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!

 

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The Fantasy and Reality of the Vessel

This morning’s discussion on our chosen texts brought up some interesting perspectives  on vessels as objects and phenomenon. A common theme was borders and boundaries – as humans we are ourselves vessels with an inside and outside. Perhaps as a result we like to impose this differentiation on things we encounter in the world. We build houses, containers for us to live and work in and we create boundaries between land and call them countries, containing people within an imaginary line. We are obsessed with imposing order on chaos.

Perhaps viewing our body as an individual vessel, separate from other body vessels breeds xenophobia and lack of empathy. Perhaps we need to expand the vessel that contains ‘us’ to contain all of the planet, all people. One of our texts ‘Escape’, a poem by D.H.Lawrence compares our ego to a cage :

When we get out of the glass bottles of our own ego,
and when we escape like squirrels from turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forest again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Maybe this perspective of the vessel is contemporary, stemming from after the industrial revolution, when we became disconnected from nature, separated by technology. Is technology a vessel? It might be argued that most of us live inside our phones.

The very words we use are containers of metaphor and meaning. It’s all the more clear when you begin to study a foreign language, words begin as abstract sounds, disconnected from anything until you learn their meaning and they become images in the mind, part of the puzzle of a sentence. Our field of vision is a vessel – containing a fictional landscape with distinct boundaries, a fictional landscape we perceive as reality.

In Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space we found a description of the dual dream modes involved with making an object, we can be creating a painting with a goal of an image in mind, but at the same time our mind is wandering off thinking about all manner of other images which must in some way manifest themselves in the final artwork. The final work is the outcome of these two fantasies. It is itself but something else at the same time.

I also found myself thinking about my chosen text – The Rachel Whiteread essay in the context of ‘imagined vessels’ such as in the mathematical ‘Urn Problem’ to work out probabilities or the Physics problem of ‘Schrodinger’s cat’. Within these problems, the contents of the imagined vessels is a mystery, unknowable. In contrast, Whiteread makes solid the imagined space creating what we might call ‘hyperrealities’ through the destruction of the original object.

 

Structural Materialist Film

In our second Constellation lecture we began the morning with an introduction to structural and materialist film i.e. films which celebrate the materiality of the process of filmmaking and are anti Hollywood, standing against mainstream narrative ideology. These films are difficult to watch because of their disjointed nature and emphasise creating mood over a clear storyline and dialogue. They explore the possibilities of physical film in many ways such as changes in speed, looping, layering and reversal of images and use of negative and change of tonal colour. These films require us to be active in decoding and interpreting them, not just passive watchers. They remind me of a book of photos I have by Dutch artist Paul Bogaers called ‘Upset Down’. The picture book has no clear storyline, beginning, middle or end and can be read turned upside down and back to front. It explores the juxtaposition of photos in unexpected sequences with the graininess of the material film visible and celebrated. Out of focus, underexposed and overexposed shots only add to the overall aesthetic.

Outer Space by Peter Tscherkassky is more contemporary example of this film genre. The narrative is unclear, more like a dream sequence full of unexpected, jarring scenes building up tension and fear. In the faster, more abstract sections, the film sprocket holes are clearly visible, emphasising that this is a film about film more than anything else. These non-linear narratives are of interest to me because one of my favourite film directors Quentin Tarantino uses this technique in many of his movies.

An early example of this kind of filmmaking is Malcolm le Grice’s Berlin Horse (1970), a mesmerising experimental film with music composed by Brian Eno (check out Music for an airport). Just as the looping of the horse in motion becomes layered and more complex over time, so does the music, the two tracks played at different speeds becoming more and more out of sync echoes of one another. It also alludes back to the history of cinema and Eadweard Muybridge’s zoetrope with the horse theme.

My favourite example we were shown is John Smith’s Girl Chewing on Gum from 1976. We start by believing a director is controlling the actors and camera, but as the ‘voice of God’ becomes more and more unbelievable (controlling the pigeons) we realise this is just a street scene which has been narrated over afterwards. With humour, it subverts the illusion Hollywood creates that the director isn’t present, creating the illusion that the world moves for the camera. It raises questions about in what ways the camera and film are extensions of someone’s body.

