Tag Archives: ceramics

Swimming in the river of mud: The life and art of ceramics as process

Opening address for the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale, Yingge Ceramics Museum, 3 May 2014

I’ve come from the state of Victoria, in south-eastern Australia, where last month there was a very touching event. Two designers Ben Landau and Lucile Sciallano had been exploring the soil on a Victorian farm to prospect for a workable slip to make ceramics. The owners practiced organic farming, not only providing restaurants with their produce but also taking away the waste for their compost bins to plough back into their soil. As it turned out, the local couple were in the process of planning a wedding. Landau and Sciallano proposed to make crockery for their feast, direct from their soil, which afterwards would be smashed and left to merge back into the soil. And thus a marriage was consummated in a wonderful cycle of earth, reflecting the life cycle, of which marriage is arguably the traditional the peak of life between birth and death. It’s an inspiring example of the cradle to grave sensibility that is espoused by ethical design.

While this a touching exception to most consumption, which cannot account for its waste, there are places where the clay cycle is an everyday event. In India, potters produce small cups, or kullarhs, out of clay scooped from the river. These are dried in the sun and then half-baked on an open fire. Batches are sold to those selling spiced tea, or chai, on the street. Before filling the cup, the chai wallah taps it to dislodge the loose clay. In train stations, the cups are called pi ke puht—pi ke means ‘to drink’ and puht is the sound it makes when it hits the tracks, thrown away after use, dissolving back into the soil at the next rain.

There’s something about the linear orientation of modernity that finds this zero-sum process threatening. Melbourne designer Sian Pascale has produced chai cups that are embedded with flower and vegetable seeds. By contrast to most consumer items, their disposal is a positive act. Nonetheless, these are ironically prized as collector items and few find their true destiny on the ground.

Also from the Victorian countryside, ceramicist Sandra Bowkett has been collaborating with traditional potters in Delhi to make products using their methods and skills. Their shared concern is that mass-produced plastic items like buckets and cups will make redundant the handmade production of everyday ceramic items. But for her local market, Bowkett has resorted to high-firing the chai cups, so that they can be used multiple times.

As moderns, we are conditioned to both destroy traditions and preserve things. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin evoked the image of an angel of history, hurtling backwards to the future, witnessing the trail of destruction produced in its wake.[1] While we invested in science and technology to develop ever new modes of living, at the same time we also built museums to preserve what gets left behind. Now empires of the cloud such as Google and Facebook promise to hold memories beyond the limits of space as well as time.

As a modern movement, studio ceramics has celebrated the timeless masterpiece. In the raku technique, the vessel bears the traces of ash and salt from the kiln, frozen in time by the firing process. For an artist like Peter Voulkos, it is his highly gestured making process itself which is captured in the fired product.[2] Like the modern art of photography, studio ceramics has sought to hold back time—not so much the Cartier-Bresson encounter of lovers on the street, but the alchemical interaction of elements in the fire.

Time cannot be dammed up for ever. While, the challenge of digital technology seemed to be storing information, in the 21st century it is about channelling flows of data—the feeds, tweets, streams, instagrams, Facebook updates, chats and snapchats that burst on to our screens when we turn on our mobile devices. In what Zygmund Bauman called our ‘liquid modernity’ (Bauman 2000), we are beginning now to experience this flux in the very institutions once designed to contain it. Corporations become ever more mobile as they migrate operations for one side for the world to the other in search for bigger profit margins.

Ceramic Art captures the flux in dramatic ways. In 1995, Ai Weiwei captured on camera the act of dropping an antique Han dynasty vase. Artists like the Venice Biennale duo Fischli and Weiss are increasingly using unfired clay to depict a world that is provisional and changing. We no longer always expect that the ceramic work will be the same at the end as it was in the beginning of the exhibition. You can’t step into the same river twice.

What does ceramics as process mean for the tradition of studio work? Is it a dinosaur destined for extinction with the advent of our process-based lifestyles? How does the museum, once dedicated to conserving treasures for posterity, open its doors to the rivers of mud flowing through contemporary ceramics?

The Taiwan Ceramics Biennale provides a rare opportunity to experience the power of clay to express the cyclical nature of things. Some works do this in a thematic manner, addressing the downside of our gaze upward to economic growth. While much in media advertises the products and experience that promise happiness, it’s clear that our world is characterised by considerable loss. With development comes a decline in bio-diversity: an estimate of 10,000 species becomes extinct every year. But this is just one statistic among many that we learn every day. It takes a work like Ivette Guier Serrano’s Vestiges depicting dying birds to bring it home to us. When we confront this loss in the presence of a physical object, occupying the same space as our bodies, it connects with us more directly than an abstract statistic or flat photograph.

The destruction of cultures resulting from colonisation is an especially powerful theme. Gustavo Perez depicts ancient cities in ruins. Kukuli Velarde forges a unique Peruvian ceramics to represent repression of Indigenous cultures by Catholic Spanish colonisers. Bouke de Vries takes this to a universal scale by invoking a potential nuclear apocalypse.

These are powerful works that use the quality of fired clay to offer us a subtle form of repose from the world. But there are many artists in this show that make this melancholy part of the very medium itself. After all, clay is a quintessentially fragile medium. Its survival is testament to ongoing human care, but its destruction also bears witness to violence and decay.

In the West, the increasing concentration of manufacturing in the industrial centres of China and south-east Asia has decimated large-scale ceramic production. After financial misadventures, Wedgewood went into administration with Deloitte in 2009, which led to the transfer of production to Indonesia. The loss of this capacity is ironically the source of new work in ceramic art. Neil Brownsword has made an artistic career out of laying the tradition of English industrial ceramics to rest. Elsewhere the deserted factories have been eulogised in the haunting photography of Grzegorz Stadnik, depicting the ruins of the Książ Porcelain Factory in Walbrzych, Poland. We can even read Francesco Ardini’s remains of the banquet as an allegory of the end of aristocracy that founded the great porcelain workshops of Europe. But this mourning of the industrial is not restricted to the West. Yanze Janze’s work is about the moulds that are discarded in the industrial process. The Indonesian collective Tromarama have created exquisite installation reflecting on the destruction of Dutch heritage in Bandung. Finally, Shlomit Bauman reflects a planet that is straining its natural limits, invoking the potential disappearance of clay deposits.

We find elsewhere in the use of ceramics by artists much use of unfired clay. The 2013 work Shams (Sun) by Algerian Adel Abdessemed is a gallery wall covered entirely in a clay relief that depicts workers on a building site, hoisting sacks of materials up ladders. Its display in Qatar evokes the toiling immigrant workers who construct these new mega-cities from their labour, for which they receive around $100 a month. By the end of the installation, the clay has dried and elements have fallen to the ground. Also last year, the Swiss duo Fischli /Weiss exhibited Suddenly this Overview (1981-2006) at the Venice Biennale, including 200 unfired sculptures representing various kinds of human endeavour. By contrast to the monumentalisation of labour in the 20th century, these works reflect its evanescence, as hidden toil has replaced honourable craft. From Korea, we see the extraordinary dissolving architecture of Juree Kim in his Evanescent Scape (2011). Finally, the Argentinean Adrián Villar Rojas used unfired clay as a medium to produce a body of work about the tragic rock star Kurt Cobain, whose form cracks apart with time, even sprouting potatoes.

