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How Repetitive Strategies Inform the Diverse Possibilities of Clay in Contemporary Art Practice
‘What would life be like if there were no repetition?’
This exegesis will explore how clay is and has been appropriated to exploit the diverse possibilities available with serial repetition as a strategy. Realised by many contemporary artists who retain both this medium and strategy as a valuable resource in their arsenal and used in my own practice for installation projects with concerns around fragility, permanence and repetition. While ceramic art sits unsurely within a fine art context, the following chapters will consider how destruction as a device, site specificity (particularly in the Museum space), installation, participation and interventions are all being used by artists who have chosen clay and repetition in the realisation of their work. This contextual paper will concentrate on the possibilities within sameness and difference, scale as grand visual gesture, the role of the artist as collaborator as opposed to the producer of situations while exploring Garth Clarks declaration that “Postmodernism and ceramics is a marriage made in art world heaven”. But perhaps it is most useful and relevant to consider the art history that surrounds and reflects a changing art practice to give context as to how and why clay and serial repetition provide such diverse possibilities in contemporary clay for the fecund artist.
In Sculpture in the Expanded Field (1979), Rosalind Krauss espoused a postmodern art world that welcomed a pluralist art practice platform and medium heterogeneity which now serves a diverse category of practices in existence today; superseding a narrow traditional categorisation of art that had previously existed. Repetition as a devise is rooted in this era, specifically in Minimalism and went on to become a significant strategy across a cultural spectrum. Repetition can also be considered as generative in a postmodern search for new aesthetic devices or strategies or as Briony Fer outlines:
At the moment of modernism’s disintegration, a whole range of different serial strategies become the motor of its undoing at the same time as the means to generate new ground for art.
but it is the readymade, as a standard of repetition that will be used to recall perhaps the most influential artist of all time.
While Marcel Duchamp’s iconic “Fountain” (1917) foreshadows the arrival of Minimalism and Conceptual art genres, this work can be identified specifically as a precursor to a proclivity towards the disruptive nature of art in much of the 20th century. As Bruce Metcalf says “this humble pissoir embodies several ideas that constitute a paradigm for contemporary art”. Often overlooked as an art object that is made from porcelain, homage to Fountain has been repeatedly paid by many contemporary artists that include appropriation artist Sherrie Levine, John Baldessari and Mike Bidlo, in many iterations of the original readymade. Indeed, it is the readymade that has become a Duchampion legacy, giving rise to other artistic disciplines that include appropriation art, that aimed to undermine and deconstruct concepts like authorship, authenticity and originality, and used by many artists including Jeff Koons and Maurizio Cattelan, producing new iterations in their repetition.
While there is a clear association between Duchamp’s legacy of the readymade and repetition, it is useful to explore a sample of those iconic developments that had begun to influence fine art at this time before considering the influence these innovations had on artists whose practice includes the use of clay, as conceptually central. Briony Fer discusses repetition in the work, formulas and methods of working and in a broadened understanding of repetition, in the work of Mark Rothko that preceded the repetition identifiable with Minimalism and sculpture of Eva Hesse. Rothko’s stacked rectangular colour fields of differentiated colour that focus on infinite recurrent and differentiated repetition was achieved using the potential of mixing endless colour combinations, possibilities for its application and layering techniques to create both opacity and translucency. Rothko stated his reason for using repetition was: “If a thing is worth doing once, it is worth doing over and over again – exploring it, probing it, demanding by this repetition that the public look at it”. Ultimately, and specifically in the Seagram Murals, while Rothko’s paintings rely on being viewed in a space of entrapment; in terms of light, colour, and the space his paintings take up on the wall without any framing device to contain or limit the work on the wall, his series of paintings can be viewed as installations. The affect is described by Rothko as “[…] it is a place full of pictorial feeling, not just a place full of pictures” and preceded what Lucy Lippard rightly noted when talking about Frank Stella’s hexagonal canvases, that the relationship between the artwork and the exhibition space was beginning to be established. And as Fer states “For Rothko, ultimately, repetition acts as a means of conservation, a means of preserving the picture in this expanded affective sense”.
