Cfile is delighted to have artist, scholar and one of the editors of Contemporary Clay and Museum Culture in our online forum this week. Don’t miss your chance to ask Clare Twomey a question in C-Forum!
Feature Image: Phoebe Cummings, detail from V&A residency installation, 2010. Photo by Sylvain Deleu
Contemporary Clay and Museum Culture
Christie Brown, Julian Stair, and Clare Twomey
Abingdon: Taylor and Francis, 2017
As this is a book primarily about context – the context we make, exhibit and view ceramic practice – it seems important to begin with some explanation about the wider research that this book of essays is part of.
Contemporary Clay and Museum Culture (CCMC) is the culmination of texts from a three-year AHRC funded project with the University of Westminster, London. Titled Ceramics in the Expanded Field: Behind the Scenes at the Museum, the field of research explored here is much less ‘expanded’ than one might suppose, and by placing such a weighty reference at the front (it is of course citing Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’), runs the risk of overshadowing the subtitle (James Beighton, p 177). Behind the Scenes at the Museum much more accurately describes the remit of research, a fact that has notably been observed and altered in the title for this final group of essays.
Despite some skepticism about the relevance of title overall, it does not weaken the interest and importance of this involved, varied and wide reaching project. Centered around the main researchers (Brown, Stair and Twomey) artistic collaboration with specific collections at U.K. museums, there was also the creation of an in-depth website, publishing bi-monthly commissioned essays from key international writers in the field (it is still active, with more content continually being added http://www.ceramics-in-the-expanded-field.com), a series of symposia, a major international conference and three major final exhibitions, showcasing the individual responses of Brown, Stair and Twomey.
This volume…benefits from the strong research culture in British crafts…work(ing) from their basis in practice to propose important new ideas about this dynamic field” -Glenn Adamson Museum of Arts and Design New York USA
The publication under review, here, is an anthology of critical writing that aims to ‘contextualize and define the powerful relationship between ceramic practice and museology within the broader international arena of visual culture’ (http://www.ceramics-in-the-expanded-field.com). Essays have been compiled from a wide range of perspectives, including curators, researchers, artists, writers and educators from primarily U.K., but also USA, Canada, Norway and Denmark and is a comprehensive look at the developing role of museum ‘culture’ through curation, collecting and artistic intervention.
The concept and importance of ‘museum culture’ is an intriguing, if very specific topic, which, as several of the researches examine in their writing, has a special kinship with ceramics. Mella Shaw’s contribution suggests that, like museums, the public often tie ceramic objects and processes to the past or the domestic, and there is a constant battle for both museums and ceramic artists to show that their practices and collections are ‘relevant’. As she states, ‘museum curators all over the world are keen to stress the dynamic nature of their collections’. In a similar vein, Laura Grey points out that ‘the literal and metaphorical instability of ceramics’ has been increasingly used in recent years to disrupt preconceived ideas of how ceramic artworks should be displayed or encountered by the viewer. This culture of innovation and risk taking, (Clare Twomey’s piece ‘Consciousness/Conscience where the audience actively participated in the art works destruction being a key example), ultimately explores the change of ceramics from passive object to a responsible and active agent in space (Martina Margetts p22), and where the reference to Krauss’ iconic essay becomes relevant.
The idea of a ‘field’ and how it might be, or already be, expanded is a perhaps a concept that has taken a while to be explored in the ceramic world, tied as we are to the process of firing, the size of a kiln, the historical weight of form and function. Perhaps the main criticism of this research project is that by invoking such an influential theory as Krauss’, it falls very short of what she described as the ‘expanded field of sculpture’.
Krauss applied structural logic to the rapid dematerialisation of sculpture and the influence of Land and Site Art of the 1960s and 70s. To reconcile the ‘old’ monolithic forms of sculpture with the more ephemeral and performative offerings from the likes of Smithson and Long, she created a complex notion of sculpture as a place between binaries – architecture and landscape. Sculpture became a conceptual field of reference that was defined as anything that was ‘not-landscape’ or ‘not-architecture’.
This is obviously a simplification of what is now recognized as an incredibly influential piece of writing in the evolution of sculptural criticism, but as it comes up so often within the pages of CCMC, it is worth mentioning. Although comparing the vastness of Smithson’s Spiral to the comparatively subtle interventions of, for instance, Phoebe Cummings installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 2010, the intention of that essay does mirror one of the aims of the University of Westminster’s research, despite differences in the methodologies used. Krauss employed oppositional, post-structuralist theories, but it is her reasoning for bothering to create a definition for the evolving state of sculpture, at all, that is so interesting. It was an attempt to limit and structure the ‘infinite malleability’ of sculpture, to create a new logical framework in which to analyze it. In doing so, it aimed to ‘save’ the definition of sculptural practice – in a time where anything can be ‘sculpture’, the field now covered such a heterogeneity that it was in danger of collapsing (Krauss 1979 p 33).