As an Australian, I’m particularly touched by the work of Pip McManus. Night Vessel uses the solubility of clay to evoke the evanescence of life as experienced by those who resort to taking leaky boats in order to seek asylum in countries like Australia.

It is easy to associate this breaking, cracking or dissolving of ceramics with a type of loss. But there are ways in which it can be precisely the opposite, almost a celebration. As we saw in the wedding, many social rituals express an explosion of joy in wilful collective destruction of material things. Besides the breaking of plates at Greek functions, there is the smashing of the glass at Jewish weddings, the breaking of the champagne bottle at the launch of a ship, the Russian tradition of tossing vodka glasses into the fire and so on.

Why is this the case? Isn’t it vandalism to celebrate the loss of things of utility and beauty? According to the French sociologist George Bataille, the condition of our sociality involves the production of surplus value, which provides material for sacrifice. This wilful destruction implies that the social bond is more important than mere things. In his book Accursed Share, he writes:

Light, or brilliance, manifests the intimacy of life, that which life deeply is, which is perceived by the subject as being true to itself and as the transparency of the universe… From the start, the introduction of labour into the world replaced intimacy, the depth of desire and its free outbreaks, with rational progression, where what matters is no longer the truth of the present moment, but, rather, the subsequent results of operations … It is this degradation that man has always tried to escape. In his strange myths, in his cruel rites, man is in search of a lost intimacy from the first. Religion is this long effort and this anguished quest: It is always a matter of detaching from the real order, from the poverty of things, and of restoring the divine order. (Bataille 1988, 7)

If there is indeed a hunger in us for the present moment, then many works in this exhibition seek to satisfy it. In the centrifugal moments photographed by Martin Klimas, we can celebrate the singular beauty of destruction. You could argue that, until prevented by health concerns, the act of walking over the pieces in Ai Wei Wei’s Sunflower Seeds at the Tate Modern is an act of collective defiance. But also evoking Ai Wei Wei’s wilful destruction, Rocky Lewycky makes a dramatic intervention on the mindless production of consumer items.

What this biennale introduces into ceramics as process is the inclusion of work whose essence is not material, but abstract. As I mentioned earlier, the drive for ceramics as process is partly coming from the changing nature of technology. Some pieces give us the chance to reflect on this. Francesco Ardini creates work between the real and the ever-expanding dimension of the screen. Twitter subjects to a heady flow of information without stop. Of the more the 300 billion tweets that have been sent so far, it is likely that around 100 million have been sent since I started talking. David Gallagher helps us materialise the abstract flows of information that forms the world of twitter.

Some use technology that augments ceramics with sound. In Nicola Boccini’s Evolution 14.0, the work is the space of potential between the ceramic panels and the voice and touch of the viewer. Pierlugi Pompei’s Whispers enable visitors to explore a world of sound in ceramics.

With the advent of 3D printing, we see the focus move from the object itself to the code that it embodies. The work of Brian Peters concerns not the individual ceramic object but its Lego-like potential as a building block for other things. For Unfold’s L’Artisan Electronique, the romantic idealisation of pottery as a direct manipulation of materials is replaced by a mediated process, in which the hand sends signals to 3D printing devices. Their Stratigraphic Manufactury extends this to a relational space allowing others to intervene in this process. By contrast with the fixed world of studio ceramics, these mediated works reflect an as yet unrealised potential.

We see in this biennale and other contemporary works an exploration of ceramics as process. The result is not a fixed object, but instead a sequence of events such as gathering, drying, firing and breaking, whose meaning is their connection with each other. This opens up powerful emotional experiences, with narratives of decline and loss. As gifts and heirlooms, things can connect us; but as subjects of avarice and greed, they can also keep us apart. Sometimes, their destruction is cause for celebration.

But where does this leave what has gone before us? It is tempting to see this new work, particularly that which employs state of the art technology, as superseding the previous focus on mute objects. It is quite significant, therefore, that the curator has selected more traditional works, particularly from southern Africa. The Zulu ceramicists including Nesta Nale and Clive Sithole continue the tradition of village ceramics that glow with burnishing. Of course, this has its own relational meaning, particularly as beer pots to be passed around. This tradition is inflected through a Western idiom by the South African Clementina van der Walt. But the objects themselves remain a testament to the survival of a culture—what the New Zealand Māori call taonga, or treasures. I’ve been particularly impressed with the work of Manos Nathan, a Māori ceramicist who, besides works of art, makes items for traditional use, such as his bowl of the burial of the placenta, Waka Taurahere Tangata, which ties the newborn to the land.

It could be argued that ceramics as process gains its energy from its contrast to what has preceded it—ceramics as production of timeless beauty. The value that is dammed up in this field has provided the stored energy which is released through this biennale today. The creative spirit of art has defined itself against the conservative discipline of craft. But this does not mean that ceramics as process has transcended its studio precursor. We can see this too as a cycle, like the rhythm of intake and exhalation in breathing. Eventually, this flow may be expended, and we seek solace again in the stillness.

This biennale offers us a chance not only to admire the combination of skill and materials that produces timeless works of beauty, but also to experience its evanescence. As Lao-Tzu says, ‘The wise man delights in water’.

Notes

[1] “This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Benjamin 1970)

[2] The concept of sculpture as process involves the capacity of the final object to record its act of creation (see (Krauss 1981). However, this concept of process stops at the point of firing, when the object becomes a collectable item.

 

References

Bataille, Georges. 1988. The accursed share: an essay on general economy. New York: Zone Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge, UK; Malden, MA: Polity Press ; Blackwell.

Benjamin, Walter. 1970. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. Vol. 1. Schocken.

Krauss, Rosalind E. 1981. Passages in Modern Sculpture. MIT Press.

 

Is That All There Is? A talk about exhibiting ceramics

This talk was given by Robyn Phelan for the 2012 Australian Ceramics Triennale Conference, taking up the conference theme Subversive Clay. The following essay is the same talk, re-honed for an online readership.

Is that all there is? Should we expect more from an exhibition of ceramics than just the presentation of crafted objects? For the next 15 minutes I will be expressing observations about recent exhibitions, which have me pondering about how ceramics might be displayed to add deeper meaning and context to the work.