Though rooted in Minimalism, the repetitive strategies in both Rothko’s and Eva Hesse’s work are situated in Abstract Expressionism and Post-Minimalism respectively. Hesse took advantage of both the device of repetition and the use of then new materials that included fibreglass and latex in much of her work. In Accretion (1968), conditions were created in terms of the viewer’s experience that allowed Hesse to develop elements in her work around light and shadow. In terms of temporality, accessed only by the presupposed movement of the viewer, playing with light and dark shades that only the transparency of fibreglass and light allowed, creating glimmering effects made possible by the movement of the viewer. Her forms were not quite identical but approximate and resembled the handmade and irregular as opposed to; industrial, identical, hard-edged and flat surfaces that Briony Fer refers to as “dead-set” Minimalism, and literalism in the work of Minimalist artists such as Donald Judd and Sol LeWitt at that time. As with Rothko’s paintings and their affect in the expanded space, Hesse also began to recognize the relationship of the work within the space it inhabited.
Lucy Lippards Eccentric Abstraction (1966) exhibition which came to counter what she called the “dead-set” Minimalism in what became the beginnings of Post-Minimalism included Eva Hesse. The work in this exhibition preceded Acretion and was an important exhibition not only in an announcement of Hesse to a wider audience but also significantly, it showed work that sought to exceed the Minimalist imagination and to overcome “[…] all that Minimalist art had sought to repress”. The exhibition was seen as a revival of the “sublime, surrealist-inspired impulses that had been eclipsed by the formalist Art”  of the first half of the 1960’s. An anthropomorphic theme persisted throughout the work included in this show and the experience by the viewer was referred by Fer in The Infinite Line (2004) as “encountering anthropomorphic objects in space”. Lucy Lippard described the work in this style as “organic”, “erotic”, “sensuous” and the “near-visceral identification with form”. A language of anthropomorphism was introduced with what was termed “Soft Sculpture” referencing the choice of materials used and again as already mentioned by Lippard previously, how this work inhabited its space. For Hesse, two works, situated between image and object, stand out in this exhibition, Ingeminate (1966), which means to repeat or reiterate and Several (1966). Of these works, Fer says:
I think the photograph shows clearly that it is not only the forms that are doubled but that there is a doubling that occurs in the very space of the encounter with the object. The other objects on the wall like Several which hangs next to it, multiply from this basis.
There were several decisive influences in the analysis of the affect this idiom of work had on the viewer. How the subject and object related to each other became the focus of what Merleau-Ponty stated in The Phenomenology of Perception (1945) in his argument that both subject and object could not be separate when he said:
The thing is inseparable from a person perceiving it, and can never be actually in itself because it stands at the other end of our gaze or at the terminus of a sensory exploration which invests it with humanity.
Besides Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on phenomenology, there were other decisive influences and theoretical stimuli (that helped to dismantle these reductive ideas of phenomenology) behind the development of Postmodern art and specifically installation art that can be attributed to the writings of theorists and philosophers, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, dated in the period 1960’s to 1970’s. Many of their ideas were concerned with heightened immediacy ( of the viewers response to how objects are organised within an environment), decentered subjectivity or participation of the viewer that all helped installation art in contemporary art to gain currency.
While these ideas demonstrate the innovative and progressive thinking being generated around this time, 1966 was also the year Carl Andre first exhibited Equivalent Vlll. A well-known, iconic, serial installation of clay bricks, this work heralded the many ways that the versatility of clay as a medium in contemporary art could be used. Allowing the use of multiple identical readymade units, Andrew Livingstone in Ceramic and Assimilated Fine Art Mechanisms describes this work as:
The use of brick, a transformation and creation of another, derived from the substance clay, are referenced as humble materials, basic to building, construction and manufacture. Andre makes reference to the bricks and other materials in his works as particles where multiples of the object or material are used to construct artworks.
