CERAMICS HAS ALWAYS had a close relationship with conviviality, eating and function; these are ancient ties that are revealed in our touching affection for tradition. Clay Modern implies a break with that past, and for this conference a cast of characters had been garnered from around the globe, to demonstrate, debate and communicate about this topic. Early one morning, we assembled outside Janet Mansfield’s Ceramic Art Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, and ‘the inquisitors of clay’ were brought by coach to the historic goldmining town of Gulgong, five bumpy hours out of Sydney over the Blue Mountains in Australia. Goldmining is an interesting concept to ponder as a symbol of an activity that takes a base material, from the earth, and finds something of great value in it.
After the first morning’s orientation meeting we adjourned to the pub for lunch and light refreshment – just testing the hypothesis I have laid out in the first sentence. As I walked back to our table “Hallo Diyvid” rang out across the bar. “Hallo Diyvid” – I turned to the grinning Ozzy blokes at the bar “How yer doin’ mate? You here for the pottery?” After a little more banter at the expense of the Pommy newcomer I realised that the locals were reading my name tag. I entered the discussion: “So what do you guys do?”. “Oh we’re goal miners,” – I queried: “You’re real goldminers?” – “Nah mate goal miners – the stuff you burn in your fire.” “Oh, coal miners.” Communication, a close attention to nuances of pronunciation – and no assumptions about traditional practice were to be the theme of the week.
Clay Modern is a concept best interrogated from a wide practical and intellectual base. The demonstrations and presentations ranged from a highly sophisticated computer program which was used to drive a router – to the digging of a hole in the ground to use as the former for a pot. As a venue the situation of Gulgong is fascinating; it is a place created out of desperation and get-rich-quick hope only 130 years ago when gold was discovered. The accessible gold was exhausted after only 10 years and much of the thin veneer of ‘civilisation’ which had been applied to the land collapsed; it didn’t return to desert but remained as a hub to the outlying farms, and has been developed as a tourist town. As a result it remains as an ideal conference site with ample accommodation and venues; it even boasts an Opera House with fine acoustics – capable of hosting a speaker who can communicate, unamplified, to 450 delegates.
Scattered around the town centre were studio spaces where the demonstrators worked on a series of week-long projects; our work was installed in the cool modern Cudgegong Gallery as the inaugural show – a stark 21st century contrast with the heritage site that is the rest of the town. It is interesting to reflect that the Gulgong ceramic events, organised by Janet Mansfield and her committee, have brought such a ‘Modern’ feel to the town.
The workshops ranged from focused working, where a spell-bound audience held silent vigil as extraordinary craftsmanship was presented for inspection, to performances of exuberant exhibitionism where theatre, as much as ideas and skill, were the subject of attention. That most familiar, and iconic, signifier of pottery, namely throwing on the potter’s wheel, was transformed into an interactive performance spectacle by Cameron Williams – a thrower of prodigious speed and ability who threw a pot for every delegate to decorate and fire. This allowed the audience an element of engagement with the activity, and set himself a challenge of making 450+ pots in a short period, thereby allowing himself to focus on the element of display that can sit at the centre of all facility and fluency. In this manner throwing is transformed from a purely functional process that can generate a high volume of pots into an interactive production that engages the receiver of the vessel. Speaking to the recipient decorators of these pots, I was surprised at the extent to which they had been touched by the idea – all around town one could find delegates clutching their precious objects under their arms, leaving them in little patches of sunlight to dry out a little faster. Unfortunately the final firing out at Janet Mansfield’s farm proved to be a triumph of exuberant pyromania over disciplined heat rise. The bonfire was more like a scene out of Towering Inferno. The drought-desiccated wood throwing flames 10 m into the air only 20 minutes after setting the fire. The noise of pots exploding in the incandescent heat doused the enthusiasm of some of the watchers who would have preferred a product that was not just a few random shards as opposed to a spectacle of flame. A few of the pots survived from those that had been made and decorated – a life cycle shorter than that of caterpillar to butterfly – but an end equally as brilliant.
Looking for pointers that suggest significance in our lives is one of the goals of writing; we can reflect on the outcomes of a stimulating experience like the Clay Modern Conference in the way that Wordsworth speculated of poetry – that it is “emotion recollected in tranquillity.”1 What we take with us need not be just the views of honed skill and talks indicating visual influences; there are also the internalised messages and dialogues that inform the work. The concept of ceramics as journey with no necessary emphasis on the final product as destination allows us to see external activity and realisation mirroring internal process.
Andrée Singer Thompson developed this thesis in her talk, and in numerous ad-hoc discussions around the town, with a zeal for seeing the transformative and healing power of creativity, and of ceramics in particular. The unconscious significance generated within ceramic processes ranged far, and elicited a response in her audience – certainly all these visitors do not attend a conference like Gulgong just to observe well-honed facility and interesting new ways of manipulating clay – there is a seeking after meaning in the manipulation of clay; a theme that was also brought out by a number of the other participants. Thompson wished to emphasise a metaphoric relationship between the world of nature and the interior world of the imagination that is “a poetic manifestation of events, unconscious information and interior dialogues.” This gazing under the surface of things is also a Modern fascination and continues today in ceramics as it did in the introspections of the painters and sculptors of the 1920s, and their discoveries of the writings of Freud.