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There is nothing like a bit humour to make one be self-reflective. This Haefeli cartoon in the New Yorker made me consider all spent hours I have spent arranging, grouping, making families, creating belongings and relationship with my ceramic vessels. Perhaps you have lost hours to this pleasure too. But this compulsion to style raises a significant question for me. When presenting work to public and our peers is the relevance of our work only about what appears carefully placed on a plinth?

The balance of scale, colour, texture and all the other formal qualities of art are incredibly important for the impression of a balanced and harmonious exhibition. It is true that the culmination of our craft, is the work that we make and that this must be at the epicenter of an exhibition. But what greater reverberations of meanings and connections can a visitor take away from our exhibition? Can and should we ask of a plinth-based exhibition: Is that all there is? Haefeli’s cartoon reminded me of a particular project by our monarch of “table-scaping”. In 2004, Gwyn Hanssen Pigott was given full access to the ceramic storage which houses the collections of Charles Freer, donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1906. My fingers itch with desire if I imagine myself in Gwyn’s position. At the National Gallery of Victoria where I worked in collection management, the arranging of objects for permanent display is triumvirate collaboration of effort between curator, designer and installer. Gwyn alone created seven Parades for a permanent museum display freed from connection to maker, country, dynasty or technique. What inspiration might I apply to current installation practice from this project, where the maker only is responsible for its display?

One could apply this approach to a group exhibition where vessels are grouped by formal qualities: an idea, colour, texture or a proposition rather than by maker or making. The opportunity for collaborative curation is boundless. Gwyn’s groupings, released works from museum classification. Imagine an exhibition of new ceramic works alongside works that have inspired and influenced the maker.These muses might be the objects in your studio, gifts, childhood gismos, travel momento, fellow potters work. Melbourne jeweller, Sally Marsland casts vessels and modifies found objects. In her exhibition, Why are you like this and not like that? Sally brings together her crafted vessels, found objects and, delightfully, the coil pot that she had made in secondary school. It was enlightening to witness a continuum of vessel form that has informed her work over many years and remains a strong continuum across a body of work.

Ann Ferguson is a Victorian ceramicist who regularly works on projects with young children and is passionate about interactive experiences. Her 2010 solo show was at Pan Gallery. Along the side of the gallery was a table of pieces to play with. For Anne, play is the important action here, making a direct connection between the artworks, how the pieces interact with each other and how this desire to touch and arrange affects the viewer. Ann was also involved with The Housing Project, a community arts event, which evolved out of community workshops and audio aural recordings from the very diverse neighbourhood of Collingwood. In this work, people are invited to create their own urban soundscape by building a city using miniature ceramic houses, trees, tall buildings and factories. These objects trigger stored sounds and voices to create a multi-layered soundscape that evolves as the pieces are moved around, on or off the platform. I pondered how this complex designed event might inform an exhibition I might do? What I take away from this show is the possibility (if your work is sturdy and you are brave) is to make an exhibition that is totally hands on where the arrangement of work is ever changing. If you are a maker of functional ware, might your exhibition only exist when it is in use and in context? Claire McArdle’s is Melbourne based artist with training as a jeweller and her exhibition Public Displays of Attention, just keeps on giving. A professional photographer was employed to capture each poser. There was an incredible vibe because of the exhibition’s hands-on nature. Here Claire’s primary concern with the body, the exhibition’s title, the crafted silk pieces and the online presence combine in joyous perfection. How a piece of jewellery engages with the human body was crucial to the Public Displays of Attention experience for Claire and her curation of the exhibition is testament to this attention. Is the feel, weight and touch vital to the experience of your pottery or ceramics? How might we be able to record the experience of holding and caressing a work made of clay without ownership as part of the exhibition experience?

Yesterday, Clare Twomey outlined in detail her Trophy project. Her work casts a long and wonderfully challenging shadow of influence on our thinking about we can engage the visitor to our exhibitions.

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In the last six months, there has been a series of exhibitions where contemporary artists have been revelling in the use of clay without particularly paying attention or having a commitment to the ceramic process. I wish to discuss some of these shows because they have forced me to consider the material qualities of clay in a different way to how I would normally engage with an exhibition by a trained ceramicist.

Potters or ceramicists are part of a community of artists who have conquered the transformation of clay, so much so, that we rarely see the potential of the raw earthy stuff that is our beginnings. The flirtation with clay by Melbourne artist is a natural continuum of the last decade where contemporary artists have been using labour intensive skills or adopting the techniques of hobbyist or popular crafts.

Such terms as “hipster craft”, DIY craft come to mind. Ricky Swallow’s mount board architectural models at the 1999 Melbourne Biennial and Louise Weaver’s crochet works were some early forerunners of this approach to making.

Earlier in this conference we heard from Anton Reijnders about how people who are new to clay have a freedom of approach as they don’t know the problems of clay, are completely free and open to the material and don’t set limits to their work. Challenging for me is the low level of craft skill utilized by artists. However, what is inspiring is the honest embrace of material, technique and the desire to create a curated exhibition experience. What can I learn from these recent exhibitions? The Figure and Ground exhibition at Utopian Slumps in April 2012, hit this trend on its earthenware head. Quote from the catalogue essay:

The premise was to present artists who investigate the use of earthenware in contemporary art practices, particularly concerning intersections between ceramics and collage, the human figure and abstraction. The exhibition presents a curatorial interpretation of an archaeological dig by juxtaposing mounds of earth, lumps of clay and fossilised artifacts.

In response, to Sarah CrowEST and Sanne Mestrom’s work, I accepted that fired clay and found ornament could act as idea expanders, value provokers, be banal, hint at history, and force nostalgia to bubble to the surface.

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Rebecca Delange’s talisman-like sculptures urged me to meditate on unfired clay as prop, glue, plinth or stuff.
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The next exhibition to challenge how ceramics can be presented in a gallery context, was at Craft Victoria earlier this year by Perth based potter, Jacob Ogden Smith entitled Pottery Practice Project. In Figure and Ground I relished being reminded that primary clay can be the superstar, Pottery Practice Project, Ogden Smith presents the clay process and ceramic maker as star of the show. It included video of the artist’s flicking of his long hair, attacking the surface of his freshly thrown work in a death-metal, dance-like engagement. A second video recorded his body being tattooed with a Bernard Leach kick wheel. Like a reality television show, we are never quite sure what is true motivation or construct. Kirsten Perry’s exhibition opened yesterday (September 2012 at Lowrise Projects). It is an ode to Fleetwood Mac’s album Dreams.  Here emotional attachment to naively made forms, hark back to first touches on clay that is earnest and unskilled. Perry shuns highly crafted outcomes for the sake of nostalgic effect. And to return to whence I started, the grouping of ceramic objects. Sydney trained but Melbourne based ceramic artist Leah Jackson dreamily suspends or floats on fragile trestles, hand-pinched vessels alongside clay-made things and fragments. An Epic Romance (Craft Victoria, September 2012) consisted of four contained assemblages. Looking at each atmospheric vignette I became conscious of how my viewing of the work was being manipulated from every angle and aspect. Each still life whispered, ‘take me home I am perfectly styled and framed in every way’.

