Essay Series

Beyond the Collection: The V&A and Ceramics in the Expanded Field – Alun Graves

This essay was written by Alun Graves Curator of Ceramics and Glass Collections at the V&A. It was delivered as a paper at the first symposium of the research project Ceramics in the Expanded Field on the 10th January 2012.

Taking as examples three specific projects from recent years with which I have been closely involved, I would like to outline how the V&A has engaged with those new developments in ceramic practice that might be identified as the expanded field.  And from this starting point, I would like to consider more generally what the role of the institution should be in supporting and sustaining contemporary ceramic practice. What are the appropriate models for engagement between museum and artist? Is the museum’s primary role to reflect practice, or to support its development? Should the museum be a passive observer and recorder, or an active agent for change?

To an extent the museum’s role is of course to document, to lay down for posterity a historical record of artistic practice. The traditional mechanism for this form of engagement has been through the collecting and exhibiting of finished works. The V&A has been active in collecting contemporary ceramics for much of its history. Indeed, the vast majority of acquisitions of 20th century work have been made when the objects were ‘contemporary’, defined as less than 10 years old. Acquisitions are made in a variety of ways, and through contact with a range of sources including artists, galleries, exhibitions, collectors, and dealers. But with regard to ceramics, one mechanism that has largely been avoided is by commission. It might simply be that there has been little need to do so, given that ceramics is a medium in which the material itself has little intrinsic monetary value, and so the barriers to making work speculatively are relatively low. But I think the reluctance to commission work runs deeper. There is perhaps an awareness of the potential pitfalls, including the uncertainty of the outcome. And also that the act of making can become rather too self-conscious. Instead, we prefer the objects we acquire to already exist, to have had a life – however brief – prior to their selection and entry into the museum. The potentially self-fulfilling artificiality of collecting by commission is thus avoided, and something of the purity of the artistic impulse is perhaps preserved.

But this attempt at distancing the museum from the act of creation fails to take account of the fact that patronage and opportunity can have a fundamental role to play in the creative process, and can be hugely significant in stimulating the development of practice. The importance of this becomes all the more acute at times when artists are seeking to work in new ways and with greater levels of ambition, such as can be witnessed in ceramicists working in the expanded field. Here, as we will see, objects appear less like portable and tradable commodities, and more like happenings or projects. Their edges begin to blur. 

So what is the expanded field? What are the tendencies that have changed the shape of ceramic practice? Installation is a central concept. Ceramics have begun to operate as a form of installation art. The individual object has given way to the ensemble. And parallel with this elaboration from single object to multiple is the importance of context. Of how and where something is displayed. The placing of objects has become a central concern of the artist. Site and context have acquired increased significance. And then there is the question of time. Objects are no longer static. They might exist only for a temporary period, and within that period they may undergo change, or be subject to influences beyond the artist. The work then becomes a kind of performance, and one in which the audience may become active participants.

And so the issues are really of space and time. Through their integration into contemporary practice, space and time have eroded the concept of the discrete and complete work of art.

It should be noted that this activity is not without historical precedent, and even within the sphere of ceramics, performance and installation have been explored at various points since the 1950s. But in the early years of the new century, there was a clear sense that this type of activity was burgeoning, and confronted by this expanded field it became clear to me as a curator that the collecting of artefacts alone could not satisfactorily capture the nature of current activity. I had started the decade with a notional list of artists whose work I felt needed to be represented in the V&A’s collection, but there were soon names on the list – notably Clare Twomey and Keith Harrison – whose work it was far from clear how the Museum could absorb. It became apparent that if we wished to engage with these artists, then different mechanisms must be found that would offer an engagement that was somehow deeper, more complex, and more active.

Since that time we have found ways to bridge this gap, taking advantage of existing and new programmes in the Museum. I would like to consider three examples of these new types of activity, encompassing event, artist residency and gallery installation. The first of these, the event, benefited from the launch of the V&A’s pioneering late-evening openings, and the contemporary themed programme known as Friday Late. Held on the last Friday of each month, these events typically feature live performances, debates, one-off displays and installations, along with a bar and guest DJs. The atmosphere and audience of the Museum on such occasions is transformed.

Significantly, these events encourage a more maverick type of curatorial activity, and this seemed to offer an opportunity to work with Keith Harrison, an artist whose work was based around the live firing of clay through direct contact with electrical elements. We began discussions of how we could work with Keith in 2004, but quickly the idea grew into that of theming an entire event around avant-garde ceramic practice. Not only was this appealing in itself, but it came to seem especially timely, providing as it did an opportunity to put ceramics centre stage in the Museum at a time when the ceramics galleries were closed for refurbishment. And so Clay Rocks was born, an event lasting a single evening in September 2006, which I curated together with Laurie Britton-Newell.