Matt Glazes Cone 10.R

Thinking about the surface effects I’ve identified I liked in the past I found a Mamo Matt glaze in Jeremy Jernegan’s Dry Glazes handbook and made the following variations:

Original: MC36 (W1)
Potash feldspar                     50
Dolomite                                 20
Whiting                                   4
Calcined china clay              21
Tin oxide                                 5

W2 – Replaced feldspar with 50 Soda feldspar
W3 – Replaced feldspar with 50 Nepheline Syenite
B1 – Original recipe with 1% cobalt, 8% black iron and 3% manganese
B2 – Original recipe with 4% black glaze stain

Fired in Reduction to 1280C. It was surprising to see how just changing the feldspars could change the colour so much. The potash gives a brighter, more clinical white than soda while the nepheline syenite gives blushes of pink and orange. The manganese gives a matter, more metallic black than the stain which gave more of a dark green undertone. I like the manganese black glaze (below) a lot because of the oily way it reflects the light without being too shiny. Application is better when poured.

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Below is the piece I worked on over the weekend, throwing in sections with white st Thomas then joining them together on the wheel when leather hard. Already you can see a wide ranges of tones of light and shadow and a series of ellipses when looking through the form. I enjoyed the process of making this piece and the way the pieces slotted together like a jigsaw puzzle.  The next step is to make more of these composite forms but trying to make them less symmetrical and on a smaller scale (maquette size).

 

 

Pop art oil lamps – glazed

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I finally got around to glazing the pop art inspired oil lamps we made earlier on this year with Mick Morgan. The bisque fired vessels have been painted with this clear stoneware glaze from the Emmanuel Cooper glaze handbook:

High alkaline frit                                                    10
Standard borax frit                                                50
Ball clay                                                                    30
Cornish stone                                                           10

I was worried the stains in the coloured slips might burn out at 1280C but luckily they stayed bright. The blue is a lot darker than I expected but works as a dramatic contrast to the pastel colours and I like how the colours and pattern unite them as a set. Perhaps they would look better decorated with matt vitreous slips though, or with a variation of block colour and line drawings, a kind of collage of slips and decals. I preferred the matt surfaces of the bisque ware to the shininess they have now. My favourite view of them is the abstracted one from above – the circles of different colour create a fun composition.

 

Week 3 Field: Illuminate

Our third field collaboration was an introduction to installations and film, focusing more on concepts and ideas than previous field labs that have focused on techniques. The task was to create a triptych: three associated artistic works intended to be appreciated together. We tried some idea generating exercises to begin thinking about how to approach the task, playing the surrealist drawing game ‘exquisite corpse’ and drawing a still life from memory. Sean Edwards introduced us to the work of a number of artists including Douglas Gordon’s ‘Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait’ that shows a football match from the unusual perspective of one single player. This distortion of perspective was probably an influence on our first artwork, a 20 second film and the middle part of our triptych.

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Exquisite corpse

My group was interested in the individual journeys we repeat each morning on our way into the building and to our studio spaces, so similarly to the schematic drawing exercise, we each filmed our individual paths from reception to our spaces and back down to where we met in the heartspace. Alex spliced the four journeys together and sped them up. The result is a very speedy, busy montage that feels almost overwhelmingly hyperactive and needs to be watched a number of times to follow all four windows. I’d say it contrasts starkly with the generally relaxed atmosphere of the art college. Although one of the cameras is facing backwards and another facing the ceiling I feel the video would have been more successful if the other two were filming from less predictable perspectives i.e. from the height of a child or just filming the feet. The idea was that we showed familiar journeys from a point of view that was unfamiliar and unexpected to try and elevate the ordinary.

Next the films were rotated, and we created a second artwork (the first part of the triptych) based on another group’s film. The one we were given showed a pair of skyscapes: two videos of slowly moving clouds overlayed and accompanied by the recorded birdsong. This slow paced, contemplative video of the natural world was the complete antithesis to our first piece. We decided to make a simple, straightforward installation that made use of natural light. Firstly we went outside to gather branches, placed these on a photocopier and proceeded to print them onto acetate with varying degrees of opaqueness (density setting). In the fine art studio we then overlayed these into the rectangle on the window, framing the sky outside, then placed a few potted plants at the base, echoing the trees at the bottom of the screen when the camera quickly pans down at the end of the video. The simple style and natural light reflected the tranquillity of the video well I think. I’m not sure if it’s what you’d normally classify as an installation because it wasn’t very big. This artwork was my favourite to make because we worked with the physical rather than digital and I learnt a new photocopying technique. I would have liked to have had a hand in editing the films though because it’s something I’ve never done before.