Is this too Vogue Living? Too controlled? Honestly, I enjoyed being romanced.

Note to the reader, August 2014: The parting image presented at the Subversive Clay Conference was that of a single object on plinth. To reverse the provocation of the talk given, I reminded listeners that the eloquence of a singular statement can be striking and the language of the Modernist white cube amp; white plinth allows the viewer the space and quietude to reflect on a work. The above image is of a black glaze porcelain bowl by Prue Venables. Then director Kevin Murray, devoted the entire Craft Victoria space to this work for just one day in 2003. To ask of an exhibition, is that is there is? Sometimes it is suffice to give the answer yes.

Robyn Phelan is a Melbourne based ceramicist who graduated from RMIT in 2010. She also writes, an educator and an enthusiast about craft. Her talk reflects her professional past as a secondary visual arts teacher, her work with exhibitions and objects while working at Museum Victoria, the National Gallery of Victoria and Craft Victoria.

Looking through the blind spot

My interdisciplinary arts practice aims to investigate the ‘blind spot’ between nature and existence. Exploring the tension between perception and visibility, my work brings into focus the unseen, overlooked and unforeseeable.

My latest installation project, Blind Spot, Linden Innovators 1: +16 May – +22 June 2014, has been a daring attempt to map out a large three dimensional hole in space. A complex and multifaceted anti-form that is as optically impossible to describe as the space inside an atom. Blind Spot describes one of the most significant environmental discoveries of our age- the Ozone Hole. Like an iceberg looming in space, it is a dark wonder of the natural world, a landmark that cannot be found on any atlas or world map. Its appearance in our atmosphere every spring is a haunting reminder of how we close we come to pushing our environment beyond the point of regeneration. Finding a means to visually and conceptually fathom otherwise unperceivable aspects of nature, the work aims to delineate the blind spot in perception that fails to make the connection between existence and the systems within nature that support it.

Within my arts practice I reinterpret traditional craft based materials and techniques, working with new technologies to find innovative ways to respond to the themes the work addresses. Observing nature filtered through imagery from NASA’s Earth Observing Satellite Data Centre, Earth’s life support systems become visible. This expanded perspective offers a techno-romantic glimpse into the ‘blind spot’ between nature and existence.

Blind Spot is a continuation of my ongoing research. Its trajectory can be seen from my previous series, Life Support Systems, funded by the City of Melbourne Arts Project Grants. Life Support Systems uses NASA’s space suit helmet glass to create a series of three atmospheric weather maps charting shifting weather conditions in the atmosphere over Antarctica that have global implications. The maps are hung sequentially and read from left to right. The unfolding narrative of shifting weather is described in short texts below each work that evolve from history of monitoring Earth’s atmosphere to +today’s attitudes towards Climate Change: the forecast for +tomorrow. The aim of the series was to examine how the forecast for +tomorrow’s weather is reliant on our perception of our environment +today. The work does this by being fabricated from a material that was originally used as a part of the life support system of a space suit and drawing a parallel with its natural counterpart, the Ozone Layer.

Visually we first became aware of the role the Ozone Layer plays in sustaining our environment in the 1950’s Space Race’s iconographic images of the Earth. In these dazzling images Astronauts floated above the Earth tethered to spaceships, the only thing keeping them alive was the fragile life support system of their space suit. One of the most prominent features of the space suit was the luminescent dichroic glass visor that aesthetically resembled a giant mirror or ‘all seeing eye’. This lens reflected thefirst view of the Earth as a tiny fragment in an ecosystem of universal proportions from which no part is immune from the changes of its counterparts. This ignited global research to strive for an expanded awareness of our environment. From this research the Ozone Hole was discovered and +today’s current ecological conundrum revealed.

Today there is a tenuous relationship between the fragility of our environment and its ability to regenerate. The success or failure of this lies in learning how to make the concerns of these invisible aspects of our life support system on Earth visible so that the unforeseeable consequences never eventuate.

Blind spot has been funded by the Australia Council for the Arts and will be exhibited in Melbourne 2014 and Sydney 2015. It is at Linden Gallery until 22 June 2014. See jasminetargett.blogspot.com.

Ceramics in the Expanded Field – An International Conference July 2014

CALL FOR PAPERS
Ceramics in the Expanded Field – An International Conference
Date: 17-19 July 2014
University of Westminster, 35 Marylebone Rd, London NW1 5LS

The conference Ceramics in the Expanded Field will examine how ceramic practice has broadened over the last decade, initiating new forms of experimental practice and dialogues within the museum environment. This conference marks the culmination of the AHRC-funded project Ceramics in the Expanded Field: Behind the Scenes at the Museum and is organized by co-investigators Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, Research Fellows Dr Julian Stair and Clare Twomey, and Laura Breen, the AHRC-funded doctoral student.
As part of CitEF, Brown, Stair and Twomey have worked closely with the Freud Museum in London, York Museums Trust and Plymouth City Museum and Gallery to produce three practice based projects that animated the museums’ historical collections. In tandem with the conference, they will also present a three-person exhibition in the University of Westminster Marylebone site space Ambika P3 from 15th–19th July, which will explore the impact these projects have had on their respective practices.

Scholars and practitioners from any relevant disciplines are invited to submit proposals for papers that interrogate ideas of ceramic display and intervention, divergent forms of practice, curation and museology within ‘the expanded field’.
Four half-day sessions will explore the following themes.
Museum as Context
What opportunities does the museum context offer ceramics practitioners? How does the museum operate in dialogue with ceramic practice? Can contemporary ceramic practice animate historical collections? How can we contextualize the relationship between ceramic practice and the museum within wider art practice?
Audience Engagement
How can ceramics practitioners engage museum audiences? How do audiences construct/draw meaning from or complete ceramic works? Do tensions arise from the intersection of pedagogy and practice?
Curation and Authorship
What are appropriate models for ceramic practitioners to engage with curatorial practice? Where is the line between curatorial and artistic authorship? How can this relationship shape the discourse around ceramics?
Process and Material
How can an appreciation of process and material be fostered in the museum? Is this a significant concern? What challenges does this pose to practitioners, curators and audiences? Can we develop new understandings of ceramics by engaging with these issues?

Confirmed participants will include:

  • James Beighton, Senior Curator, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art.
  • Laura Breen, PhD student, University of Westminster.
  • Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, University of Westminster.
  • Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History, Kansas State University.
  • Phoebe Cummings, Artist
  • Dr Tanya Harrod, Freelance writer and art historian.
  • Martina Margetts, Senior Tutor, Critical and Historical Studies, R C A
  • Ezra Shales, Associate Professor, Massachussetts College of Art and Design.
  • Dr Julian Stair, Principal Research Fellow, University of Westminster.
  • Clare Twomey, Research Fellow, University of Westminster.

