The much-anticipated London conference Ceramics in the Expanded Field, three years in the making, with solid UK government funding, has come and gone. CFile asked US-based Janet Abrams to attend and review the event. Abrams found that the conference largely missed its proclaimed target of defining a major paradigm shift in ceramics’ cultural reach. But, if focused on the subtitle, the conclave had its rewards despite an overly-packed schedule. The bulk of speakers and organizers came from Ceramics in the Contracted Field (ceramic-lifers, high-craft formalists and mostly — if one dare say it — a generation too old to revel in sedition). Aside from Theaster Gates, no one took part from the world of informal and irreverent craft, fly-by-night practitioners delighting in their amateurs’ innocence and in clay’s fresh, raw expressionism. It is a group largely despised by the Contracted Field. Is the moral of the story that one should not do a conference on the Expanded Field unless one is a card carying member? Here is Janet Abrams’ report. Photopraphs here show installations by three Westminster artists, Julian Stair, Clare Twomey and Chrstie Brown from the accompanying exhibition. — Garth Clark
Above image: Clare Twomey from “Piece by Piece.” Photograph by Sylvain Deleu.
The conference title held promise of radical and refreshing dialogue — a summit for the ages, even. One that might produce a paradigmatic theorizing of contemporary ceramics’ broad terrain akin to that achieved for sculpture by Rosalind Krauss’s 1979 essay “Sculpture In The Expanded Field” (a text that got its fair share of worshipful/envious deconstruction at this event).
Well, not quite.
Organized by the University of Westminster in London, as part of an eponymous academic research project funded by Britain’s Arts and Humanities Research Council, Ceramics in the Expanded Field (CITEF) was actually more limited in ambition. But once one accepted that its subtitle, “Behind the Scenes at the Museum,” better defined its scope, there were many good presentations to enjoy, if one could survive the hot air — intellectual and literal — since London in mid-July was perspiring in an unaccustomed heat wave. Curators, educators, historians and ceramic artists from the UK, US, France, South Africa, Australia and Korea gave papers in plenary and breakout sessions, preceded by an evening keynote by the ubiquitous Theaster Gates (who was also the Keynote at this year’s NCECA conference in Milwaukee).
In a talk that addressed ceramics as one aspect of his “social practice” as an artist, Gates nailed certain aspects of the field that usually go politely unspoken: “The middle classes do ceramics. It’s not a field for poor people. It looks a certain kind of way and attracts a certain kind of people. There’s some kind of orthodoxy around clay that makes it seem quite limiting. I never see anything in Ceramics Monthly that looks like anything I’m interested in. It was when I left the religion of ceramics that I found freedom.”
For Gates, East Asian ceramics has been an important source of personal inspiration: focusing on the East enabled him to “build a relationship with something other than White Power” and “deploy a new set of rituals,” he said. “To get from one place of artistic ability to another, I sent out aspirational thoughts about Japanese and Korean ceramics — Korean skill and Japanese hustle, cultivated over 100 years ago — then received them back as a discipline.”
Asserting that anthropologists and scientists “are thinking more about ceramics than we are ourselves,” Gates lobbed some provocative questions: “What have we lost in the field that is worth getting back?” “Is there something more to be learned than just throwing on a freaking wheel or making the perfect lip on a porcelain cup?” But alas, as is too often the case with opening keynotes, he left directly afterwards (he was spotted departing for dinner with architect David Adjaye), and didn’t reappear to participate in the dialogue over the subsequent two days.
