Ceramics Research Centre – UK

Research Seminar 5: Why Ceramics?

Research Seminar 5


DATE | 9 May 2014


Professor Christie Brown: Principal Investigator Clare Twomey: Co-Investigator Dr Julian Stair: Co-Investigator Laura Breen: PhD student, University of Westminster and James Beighton: Independent Researcher, formerly Senior Curator, Middlesbrough Museum of Modern Art, UK Amber Ginsburg: artist, social scientist and curator Stephen Knott: writer, lecturer, and researcher in the fields of craft history and theory; Managing Editor of the Journal of Modern Craft. Nao Matsunaga: artist and current V&A ceramics resident James Rigler: artist Laura Southall: V&A Residencies Co-ordinator Tessa Peters: Senior lecturer and curator Philip Lee: PhD student, University of Westminster

The final Ceramics in the Expanded Field seminar asked the question ‘Why Ceramics?’


The invited guests delivered 20-minute presentations about their relationship with ceramics:

Nao Matsunagaspoke of the permanence of ceramics and architecture and how ceramics first piqued his interest because it looked like stone when fired. He described his employment at an architectural ceramics firm alongside fellow speaker James Rigler. Confessing that he only became aware of the breadth of ceramic practice when he attended The Royal College of Art (RCA) he detailed his concern with how we inhabit and behave around buildings. Moving on, he explained how he tried to create works that were powerful objects in their own right, proposing that although there is no right and wrong in making, he feels that there is good and bad and he tries to achieve the former. He expressed an interest in the associative properties of different media, early human objects and of patterning inspired by his encounter with Native American material. Describing his use of mark-making as a means of guiding peoples’ eyes, from drawing and texturing clay to carving wood, he also spoke of collecting materials, such as sticks, and making them his own through carving. Currently working with stone, different types of clay and plaster it became clear that he adopted a responsive attitude to media.

Nao Matsunaga, Peaks, glazed ceramic, wood, acrylic paint, 2012

Amber Ginsburgproposed that her response to the question ‘Why ceramics?” was “because they reach into such a wide variety of human activity, from architecture to food and other basic needs.” She discussed K[ne(e){a}d]: a collaborative work with Joe Madrigal where clay moulds cast from the upper body were used to bake bread, creating dynamic situations that produced different narratives in various locations. She also described FLO(we){u}R: another project with Madrigal, which focused on how U.S. terracotta factories were used to produced dummy bombs during WWI. Centring on durational performances based around the factory production of the bombs and the relationship between the bomb forms and terracotta plant pots, the bombs were used to distribute white blooming seeds. She also addressed how it was re-purposed for the Bristol Biennial. Additionally, she spoke about Knob: a collaboration with the Museum of Surgical Science which examined contagion, haptic behaviour and our relationship to sanitary ware; Past Present Perfect, which explored how dinnerware can act as objects of transition and other projects including Re.Pur.Pose and Tapping the Audience.

Amber Ginsburg, K[ne(e){a}d], a collaborative work with Joe Madrigal in Clay and Bread, various dates

James Rigleradmitted that he found it extremely difficult to unpick the relationship between material and subject matter. However, he professed that he both loved and hated the tension between control and being out of control in ceramics. Explaining that his interest in architecture pre-dated his association with clay he described his fascination with the language of architectural forms. He proposed that learning how to make plaster moulds reduced his fear of making, allowing him to make multiples and experiment. It also made him aware of the language and connotative values of certain materials. He spoke about how his work at an architectural firm (alongside Nao Matsunaga) shaped his practice, particularly his attitude to scale. Moving on to address his time at the RCA he described his experimentation with colour and monumental forms, how architectural mass can transform utilitarian objects and his interest in the imitative properties of ceramics. He also lauded the creative freedom of modular production, which allows him to compose elements and explore his interest in the relationships between objects in space. Other projects he touched upon included those at Pollock Country Park and Chatsworth as well as a forthcoming work in the hidden space inside Trajan’s Column at the V&A

James Rigler, Low Tide Place, glazed ceramic, steel, rope, oak, stitched PVC
2013. Photo: Joel Chester Fildes