DEADLINE FOR ABSTRACTS
We welcome proposals for papers of a maximum of 25 minutes or 3000 words addressing any one of the above. Send abstracts of no more than 250 words. They must include the presenter’s name, affiliation, email and postal address, together with the title of the paper and a 150-word biographical note on the presenter. Abstracts should be sent to Helen Cohen atceramics@westminster.ac.uk and arrive no later than Friday 14 March 2014.

PROGRAMME AND REGISTRATION
This conference will take place from 4.00pm on Friday 17 July to Sunday 19 July 2014.
Full conference: Standard rate £200. One day rate £110
Full conference: Student rate £90.  One day rate £65.
This covers all conference documentation, refreshments, lunch, receptions and administration costs. Registration will open in April 2014.

What to make of 2014

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

Master batik artist Tony Dyer with a young Japanese textile student at the Semarang International Batik Festival in May 2013

One of the major events of 2014 will be the Golden Jubilee of the World Crafts Council, which will be held in Dongyan, China, 18-22 October. It will be very interesting to see how the Chinese presidency of WCC uses this unique occasion to promote local craftsmanship. One day ‘Made in China’ may be something that actually adds value to a product.

The China event will be an important occasion to present the Code of Practice for Partnerships in Craft & Design, which has been developed over the past three years of discussions that were part of Sangam: Australia India Design Platform. We’ll be developing a platform based around those standards to promote fair partnerships between producers and developers. This year, the network will extend to Indonesia, with a workshop at Kampoeng Semarang looking particularly at commissioning of batik artists.

One of the important elements that draws me to craft is the way it engages with tradition. While the modern world encourages freedom, it is hard to conceive of a meaningful life without responsibility. Custodianship gives meaning to our otherwise fleeting lives. And craft traditions require skill and imagination if that are to be something we can pass on to future generations. This involves interpreting traditions through current concerns. As they say, we make it new, again.

This is something quite evident to indigenous peoples, whose own culture is vulnerable to colonisation. Retaining language and custom gives purpose and honour to individual lives in indigenous communities.

By contrast, the dominant white Anglo world seems to require little from us in order to flourish. It runs increasingly on automatic, sustained by machines and global corporations. But there are still buried traditions that we can uncover and pass on. Colonisation involved removing the social value from objects, otherwise considered the primitive domain of fetish or idol. The challenge is to recover social objects such as charms, crowns, garlands and heirlooms that offer a hard currency of interconnection.

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

Amulets from the Sonara Market in Mexico City - how to turn objects of destruction into agents of good?

The project Joyaviva: Live Jewellery across the Pacific travels to Latin America this year. It will be very interesting to see how these audiences respond to the challenge of designing a modern amulet. Can folk traditions transcend their nostalgia and become relevant elements of contemporary life?

The broader questions associated with this will be played out in a series of roundtables as part of the South Ways  project. This will seek to identify creative practices that are unique to the South. The first one in Wellington will look at the relevance of the Maori ‘power object’, or taonga, to Western art practices such as relational jewellery.

Other projects will help tie these threads together. The performance work Kwality Chai will explore what an Indianised Australia might be like. This relates to the utopia of Neverland, in which Australia becomes a haven for cultures that have no home in the world, such as Sri Lankan Tamils.

Craft keeps us alive to the debt we owe to previous generations. I’m very pleased to be involved with Wendy Ger’s Taiwan Ceramics Biennale where many artists have mastered clay as a language for the unique expression of ideas and values.

So there’s much to be made of 2014. Let’s hope this includes a future for 2015 and beyond.

Farewell to Marea

Ex-Director of Crafts Council of Australia, Jane Burns, gave this tribute to Marea Gazzard, along with Cristine France and David Malouf.

Marea

A remarkable and most distinguished Australian.

I had the privilege of working closely with her in the 1970s and 1980s when she was including national and international crafts organizational responsibilities among her huge bag of activities.

I’m really thankful to be asked to say a few things about her this evening and in Utopia Gallery which was so very important to her. I’d like to dwell briefly on her role as an organizational and visionary leader .It’s a sort of cliché I suppose but Marea had the rare ability to see the big picture and take big and risky steps and she enthused everyone on the way to achieve results.

Marea in the 1960s, – artist, wife, mother of Nicholas and Clea, activist in movements such as the Save Paddington Society and the Save The Queen Victoria Building – was among a select few studio artists in the mediums of ceramics, metal, textile, wood, glass in Australia who understood the need for there to be support systems which would enable them to undertake tertiary training within their discipline, exhibit their work in commercial and other galleries, and for their audience to learn about them and their work. Nowadays we take all those things somewhat for granted. But in the 1960s it was a vastly different story.

No arts white pages directories or internet existed. Without contact points other than personal friendships the select few (including Helge Larsen, Les Blakebrough, Heather Dorrough, Mary White, Joy Warren, Moira Kerr, Fay Bottrell, Peter Travis here in NSW and Milton Moon, Carl McConnel, Joan Campbell and others interstate) formed a Steering Committee in Sydney which set out the ways and means to establishment of a national crafts organization. Marea became the chief of this select group in 1970 when their efforts bore fruit and the Commonwealth Government issued a cheque for the princely sum of $12,000 for the Crafts Council of Australia to come into existence, with Marea as its first President. Sir John Gorton was then the PM and he personally directed Dr. Nugget Coombes and Dr Jean Battersby of the then Australian Council for the Performing Arts to administer this grant rather than the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board. That in itself was extraordinarily prescient because with the election of Mr. Whitlam as Prime Minister, the Australia Council was completely restructured. Marea was invited by Gough Whitlam to be Chair of The first Crafts Board and to develop policies and plans to place the contemporary crafts on an equal footing with art forms of the other seven Boards and within the spectrum of the visual arts. This meant that she had to resign from the fledgling Crafts Council of Australia Presidency, six months after she was elected, and the Vice President, Marcia del Thomas from South Australia replaced her there. In the space of a year Marea went from being Chair of a Steering Commiitee, to President of a new non governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Council of Australia) to Chair of the major governmental crafts organization (The Crafts Board of the Australia Council). Breathless activity by any standard.

When Gough Whitlam asked Marea, along with the other Board Chairs, to nominate a budget figure to cover possible needs she had took an educated guess and asked for 2 million dollars – an unheard of amount then and to put it in perspective, overnight the grant allocation to the Australia Council from the Federal Government went from $4,000,000 annually to $14,000,000. Wise heads and capable hands were needed to administer these funds. Marea surrounded herself with those she trusted to sit on her Board and those who would join the public service on the staff of the Australia Council in the Crafts Board. Moira Kerr and Felicity Abraham were among the latter. Wisdom personified.