Nonetheless, his work was the subject of repeated references. The best of these came in a double-act by Kimberley Chandler and Stephen Knott, who critiqued Gates’ “studio as spectacle” endeavor, focusing on his Soul Manufacturing Corporation which, among other iterations, formed part of the 2013 Spirit of Utopia exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery. In a working ceramics studio set up in the gallery, professional potters, acting as surrogates for Gates, taught ceramics skills to selected apprentices. Chandler and Knott pointed out, for example, how the “messy” aspects of ceramics training were de-emphasized by restricting wheel-throwing lessons to periods with slower gallery attendance, while simpler tasks, such as wedging and brick-molding, were presented during busy times. They then compared Gates’ project with artist Urs Fischer’s Yes! installation at the MOCA Geffen Contemporary in LA, also in 2013, in which the artist invited 1500 members of the public to come and make whatever they liked out of 308 tons of grey clay in the Geffen’s main space, dictating no rules besides not attaching it to the walls. Whereas the former project yielded neat shelves of pressed bricks and vessels thrown to profiles assigned by Gates, the latter produced a human soup of creativity, a gregarious grey sludgescape of animal and human figures and indescribable abstract forms.
This tension between ceramics expertise and “have a go” hands-on amateurism was just one of the polarities evident during CITEF. As Australian curator Jan Guy noted, an emphasis on “primal,” “intuitive” work, and interest in materiality has resurfaced lately, especially in the work of artists not formally trained in ceramics (from some viewpoints, all the more experimental for lack of such pedagogical straitjacketing). This tendency, said Guy, arises “shackled to the “Post Object” phenomenon:” the Object as Catalyst, rather than an artifact of significance in itself. But though some art world exponents of ceramics were mentioned in talks, besides Gates, none were present to articulate their approach — none of the 2013 Whitney Biennial or the 2013 Venice Biennale artists: no Sterling Ruby, no Miquel Barcelo, no Rosemarie Trockel, no Dewar & Gicquel, no Fischli (minus the late Weiss) — not even any of the younger European artists who show ceramics at art fairs like frieze and in experimental galleries but hardly ever make the pages of traditional ceramics magazines — people like Jesse Wine and Caroline Achaintre. That would have made for a rather different, truly expanded dialogue.
The ongoing but reconfigured relationship between Studio and Factory was another significant dialectic that surfaced, characterized by Tanya Harrod in terms of a warped nostalgia. “We set up factories, then they close, then we miss them,” she explained, outlining the “Studio Ceramics Paradox.” In the wake of the British ceramics industry’s demise, symbolized by the ruins of Stoke-on-Trent (notwithstanding its recycling as the venue for the British Ceramics Biennial), China’s burgeoning ceramics factories exert an almost romantic allure. Various Western ceramic artists — Felicity Aylieff, Carol McNicholl and Paul Mathieu — have travelled to China to take advantage of its manufacturing facilities, making large pieces in Jingdezhen and Shenzen. “Factories today are full of marvels for the Service Industry Nation we’ve become,” observed Harrod, noting that such naive enthusiasm can tend to disregard the colonialist dimensions of the globalized transfer of sites of production, as well as the socio-economic conditions endured by the Chinese factory employees that make it possible for Western ceramic artists to realize their ideas there.
The conference helped to identify some key nodes on the map of ceramics’ curatorial territory, many of them outside major metropolises. Under its erstwhile ceramics curator James Beighton, the Middlesborough Museum of Modern Art (MIMA) in northeast England has been in the vanguard of UK ceramics presentation. Despite critics’ naysaying that “Nobody goes to any show outside London,” in fact 30,000 “somebodies” came to MIMA’s ceramics exhibits, said Beighton (who recently left to begin a PhD), arguing the case for “the local.” The Cube, a lofty room within MIMA’s 2007 Erick van Egeraat-designed building, has allowed both established and emerging artists to “make something” more of their ceramic work, activating this volume in different ways: lining it in gold foil to evoke the opulent ambience of Secessionist Vienna, in Anders Ruhwald’s 2008-09 solo show You In Between; or by stacking funerary forms in a room-high gridded showcase, “Columbarium”, in Julian Stair’s more solemn Quietus of 2012, which dealt with containers for the body after death, at various scales, and in Stair’s trademark palette of strictly “natural” clay bodies.