Artists since this time have been presented with what seems infinite opportunities that rely on the insistent materiality of clay, not only with clay that is fired, but as unfired or as slip and in its industrial manifestation. The many forms that clay and the ceramic object can assume, has continued to demonstrate the wide-ranging possibilities of this material within the expanded field that Krauss announced. Categories or ways of thinking about repetition can include mimesis and invention, sameness and difference, production and reproduction and similarity and alteration to name just a few. Coupled with adjunct themes of difference, destruction and installation and informed with corresponding discourse, our encounter with the art object can now be experienced through temporality, spatiality and visually, now extending “to embrace the phenomenological act of engagement, a wish to touch things, handle them, share and participate” which will be explored throughout the following chapters of this paper.
Identical/Non-Identical: How Repetition Strategies Inform the Diverse Possibilities of Clay in Contemporary Art
“A stack of candy can be a portrait, a reference to politics, or a suggestion of mortality, yet still be a stack of candy”
Since the time of the influential art critic Clement Greenberg’s narrow modernist parameters of what constituted the work of art, a viewpoint that cited “a betrayal of the visual arts by overly literary and anti-visual cultural practices” saw a reaction to a rigid art practice within a changing world that begot an avalanche of ideas and concepts since the 1960’s. Not least with Lucy Lippard’s Six Years, The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973) following her curation of Eccentric Abstraction some years earlier as already discussed, and of huge significance in the changing definition of what constituted a work of art that also firmly cemented her credentials as an art critic. The emergence of these new art practices, critical assessment and debate form the foreground of contemporary art today but this chapter will specifically explore repetition and the possibilities made available by the identically and non-identically repeated clay object in postmodern art.
In a presentation at The Ceramic Millennium conference in 1999 in Amsterdam, artist Susan Tunick identified the unique ability of clay to be able to simulate the characteristics of stone. Even wood and iron have been simulated, requiring careful scrutiny in revealing the clay. The use of trompe l’oeil effects can transform the visual illusion into absolutely any material. These unique qualities of materiality and conspicuous plasticity present insistent surface considerations and opportunities to assume other forms and while architectural benefits are obvious, it is the ceramic artist that continues to exploit this materiality.
Other traditional ceramic practices include casting that provides the opportunity for artists to create not only identical but multiple objects. This opportunity has worked very well with artists whose work involves not only repetition but participation, informing the work of artists such as Clare Twomey in many of her works which will be discussed later. For those artists who choose to use the affect of spectacle and repetition and its effect on the mind of the viewer, it is David Hume who reinforced this notion in A Treatise of Human Nature (1740) that should be recalled when he said, “repetition changes nothing in the object repeated, but does change something in the mind which contemplates it”. When applying the notion of the reading of serial objects within ceramic installation, Gilles Deleuze, in his magnum opus Difference and Repetition (1968), remarks on the psychology of human interpretation in respect of any consideration of repetition of an object. Andrew Livingstone alludes to the power of repetition in his essay, Ceramic and Assimilated Fine Art Mechanisms: Ceramic and Installation that relies on multiples, whether identical or slightly different, and the impact these repetitive objects have on the space they inhabit or the space that surrounds them.
The possibility of creating an impact or visual affect with clay can be restrictive in relation to its size, material and kiln procedures. Repetition as a “visual device” offers a possibility and has been used as a methodology to overcome notions of scale. This has been demonstrated in Claire Twomey’s work Shoal (1998). In this early work, Twomey uses repetition to overcome the limitations of scale and space to situate the work that best creates the desired impact with the viewer. These devices are used according to Andrew Livingstone to overcome size restrictions imposed by the kiln and problems associated with the materiality of the clay.