The short duration of such an event has certain significant advantages. It focuses attention sharply, creating a sense of expectation and excitement, and also allows much more invasive activities to be staged than would otherwise be possible. This also means that the use of prime spaces within the Museum can be negotiated. Little is off-limits. And so alongside a plethora of activities around the V&A, Clay Rocks featured three major installations, one by Clare Twomey and two by Keith Harrison, all of which were sited in high profile areas of the building: Clare’s Trophy in the Cast Courts, Keith’s Last Supper in the Raphael Cartoon Court, and his Orbital bridging the John Madejski Garden and the adjacent gallery space at the centre of the Museum. Thus for one evening, ceramics effectively hijacked the entire building.

Central to the success of these works was, I believe, the creative freedom that the artists were afforded. There was no formal brief, and instead, the invited artists were asked simply to submit proposals for installations which might incorporate some element of change during the course of the evening, stipulations that were entirely in sympathy with their practice. There was no attempt to dictate the nature of the work, based for example on previous installations that the artists had made. Conversely, I can clearly remember my surprise and delight at seeing Clare’s entirely unexpected initial sketch for a flock of a bluebirds perching on gallery cases and plinths. From that moment I knew we had something very special.

Clay Rocks remains the single thing I feel most proud of as a curator to have been associated with, and the enthusiasm which it generated was extraordinary and gratifying. Associated with this was, I think, the sense that it transgressed the boundaries of what might be acceptable or possible in a museum. Both Trophy and Last Supper are works that in many ways paid homage to the history of art and design, and were far from iconoclastic, but they nevertheless both embodied a sense of danger and of challenge. Trophy did so by its invitation to the public to take art from the Museum, to participate if not quite in its own destruction, then at least in its dismantling. What in museum-speak we would appropriately call de-installation. For every visitor who came to see Trophy was invited to select and take home one of its 4000 jasper bluebirds, leaving an increasingly depleted gallery. More overtly transgressive, Harrison’s work meanwhile embodied the perception of risk from live electrical circuits and heat. In the thirteen massive unfired clay blocks that made up Last Supper, each colour-matched to the robes of Christ and the disciples in Leonardo’s painting, Harrison had embedded cooker elements that slowly heated and fired the clay in front of the audience. The danger from this apparently madcap activity was in reality very much less than it might have appeared, but the sense of experiment, of possible success or failure, was very real indeed. Safety in fact ultimately gained the upper hand in Harrison’s second installation Orbital, a ceramic replica of a vast Scalextrix model of London’s ring-road, the M25. A current through its tracks was again to superheat a channel of clay, but tripping circuits prevented the firing taking place. Yet in some way this unexpected outcome only added to the feeling of edginess of the whole enterprise.

While Clay Rocks compressed the time of audience interaction with a work to no more than a few hours, an alternative strategy, that of the artist residency, has the potential to extend the period of interaction over an altogether different timescale. When the V&A launched its residency programme with the opening of the new Sackler Centre for arts education in 2008, however, there seemed little possibility of ceramics being included due to the equipment required. But this all changed with the proposal to site a specialist ceramic workshop within the V&A’s new Ceramics Galleries, and to establish a dedicated programme of ceramics residencies, which began in 2009.

A key element of these residencies, which are managed by the Learning Department, is their level of public engagement. Residents are required to hold regular open studios and to participate in the Museum’s programme of public events and activities. And indeed the location of the studio within the galleries, separated only by glass, makes it a highly visible and publicly accessible place in which to work. What is, on the other hand, absolutely not dictated, are the physical outcomes in terms of work. The residencies offer space and time for the artist to develop their practice in the unique environment of the V&A, with all the resources that this affords. But there is no stipulation or expectation that a body of work will result, and certainly no guarantee that anything produced during the residency will subsequently be acquired by or displayed in the Museum. So rather than a conventional studio environment where an artist will work privately towards an exhibition, the artist becomes, for a period of six months, the show itself.

For an artist with a mind to do so, this creates opportunities to evolve work in surprising ways. Phoebe Cummings, artist in residence from June to December 2010 offers a fitting example. Working predominantly in unfired clay, Cummings has worked for the greater part of her still-short career without the ‘benefit’ of a permanent studio, instead creating work within and in response to the temporary environments afforded by residencies or other site-specific opportunities. While at the V&A, her interest in the landscape imagery of 19th century transfer-printed blue and white pottery led her to set about creating her own three dimensional equivalents in clay. Intricate in the extreme, and representing various plant, earth and rock forms, these modelled and sprig-moulded pieces gradually evolved into an enveloping other-worldly landscape that increasingly filled the studio space. By the end of the residency the studio had been entirely transformed.

In this extraordinary work of Cummings, the individual object dissolves. There is a continuum between maker and material and space and the act of making. It is all part of an inseparable whole. The work is bounded only by the confines of the studio space and the dates of the residency. There is no moment at which the work is finished, or indeed unfinished. And as an experience, it was one of sheer delight.