Beighton cautioned that precisely because of these explorations in The Cube, it may now be more difficult to just put an object in it (at least, more so for a ceramist than for a fine artist). “As the field expands, the ceramics element might appear less interesting. Even as we might rush to embrace ceramics’ expanded field into the realm of sculpture, we might wish to keep in mind a potential loss.” He noted the differences in methodology between the questions posed in Krauss’s essay, and those under discussion at this conference. Her deconstruction of oppositional terms had “opened up a space to discuss sculpture” in terms of not-architecture and not-landscape, whereas in ceramics “the oppositional terms have yet to be defined.”
Among other non-traditional presentation spaces were the crypt of York St Mary’s (a deconsecrated church where Stair’s Quietus was originally installed); London’s Foundling Museum, site of Clare Twomey’s participatory ceramics project, Exchange: 1000 Good Deeds, 2013 and several house-museums, in London, Michigan, and Yorkshire.
The latter are places “thronged with things, materials accoutrements, intimate things immediately displayed, sensorially apprehensible,” said Christie Brown, discussing her 2012 installation DreamWork at the Freud Museum in London’s Hampstead. Responding to Freud’s collection of antique figurines, Brown adapted key aspects of psychoanalytic dream-theory, such as Condensation, Displacement and Repetition. For example, casting and mold-making (for the human/animal figures in the installation’s Sleepover section) became the procedural counterpart to the function of repetition in dreams.
Freud would have had something to say about the undulating part-sausage, part-submarine form in white/grey ceramic that Anders Ruhwald placed in the tiled master bathroom of the Saarinen House on the campus of Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan (where he’s Department Head and Artist in Residence in Ceramics). Several feet long, and held aloft on steel supports, it was hard to ignore this sculpture’s references to bodily functions— which brought a knowing chuckle from the audience.
In The Anatomy of a Home (2013), Ruhwald approached this house as the platform for analyzing another dialectic, this time Oedipal: the relationship between père et fils architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. Designed in the 1920s, renovated to its “original” condition, and now reserved for paper-slippers-on-shoes visits, every inch of this former home-and-studio provides object lessons in the Saarinens’ exacting design consciousness. In one room, Ruhwald commissioned his mother to create a weaving as a counterpoint to his own ceramic piece, and as a nod to Loja Saarinen’s own textiles. In another, a ceramic version of the base of Saarinen’s Tulip chair, upturned, served as the support for a crystal ball — as Ruhwald put it, “questioning how the future was imagined in the past.”
During the Q+A, Tanya Harrod brought up Saarinen’s relationship to Cranbrook founder George Booth and the “disturbing” anti-Semitism of their 1920-30s social circle, which she’d uncovered during a stint in the Cranbrook archives. Ruhwald batted off this unpleasantness, arguing that he’d chosen to look at the parental dynamic, rather than “the politics.” But how kosher is it to make ceramic interventions inside such a significant home, without acknowledging the less attractive psychosocial aspects of the “family life” there — contaminants to the idyll, though they might be? Could ceramics be an active agent in uncovering the (not always tasteful) connections between aesthetics and politics?
Another binary that emerged, almost as the subconscious of this conference, was the relationship between product design and pottery in a post-industrial age.
Rachel Gottlieb, Curator at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum of Ceramics, presented the eloquent work of artist An Te Liu whose Mono No Ma exhibition of 2013 comprised sculptures based on chopped up, stacked, and reconfigured casts of the packing material that surrounds consumer goods, especially electronics — the Styrofoam blocks whose hollows and protrusions are their volumetric shadows. Converting these negative spaces into positive form, as second-generation casts, Liu’s sculptures quietly admonish the consumption cycle, giving permanence to a material normally considered mere wrapping, to be instantly discarded (cast-off) — albeit that the products it protects are scarcely more enduring, ending up by the tons in landfills.
Rendered in stoneware with various glazes, and in plaster (and realized with professional assistance in the casting), Liu’s pieces have a quiet power, reminiscent of early and mid- 20th Century sculpture. As Gottlieb remarked, “To see Hepworth, Noguchi and Moore again is to see the art historical canon simultaneously fetishized and critiqued.”
