I have always been drawn to the archaeological departments of museums. Shaped, inscribed stone fascinate me. I am not sure why. Perhaps it is a communion with past peoples, perhaps the immortality of words written in stone, or maybe it is that I imagine myself engaged in some similar activity. I feel an urge to make, to fashion, carve mould, shape. It is a fundamental need, to change the physical world, to alter it in some way, to make art. Carving is a direct link to nature. Working with natural material and limited means is something that is within reach of anyone. It is a human thing to do. It is both earthly and divine, the extension of a transient thought, moment, place.
I see words encircling Logos. I see them appearing and disappearing, emerging as an accumulation of reading of repeated passages of text.
These days I hear a great deal about neuroscience, identity, empathy and so on. All matters that address the question, what makes us who we are, where does the seat of the self reside? Just as philosophers have wondered about the soul, today we scratch around in search of explanations for the mind. Before neuroscience was anything at all, writers speculated on the workings of the brain, the distinctions that make each one of us unique and yet closely alike. This seems all the more pertinent today as we learn about the working of not only our brains but those of other vertebrates. Indeed, sentience itself is at the very core of such empirical and metaphysical enquiry.
I read Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes in my teens. It is a moving tale of Charlie, a janitor with an IQ of 68, volunteering to have an experimental surgical procedure that has been shown to increase the intelligence of a laboratory mouse called Algernon. This is successful, but as Charlie reaches the height of his intellectual powers, Algernon’s increased intelligence starts to reverse. Charlie discovers that he too will revert to his former self and desperately tries to find the flaw in the procedure. As he finishes his work, it is too late to halt the reversal and rapidly regresses to his former state. He attempts to return to his job as a janitor but cannot bear the realisation that he would be tolerated by his work colleagues out of pity. Charlie leaves home to wander away from the city. His last wish is that flowers be put on Algernon’s grave buried in his back garden.
This book is considered to be a science fiction work but it is much more than this. It is a commentary on society’s attitudes towards the vulnerable, drawing from Keyes’ experiences teaching special needs. The narrative contains other autobiographical references, drawing from his conflicted relationship with parents who wanted him to study medicine and time at university. It is also a masterful work of empathy, the mouse itself becoming an object of transference of emotions as one hopes against hope that things will go well for Charlie. However, the story ends in reverting to reality and the status quo, leaving behind the quasi-scientific ideal of enhanced intelligence.
I remember the story possessing tender claustrophobia. It questions normative judgements about mental capacity. Human behaviours are seen through the narrative of the people around the main character and the psychological tension between him and the mouse is kept taught by the changes that affect the sense of self of Charlie. It is a tragedy of self-realisation. The journey that Charlie undertakes is not too dissimilar to that of Mary Shelley’s monster, one of awakening to the knowledge of life, and like Frankenstein’s creature, doomed to dissolution and despair. It is a moral tale of the dangers of playing with the laws of nature, akin to the search for immortality in TheMonkey’s Paw. A case of, ‘careful what you wish for’.
This story has always stayed with me and was brought back sharply in focus when we returned back from being abroad and found a new inhabitant had moved into our home. A field mouse had made its presence clear, evidenced by its physical traces and the noises it made at night as its tiny claws tapped on the wooden floor. Not wishing to kill the creature, I ordered a humane trap and set it the very night it arrived. The trap branded itself as professional, notwithstanding its low price, and indeed fulfilled its every promise. Janet went to bed while I worked a little more on this blog. No sooner were the main lights out, Janet called out, ‘he’s caught’. It had taken only a few minutes for the naive creature to enter the metal box and release the trap doors shut.
We kept the creature until the following afternoon in an acrylic display case. It was at this point of capture, observing its behaviour, making itself at home with half a grape and a few grains of muesli, that the mouse became a quasi-mythical creature endowed with anthropomorphic characteristics. I felt a joy at not having killed the animal and at its release a few hours later by a hedgerow where it promptly jumped and skipped its way back to live out its short natural life.
I say all this because this experience made me reflect on the porcelain creatures I have been making for Spes Contra Spem. Being encased but observed made me wonder about the mouse and how conscious it was of its life, capture and release: what might be the quality of its sentience? Obviously, any empathy felt towards the little animal was purely coming from me. I have not delusions that given the chance, the animal in all its innocence, would have caused harm had it stayed in the building.
This event started a thought pattern which led to the resolution of a problem I had been struggling with for some time in relation to embedding sounds in the sculptures. I was bothered by the conceptual relationship between the sound and the porcelain sculptures. I asked myself, what should this relationship be like; is there a synthesis between the two modalities in the context of the porcelain pieces; what sounds would be consonant with such a pairing?
