Flesh Made Stone

 

 

After setting up the work bench I stried something out that came to me as I was travelling down to the Residency in February. I am currently working on the text and will soon apply it to the sculpture components. I made the first marks with what will no doubt be the stylus I use for the script.

I have always had difficulty with my calligraphy, but somehow this form of writing suited me. I enjoyed inscribing the soft material with the wooden tool, lightly dragging it through the flesh to be made stone. It seems so appropriate to the text which ties up the two main pieces of the installation.

Thinking about the textual link between the two pieces, the third work has suddenly, as I write, become resolved. I was in two minds as to which of a number of works I would use. The answer is clear: the silent ‘What is the Difference? (I can also add the video if there is time; brings in another dimension to the overall idea)

 

Flowers for Algernon

 

 
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 the 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 a 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 The Monkey’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 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.
 

 

Maquette for Suspended Sculpture

 


 
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.
 

Restarting Blender… and Making

 

 

I have been back two full days and restarting making as always is hard. The excitement of returning to work is tempered by the reality of settling in and organising a workflow. Having spent half the day on Blender tutorials I said to my self, making is so much more satisfying. Mid-afternoon I made a sketch of the conversant piece while still not dry, and took measurements to keep its companion piece on the same scale.  Then I made a tiny model for which I shall make tomorrow its companion maquette before starting on the large scale piece.

 

 

Over the Summer I looked at Blender and how to use it to create 3D renderings. However, some time has passed and I have forgotten a lot of it as I had never worked with it before. So, I am restarting my learning from the top with videos on the fundamentals. I feel much more at home with the user interface which means I can get on quickly. 

The plan is to go through several videos every day, in between making and writing. By December I should be able to do pretty much what I want for the final show if needed. This seems late in the day to be starting this in earnest but my aims with respect to  3D rendering are relatively modest for now.

See links to videos in Resources with the aim of building a library of tutorials.

 

Tutorial 6: 15 October 2019. Jonathan Kearney

 

Tuesday’s tutorial covered a number of points I would like to pursue further in future blogs. We talked about two main things: the sound element of the project proposal and the challenges that these and other aspects present in terms of the exhibition space. 

The time away from the studio has allowed me to think about my practice in a more objective way and select out or rather prioritise elements, focusing what I do to concentrate its effect while making it possible for it to be more open. 

We discussed three principle acoustic elements in the proposal: ultra low frequency, normal sounds embedded in the sculptures, and separate narrative audio.

It was a very good thing I spent a lot of time familiarising myself with the spaces and the show dynamics during the Summer. The spaces can be quite challenging and there is also the question of logistics and installation. These challenges also present opportunities to create a show that is flexible and modular capable of being shown in other spaces and contexts.

The interactive bass sounds aim at: drawing people in, mitigating any disruption in collective spaces, affecting the space at a physical / corporeal level.

The narrative sounds work on a different level altogether. We discussed how the bass and narrative sounds would interact. This will need a lot of experimentation and testing so that the bass is audible while listening to the narrative on headphones. I think that because the bass will fluctuate in volume as opposed to the headphone’s constant narrative, a dislocation will result in further layering of meaning.

A third sound layer will be provided by the sounds embedded in the sculptures. Talking with Jonathan clarified the direction I should take with these sounds. The pieces would probably work best with abstract sounds correlating with the sculptural forms. To have spoken or representational sounds appear to me at odds with the static, ‘silent’ nature of sculptural form. This is another technical matter to experiment.  

We briefly discussed the Arduino and headphones, whether the latter should be wireless to allow visitors to walk around setting a spatial conversation between the sounds, sculptures and any other visual element that might be included.

The idea of different scales of listening creating circumscribed or diffuse space in the installation is an interesting idea but again will need careful working out:

  • the diffuse bass interactively fluctuating in volume and vibrating the space
  • the abstract embedded sounds circumscribing a tight horizon of perception, drawing in the listener
  • the headphone narrative being a more rational layer creating that tension between the rational and the emotional I often talk about.

I mentioned that the installation is a form of shrine. But on reflection what I am doing is not so much building a shrine as enshrining notions. I think this is a much looser and and open term that gives me much greater freedom than what I had thought earlier – mythopoeia. I can still use the term mythopoeia but in narrower contexts to describe part of what I am doing. 

I believe that this idea of enshrinement come at a critical moment in the current process before I start to immerse myself in the final project  

We also discussed the opening night as a moment in which the work might not be fully appreciated because of the nature of such gatherings. I see the opening as more of a social event , P.R, that may or may not yield appropriate interest. Really, if someone wants to see work, they will not come on the opening night, something I know from experience. 

I explained how part of my methodology is to make the sculptures empathetic to a certain extent. Not with a covert anthropomorphic form, but something more alien. So far the unfired porcelain gives me a sense of this but after the firing process it will be interesting to see how this affects my ideas, display and handling of the works. 

I am still incorporating the idea of an alimentary canal, digesting and assimilating ideas from a world of ancestry and connectedness; an alien landscape that is part of us. 

With respect to the large suspended sculpture, and the word Icon, Jonathan spoke about religious icons being ‘written’ after after many hours of meditating before painting. This process creates a space that allows an icon to be a window to another world. 