The repetition of the object over and over again provides for the opportunity of a grand visual gestures within vast spaces to create a spectacular impact and the opportunity of striking photographic iterations. Gigantic and highly memorable installation art became a feature during the 1980’s with vast signature exhibition venues such as the Tate Turbine coming to rely on the ambitious impact provided by these works. The work relies on presenting the viewer with a visual sensory experience rather than the immersion of the viewer within the space. The visually seductive ceramic installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, (2014,) by artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper exemplifies this idea of how repetition is perceived by the viewer in this way. The work simply comprises 888,246 ceramic red poppies, placed in the moat of the Tower of London. Its intention is a commemoration of all British and Colonial servicemen killed in World War 1 and was completed for the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of this war. The idea came from the discovery by Cummins, while trawling through military archives, of a poem written by an unknown soldier who died in Flanders, that contained the line, “The blood-swept lands and seas of red, where angels fear to tread”. Although embraced by the public as spectacular, the work attracted its critics, especially Johnathon Jones who described it as “a deeply aestheticized, prettified and toothless war memorial” and suggesting that Otto Dix or George Grosz would have produced much greater work befitting a war commemoration “in all its horror”.
While the use of this humble material and as discussed with Hesse’s work, it is not the identical but irregular repeated forms by the ceramic artist Edmund deWaal, specifically 1000 Hours, (2012), intended to represent units of time that are elemental both as a work of art and the connection with that most fundamental object, the vessel. Although the use of multiple vessels, as a strategy, is a hugely significant trait within contemporary ceramic art, it produces much ambivalent and ambiguous critical responses such as Glen R. Brown who pinpoints the difficulty that arises with the multiplicity of the ceramic vessel within a fine art discourse as “through no other characteristic does ceramics yield as lucid a picture of the inner turmoil of its desire” which is referencing the never-ending craft-art debate, asserting a desire for the work of ceramic artists to be considered under the categorization of fine art. He continues this sceptical rhetoric that the use of any object with a traditional legacy of any utilitarian function, “runs the risk of appearing naïve and opportunistic”. Whether or not this is the case, this ambitious installation that comprised two large vitrines in which these one thousand pots were arrayed, attempts to hold this amount of time within the two spaces. Through each individual object reflecting the cumulative time invested in its making which includes all the various processes required in making thrown ceramics that include wedging, throwing, turning and trimming, the total time used for the completion of this work accounted for 1000 hours. DeWaal describes the work as being:
anti-monumental, a work with real architectural presence and scale but that isn’t a monument since the viewer can move through and around the work.
and of the serial way of his work practice as:
It was a learnt thing for me, but I absolutely loved form, and the seriality of it. You make one thing and it’s not so great, so you make another.’ Whiting infused in the young de Waal the importance of repetition in acquiring a skill.
The filming of this work reinforces the unit of time, with the rhythmic sequential performative sound of the clay being thrown down on the wheel head. The work is reflected as a time-piece or musical arrangement of the making of 1000 exquisite little pots, “which he has likened to music scores”, and which also reiterates the serial nature of this work. Escaping the solitary plinth, this work was displayed or rather framed within the two large vitrines, ensuring the work was read as sculptural, reflecting the minimalist, clean, aesthetic that recall Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculpture, Specific Objects within the fit of museum display infrastructures. The housing of these two units that contained frosted glass are not unlike the unfocused paintings of Gerhard Richter that put deWaal’s pots out of reach, separated the viewer from the work, forcing the viewer to bend down to try to study these collections of obsessive repetition. This expression of form is explained by Garth Clark who says:
This serial expression of form or a set of related forms is a long tradition in ceramic art. It occurs because of the way that pots are usually made, thrown or hand-built in series, often ten to twenty vessels being made in a single day. Often the masterpiece in vessel making is not an individual pot but a series of vessels that together, with minor differences, comprise the total achievement.
While this statement reflects, traditions associated with ceramics and the practice of working in series, it would be perhaps more accurate that under the assumptions outlined in Mel Bochner’s essay Serial Attitude, this work could perhaps be located specifically within the first basic operating assumption of seriality that said:
The derivation of the terms or interior divisions of the work is by means of a numerical or otherwise systematically predetermined process (permutation, progression, rotation, reversal).
While many artists work in series, that is, they work from a basic theme, seriality is more concerned with method. It is not a style but as Bochner outlines in “The serial attitude” and is concerned with how order of a specific type is manifest.” Again, in Anthony Gormley’s various Field (1989 – 2003) projects, the production of these individually made creatures embraced concepts that overcame several issues that include the spectacular scale of the work by the production of multiples, concerns around distribution of authorship and the disruption of the museum space.