A week after the mouse’s release, just a few days ago. The encasement of the mouse in an acrylic display case made me think of the porcelain being encased. This idea goes hand in hand with the nominal theme of the project proposal, Enshrinement. An idea that emerged during the preceding tutorial to this post. However, this could not just be a means of display. A vitrine is not terribly interesting in and of itself, it is a curatorial convenience and could even be seen as a lazy way of conferring status to a work with its associations of museums. Additionally, I would be removing the works from the ability to touch them.
The encasement of the porcelain I see as creating a sealed space not only inhabited by the solid works but also the sounds of the work. The case creates a boundary, a separation, a sacred space where the sound is sealed and barely audible. However, by creating perforations in the acrylic glass, a possibility is created to approach the case and listen in, eavesdrop on the conversant pieces. This invitation to the viewer becomes a physical act of engagement aimed at bringing one into closer proximity with the work whilst remaining separated, another theme of the project. My aim is to raise questions, infer ideas parallel to those others offered by the installation as a whole. For me, these questions lie in the domain of sentience, empathy, curiosity, purpose, sacredness and profanity.
However, such a scenario remains a relatively static one. In a world where movement is so evident in everyday life, I have thought of converting the vitrine from a piece of furniture to a mode of movement. The aim is to imply potential movement in which the viewer is encumbered with its psychological inertia. A connection is therefore thickened between the work and a no longer passive viewer. The aim is that inferences of ritual, procession, celebration and burden become part of the narrative unfolding in the project proposal, forging connections in which the self is only part of a wider ecology of selves, past, present and future.
I do not want to disclose images of the proposed work at the moment but would rather disclose parts, documented during their making, as a puzzle slowly pieced together. This is a way of keeping the work alive in an evolving process and narrative – a secret in the open.
Yesterday I worked on the idea of creating a porcelain sculpture that lets light pass through. On a small scale the above form worked well and looks elegant, but on a large scale I felt that it may present as impressive but boring. I would be reproducing, more or less, the form on a larger scale which would be more of an engineering problem than artistic one. It is the sort of thing one would pass on to technicians.
The conversation I have been having with Taiyo comes to mind, in which I made a distinction between interest, meaning and significance. On a large scale I feel the skeletal form, shown beneath, may be more interesting. By this I mean that it may engender a greater curiosity, catalyse more questions. This would be more in keeping with the idea of layered interpretations I have talked about in the project proposal: to open out rather than enclose the narrative.
Both approaches are valid. This is yet another example of my dialectic between the rational and the emotional. If I were to go with the more recent idea, it would present different technical problems and perhaps lead to new discoveries. I have never worked like this. In the end, on a large scale, the degree of detail possible offers a perhaps more interesting making experience. One in which I learn new things. After all, I could also show the sleek model as an idealisation in contrast to the reality; much in the way that religions work and can give rise to ambitious and magnificent sacred art. Distant from every day life.
I also feel that the ‘skeletal’ piece, apart from being potentially lighter and easier to display, is more visceral, closer to the ethnographic artefacts that so engage me. Made using simple technology that challenges the skill base of the maker to bring together the spiritual and the everyday, the imagination and the earthy, the touchable essence of material.
I could argue that the earlier approach transcends the everyday into a different plane of existence, belief and imagination, but is the narrative I am building not based on the immediacy of a world that is beyond my grasp and yet I feel is ever present? Should this immediacy not be reflected in the process; a directness of making that the earlier approach would occlude by virtue of its aesthetic form and finish? However, if I am to keep the sense of preciousness of a sacred object, making the piece in porcelain would be enough to transcend the conceptual content. I am stepping into both domains, is that not how belief works, constantly moving between reality and the ideal? What is the relationship between reality and the ideal, are they entangled or separate, joined only in our minds?
The entanglement of sound and material I propose is better served by the skeletal form in relation to low frequencies: more permeable, affected, conjoined.
If I am to go with my current inclination, does the final form need to be what it is now? Does this form of making not invite an exploration of new dispositions of parts and indeed change the whole character of the work. This brings me in conflict with time. I have only so many months to draw the form, make, fire, finish and mount. Do I have the time to do this with everything else I need to do?
Over the next few days I shall experiment with some ideas and see where that takes me. What I want to avoid is indecision during making, that would slow the whole process. In the meantime I can continue with other works and keep an open mind. I hope to have something more definitive before December which would give me realistically, six months in which to complete the work.
This piece sets the tone for subsequent works. The large suspended piece will follow that felt sense that this has. I have resolved many aspects of making so when I return to the studio I will be able to immerse myself in the making rather than problem solving.