I told Jonathan that at the beginning of the course I was open to explore new and familiar materials and methods. He asked If this had been a challenge, that is to say, trying to push processes that had been previously defined and clear. 

I have found the process immensely enjoyable, getting underneath the process and it has developed my ability to better articulate what I am doing and why to myself. The PP is now less dispersed; I have used my energy to look at different things gradually delineating a clearer picture that can be taken into the future making a methodology without wondering what if I did this or that. My endeavour has been to work within a chaotic coherence out of which can emerge a more focused trajectory that draws in ideas in its wake. 

We finally discussed the Amputation post and the amputation video at the end of it. This is something I would like to continue and formalise into a more polished performance.

Jonathan said that the ideas make sense with what I have been doing and that there is a clear trajectory and evidence of testing and pushing this along. Although there is still a lot to do, technical issues to resolve with testing, but he can visualise the coherence of what I am doing. 

 


 

What to do next

Explore the ideas of shrine and icon and the relationship between them.

Look at the idea of a tent, reveal and enclose as in shrine and icon.

Middle Eastern stone shrines to the invisible god

Consider / plan / curate the making of further amputation videos.

Design audio experiments to assess questions of balance, comprehensibility and significance between the varying sources.

Think about displaying text on screen as well as through headphones offering alternative ways of delivering.

 

Experiment 3 for Conversant Pieces

 

Third porcelain conversant piece.

 

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.
 

Experiment 1 for conversant pieces

 

 

Making a porcelain stand for first conversant piece.

This piece was the first of three I made during the Summer before going away in September. I was highly disappointed with the outcome but it indicated the way for the next piece. I learnt a great deal along the way. How to break away from preconceptions. I played with the surface but found that all the details added simply made the work neither one thing nor the other. 

It was a good way of finding out how to embed the sound apparatus and making procedure but not the artistic content. I consider this a failure well worth making as it has led to more interesting ideas. 

An idea I worked with was the imprisoning of sound, not allowing it to escape but making it audibly entrapped in the ceramic body. The protuberances making the whole fragile, the brittle pieces creating a further barrier to the sounds from inside. 

 

 

I have moved on from this idea. I feel that at times, ideas that appear to work when described in words do not necessarily come together as a work in another medium. The Project Proposal now reflects this as I pare it down.

 

Wolfgang Gil: Maleable Sound as Sculpture

 

Resonant Body I – Wolfgang Gil

 

Gareth Jones, in his essay, describes the historical changes in the relationship between sculpture and sound. This dichotomous tension is straddled by Gil’s work in Sonic Plasticity proposes the use of sound as a malleable material – one that can be stretched in all dimensions, encompassing height, width, and depth, with curves, edges, and changing geometries. His Aural Fields and Resonant Bodies combine physical structures set to vibrate, creating geometric fields of sound perceivable in space with edges and form.

This is an interesting field I am currently investigating with respect to the final proposal with respect to sculptures. I am not proposing to do the same sort of thing but Gil’s work does have correspondence with how I see sound as creating a physical entity in itself.

My idea is to counterpoise the readability and sensuality of the solid pieces with the pure perception and sensuality in another modality of sound. I am concerned about the cancelling out of one another: should solid sculpture reside in silence, should sound be disembodied? These are questions I intend to explore and aim to resolve in some way. The use of digital interactive devices is something I have been working with enabling an element of audience interaction. But then again, the work in silence also speaks of itself. This is an interesting area of empirical research which needs a trial and error, or heuristic, approach.

 

https://medium.com/@wolfganggil_35573/sonic-plasticity-an-introduction-343ae7e22de5

 

Amputation

 

 

An amputation is not something one would want. Sculptures have suffered amputations throughout the ages, some repaired, others restored and yet others left as they were found, This Herakles, Venus de Milo, the Belvedere Torso and so on. Limbs at times distract from the sense of form, many artists have known this, others have incorporated the limbs so that it merges into the body.

I have had a problem in that I want to make large ceramic works but the kiln is only so large. I have a top loader 59 cm diameter and 69 cm high which needs to be wired in. This is not small but neither is it large enough. What to do?

I had thought of jointing the pieces much as I did with the works in Chaos Contained. But this is not in keeping with the informal, organic sense of the works I am currently engaged with. Chaos contained was about symmetrical growth from within, an outward radiation. Now the works are internally generated, handled in a completely different way.

 

 

So I looked at how I could make the pieces in parts to be put together later after firing. I came across the work of Giovanni Vetere who works with glazed ceramics. The pieces are much larger than would fit in a regular kiln. In addition they would be unstable and too fragile for firing in one piece. On closer inspection of his work I noticed that they are made in pieces using the glaze patterns to camouflage the joints.

 

 

I could try to hide the joints when installing but would there be a better way? To show the cut, a severance, a clean cut that must signify something. And it opens the way for future large works where the cut plays a part. It may even lead to being able to show a work in its pieces arranged meaningfully or at least aesthetically.

 

 

What this does for my ongoing work is to provide a formal solution to having a kiln smaller than the fluid forms I want to make: the parts can be fitted together after firing. It also solves the problem of how to insert and remove sound equipment.  Conceptually, this technique offers the opportunity for representing vulnerability, fragility and reformation; perhaps also creating compositions, of parts that relate to one another and reconstituting them in different configurations.