Asian Field (2003), one of five iterations of this work, produced by 350 people of all ages, was an installation of 210,000 “body surrogates” that was intended to collectively bring a focus on the kind of world we are bequeathing to our children, to those without a voice. Gormley wanted these figures to look back at the viewer, to those responsible, accusingly, disrupting the pleasurable experience of culture we expect to find with the work of art in the museum space. With only visual access to the work, viewers are denied admittance to the space in a way that is reminiscent of the power struggles, demos and sit-ins that happened throughout the late 1960’s and 1970’s. According to Gormley “Field is about giving a physical sense to those without a voice”. Gormley’s use of the museum, a feature of the work of many artists, is used to countermand institutional structures and critique cultural boundaries amongst many other themes and will be explored in the next chapter.
Destruction and site specificity: How Repetitive Strategies Inform the Diverse Possibilities of Clay in Contemporary Art Practice
‘Art is something which must be destroyed – a proposition common to many experiments of Modernity’
The fragile nature of ceramics not only provide obvious opportunities to produce artworks concerned with issues of fragility but the specificity of this medium is perfect when seeking a destructive aesthetic quality, utilizing a particularly potent and dynamic combination of practices, that of repetition and destruction. Blurring the boundaries between an act of criminal intent, iconoclasm and creativity, destruction can be the pre-requisite performative gesture required to complete an artwork. “Breaking as making” contextualise many of the artworks by Clare Twomey, using destruction as it’s raison d’etre and the activation of an event as outlined by Laura Gray in Ceramics on show:
Once fired, ceramic is fragile and brittle, it can be easily and dramatically smashed or crushed; these properties are central to the act of destruction.
Many of the artworks with themes of destruction discussed in this chapter are located in museum spaces. Subliminal connections in the public imagination of what Grayson Perry calls the “invisible shape”, the classical vase silhouette, are recognised as the universal sign for museums and places of historical interest throughout the world. And so, the ceramic vessel can be seen as synecdoche for the museum, as representative of both a shared and personal heritage and as symbolic within the narrative of humanity. The expansion of installation art practice is perhaps in part due to the role of the museum, in times of changing public funding strategies, that have contributed pressures to attract new and wider audiences. This has offered new roles for artists that now make museums key spaces for artists to create new contexts for their work. These new practices present an alternative ceramic museum presence with a deeply rooted relationship not only with taxonomical concerns and the practice of collecting and collections but the long-held association of ceramics with museology and archaeology. Whether or not this is the case, there are grounds to tease the intersection of preservation and destruction, rarity and the ubiquitous, the orderliness of the museum with the taboo of destruction, the artist is offered the intellectual conceptual potential to redefine conventional definitions of the art object and disrupt historical notions of function of the ceramic object in these spaces. And on the subject of space, Brian O’Doherty remarked back in the 1970’s that “space now is not just where things happen; things make space happen” and this is particularly potent when the space is not a designated space for the exhibition of applied arts but one with associations to fine art.
While our immediate perception of destruction is one of breaking, it can also include the act of removal by permission or not. Trophy (2006) by artist Clare Twomey and is one such work that informally endorsed the viewer to take on a participative role, countermanding institutional behavioural norms. This particular work comprises 4000 tiny identical cast Jasperware blue birds, strewn throughout the plaster cast Courts of the V&A that referenced permanence, presence, absence and the ambivalent process of collecting and value by the museum institution. Visitors to The Victoria and Albert Museum were given the chance to take and free all the birds from the museum with the caveat that the new owner provide information to the museum of the bird’s new habitats and its new narratives.
Artwork made within a framework that include outsourcing, post-disciplinary and an open-ended possibility, is evident in Trophy and referred to as a new turn, particularly in relation to Western European art is referenced by Claire Bishop:
The artist is conceived less as an individual producer of discrete objects than as a collaborator and producer of situations; the work of art as a finite, portable, commodifiable product is reconceived as an ongoing or long-term project with an unclear beginning and end; while the audience, previously conceived as a ‘viewer’ or ‘beholder’, is now repositioned as a co-producer or participant.