The final project that I would like to discuss is the commissioning from Edmund de Waal of the work that became Signs & Wonders. This similarly sprung from a desire to engage with an artist whose practice seemed to have outgrown the possibilities afforded by conventional forms of collecting, although it should be said that the resulting work does indeed form part of the Museum’s permanent collection. De Waal had increasingly demonstrated a desire both to assemble his work into complex installations that referenced the collecting and display of ceramics, but also to site these in relation to specific architectural contexts. This is something that had begun with his installations at High Cross House in 1999 – the same year that he showed one his first ‘cargoes’ at the V&A  – and subsequently developed through to the extraordinary framed compositions exhibited in 2007 at Kettle’s Yard and MIMA. The timing was perfect. The redevelopment of the ceramics galleries at the V&A marked a moment when contemporary ceramics were literally and symbolically given a central position, and the project provided an opportunity for de Waal to create a truly major work for the specific and remarkable architecture of the V&A’s building. The result is an act both of daring and of breathtaking elegance and simplicity:  a lacquer-red metal channel tracking the circumference of the gallery’s dome some 11m above the floor, and housing 425 pots organised in groupings that reflect de Waal’s own view of the V&A’s ceramics collection. It is a work that not only provides a fitting tribute to that collection, but is also one that pushed de Waal’s practice to new limits. It is, aside from anything else, a complex and sophisticated piece of engineering. Without the input of the structural engineers working on the V&A’s ceramics galleries, it could not have been achieved. 

There is of course nothing new per se about any of these activities, be they events residencies or installations. They are all standard types of artistic engagement, and indeed are not without precedent in terms of ceramics, where demonstrations of making techniques have long been a staple of conferences and festivals. Where I think we can claim some degree of originality is in utilising these activities as opportunities for those makers who wish to work in the expanded field – for those whose practice extends beyond the traditional to take account of site, or scale, or the passage of time, or to seek the engagement of an institution or the interaction of an audience. These are things that the public space of the V&A can offer in a complex and singular way. As such, we have created possibilities that could not and would not otherwise have existed. The conventional mechanisms based on the speculative manufacture of objects in private studios for retail or exhibition, followed by acquisition and display, could not have produced them. They would otherwise not have been part of the history of the discipline.

The extent to which this V&A activity has been significant is perhaps for others to judge, but it has been gratifying to see how regularly works such as Trophy or The Last Supper, or Signs & Wonders have been referenced. They appear to have left their mark.

So if these projects have been a success, to what can this be attributed? There is, I think, something common in the ways in which these quite divergent projects have been achieved, this being a kind of institutional openness to creative thinking. The artists have all worked with a considerable degree of creative freedom. That is not to say that particular institutional agendas might not usefully be fulfilled in the process, such as enhancing the interpretation of specific collections, or engaging with target audience groups. But by and large the Museum has avoided dictating too rigidly the outcomes, and has instead kept in mind the broader institutional objectives of supporting and promoting creativity and stimulating public interest in creative practice. And so the ‘brief’ might be no more than an informal invitation to an artist to submit a proposal for a work to sit within the context of one or other of the Museum’s programmes. And if the proposal is a good one, then working and negotiating to make it happen, and with as little compromise as possible.  Indeed, the Museum’s role might include encouraging the artist to hold their nerve.

In saying this, I do not want in any way to underplay the role of good project management and co-ordination in making these projects happen, nor to underestimate the importance of appropriate contracts or budgetary control. And I would similarly pay tribute to those institutions and individuals who have provided the funding to make these enterprises possible. But what I think is fundamental is to avoid allowing the potential constraints to stifle creativity at the outset, and to start from a position that embraces possibility. By working in this way, something of the purity of the artistic impulse is preserved, and the potentially deadening influence of the commission, as alluded to at the start, might be avoided.

And so to return to that other initial question, of whether the museum exists to reflect, or to develop practice. The answer in my view is assuredly both. The museum’s role must be to promote, support and develop the discipline, and to provide opportunities for makers who operate at the cutting-edge of practice. This absolutely must include the building of collections, which remains of central importance. But while artists are striving to find new, more complex ways of working that are frequently dependent upon collaboration, it is vital that institutions support them in that journey, and create opportunities that allow both the practice of individual artists and the discipline as a whole to move forward. Museums must in this regard be agents for change. And this leads me to one final point regarding terminology. The activities of artists in museums are frequently described as interventions. This is a term I intensely dislike, for it suggests that this type of engagement is something that happens to the museum, the role of which is entirely passive. It suggests that embracing contemporary activity is not part of normal business, and is an unwelcome interruption. The track record of the V&A over the last decade, I think, tells a rather different story.