It wasn’t a coincidence then of course that Marea was invited from Australia as one of the select group of people from North America, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and Africa to take up the challenge of the American philanthropist Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb to form the World Crafts Council. Mrs. Vanderbilt Webb intended this to be a networking link for craftspeople world wide to provide the strength of numbers and opinion, to influence governments.

Marea had artist friends and colleagues as personal contacts in each of those regions, friendships which remained strong throughout her life, and like her these people recognized what a huge advantage the network of these connections could be. The World Crafts Council gradually included over 50 countries and Marea became World President in 1980. It was during her Presidency (again by judicious use of the right contacts and right approaches) that the organization achieved unheard of Category A Status as an NGO with UNESCO. This gave it an annual subvention to establish its own secretariat. And this made it possible for Marea to undertake travel to each of the five regions of the WCC and to play a part in the necessary high level discussions with individual governments which gave national organizations necessary support. She acted in the manner of a diplomat, meeting official people at the highest level and bringing great distinction to the WCC as well as to Australia because of this.

Here in Australia, the Asian Zone of the WCC was set up within the offices of the Crafts Council of Australia and Pat Thompson (writer, scholar and former co-warrior with Marea in the Paddington Society) became its Hon. Secretary.

Many of the legendary stories of these extraordinary times and Marea’s part in the contemporary crafts renaissance of forty or so years ago have been captured in Grace Cochrane’s marvellous history but I hope I’ve given you some inkling of just how pivotal she was in leading the change in the contemporary crafts landscape nationally and internationally.

And also maybe what an extraordinarly busy and interesting life she had.

And throughout all of this heady activity on the organizational front she was also trying at a very high level to pursue her own artistic career. The exhibition with Mona Hessing in 1973 Clay and Fibre at the National Gallery of Victoria which was such a hit with gallery audiences certainly gave the critics of the time something to think about. I remember the outrage when Donald Brook, art critic for the SMH, wrote, with outrage showing in each word, something to the effect that these were crafts people and Marea should get back to making ceramic mugs and Mona to making useful woven rugs. Marea and Mona were completely confident in their work but this was understandably annoying. However, in fact it illustrated so well why they wanted attitudes and awareness to alter.

As an aside here and one of those whose professional life has been in administration of the arts rather than in the practice of it I am always amazed at the generosity of artists who are prepared to give time and energy away from their professional career to ensure the fight for the arts as a government priority goes on.

I’d like to finish with an illustration of Marea’s practical skill and capacity always to see solutions rather than problems.

In 1973 The WCC Secretariat asked her to find a Polish fibre artist Ewa Pachucka who had defected to Australia and could possibly need support to find her feet in this new country. Marea drove a blue mini minor at the time and one morning she arrived at CCA and together we tooled off to Carramar where Ewa and her husband were living in a migrant hostel. How Marea tracked her down I’ve forgotten but such was her brilliance at this sort of tricky thing that I remember it didn’t faze me at all. Ewa and her husband Romek were surprised and overjoyed to see us and even more flummoxed when within weeks Marea had arranged rental accommodation for them in a cottage in Milsons Point and Rudi Komon, had offered Ewa a solo exhibition at his Paddington Gallery for six months time. He knew of her work from exhibitions she had had in London and Denmark. The exhibition at the Rudi Komon Gallery was a sensation and James Mollison acquired major works from it for the national collection. And Ewa began her life as an artist anew in this new country. The sort of fairy story ending in a way to this extraordinary train of events which Marea set in motion, is that both Marea and Ewa were among artists commissioned by Aldo Girgulo and Pamille Berg to undertake major works for Parliament House in Canberra when it opened in 1988, Marea’s bronze sculpture in the Executive Courtyard at the formal entrance to the Prime Minister’s office suite, and Ewa’s stone sculpture in the Lobby Courtyard Garden adjacent to the House of Representatives.

Marea’s place in Australian art history is well assured. It will always be recognized by those who see the Judy Cassab portrait of her at the National Portrait Gallery and through her work in public and private collections. For her friends and colleagues it will be in the knowledge of a myriad of little and big things which she managed so intuitively. She was absolutely a remarkable person and it was a privilege to have known her.

Jane Burns

November 25 2013

Time to put Australian craft production back on the plate

Series of hand-thrown bowls by Andrew Widdis

Series of hand-thrown bowls by Andrew Widdis

Senator’s John Madigan and Nick Xenophon recently purchased a range of tableware made in Australia, by Robert Gordon Australia, for the Australian Parliament. “The situation is so dire that in order to get Australian-made goods into our Federal Parliament, Nick and I had to buy them ourselves.”[i] Though it may not be long before Robert Gordon Australia goes completely off shore “some now outsourced to China”[ii]

We fulfil large scale ceramics orders in Australia, at a somewhat competitive price, but we need to raise the Australian consumers attention to what they are buying to make this viable, the federal Government needs to support small business’ that have the ability, but not necessarily the finances to invest on a risky proposition in the current market.

As with Robert Gordon Australia, manufacturers of Australian ceramics don’t seem to survive long solely manufacturing in Australia, but they might find it a little easier if an educated market sought them out because they understood what it takes to make locally. Perhaps one of the easiest and most immediate ways would be in raising awareness and education of the “Australian Made”[iii] logo” by promotion from the various levels of government. This seems to be the easiest way to give some market share back (also removing the need to have a magnifying glass when shopping).

Recent manufacturers in Australia that should have been able to up-scale and compete with imports are perhaps: Elliot Golightly[iv] and Bison Home[v]. I worked for Elliot Golightly in Nth Melbourne; they were going well for a couple of years. They even had a big order from U.S.A. while I was there, but China started copying them and they slowly lost market share and ended up selling the main designs to a tile company in Ballarat. Unfortunately, I don’t think the tile company made much of it.

Bison Home was proudly hand made in Canberra. With orders from Australia’s big retailers, such as Myers, Bison Home have recently started sourcing from O/S, and I assume they make very little in Australia now, if any. Although Brian Tunks’ (owner of Bison Home) health is given as the main reason[vi], he should have had access to change his process in Australia.

So if these people tried to make solely in Australia and failed, it’s not likely that any other manufacturer is going to succeed in Australia. Only small studio/artist set-ups seem to be the go; usually because it is more a ‘lifestyle” than a financially viable proposition.

Anyone with enough money to buy the efficient equipment that would enable them to compete with Asia are more likely to take the safer option of investing that start-up money in importing the product. We simply don’t have a market that cares where a product is made, as long as it’s cheap, is the mentality here. So why take the risk. I’d love to manufacture a commercial range in Australia, and particularly in Regional Victoria (I live in Bendigo, where we have some history in tableware manufacture), but until I feel supported I’m not about to risk it (I started down the road of starting a commercial production, but soon realised it was going to be a losing proposition (I still have a 3 phase pot press if you want to give it a go)). I have no issue with importing generic white-ware from China, it has given everyone access to a cheap strong hygienic product, and it has given a higher income to many throughout Asia; it does not take market share from local studio potters.