Those of us fortunate enough to work with clay cannot be ignorant of the old adage concerning the therapeutic qualities of the material – at its simplest it is the notion that the wonderful ‘squidgyness’ of clay creates a feeling of well-being and calm, as it is pressed between forefinger and thumb. This tenet is probably true for almost all potters, except for the most hard-bitten designers. Interestingly the conference also demonstrated that a dedication, and application, to the struggle against a material as implacable as clay, which requires a freshness of handling, also brings rewards. Zen Buddhism informs much contemporary creative practice and particularly in the realm of ceramics, with its search for ‘kiln gifts’.
Thompson used the example that: “some Japanese artists make things as well as they can as humans; then give up control and consider the work a collaboration with nature. When a piece comes out with a large crack, it is not seen as a disaster, but rather a gift from the gods to fill with real gold, making it more valuable because of its scars – like the tong marks and smoke residue of raku, accidental ash of woodfiring.” These balances between concept and material, product and pleasure in the ceramic journey were well evinced by a number of the demonstrators.
Tony Franks developed a concept for the symposium that not merely was about the earth, but made from earth and formed within earth within the earth. He dug a hole and used it as a former for his work. He cut a bowl-shape in the Australian soil and pressed clay into this depression, the clay sticking to, and picking up, whatever minerals were there, I did look for traces of gold but there were none obvious. It properly answered David Pye’s demand for “Workmanship of Risk”2 – a response to new conditions and environments – yet using a well-tested methodology and the pieces remained unfired as the time constraints of a six day conference do not allow 15 cm thick clay to be dried and fired.
Ceramics is now firmly in the vanguard of modern contemporary expression. Perhaps it is useful to see it as conceptual art with the skill left in and made by practitioners who have a good critical understanding of tradition. Neville Assad-Salha built a traditional form that that was given a contemporary twist by the nature of scale. He created a self-firing structure that referenced his own personal history – as the child of Lebanese migrants moving to Australia – and also ceramics’ own history and traditions. His piece was handbuilt expanded from an idea common in his own output; it was large when compared with the pieces he had brought for exhibition, yet tiny when compared with a mosque or church. It spoke of his own legacy and his recent retrieval of that parental past – he is now working at the University of Beirut. The structure was coffin-length and twin-domed; it also embodied an ironic reference to the female body (alumino-silicate enhancement?) But with self-firing structures it is the performance element that is of central importance, and in this regard Assad did not disappoint. The piece was encased before firing, not in ceramic blanket but in a kind of paper-kiln, spaced off the work with wooden batons; when these burnt through the shell remained in place and the flames were pulled into the space, effectively firing the outside surface of the piece.
Attention to the spectacular, in the ceramist’s desperate desire for attention, is never far below the surface, and at such a ceramic event there were many crazy strategies employed to make artistic and rhetorical points. Michael Keighery resorted to Dionysiac3 tactics in his on-going battle with the forces of ‘little-brown-potdom’, using ballistics to produce his vessels. He was in pursuit of the stalking-horse of the spontaneous pot, fluently thrown and fired in soft, licking wood flames – he too wished to create the pseudo-Japanese one-minute masterpiece ‘kissed by the kiln’: Clay ball quickly rolled, depression made, gunpowder and fuse inserted, neck sealed around fuse, pause for dramatic effect – crowd retiring to 25 m, etcetera, and detonation equals instant masterpiece (well, alright, maybe it was only in the eye of the beholder). Like the allowed Fool in the medieval courts Keighery pursued his joke; he placed his own (raw and aerosol-glazed) pieces on the ethnic logs which had been utilised by one of the finest woodfiring potters (Chester Nealie) to display his own work. The mini exhibition was formally opened (before Nealie arrived to place out his work) attended by a large morning audience, summoned (for need of secrecy) only by word of mouth. Tony Franks, President of the IAC, gave the address praising the wonderful, accidental qualities of the firing process – (Post)-Modern clay.
Comedy, as Shakespeare has shown, brings as many insights to the human condition, as does tragedy (and perhaps it is more appropriate in the Australian sun). Keighery combined this explosive performance with his demonstration of the creation of dies using a CNC router – showing an Apollonian4 control of clay.
The baton of debunking and the celebration of the absurd was carried well beyond the finishing line by Peter Lange. He constructed a sparkling talk in the Opera House, which gave the proceedings a vaudeville atmosphere with a specially commissioned set of slides, where he took a cardboard cut-out of that fine Edwardian gent – Bernard Leach – to some of the seamier down-town sites in New Zealand. One might have expected little more from the man who designed and sailed a brick boat around Auckland Harbour, but the piece he made at the conference – a water-powered conveyor belt taking clay figurines through a kiln was a tour-de-force. Although fun and bright on the outside this piece contained many far from cheerful referents – from people being destroyed in the industrial juggernaut to the gas chambers of Germany in the last war. A dark undercurrent to a bit of harmless fun, creating a polarity between a comedic exterior and a committed unconscious involvement with the world (another Modern concern).