James Beightonwas speaking at an interesting point in his career trajectory, as he had just left Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (mima) and was moving on to study for a PhD. He described how his personal love of Walter Keeler’s work developed through encounters with an avid collector. He addressed the issues around displaying a studio ceramics collection in a typical contemporary art space and discussed projects with Julian Stair, Edmund De Waal and Anders Ruhwald, suggesting that from an audience perspective it didn’t always matter if it was categorised as ceramics or art. He proposed that Clare Twomey’s work Monument, which was comprised of industrial ceramic waste might have been the most purely ceramic work shown at mima. He also questioned why, of all the exhibitions he had produced, the ceramics ones were the ones he was asked to speak about. Additionally he pondered why ceramics had broken into ‘high temples’ such as the Frieze Art Fair lately. Turning to the question “Why Clay?” he described its use in works that addressed the body, the decorative and domestic and the iconoclastic. In closing he looked at the developing lexicon around ceramics, themes he had been asked to talk on, and the growth of academic interest in ceramics asking if we might stop worrying and just accept it was there.

Anders Ruhwald, You In Between, Installation view, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, 2009

Stephen Knottspoke of economies and competition in the expanded field. He asked what happens when ceramics goes into another field and what the rules of engagement are. Discussing how art courses today turn students into bricoleurs he described the threat of not understanding the limitations of different media. Addressing Rosalind Krauss’s writing on the post-medium condition he suggested that the ceramic field needs something to work against as this in-between space allows people to reject alternatives. Asking if ceramics was trespassing on other areas he pondered how we might judge works by different codes, using Keith Harrison’s work and its incursion into performance as an example. He questioned whether or not work that was good from a critical theory point of view disappointed when judged according to other codes, such as those of performance. He also discussed Topographies of the Obsolete: an artistic research project initiated by Bergen Academy of Art and Design (KHiB), which culminated in a site-specific exhibition at the 2013 British Ceramics Biennial. This prompted him to consider what happens when artists adopt models based on e.g.: anthropology and social history. In closing he asked us to consider what we gain by tackling issues from the purview of ceramics. 

Keith Harrison, Float, mixed media, 2011

Questions and issues addressed in the discussion that followed included:

Why specialise?

James R stressed that it was important to him that he learned to use other materials at the same time. Tessa asked why he and Nao decided to do ceramics after a mixed media course and Julian re-iterated this, suggesting that he could have chosen a sculpture course. Nao replied that clay was at the roots of what he did and working with clay put him onto the track he is on now. He proposed that the main reason he uses other materials is that he doesn’t feel the pressure there would be when working in a medium he knows more about.

Julian proposed that clay is so central to what he does he has to submit to its demands. He said if he wanted to make different things he would consider using other materials. He suggested artists should clearly define their reasons for using clay if it is not to make pots. Both Nao and James R. admitted that they came to clay because they loved the material and its properties, not because they wanted to be in the field of ceramics.

Nao asked James R “what is the difference between clay and plaster for you?” pointing out that much of the skill in his work was at the level of plaster making. He also asked whether, in that light, Giacometti was a great ceramicist.

Laura asked James B if he would have commissioned so many ceramic works if mima didn’t have to reinterpret the studio pottery collection for a white cube space. He responded that the Arts Council agenda had a great influence on that decision as BALTIC – a major contemporary art gallery in nearby Gateshead that opened five years before mima – was initially going to show art and craft, but they abandoned this plan and mima took on that role instead. He also admitted that his personal interests shaped his approach and suggested this was the true of many other curators.

How does clay compete in these broad ranging dialogues?

Clare asked if there was a relationship between what you see – ceramic content – and how the work is read. Does ceramics occupy a strong place in the object whilst contributing to larger conversations? James B agreed that clay was competing in practice to a greater or lesser extent and asked “Can you imagine it not being there?” pointing out that this would matter in a sculpture department.

Stephen asked what the roots of professionalism are for those who come through an education system where skill is not regulated. He questioned whether it then became a matter of discourse and understanding the critical framework of a particular field.