It could be said that this text is an attempt to do something similar for the field of ceramics – if ceramic practice can now be described as anything from a mountain of broken pots, to an installation of a member of the public learning to throw, it seems important to create a framework in which to value and analyze this.
There are obviously very clear reasons why Krauss’s text is difficult to apply to ceramic practice:
‘When considering oppositional terms, we might find ourselves stumbling, for the logical coherence for the category of ceramics seems already apparent and is material–bound. (Krauss specifically states that postmodern practice) cannot be organized around the definition of a given medium on the grounds of material, or for that matter, the perception of material (1979, p43)’ (Beighton p178)
Even if we consider the increasing material richness of ceramic practice – with the addition of installation, video, photography, drawing etc – it is still bound inherently to a central material. Indeed, the smallness of the field we are trying to expand is reinforced throughout CCMC by the fact that the same key players and artworks come under scrutiny. Clare Twomey, Edmund De Waal, Keith Harrison and Theaster Gates are all repeatedly held up as examples of how artists using clay are increasingly employing museum collections and gallery spaces in ways that create a ‘new hybrid art form that is simultaneously referential and autonomous’ (Rachel Gotlieb, p 220).
In his lecture at the Expanded Field Conference, Glen Brown suggested that it was more accurate to describe the field as ‘expansive’, rather than continually binding ourselves to an ‘expanded field’. A small but important distinction, as it allows for a much more encouraging definition of ceramic practice. By anchoring the discussion in an expansive field, it allows the material to be finite, but the field in which it is used, as limitless. Transcripts of Theaster Gates’ lecture at the same conference are also included, and his witty comparisons of ‘fields of practice’ to baseball and corn fields is a highlight of metaphorical word play, and draws the argument out into a much wider ‘field’ of reference. (There are lots of fields, but stay with it; it’s worth it.)
It seems unlikely that contemporary ceramic practice is in a similar state of instability as 1960s sculpture, but there are certainly shifts in what constitutes ceramic ‘art’, and CCMC is motivated by an attempt to explore and critique one branch of that expansion. The ‘new hybrid’ uses ceramics’ unique relationship and position amongst museum collections, to create a form of practice that not only animates and contemporizes existing contexts, but also, and I feel most importantly, connects those practices to the wider and growing concerns around public participation and engagement.
Chapter III: Audience Engagement was, for me, the most relevant and forward-thinking addition to this group of essays. It firmly positions clay as having an integral and dynamic position within the wider stream of dialogue that is happening in the art world, at large. In the landscape of education cuts and course closures in the UK, there is a growing interest in funding and discourse around the responsibilities of galleries and museums towards public participation and learning. The Tate Modern’s new extension The Switch House, is a great example of a famous and influential institution outwardly professing its commitment to this very subject: they’ve dedicated a whole floor to artistic engagement with the public, and much of the program of events for 2017 has been looking at new forms of educational structure and knowledge transfer.
CCMC, then, is not an attempt to ‘dress up’ the old art-craft debate, but rather a serious critical analysis of a new mode of practice that is specific to ceramics, and which ceramics is particularly adept in exploring. As ceramic practice can no longer be defined as purely ‘object based’, traditional modes of exhibiting, and how ceramic artists sustain their practice, become increasingly pressing questions. The artists and exhibitions discussed here show a variety of ways in which this is starting to be addressed – Alun Graves’ report of Keith Harrison’s interventions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, brings up some of the issues facing public institutions now, on how ‘collect’ relevant and important contemporary practice that is inherently performance-based and transitory.
There are new relationships developing between museums, artists and art: it is no longer just about showing, collecting and archiving, but more about learning and creating active opportunities for artists to inform the history of the future. Contemporary ceramic practice has an important role within this dialogue and this book is a coherent and diverse exploration of the current landscape and conversations that are occurring within the increasingly ‘expansive’ field we work in. It may be a very specific look at only one small part of that field, but ceramics is a very specific and small part of the wider visual arts. It is important that texts like this are created to stake out the position and relevance of those practices, and what that specificity of context can add to the wider dialogues of art theory and practice.