I scuttled out of a less-than-riveting breakout session the second morning, and caught the tail end of a good talk by curator Helen Walsh of the York Art Gallery (which holds the Anthony Shaw Collection, from which the recent Gordon Baldwin retrospective was drawn). A shot of an installation juxtaposing studio pottery with contemporary “white goods” initially seemed sacrilegious, but Walsh explained how the W A Ismay Collection came to be presented this way, at the Hepworth Wakefield museum (while the YAG, part of the York Museums Trust, undergoes an £8 million redevelopment, due for completion next year).
Here was a man who couldn’t stop collecting: librarian William Alfred Ismay began acquiring studio pottery in 1955, and by the time of his death in 2001, had squirreled 3,600 pieces by some 500 potters into his tiny terraced house in Wakefield, Yorkshire. In an inspired move, the York Museums Trust decided to commission a contemporary artist to devise a response to this ceramic cornucopia: Matthew Darbyshire created a plinth the same footprint as Ismay’s home, and perched the pottery on it non-hierarchically, evoking the collector’s own affectionately cluttered display. (“All were equal to him,” said Walsh, whether by famous or little-known makers.) Interspersing the ceramics with present-day consumer products — such as an exercise bike and a rice cooker — Darbyshire’s presentation drew parallels between the fetishism of contemporary technology and the fetishism of studio pottery, exemplified by this reclusive collector, underscoring the equivalence between these two species of domestic co-habitants.
For my money, the emotional core of the conference came the first afternoon, with Phoebe Cummings’ talk, ostensibly about “working inside a glass case” as if a “live exhibit,” while Artist in Residence at the Victoria & Albert Museum’s renovated Ceramics Galleries.
But her first slide was of the rubber stamp officially confirming her passage into bankruptcy, shortly after graduating from the Royal College of Art’s MA program in Ceramics in 2005. What followed was Cummings’ philosophy of making, consequent upon crossing this economic divide.
Embracing minimal means and minimal attachment to what she produces, Cummings resolved to make only what could be reclaimed; to eschew the notion of a private studio as financially unrealistic, in favor of the temporary amenities of ceramics residencies (such as the V&A’s and at the Kohler Factory in Wisconsin, where she worked in 2008); and to make things that “respond to the situation they are in.”
She listed her needs: “Clay, a bucket of water, time, and space. Ceramics does not require any equipment: you can squeeze it with your thumbs. It requires only thought, work, and time.” In this way, Cummings produces delicate, complex structures, often reminiscent of organic forms — petals, leaves — that reach a peak of perfection and then inevitably decay. In a recent project, Cella, students at the University of Hawaii made a huge sculpture out of the island’s red earth under Cummings’ direction, a collaborative activity that felt “something close to insects.” On its completion, the clay was reclaimed and given to the University’s ceramics department.
“Museums are about amplifying the duration of objects,” she observed. “The world doesn’t need me to leave things behind.” Breaking down her work at the end of each residency is an essential stage, rather than a loss: “The work happens and then it has to make way for something else to happen.” Even the pieces she made at the V&A, albeit bisqued, are still sitting in boxes in her house, “and I remain indecisive as to whether they should be fired properly or discarded.”
An elegiac meditation on “what comes after, what is left after collapse, what comes next,” Cummings’ talk had a rare quality of candor and self-exposure — something she had surely learned to cope with, working behind glass for all those months at the V&A. Her words, individually quite plain and matter of fact — like the thin slivers of dried slip with which she constructs her fiendishly detailed but evanescent mille feuilles sculptures — built up powerful images in the mind, and continued to reverberate long after I’d left the sweltering halls of the University of Westminster.
As might be expected in a conference hosted by one of London’s major teaching institutions, the nature of ceramics education, its cost, and the role of art schools came in for some tough talk in the closing discussion. “Art schools haven’t been imaginative or self-critical enough: we’ve lacked collaborative dynamic debate. We’ve colluded in failure,” declared Martina Margetts, Critical & Historical Studies Tutor at the RCA’s Ceramics + Glass department, alluding to the well-publicized closures of significant British ceramics departments. She criticized the “complacent allowing of overemphasis on fine art practice” at the expense of developing the public realm, architecture, and industry as contexts for ceramics practice: “We’ve still got a slightly imperialistic view of who has the right to develop an interesting practice.” “It feels like a really dangerous situation,” Cummings agreed, adding that she couldn’t consider doing a Ceramics MFA today, financially. At Cranbrook Academy of Art, said Ruhwald, 50 percent of his students graduate with non-ceramic portfolios, but by “freeing and being free” in terms of their material explorations, they arrive at a “much broader engagement” with ceramics — helping to demarcate the borders of its expanded terrain.
