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.



Plaster casting and Mummified Space

Initially interested in how a vessel can hold light, this project has taken a turn and I now find myself investigating the space inside the vessel. Inspired by British sculptor and Turner prize winner Rachel Whiteread I have begun to cast plaster into my thrown constructions with the hope this will create an extra layer of distance from the original object, rendering the invisible visible and bringing form to something which was originally intangible.

In her 2014 essay ‘Loss and Melancholy in Rachel Whiteread’s Casts’ Sheyda Porter compares Whiteread’s work to Freud’s definition of ‘the uncanny’ because of the way  ‘it refers to something unfamiliar arising in a familiar context and vice versa. ‘ She goes on to explain how French psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan defines the uncanny as ‘the very image of lack’ – and what better way to describe Whiteread’s work, turning the inside out and giving form to the void? I hope by using a similar technique I can turn my thrown objects, which show clearly how they have been constructed, into more intriguing objects of mystery which show the part of the vessel you can’t usually see. Porter quotes from Slovenian philosopher/psychoanalyst Salvoj Zizek ‘instead of the vase embodying the central void, the void itself is directly materialized. The uncanny effect of these objects resides in the ways they palpably demonstrate the ontological incompleteness of reality: such objects by definition stick out, they are ontologically superfluous, not at the same level of reality as “normal” objects.” ‘. The whole essay can be found here.

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‘One hundred spaces’ -resin casts of the space underneath chairs (1997) by Rachel Whiteread. Image source:

The process I used means lots of the plaster leaked out. As a consequence the negative form of the vessel’s void also has an inside and outside:

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Form constructed with thrown sections then supported with extra clay. Plaster was poured in the top.
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Once the plaster was set, I destroyed the clay shell around it, feeling like an archaeologist discovering a historical artefact in the ground. The original form is destroyed and the resulting object becomes a ‘memory’ or a ‘ghost’ of the original.
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The plaster form inside shows the throwing ridges that are a negative of the ones on the original thrown form. I’ve been told it looks like a component of a steam engine. 
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I didn’t leave the plaster to set long enough so the outgrowing plaster sections fell off
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The holes in the vessel introduce light into the dark interior.

I was disappointed when the smaller plaster sections fell off, next time I need to be less impatient and let the plaster dry properly before removing the clay. Large air bubbles in the plaster meant lots of the detail got lost too. Interestingly though, these smaller plaster casts reminded me a lots of fossils when I felt them in my hands. Sheyda Porter describes Whiteread’s sculptures as ‘mummified’ space. Similarly fossils are traces or impressions of something that was once living, the soft tissues decompose leaving hard bone and shell which are covered in sediment which hardens into rock over time. Once again, I find myself returning back to the theme of memory.

Vessel Project Development

Following on from my initial proposal to explore light and the vessel I began throwing forms (mainly off the hump) and constructing these together when leather hard. My discovery of the drying cabinet helped move the process along faster but I still made mistakes, misjudging the room temperature and not covering the clay enough or trying to construct the sections when they were too wet and would slump.
In my tutorial with David we discussed how I like the way the light hits the inside of these vessels, in a spotlight which almost looks like a painted brushstroke. The problem with the forms below is that it’s not clear that you are expected to look inside them, there’s nothing to draw the viewer in. How can I invite the viewer to contemplate the inside of the vessel?20180131_124709 (655x800)

At the moment the aesthetics of the outside form seems to be just as important as the inside effect, but I don’t think that’s something I want to lose. The way they look on the outside it important to me, not just how they work conceptually.

David suggest I try making simpler forms to see what is the minimum I need to create the kind of light effect I’m going for. After all, the tomb piece from the Potteries museum, the catalyst for this idea, is a simply made object. The museum emailed back about the piece with information that it dates from c.206BC-220AD and was acquired by the museum in 1937. It’s an unglazed earthenware piece made in China. I explained to David how I like the idea of light as a ‘material’ which is the antithesis of clay, ephemeral and weightless, but I don’t want to go down the traditional road of exploring light and clay through using translucent porcelain or making lampshades. He suggested I consider different ways these vessels can contain light, could light be emitted from them? Should they be displayed in a dark room?

Rather than exploring light though making simpler forms I decided to go the complete opposite way and construct much more complicated function-less vessels using the sort of components you’d use to put together a teapot. I felt I was getting hung up on the ideas side and not making much so I took a series of sketches I made while thinking of the idea of a ‘vessel’ last weekend and I’m seeing how these translate into three dimensional forms. I find I enjoy this way of working through ‘play’ a lot more. Following a trip to Brussels Musical Instruments Museum I began to sketch made up machines and musical instruments. I thought about how the first objects I made for this project (above) it on legs or a foot like telescopes or microscopes, and the idea that they look like they could be used for a certain function.