I was originally thinking of having a large number of pieces on a raised surface near the ground. I have changed my mind. This is going to be one of two pieces, placed on surfaces so that they can be looked at and listened to closely: waist height most probably. I had thought of plinths but I think that two flat surfaces, interlocking, held up with very thin metal legs might work better. I don’t want the sense of space to be blocked by solid plinths but rather have the porcelain pieces almost hovering off the ground. One recumbent like this one and the other vertical, more active. The horizontal extension of this one against the verticality of the other will form an L shape seen from above and the side. But this depends on the exhibition space.
Returning home from the Janet’s show installation I had to think about the interim show’s work title. I have never been keen on the process of naming a work despite knowing how important it is; I have seen it as an intrusion of words that closes down meaning. However, having thought at length about the 17th June tutorial with Jonathan I feel quite different about the matter. It is no longer an external slapping on of words but an added layer of meaning, an entry into the work without necessarily fencing its meaning, rather offering a thought that, if the words are chosen carefully, is both suggestive and open. What is more important is that it is the possibility to introduce a rational side to the work, by virtue of the inherent characteristics of words, that helps create a dynamic equilibrium between the rational and emotional.
Here I reference the paradoxical time shifts that I deal with in my practice, being in the present whilst dealing with time frames interchangeably. I feel this title opens up a whole lot of ideas for me regarding the nature of time and life.
Porcelain high relief in drying box 18 x 19 x 11cm
This study has led me to reflect on what I am currently doing both in terms of work and conceptual content. Working small on a large scale idea is not always easy. It is different in the way one part relates to another, everything is seen at a glance rather than experiencing a gradual discovery as an informal circular dance is choreographed around the work. Viewing distances are bodily contract towards immobility as I end up very close to the work, without glasses, in an attempt to restore a large scale visual relationship.
In this work my thoughts have focused on a particular set of notions and shifted from an Apollonian ideal found in the Studies for H to a more Dionysian sense of things. The subjects remain the same and the methodology similar but with its content altered in someway. As always a dichotomy is expressing itself like night and day.
The study has been difficult to accept in terms of its composition but I have learnt a great deal in how I could approach a more ambitious work. This would be many times larger which itself presents a number of technical issues of drying out and weight. I may have to construct a specific humidity box to maintain the necessary moisture content over a prolonged period. Then again covering may be the only thing necessary since the mass of material will keep its moisture content more readily due to the reduced evaporation caused by a decreased surface to volume ratio.
Its implied motion suggests to me an animation in the form of a ‘dance’ that traces ideas underlying the work. In addition it is in high relief whereas what I envisage as a finished work extends in height and may be on a circular base: perhaps a subliminal allusion to old master depictions of the Tower of Babel: an icon of chaos and the hubris of man (and women?).
But what is it I am doing, evoking the weight of generations, the struggle for life, are these metaphors for humanity? This latter question refers to my previous post title, ‘What is the Difference’. This is not a de-humanisation but rather a de-centering of the anthropic view of things. We are part of the whole and not separated from it, a view that has proliferated during the Anthropocene. We are as subject to the same blind and dispassionate forces that brought us about as any other part of nature… with one difference. We have a heightened capacity to change our behaviour. But the individual dynamic is not the same as that of the group and this creates an inertia which naturally tends towards conserving the status quo. Which way things will go is still in the balance; a race against time for the majority of future humans. Extinction is unlikely to be total but annihilation of a large number if not majority of people is certainly a clear possibility.
It has just occurred to me, why am I writing all this down, I have never done such a thing, why post so much since I hold all these thoughts in my mind as I work? One, it provides a contemporary document that may prove valuable in the future: the memory plays tricks and history is constantly retold in the light of the present. Two, writing practice has enabled me to move more rapidly through ideas, build on them, alter them and articulate them more clearly.
What is this, I ask myself? As I made it I felt an unease as it extended its reach physically and formally. The other models in porcelain are clearly zoan but this is different, a hybrid perhaps between animal and artefact, biology and ritual.
And the way I photographed it, suspended by fine cords, gives me an idea for presenting that moves away from the wall, pedestal, plinth, stand, case, cabinet, table top, floor. Fragility, underlined by the immersion in a field of tension, defined by the slender threads, a psychological state between the din of kinetic energy and the repressed quiet of potential energy.
The above series of images is a reminder regarding a recent idea to create 3D animations. I have thought about photogrammetry too which, however, seems to yield imprecise renderings far too often for me to give it the time. In any case , it is all about photographing what I have already made in the flesh, so to speak. I prefer to invent and for this I turn to Blender which is convincingly versatile with high specifications, offering tight control… and it is free.