Janet Abrams is a leading critic, artist and Contributing Writer for CFile.
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6 thoughts on "Commentary | Janet Abrams: Ceramics in the Expanded Field Conference in London"
I appreciate that Christie points out my feet of clay but she doesn’t really answer my question: Is the self-promotional conference peculiarly indicative of the careerist academic art of our time?
On the topics of my many faults:
I think the keynote presenter did not attend another minute of the conference other than his own. But I suppose those folks are supposed to blow you off whether you are boring or not. I am glad that I spent day two at the Imperial War Museum, Christie; I only told you that I was ill and stayed at the hotel to try and be polite.
My own self-loathing did extend to turning down the opportunity to publish my “overlong” sermon with the Westminster Clay Cooperative Gang of Three. It did seem like bad karma or at least an avoidable extension of my carbon footprint.
And my inappropriate lack of gratitude: Yes, I was lucky to stay in the Sherlock Holmes Plaza courtesy of the conference and had a fab free meal with a select crowd but not several presenters, such as Mr. Ruhwald, who was not invited to dinner.
And I regret not saying that I enjoyed Phoebe Cummings’s talk, too. But my point is more broad. Let’s ask ourselves how we might distinguish between facebook “likes” and genuine discourse and criticism.
Mind the pugmill and be of good cheer!
Ezra Shales is perfectly at liberty to engage in critical debate about our conference (only 3 months in the planning and specifically about museum engagement, for the record Garth, see http://www.ceramics-in-the-expanded-field.com) but a more constructive approach would be welcome. As a participant who regrets attending, he neglects to say he was paid a lecture fee as well as travel and accommodation expenses for the delivery of an interesting but overlong paper, which did not seem to have been written for our conference. As he only attended one evening and one day of this 3-day event, allegedly slept through much of the afternoon on day 2 and missed several strands and keynotes as a result, this attack is somewhat one-sided, although Ezra’s final 2 questions are a welcome note of objectivity in this discussion. He is fully entitled to criticise what he sees as lack of critical reflection but would be better placed to do so if he had the full picture.
A few slightly more candid remarks from a participant who regrets attending:
a. it was a mediocre conference that ticked off the boxes of funding for university-research and careerism. The “legacy” mongering of the mima museum was part of this pervasive self-congratulatory adulation. The participants had been in those exhibitions; the curator was a swell. Nary a critical reflection or regret was articulated.
b. 90% of the presentations were designed to highlight Westminster U., not an expanded field.
c. the reviewer’s suggestion that a more expansive field would be additional contemporary art is a joke and what makes most craft-media conferences a joke –“oh, yes, let’s invite Peter Schjeldahl or Roberta Smith for approbation” is the norm.
d. the Oedipal urge in craft is a curious thing. Abrams should either have turned a critical eye to Theaster Gates’s talk (don’t wait on that to happen in fortress ceramica) or written a confessional about Cranbrook and her ambivalence about getting an MFA.
Let’s sort it out. What are our aims? Where are we going? The want of criticism in ceramics is usually because it is sacrificed before careerism, cronyism, or capitalist expectations. The third distraction is probably the most laughable as the pot is small.
Excellent way to look at artists work and their context, by explaining their “position’ and looking at their back ground ! Well done Janet.
There should be more gatherings like this one, but they should probably focus more on interdisciplinary dialogue and inviting external expertise if the organizers want to reach their very ambitious goals. This is a great review, btw.
peter c. johnson
It is nice to read a detailed and thoughtful review like this that draws attention to the complications and challenges the field of ceramics is facing. Thanks you.