Amber claimed that for her ceramics was inherently transdisciplinary and that disciplines are a very modern concept. When Laura asked if she was drawn to the projects she worked on because she came out of ceramics she replied that she doesn’t start from ceramics, but from material and conceptual relationship. Julian suggested that she might answer “when appropriate.” Christie then queried “If you hadn’t had that training would you have looked at the ceramics when you encountered it?” Amber again said that she would. James B wondered if the fact that ceramics was appropriate on so many occasions suggested richness, more so than other materials. Amber agreed, saying that was a huge advantage, proposing that is was so useful as it can act as a record in quite a different way to other materials.

What is ceramics?

Julian said that we needed to break the terminology down. Clay is an abundant substance but what is ceramics: something made out of clay and fired, from pottery to ceramic ware? Clare asked if ceramics was a genre. Julian then recounted that James B had once described ceramics as a material and pottery as a genre.

Laura asked if part of the problem came when we tried to look at all these different things together as ‘ceramics’. Julian returned to James B’s question of whether we worry about definitions too much in light of Stephen’s talk, which seemed to indicate that we should worry more. Julian drew upon a Michael Cardew quote to propose there is no point asking the artist what the message of the art is, as the art is the message.

James R spoke of his frustration that many people make work about ceramics in order to identify themselves as part of the ceramic field. Many other members of the group agreed that this was an issue.

Codes and expertise

The discussion turned to Stephen’s ideas on performance and their bearing on Philip Lee’s work. Nao noted that we hadn’t talked about being on show as performance and James B suggested that the difference between performing arts and performance art was key. Amber proposed that it could be challenging to step into another area and accept the mantle of questions that come with that. Julian brought the discussion round to the idea of ‘dabbling.’ Stephen forwarded the idea that preparation was important, with codes signalling that the audience should expect performance. James B concurred that misalignment of expectations was an issue and questioned whether in some cases a stubborn adherence to clay as medium led to a work’s failure as performance. Amber cautioned that we should be alert to other agents, e.g. insurance, which affected the form of Keith Harrison’s work Moon, albeit with the artist’s complicity.

Stephen asked Nao and James R where the limits of architectural ceramics lie in relation to architecture, referring to James R’s earlier description of himself as a ‘frustrated architect’. The group spoke about the idea of the productive risk-taking when entering the interdisciplinary terrain.

Tessa proposed that fine artists were often interested in the association between clay and ceramics and the raw or the precious and the idea of skill rarely enters the equation. The group discussed how fine artists were invited to create works for the 2006 Albisola Biennial of Ceramics In Contemporary Art and the issues of production, skill and who has the right to produce that this raised. They also spoke about the right to self-name as an artist/ceramicist and the hierarchical distinctions that allowed people to do so.

Tessa stressed that the question of institution was key: where people could learn and show. She asked whether Nao and James R felt that they could show anywhere. Nao replied that to an extent he could. He said he had realised it was a question that applied to other disciplines too and, therefore, wasn’t something that worried him too much anymore. James R acknowledged that it could be a little restrictive at times, as if ceramics was something to be ashamed of, but said that he preferred to think about his work alongside the broader span of work in clay instead.

Learning and knowledge

Nao proposed that however he worked in other materials he worked in a ‘clay way,’ texturing, working like a machine and doing quite menial things, with ideas happening in that time. Christie also spoke of the challenge of clay, of taking a few weeks to work things out and things not being instantaneous.

Amber suggested that we were talking around the issue of pottery. She explained that she was originally a production potter and misses the incremental knowledge acquired by doing something over and over again: a history of making that is within her own body and a very different kind of embodied knowledge. She said that she never knows what materials she will use and suggested that her ceramic background might have made her comfortable with testing things out, allowing her to approach materials fearlessly. She posited that she makes, observes and responds, always working like she is in a laboratory.

Stephen pondered the phrase “learning from scratch,” speaking of the different levels of fearlessness demanded by different media. He asked how learning from scratch worked when a person had a background in ceramics.

Nao Matsunaga, Peaks, glazed ceramic, wood, acrylic paint, 2012