It is always surprising when one mentions Conor Wilson in a ceramic context. People who should know of him often don’t. But it’s partially understandable: Wilson is a gypsy wizard, transient and mysterious, difficult to pin down. As an artist he is always on the move and not identified by signature work. He is driven by a visceral feel for the medium and his shifting intellectual inquiry. This means that his work is not instantly identifiable in a crowd. This is an authentic modus operandi for him on many levels but does not result in a “branded” identity.
ArtLyst comments that, “While Wilson’s output has always occupied the productively ambiguous space between sculpture and ceramics, recent works address ceramic histories explicitly, exploring cross-cultural fertilisation through historical and contemporary trading links. These pieces also play with perceptions of skill and failure, questioning the status of craft and the individual maker in a complex global economy”.
Wilson was a an award recipient for the 2013 British Ceramics Biennial and presented Four bodies: Red Buff White, a continuation of his RCA PhD project and an experiment in displaying research as artwork in an exhibition context. The following is from his project description:
The research is grounded in the discipline of Ceramics (and its central ethos that knowledge is gained through material investigation and the development of skills), but adopts an interdisciplinary approach in an attempt to develop new methods for producing and writing about objects; new ways of thinking about knowledge expressed through objects and knowledge expressed through language. In this project I am not concerned with the development of new making skills, but with interrogating the value of existing ones.
Research by project necessarily involves both writing and making, so a feedback loop has been set up between the two activities, reflecting a productive to and fro between the shifting parameters of research and practice, the objective and the subjective, sense and nonsense. Rather than produce objects and subsequently explain or interpret them, I am concerned to develop research methods that are based on a play between word-based thinking and material thinking; methods that explore the possibilities of treating writing as making and making as writing.
The ongoing construction of a critical framework for the project has led me to explore potential intersections between four fields of practice – Ceramics, Sculpture, Literature and Philosophy. A short list of words that hints at some shared concerns might read: Materiality, embodiment, sense, language, research, object, copy and site. Drawing particularly on Graham Harman’s work in Object Oriented Ontology and Kenneth Goldsmith’s theorisation of ‘uncreative writing’, I am pursuing an object-oriented approach, rather than relying on the ‘unique’ ideas of an originary subject – an “I.”
The working process followed for Four bodies: Red Buff White was a development of a new approach to writing and making first mapped out during a four week residency at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Michigan, March 2013. A combination of the conceptual and artisanal was explored through the treatment of a bag of clay as an object. A sustained engagement with the sensual, perceptible qualities of each block of clay – weight, plasticity, volume, surface, interior and exterior led to three distinct steps in thinking:
1. Each block of clay was considered as a whole – new forms and waste to be exhibited together.
2. Developed into removing (mining, gouging, subtracting) the inside of the bag / block to create a volume. As material was removed it was used to construct (building, joining, adding) a new form with the same volume as the original block.
3. Developed into treating texts in the same way – mining an existing text for words which are joined together to make something new.
Writing during the residency was largely documentary, but a period of reflection at home, coupled with research on the writing of Kurt Schwitters, Medbh McGuckian and Ben Marcus, amongst others, led to new possibilities for combining making with writing.
The BCB project began with the raw material of clay – red, buff, white – and the appropriation of existing objects and text. Three ceramic pieces were selected from each of three museum collections – Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and the V&A Museum. Each museum displays work produced in all three geographical locations. The resulting group of nine objects, and their accompanying label texts, express aspects of the complex economic and cultural trade between three key centres of ceramic production in the UK.
Each of the three clay objects produced for the exhibited work is a composite copy of three museum objects – copied with varying degrees of adherence to the originals. No testing was undertaken – unfamiliar materials and making techniques were dealt with ‘live’ on each of the three composite objects. Working against my training, against normative conceptions of beauty – or “finish” – in Ceramics, I kept telling myself “it is impossible to fuck this up.” This was difficult, but a pre-established rule was that the making process would incorporate writing techniques – substituting words, rearranging and editing. Planning, however, was unavoidable and started to be considered in relation to narrative plotting. The play between planning and spontaneous decision-making became a key element of the process and suggested analogy with another literary form, “discovery writing.”
During making, “museum label poems” were written. Rules were followed and restraint shown, in that only existing words and phrases were allowed, but the poems also flirted with the pleasures of narrative and sense, informed by background research. These poems, in turn, influenced the composition of the clay objects.
Language and object met again in the exhibition space, with objects acting as kinetic screens for projected text, extracted from the three poems. Words were made physical through a play of figure and ground, scale, letter shape (font) and the frustrations of confounded sense.
Conor Wilson was a Jerwood Contemporary Makers prizewinner in 2010 and is has recently completed studying for a research degree in the Ceramics and Glass Department at the Royal College of Art.
Above image: Installation view of Conor Wilson’s Four bodies: Red, Buff, White at the British Ceramics Biennial 2013 Award Exhibition.
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