That darker side to the 20th century was alluded to, in her talk, by Daphné Corregan. Although much of her work is ostensibly in the vessel tradition, like many potters, many of her references are to the body, (and the absence of the body). Thus there are pieces that allude to dresses and the (absent) female who might be contained within them. They create a sense of what Freud referred to as the Unheimlich – the uncanny – and despite being apparently decorative works with bright low-fired colours they also evince a sadness in that evocation of the not-present. She also talked about, and constructed, work that was abstractly reminiscent of body-parts – pierced skulls and severed, charred limbs, (blackened in the heavy reduction of a raku firing). These are thoughts and recollections of Africa where she has spent much time doing research, and reflections on the ‘atrocities’ in Rwanda. Perhaps it is too literal to see a note of optimism creep into this appalling area by interpreting the glass shards which penetrate the recent works as the entry of light into her world of shadows.
If ‘Modern’ can also refer to a fascination with pure line and classical form then Maren Kloppmann’s precisely articulated forms and carefully disposed patterns admirably fit the bill. She made objects out of fine, attenuated porcelain, which was just occasionally warmed by soda firing, re-addressing the formal concerns of artists like Brancusi.
At the other extreme were Eva Kwong’s strange biomorphs. It is hard to consider her work without contemplating the extraordinary range of form, pattern and colour that appear on a visit under water to the Great Barrier coral reef. Yet she does not dive and the mutating world that she depicts comes from a reference to the microscopic and a childhood fascination with the multiplicity of nature. She had brought pieces with her for the exhibition and it was as astonishing to her , as to her audience, that her work was so reminiscent of the flora of Australia that she found all around her and that she picked to place in the vases.
The cool, classic lines of Robin Best’s carefully designed forms also touch a Modernist note. This is curiously subverted by a Post-Modern collaboration with Aboriginal Australian artists. The Punu pattern is applied by one of the women from the Pitjantjatjara people from Ernabella in the north west of South Australia. The work attempts to deal with the complexity of traditions and histories. It is a narrative of Australia and Australians, of the relationship of the indigenous Australians and their colonialist invaders. The Europeans brought not merely the first knowledge of ceramics to the continent, but also the refinement of mass-produced, mould-formed objects – as most clearly evidenced by the archetypal shapes and clay bodies developed by Josiah Wedgwood. Best has subverted her Modernist forms using both her own (adopted) Australian tradition of decoration, and also, in a second collaboration, by giving the pieces to Chinese calligraphers in Jingderzhen, with traditional Chinese blue and white painting. As decorative objects they hold the attention in a pleasant enough way, but as intellectual things they attempt to enter a different discourse, deconstructing the Western tradition of slipcast Jasper ware with an Australian and Asian sub-text that makes them much more than they appear at first glance.
Steve Heinemann, from Canada, also wished to take issue with the concept of the Modern, and particularly with Modernism; he engaged in this debate using arguments constructed from slipcast clay. His endeavour is to reclaim ‘decoration’ from the pejorative dismissal that the critics of ‘High Art’ have bestowed upon it. The insight is that Modern Art and its explicators have defined it by contra-distinction to craft and thereby given the latter bad press. Heinemann’s take on ‘Modern Clay’ is a sophisticated recapitulation of geological process. Like Tony Franks’ work it is of clay and about clay. Heinemann likens the slipcasting process (where clay exists in its liquid form) to the geological process of sedimentation and, by combining this with sand-blasting, his methodology is an investigation of ‘what nature does.’ He wants to talk about ‘pattern and patterning’ a ‘core level where science and art come from’. He maintains that his ‘doodles’ investigating form come from the ‘same place as’, and therefore have the same significance as, the sketches examining pattern and decoration. His fellow Canadian, novelist Margaret Attwood, when discussing poetry and the novel believes that the former comes from the same place in the brain as music and mathematics while novel-writing is much closer to the everyday. I would speculate that pattern-making is possibly down-graded as an activity as it is perhaps closer to the everyday. This psychological questioning parallels discussions within Modernism, particularly those regarding the unconscious driving of creativity, at the turn of the previous century.
Thus Clay Modern ranged far and wide. There were discussions far into the night about creativity and firings, huddled around a smoking kiln, toasting its anticipated success. Andrée Singer Thompson quoted Elie Weisel who said that life does not happen in years, days or hours but only moment to moment – and it is only the moments that we recall. There were so many moments at Gulgong that, like some character from a Borges novel we could stay contemplating them for a lifetime and still not distil the full resonance of such a rich experience, but that, nonetheless, it provides an excellent platform from which to embrace the next Clay Modern developments.
1. Wordsdworth, W. Preface to the Lyric al Ballads, 1800.
2. Pye, D. The Nature and Art of Workmanship. A&C Black. 1995.
3. Nietzsche, F. The Birth of Tragedy.
4. Ob. cit.
David Jones is a potter and author. He lectures in the ceramics department at Wolverhampton University, UK. Images supplied by Cudgegong Gallery, Gulgong, and Viola Hofer, Sydney.
This article first appeared in Ceramics: Art and Perception