protrusions that suddenly these spaces that seem very mundane and unexciting became landscapes of shapes. Later I photocopied and enlarged my drawings, cut them out and collaged them together into abstract machine compositions reminiscent of ‘robot wars’ creations. The next step is going to be to transform these ideas into 3D. I might use paper maquettes to get a sense of the scale needed for the staircase before starting to work in clay…

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4 Top Tips for Studying Abroad in Sweden

What’s happening in your second week living in Gothenburg do I hear you ask? Well, with care not to turn this into a make-up blog, since I haven’t seen sun in so long, I’ve noticed my foundation has suddenly become five shades too orange for my skin. I’m having to choose each morning whether I’d rather look like Tim Burton’s corpse bride (a less sexy version) or an oompa loompa for the day. So important top tip #1 for students going abroad to study in Sweden – leave that match perfection at home. Bring lots of moisturiser though, if you’re anything like me, the change of climate will dry out your skin like crazy.
Top tip #2: Beware day 11. I’m not sure if this is just from my experience or if there’s some scientific reason behind the maths, but yesterday seemed to be a struggle for a lot of people who moved here on Monday last week. It felt like the day we’d been the most tired so far at our new university. So my advice is – take it easy. There are likely to be loads of social events to go to in the first few weeks including pub crawls, buddy group get togethers, info fairs, welcome receptions and so forth, but don’t feel pressure to go to everything that’s organised.
But when you do go to parties and get togethers keep in mind top tip #3: Make an effort to remember faces. Names are difficult, especially since you will be meeting students from across the world, many with names you’ll be unfamiliar with and have trouble pronouncing. But the amount of times in the past few days I’ve asked someone “Who are you then?” and they reply “What, we were at the pub together last week!” and it dawns on me that we had a long conversation only now they’re not wearing glasses or they have a different pink hat on, is a bit embarrassing.
And finally Top tip #4 is basic: Remember to bring all your important Erasmus documents to be signed by the host university. In my excitement to move abroad I may have got distracted researching where to find the best charity shops and somewhere along the line misplaced my learning agreement. Don’t do this. You need to get it signed ASAP in order to receive your monthly allowance from Erasmus. Gothenburg is an expensive city to live in!