As with Trophy, Is It Madness. Is it Beauty (2010) and Consciousness/Conscience (2001-2004), Twomey relied on industrial outsourcing methods of production to generate multiple identical objects or units, the endorsed permission of the viewer and the “choreographed action of attendants” to actively participate in the destruction of the work. Is It Madness. Is it Beauty (Fig.) is a work comprised of 1500 unfired raw clay bowls that disintegrated over a few days when repeatedly filled with water, “visually emphasising the human endeavour and desire to achieve”. Consciousness/Conscience (Fig.) included in the 2004 exhibition A Secret History of Clay: From Gauguin to Gormley, (a significant showcase that symbolized a shift towards concept and context-oriented ceramic art), engaged the viewer as participant in the act of destroying under-fired bone china floor tiles that were laid in the doorway of the last section of this exhibition. The process engaged its audience in the fragile materiality of clay and addressed the taboo of destruction within the museum space, while referencing social standards and human interventions. While A Secret History of Clay was the first exhibition of artists who worked in clay from the beginning of the last century to date, it mainly presented work from artists with established fine art practices, however it has contributed to the construction of a heritage for art oriented contemporary ceramic practice and has conformed to Griselda Pollock’s criterion of creating an art canon by forming:
A retrospectively legitimating backbone of a cultural and political identity, a consolidated narrative of origin, conferring authority on the texts selected to naturalize this function.
The destruction, removal, theft of part or whole artworks must always attach risk as was the case with Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds (2008). In a post-critical approach to the Museum, the illicit appropriation of handfuls of the seeds thendistributed throughout the world, caused both unauthorized destruction and demonstrated “the agential power of the prosumer”. This larcenous turn of event was so prevalent and well documented that a separate exhibition was held in 2013 to document the stories of those individual acquisitions, by Bexley Heritage Trust. What Ai Weiwei originally intended with this ambitious social sculpture was to use art and those emblems of Chinese culture (porcelain and sunflower seeds) that “invites us to look more closely at the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today”. Each of the sunflowers is individually crafted by over 1600 workers in the Chinese town of Jingdezhen and suggests that its production in terms of scale, will retain mythic status within this town. Sheena Wagstaff of the Tate Modern, described the work as having “an epic sense of scale with an exquisite level of craftsmanship”.
While Sunflower Seeds used the Turbine Hall as a silo for the 150 tonnes of seeds, it is an example of how social sculpture or installation art now is a hugely significant aspect to museum and gallery itineraries with institutions now having to embrace new and radical ways to display artworks. This has had to take account of the symbiosis between the art work and the gallery, whether sculpture or installation. Museums as cultural institutions were forced to accommodate contemporary practices in the post war period although still a nebulous affair with clay. No longer is it a traditional affair for the display of paintings and sculpture with audiences now familiar with concepts of work displayed off the plinths and out of vitrines. Behavioural norms have changed and whole gallery structures and spaces have become commonplace territory for cultural consumption, even engaging the “museum as medium”. This point is exemplified in several major works that include, Shibboleth (2007) by Doris Salcedo that took the form of a deep fissure running the length of the Tate Turbine Hall. Edmund deWaal will not make work to fit specific spaces but often in a response to existing collections. Signs & Wonders (2009), which was displayed in the circumference of the V & A’s gallery dome, serves as an example of how work is defying museum display rationale and trespassing those sacrosanct liminal spaces of the museum. And finally, the wrapping of whole museums buildings by both Christo and Jeanne-Claude with the Kunsthalle in Bern for one week and the use of a jute patchwork in Out of Bounds, 2015, that covered 300m of one of Venice’s Biennale exhibition spaces for Arsenale in 2015 by Ibrahim Mohama, that all demonstrate new museum practices.