With the devastation caused by the “financial crisis[vii] in U.S.A. and Europe; England and U.S.A. have taken steps to begin “reshoring”[viii]. In the U.S.A. American Mug & Stein Co.[ix] have been making the “Indivisible” mug for Starbucks, in Ohio, U.S.A.. It is seen as a sense of pride to support locally made product (you can visit the maker, you can see how it’s made and see the working conditions, etc. Perhaps it’s a logical progression of “slow food.”).

Labour costs are not necessarily an issue. Ceramics manufacture can be highly automated[x] using pot pressing[xi] rather than the conventional factory set up of slip-casting[xii], pot press methods can be completely automated (no need for a person to pour and remove the casting) and they are highly efficient at minimising waste, the clay trimmings are even automatically recycled with some of the latest equipment. With turnkey hand-over solutions available from German industry[xii] providing the latest automated machinery and conveyor belt systems for the ceramic industry. Pressing lines for clay pots/bowls/plates picked up and placed on conveyor belts to the next process step; but it’s a lot of money, and as I suggested, anyone with that money would see the safer option of having to only buy the end product from Asia.

Bendigo Pottery[xiii] continue to make a small quantity in Australia, but its days may be numbered. Last year a quarter of the factory space was turned into an antique stall holders set-up. If that ‘ain’t the writing on the wall…

I have a set of flat plates that have been in service for over 20 years, manufactured in Australia by “Australian Fine China”[xiv]; unfortunately they are now sourced from South East Asia. Previously known as “Bristile crockery” they manufactured vitrified white crockery (made in Western Australia), and often ‘badged’ for Government Departments and other institutions.[xv] So the Australian Parliament did once have more than enough Australian made crockery.

In England the traditional pottery area of Stoke on Trent is a prime example of how a once devastated industry can be turned around, indeed flourish, against the once perceived unbeatable Asia, home of cheap ceramics production. An example of a successful manufacturer in a “high wage country” is Dudson[xvi] using efficient equipment and best work practices including promoting environmental and carbon awareness along with showing pride in a local product by labelling with “Made in England” and having the British Standard 4034 Kitemark for assurance of quality[xvii]. Along with a supportive ethic for local manufacture “Our leading production facilities in Stoke-on-Trent embody a strong commitment to England, sourcing locally wherever possible and nurturing local skills and expertise”[xviii]. Dudson has found strong support from the likes of “Avril Gayne, Hospitality Services and Control Manager at the Eden Project[xix], commented, “It’s not just the origins of our food and the impact on the environment that we are passionate about. What excites us about Evolution” (Dudson’ ceramic hospitality tableware) “is the fact that, like our menus, ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, supporting the community and keeping carbon production to a minimum.””[xx]

I’m sure we can make a viable “green” tableware product in Australia. The Dudson “Evolution” range is available in Australia; and it seems to be a price that local cafe’ happily pay. I recently had lunch with family members at a new (small) cafe in Surrey Hills (Cocco Latte, 111-113 Union Road, Surrey Hills, VIC. 3127) My Mother commented on the interesting tableware, so I picked a plate up to look at the base (to see who made it), I was surprised/impressed that it said “Dudson” “Made in England”. So if we’re buying a “green” product, but reloading it with carbon by shipping it from further away than Asia; why are we unable to find a way to make a similar product here? An Australian distributor of Dudson proclaims “Evolution has been developed with the prime objective of reducing the carbon footprint created during manufacture”[xxi]

There are many good reasons to start manufacturing ceramics in Australia. Firstly the issue of inefficiencies in getting it here from overseas; energy wasted in trucking/shipping/trucking to your local High Street.

We have all the natural minerals required for the finest porcelains here in Australia, and relevant to me we have them all here in Victoria. Natural gas (we ship it to Asia) etc. Porcelain is made of mainly Kaolin[xxii], with some silica[xxiii] and then feldspar[xxiv] to bring the vitrification point down to a commercially viable temperature (1280°C). I’ve formulated my own porcelain[xxv] and glazes[xxvi] over many years, and I’ve made pure white porcelain from Australian minerals, though I don’t usually use the purest kaolin it can be sourced from a Victorian quarry; the whitest export grade kaolin (mined near Ballarat) is used mainly for coating glossy magazines. It is somewhat upsetting to a potter that these pure white kaolins are not used for a more lasting product.

With the latest equipment from industrially savvy counties like Germany, and making fine white porcelain tableware locally we can value add to our own resources, while at the same time reducing carbon.

Even more efficient equipment than pot press’ are now available. Isostatic press'[xxvi] a technology that requires minimal water in the clay, no hydraulics to ram the die down and no 3 phase motors to spin the dies during compression. This is another massive saving in energy resources.

As well as putting solar panels on roofs and vast arrays in the deserts and clearing bush to make solar parks[xxvii]; putting turbines wherever there’s no danger posed to budgies, why aren’t we also investing in efficient manufacture that use our local resources. Instead of throwing millions of dollars[xxviii] at American cars that guzzle resources, can’t we send some to a production that vitrifies it.

Notes

i http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/victoria/senators-john-madigan-and-nick-xenophon-splash-out-to-support-australian-crockery-makers/story-fni0fit3-1226699535669

ii http://www.australianpotteryatbemboka.com.au/shop/index.php?manufacturers_id=267

iii http://www.australianmade.com.au/

iv http://www.elliotgolightly.com

v http://www.bisonhome.com

vi http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/homestyle/new-life-of-brian-20121127-2a5hh.html

vii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Financial_crisis

viii http://www.forbes.com/sites/mitchfree/2012/06/27/is-the-re-shoring-of-manufacturing-a-trend-or-a-trickle/

ix http://americanmugandstein.com

x http://www.designboom.com/design/laufen-factory-visit-ceramic-casting

xi http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlXwoqqwC-I

xii http://www.dudson.com/products/finest-vitrified-tableware

xiii http://www.bendigopottery.com.au

xiv http://store.australianfinechina.com.au/category/list/#/Content/?id=212

xv http://www.wembleyware.org/history-of-the-factory

xvi http://www.dudson.com

xvii http://www.dudson.com/products/finest-vitrified-tableware

xviii http://www.dudson.com/company/manufacturing

xix www.edenproject.com

xx http://www.dudson.com/news/product-news/evolution—the-story-continues-

xxi http://www.southernhospitality.com.au/brands/dudson/dudson-evolution-oval-bowl-pearl-216mm.html

xxii http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/minerals/industrial-minerals/a-z-of-industrial-minerals/kaolin

xxiii http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/stone-sand-and-clay/silica

xxiv http://www.dpi.vic.gov.au/earth-resources/minerals/industrial-minerals/a-z-of-industrial-minerals/feldspar

xxv http://www.andrewwiddis.com

xxvi http://www.andrewwiddis.blogspot.com

xxvii http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_in_Australia

xxviii http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/election-2013/kevin-rudds-500m-boost-for-car-industry/story-fn9qr68y-1226698798673