Yesterday I started a small scale study in porcelain – no larger than twenty centimetres in its largest dimension – for H’s playthings in porcelain. What I show here is the first stage, the plasma. It is small so I can quickly assess its outcome before investing more time in how to proceed on a larger scale. The question for now, is whether to move in the direction of a baroque, visceral rendition or a more schematic, symbolic one. I am thinking that the former might be too ‘noisy’ for it to be receptive to a sound element in the work.
I feel that the two approaches are different aspects of what I am looking to express. This makes me think that there is space for both to coexist, a conversation contextualised in the transition from a mass population engaged in an ecology and the symbolic representation of each class type. The former an animated, raw, poietic emergence from inside me, the living expression of thought. The latter a cerebral aesthetic product, distanced, engaging on another level. Can the two ways be reconciled and merged or are they mutually exclusive?
Not all bodies of work need to be homogeneous. I have talked of heterogeneity before, it represents the outer layer of deeper commonalities. Multitudes exist within one idea, am I to be restrained by the aesthetics of conformity? This may be my own prejudice: the need to replicate serially to create distinct bodies of work.
It may be possible to combine the two in synchronous dialogue, resolving a dialectic within a single work. A transition from raw to refined, from animated foam to schematic idolatry. After all, I am looking for a myth and myths are about origins, creation.
These are some instruments such that H might play with. For those that have been reading my posts, it should be possible to work out who or what H is. Pythagoras divided, Ovid reassembled although Theophrastus is the first author of this unification.
I am looking to render such things in different ways.
I have referred to the central role language plays in my work. This role is not an overt one, I have not used text or words explicitly so far. However, in this blog journal I use words as a glue that binds together ideas in some way trying to make sense of what are at the outset subliminal responses to experience. In the Mid Point review I recently mentioned language as a principle theme in the project proposal as I did in the initial symposium back in October; the time has come to attempt at explaining this.
Why is language important to me? Beyond emotions, physical responses and sensations, in order for me to think about the world around me in ways that build on experience and gain some understanding I need a more complex and flexible way of ordering thoughts. This way comes in the form of verbal language, spoken and then written. A word is an abstract entity that stands for something we encounter in the world. This label is made up of individual sounds or phonemes. Phonemes are recombined to form words, words form phrases and sentences and so on articulating complex thoughts.
This correlates with how I work through sculpture. The basic building blocks, or ‘phonemes’ are shapes. Each shape raises a response in me just as the sonic values of phonemes carry with them an emotional-auditory response. This idea is used in poetry as in alliteration giving a sense beyond the abstract meaning of the words. In Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood’ the poet uses alliteration just for its sonic effects,
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starlessand bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to thesloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.
However, he also uses metaphor and rhythm to build a vivid sensual picture full of emotional as well as cognitive tension that goes beyond the semantic values of the words. It is a shaping of the world in words.
Sculpture can also work in poetic terms, the semantic-associative value of shapes when combined give rise to thoughts that go beyond the sphere, cone and rod, nose, finger and pear. I use shape as a response to thoughts and ideas; what emerges is not an ekphrastic embodiment but an intention towards a more poetic form. Sound too can be used to build ideas but its very essence conveys a deeply subjective emotional meaning, one that can be used to build emotional narratives that in turn can create associative responses. Words, sounds and shapes act on our senses and thoughts in different ways but they all bear a commonality in that their basic component units can be combined and recombined to create a complex language. Where they differ is in what they communicate and this is why combining, in my case sound and sculpture does present a valid case.
This leads me to ask, should a sculpture be silent and sound disembodied? This purist idea is difficult to refute and has been the ground for a silent debate during modern European history. Perhaps in the end sculpture should remain silent. But then again, I can see that shaped sound could inhabit a sculpture and pulsate within its form, tracing its contours as it pushes against silence, forming a boundary of perception so that the very space around the sculpture is contiguous with it; a symbiotic intertwining of form and sound tracing reciprocal interactions between two modalities that go beyond the semantics of the words involved in explaining the relationship.
The study in porcelain shown above is one form that challenges me to think how sound might correlate with form. Not this particular form, ostensibly it is part of another work, but as I am looking to bring together different works as part of the project proposal it does ring bells in my head. Is scale important? I think that viewing distance may play a part, perhaps sound responding to the placement of the receiver in relation to the form much as the visual is rewarded with different perceptions: long distance – overall structure and its relationship with the environment, intermediate distance – component parts and their interrelationships, close up – surface and texture. This is all of course separate to the associative meanings the form might bear. How can sound be distilled into this sort of relationship, frequency, pulse, detail? Can the same be applied to sound as to solid form, are their analogies or am I dealing with something different in kind? These are all questions I aim to explore…