Besides spatial considerations, the legacy of ceramics own long history, the processes and techniques used and the insistent materiality in its many forms have all been mined for any available semiotic meaning and not least with the use of repetition. Destruction as a strategy to aestheticize and destruction to rupture perceptions of value as well as definitions of culture, was a key element of Ai Weiwei’s Dropping the Han Dynasty Urn, 1995, referencing communist China’s efforts to erase cultural memory. Ai weiwei responded to the controversial outcry generated by this desecration by saying “General Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one”. Known also as art vandalism, an act of destruction can also provide that critical moment of reception between ceramic art, sculpture or performance art and “positions destruction in art as an act of institutional and cultural critique”. For Naomi Stead who references Walter Benjamin in Art & Destruction:
For Benjamin, violence and destruction are able to ‘shatter the continuum of history’, leaving in their wake a fresh and demystified field of fragments and detritus. The act of destruction places everything in new juxtapositions, shatters old relationships and opens history up for examination. …criticism in the name of allegory is a process of conceptually ‘ruining’ the structures of affirmative argument and then of working through the rubble.
A semiotic analysis of the museum and value are captured in the work of collaborators Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandoska. In their work Use Value, (2001) as part of the Give and Take exhibition, an intervention invited by the V&A in collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery, which saw the staging of works by fifteen contemporary artists that included artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Hans Haacke. This particular work juxtaposed the rarity and value of the museum artefact with the sound of the noisy, clattering museum restaurant kitchen noises and people eating in the restaurant. A sound recording that captures the noises of teaspoons, dishes and all the ceramic paraphernalia, referencing the quotidian and ubiquitous function of these ceramics and reiterating the juxtaposition between the cherished value of objects in the museum and those ceramic objects of everyday use. It is punctuated with repeated simulated sounds of destruction, of the casual dropping of ceramic items as opposed to the physical act of destruction and heard throughout the ceramics galleries and main museum atrium of the V&A. The work also references the way an object can no longer function in the way it may have been originally intended having been assigned new meaning by the fact of being included in a curated collection.
Recent years has seen a number of ceramic artists who are “mining the museum”,  not in the revisionist arrangement used by Fred Wilson in the Maryland Historical Society that referenced the evocative, unofficial and unrecorded historical events of African-American experiences, but how the art object functions in the museum space. In one of these sculptural works Please do not touch the Artwork, (2003)by Jeppe Hein, as part of the collaborative exhibition A Secret History of Clay – From Gauguin to Gormley,that required a destructive act to produce a powerful and shocking experience for unwitting viewers. A simple ceramic plate on the wall saying, please do not touch the artwork, positioned behind that familiar designated line distancing the viewer from the object was fitted with a sensor capable of activating a device to push the plate off the wall if the viewer crossed line, sending the plate to smash on the ground. A new plate was replaced daily to repeat the same sadistic objective causing much controversy due to the fact that those viewers involved in the conspiracy simply could not decipher why a simple plate with this message was included in the exhibition. Reiterating the social taboo of touching objects, referencing the no touching policies of museums, it defies us to do exactly what it says not to do.
It is not just how the object behaves in the gallery space but in Marek Cecula’s Klepisko (Fig. 13), it is the work of the viewer that is required to complete the artwork. Klepisko (the Polish word for a traditional rural peasant dwellings earthenware floor) is an artwork that comprised 19 tons of clay that is poured to over a half a metre in thickness and levelled in a gallery exhibition space. The construction of this once common floor is of traditional design is left with deep cracks into which are placed facsimiles of classical architectural fragments, books and cultural artefacts, that are used in “[..] forming the landfill of our culture”. The destructive element of this work involves the repetitive participation of the audience to walk across this deteriorating floor, thereby realizing this work, to create or to reveal as Cecula says, the archaeology of the future.