Some further reading:

Reshoring manufacturing jobs in spotlight at Northern California summit
By John Guenther
http://www.caeconomy.org/reporting/entry/reshoring-manufacturing-jobs-in-spotlight-of-northern-california-summit

‘Half chips, half rice’ approach to reshoring
By Andrew Bounds
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/16ef404e-8b42-11e2-b1a4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2d2togVAE

US manufacturing and the troubled promise of reshoring
By Mubin S Khan
http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jul/24/us-manufacturing-troubled-promise-reshoring

New Tax Protects Britain Against Cheap Chinese Imports
http://www.dudson.com/news/company-news/new-tax-protects-britian-against-cheap-chinese-imports

Unmaking the Future–the aesthetics of post-industrial ceramics

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

The view from inside the conference in Bergen

Like Australia, Norway finds itself with a rare gift – a financial bounty stemming from non-renewable natural resources. The news analysis in Australia often invokes the Norwegian model as a responsible investment of this wealth for future needs. With the Making or Unmaking? conference, Norway was able to host an international conference on ceramics like few others today. The premise was the use of the readymade by ceramic artists – rather than make work themselves, these artists repurposed existing works. This was the culmination of a four-year research project ‘Creating Art Value: A Research Project on Trash and Readymades, Art and Ceramics’. It was programmed with the ambitious exhibition THING TANG TRASH – Upcycling in contemporary ceramics (curated by Heidi Bjørgan), as well as a large number of ceramic exhibitions especially presented by galleries around Bergen.

And the view looking out from the conference

And the view looking out from the conference

The project leader and Norwegian writer Jorunn Veiteberg assembled some of the finest European craft minds to consider this question. It began with the English visitors. Glenn Adamson opened the conference with a slice of Postmodernism exhibition that he recently curated for the V&A. He focused particularly on the eschewal of authenticity by movements such as Memphis, which positioned style far above substance. It offered an important historical reference point for contemporary questioning of original production. Carol McNicoll followed with an artist talk that personified the conference theme with a feisty opposition to fine art etiquette. Fellow ceramicist Clare Twomey then offered an elegiac account of enduring ceramic crafts, such as plate lining. The meat of her paper was the account of her present work. This had two components. The first were a series of 80 tall red vases produced in the Jingdezhen ceramic powerhouse – ’80 vases in 8 days, China brings us miracles.’ The second an attempt to reproduce one of these in England, involving scouring for a large-enough kiln. The installation showed the one plaintive vase set among the sea of cheap Chinese imports. For Twomey, what distinguished the English vase was that its decoration sat under the surface, compared to the Chinese vases whose designs were more imposed on the surface.  The installation seemed to demonstrate that despite miraculous productive capacity of Chinese industry, it was still no match for the subtle craftsmanship of English labour.

Tanya Harrod followed with a beautiful lecture on the theme of the rag-picker, covering many examples of art projects that extracted works of beauty from the slums. She spoke highly of the work by Brazilian artist Vik Munos, featured in the film Wasteland, who donated money from the sale of his works to the favela dwellers who made it possible. While critical of those who mindlessly use the poor of the world to make high-end design, Harrod praised those who embrace the act of making with all its responsibilities. Caroline Slottee and Paul Scott provided examples of work with readymade ceramics and Ezra Shales considered the role of museum as a contested site for these works.

On the second day, Monica Gaspar introduced the concept of the infra-ordinary as a space opened up by use of the readymade. She provided a feast of contemporary work associated with her recent exhibition ‘Re-defining the Applied’, which reflected a shift away from the object itself to the way in which we inhabit. A highlight was the film by Swede Olas Stephenson where a gang breaks into a house to create musical symphonies using objects from each room. Andrew Livingston followed with a bold attempt to place use of the readymade in the context of sustainability. It made perfect sense, but the ethical logic seems at odds with the aesthetic context of the conference. Barnaby Barford’s artist talk presented narrative as an alternative context of the readymade. His film for the exhibition brilliantly demonstrated the power of pathos in the leftover figurine.

The day ended with Jorunn Veiteberg herself who expounded the thesis behind the conference. She loyally used local artists to illustrate her thesis that the ceramic readymade is following Duchamp’s liberating gesture with ‘Fountain’ to liberate the art object from the ‘fetish’ of the handmade. Veiteberg argued that re-purposing existing ceramics opens up new possibilities of creative intervention.

The last day began with Michael Petry, author of The Art of Not Making. His ebullient talk covered many instances of artists using skills of craftspersons, praising those who acknowledged their contributions. As one of those grateful artists themselves, Petry spoke very much from the commissioner’s perspective, focusing more on the grand ambitions of the artists than any creative input from technicians. The Polish ceramist Marek Cecula followed with a wonderful account of his career in ceramics, parallel to his remarkable personal journey as a survivor of the holocaust who returned to make work about the value of human labour. Linda Sormin followed in the afternoon with a lively short account of her practice in making ceramic interventions in museum spaces around the world.

As the second last presentation, I attempted to introduce the relational dimension of the readymade. This regarded the commissioned object, rather than the found object. I focused particularly on the work of artists who have their work made in Asia. Rather than a post-industrial aesthetic, I considered a ‘para-industrial’ condition where work responds to the scene of making ‘elsewhere’.

Rather than leave space for questions at the end of each paper, the conference was programmed with generous breaks where participants could discuss issues among themselves. While this was quite convivial, it was difficult to tell what the conference had achieved at the end. Making or Unmaking? provided a symbolic departure from the studio model of the ceramicist, whose work reflects the personal experience of clay. But it left hanging the question of where this is going. Is it opening ceramics up as an installation-based art form? Is it part of the elegiac moment in Europe as it sees its manufacturing capacities drift off to Asia? Does it reflect a sustainability ethic that eschews making anything new, in favour of re-purposing the old? These questions needed airing, either in response to papers or in panel discussions.

Most pressing is the gradual loss of a global dialogue around ceramics. Last month’s Gyeonggi Ceramix Biennale in Korea did not have one entry from Britain, and there was little opportunity for dialogue between representatives of east and west. As globalisation continues to expand, it seems a mistake to turn inward. Modern ceramics has such a rich history of borrowing between cultures.

Norway has set the pace. We now need to pass the baton.

PS. If you are interested in purchasing a copy of the excellent catalogue, then send an email to KHiB publications at resepsjonen@khib.no. Price: NOK 250,- (EUR 34) + handling expenses. More information here.