 

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Part 1 of the triptych

Finally, the artworks rotated again and we made our third and final work inspired by a group’s still life exploring the concept of time. The original work was a circle of 6 apples, each bitten and then placed on a table at different times during the day so the bruising showed the deterioration of the apple over time: a kind of ‘apple clock’. After hearing about filmmaker Peggy Awesh and her documentary style, the plan was to have a bit of fun by reverse the idea of people causing the apple to deteriorate to the apple causing us to deteriorate. We were to film ourselves on a night out, drinking only drinks derived from apple of apple flavoured, then use snapchat to create a series of short videos at intervals in the night, showing the deteriorating effect of alcohol! Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to be part of the final video. Although it was a fun concept, I feel the idea of the deterioration over time is a bit lost because of the way the videos and images are not chronologically ordered. We probably should have organised to have a sober member of the group filming instead!

 

 

The Solar Pessimist

It’s nearly 9pm at a darkened industrial estate on the outskirts of Roath, Cardiff. Past Maccies, fluorescent lights gleam clinically off stainless steel and spotless white ceramic in the bathstore. Further along strings of green and white balloons bob in the chill evening breeze. Down a black driveway we find what we’re here for.

The bar at Spit and Sawdust, Cardiff’s indoor skate park that also doubles up as a trendy art space, is packed with dapper guys in modish glasses. There are lots of beards. Pushing through a curtain of red PVC, myself and some mates find ourselves entering the skate park itself. This large, open warehouse space with its ramps and rails, half pipes and boxes, has for a while become the setting for John Lawrence’s sound and light installation ‘The Solar Pessimist’. The surreal poster for the exhibition has been confronting me every lift journey at uni for the past week. On it a Tron-like landscape similar to the one Noel Fielding’s fantasy man inhabits is superimposed with upturned eyes, maybe a nod to Dali’s Chien Andalou.

‘Have you ever experienced loss?’ booms the recorded male voice. ‘You know …real loss. Real Data Loss. Nothing can prepare you…all those photos…all that footage’. I think of having my phone stolen my first week at university. The voice is loud but sometimes indistinct, muffled by the layered electronic sounds. I can feel the vibrations shooting up my legs from the plywood slide I’m sitting on. Overhead a circle of lights spin and pivot like pro skaters, cascading purple light in time to the disembodied soliloquy then building up gradually to a manic flashing display, an epileptic fit inducing an avalanche of sound. The voice crescendos in fury like an angry God pouring his wrath from the sky.

Ditching my San Miguel on the ground as i climb up a slope to get a different view, i feel like a cheeky teenager. Empty bottles litter the arena and cliques of fine art students huddle together at intervals like rival gangs. The darkness adds to the feeling of acting the rebellious teen, hanging out after dark. I like the freedom to play here – to climb and slide, lie down or balance across different structures like a child on a giant climbing frame. It’s fun but I also feel self conscious and exposed, watched as I am watching everyone else to see how they interact with this environment designed to be explored with skateboards, none of which can be found. By walking into this space I have immediately become part of the artwork.

Filming and photography are encouraged. At the far end of the room a man pushes a camera round and round on a circular dolly. My friend and I try to trick it, switching places every time it makes another rotation before we realise that like the lights above, this camera is also turned, one minute facing the colour dancing on the shiny, slippy floor, the next facing the parallel lines on the ceiling. As the sound and voice move to their climax we go to lie on a wooden box in the centre of the room directly beneath the circle of lights. As I stare up at them, the flashing burns patterns of circles into my retina so the room carries traces of moments before in electric blue smudges and I wonder like David Bowie ’bout sound and vision.

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‘…the sky…right now…it’s looking …ominous…wouldn’t you say?…’ John Lawrence’s The Solar Pessimist
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‘Oh we…the wilfully watched.’ John Lawrence