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Tests clays with coloured stain (made by MA student Emily)

I am still interested in working with the inside of the vessel though but I’m unsure how to go about it. How should the inside and outside relate? Should they be different colours? Back at college I a made a series of photos showing the inside of rubber gloves. They completely skewed your sense of the scale of the object, the photos looked like the insides of the body or colourful tunnels you could walk through. The same effect can be seen here: with photos showing inside musical instruments. I’m thinking of ways the sculptures could be used as photographic devices, but if I used them as pinhole cameras or coated the insides in light sensitive emulsion, I would only get the view looking out. What I really want is to document the space within. I wish I could shrink to the size of an ant and explore these spaces from the inside.

One next step I’m keen to explore is to take these forms into the plaster room, I want to create moulds of them and stitch together the slipcast sections to create bigger, more complex forms. I also want to try casting plaster into the constructed clay form, then making a mould of that, a literal mould of the inside. It might help to find some other artists who explore light and ceramics or the inside space of the vessel.

Snow and Sophisticated Queuing

(Started yesterday 11am)

Outside this morning, the generous icing of snow on the ground of my new accommodation at Olofshöjd is beginning to thaw. This is my fourth day in Gothenburg, Sweden since arriving by plane from Manchester via Brussels on January 14th, my third at Olofshöjd, the city’s central student accommodation run by SGD Bostäder. It’s a surreal experience to be an International Erasmus students from the flip side of the coin. Despite the outward similarities, the culture here already feels pretty alien to the UK. I’ve already made the faux pas of forgetting to take my shoes off before sitting down at our local student café and have had some very strange looks when paying for my groceries with cash (everyone here uses card). I’ve also been confused by the sophisticated queuing system here where you take a ticket before waiting for your number to be called, which they seem to have at most reception desks. I’m somewhat familiar with this system in the UK, at McDonald’s for example and when you got your feet measured at Clark’s for shiny new school shoes, but here it’s everywhere. The city’s network system of trams has also been a little difficult to navigate, but unlike the UK where it’s almost impossible to get away with cheating the public transport system, here many locals hop on and off the trams without paying, even though I hear you can get a hefty fine if you’re caught.

Tuesday was our first day at the Högskolan för design och konsthantverk (HDK) on Kristinelundsgatan where David Carlsson introduced us to our first project brief – quite an open project but one that can generally be summed up with the question ‘What is a vessel/container?’. We began with a seminar exploring the connotations and meanings of the two words (in Swedish: Kärlet and Behållare). Are the two synonymous? I don’t think so. A container might be thought of as less precious than a vessel, closed off, while a vessel is expected to have an opening. Container has undertones of functionality and purpose while a vessel might be more decorative, a flower vase. The word ‘vessel’ itself rolls more elegantly and poetically off the tongue than ‘container’.

To help me think about how I want to approach this project I chose three images I felt drawn to that explore the idea of the ‘vessel’:

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This honeycomb object ‘Made by Bees’ is by a Slovakian designer called Thomas Gabzdil Libertiny. I found it in a book at the HDK library called Process by Jennifer Hudson. A collaboration between nature and technology – the artists placed a hollow mould of the archetypal vessel into a beehive and the bees subsequently filled in the negative space with wax resulting in a unique organic vessel. Unlike ceramic vessels this will decay and disintegrate, changing form over time. I find the ephemeral quality of this material fascinating. Unless fired, clay will sprout spores and mould too eventually (as I discovered when I left a load of damp porcelain in a box for months and it turned orange). I am also drawn to the playful nature of this object with the use of bees which  reference the traditional use of vases to hold flowers. Interestingly vessel translates into Welsh as ‘llestr’ and a beehive is a ‘llestr gwenyn’ – a bee vessel.

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I found this image of old watering cans on my phone from a trip to St Ffagans. I chose these more for their aesthetics than anything – the visibly soldered joints, the balance of the forms and crescents. They also made me think about the other components we add on to vessels to make them more functional to us such as spouts and handles, and how these change what the vessel communicates. These above are put together in a way which make them look like they are recycled from other pieces of waste metal.

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The third image is of a ceramic vessel I found on Tuesday when we visited the ceramic collection at the archive of Gothenburg’s World Culture Museum. Its rounded base caught my attention because it relies on the form finding its own balance and centre of gravity. Depending on the weight of what goes inside it would sit differently. It reminds me of drinking horns and ice creams – awkward shapes you can’t put down unless you’ve finished eating or drinking from. I like the idea of objects that are difficult and so force us to think and question what we take for granted.