This chapter explores some of the many ways artists exploit strategies of aesthetic destruction while using the practice of repetition. Ceramic based iconoclasm shows how these artists have begun to explore the historical philosophical potential of meaning and destruction. Literal and metaphorical fragility provide the possibilities to comment and critique cultural boundaries. The influence of the museum institution provides for the disruption of any preconceived notions of how contemporary ceramic art is to be encountered by the spectator demonstrating new practices, curatorial aesthetic strategies and new innovation, crucially promoting a new level and more socially engaged practice within context and site. Newly found confidence by artists such as Edmund deWaal has addressed these directions in the placing of utilitarian objects not just the museum space but also the white cube spaces. While this is only a small sample of artists who work in various ways within this category, the number of artists who choose to use the medium of clay to work in this way is growing and now it seems there is an imperative for these artists to start supporting their work with their own critique that is sadly lacking. Weak ending to chapter. Edmund deWaal says stuff on this.
In 2008 the V&A approached him with a commission, and said he could put it anywhere he liked. ‘I said, “OK. The dome.” They gulped, and said, “Oh God,” but then they said yes.’ So he made Signs and Wonders, presiding over the ceramic gallery, installed in the dome overhead, out of reach, almost part of the structure of the building. You have to look up high to see it, like a precious dinner service that has been put out of the way so it won’t be used and broken.
Installation and Intervention: How Repetitive Strategies Inform the Diverse Possibilities of Clay in Contemporary Art Practice
“The entire experience into which art flows, the issue of liberty itself, of the expansion of the individual’s consciousness, of the return to myth, the rediscovery of rhythm, dance, the body, the senses, which finally are what we have as weapons of direct, perceptual, participatory knowledge…. Is revolutionary in the total sense of behaviour”
“[…] it is through my body that I go to the world”
While the previous chapter focused on a correlation that exists between the influence of the museum space, the act of destruction, repetition and the practice of installation art, many of the headings discussed are interconnected and relevant throughout other chapters of this paper. This chapter will focus on serial strategies, clay and the relationship between the artwork and the viewer, one that has radically changed in recent decades and can perhaps be ascribed in a large part not only by the influence of installation art but by post-studio interventions and the participation with the viewer that has become endemic in our time. It is the engagement of site specificity, concept and the experience that is had by the viewer who is encouraged into the space, that underpin the work within this category. Claire Bishop in Installation Art: A Critical History describes this work as:
Installation art describes an artistic genre of site-specific, three-dimensional works designed to transform a viewer’s perception of a space.
This definition is furthered by Bishop ‘that loosely refers to the type of art into which the viewer enters, and which is often described as “theatrical”, “immersive” or “experimental”’.
While the discourse around ceramics and its categorization as installation art, more commonly assigned with historical or formalist concerns of form, function and decoration, there are some influential critics and artists who believe that such discourse should be located outside of ceramics, that it is a practice now far removed to even be considered ceramics. Despite commonly held beliefs around the confusions of this medium, theoretically fraught with ambiguity and historical legacy, clay is usually defined by its materiality, however within ceramic installation art, concerns are usually to do with the specificity of its environment/site and that clay is of secondary importance to the idea or concept, conforming to Lucy Lippard’s aesthetic clarification within the dematerialization of the art object. Perhaps as Ruth Chamber suggests, these works could be more accurately viewed through the understandings of interdisciplinarity, and not just the singular concern around clay and all this entails, when discussing Creative Confusion: Interdisciplinary Practices in Contemporary Art, by Marie-Josse Lafortune and Lynn Hughes who say:
[…] interdisciplinarity in visual art is characterized by historical, material and theoretical fluidity and improvisation. Many ceramic installations possess those qualities.
A growing and innovative development in participatory ceramic art can be influenced by its connectivity with functionality and the needs of society at its core. Ceramics are to be found almost everywhere if you look, from spark plug insulators to hair dresser’s straightener’s, providing a language that serves a group of high profile artists to engage in a shifting art practice that was once relegated to the side-lines into a main stream art practice arena today.
Besides the possibilities available with the use of these domestic references, there are installation artists who use the inherent properties of this material in terms of the natural processes of this organic material that are referenced by the art historian Mitchell Merback, who suggests:
Ceramic artists have a significant affiliation for and understanding of temporality as it is related to art process. In his opinion, ceramic artists have always been highly conscious of materials ‘that change with time’.
The investigation of temporality or “investing the artwork with a universalising rhetoric of ‘space and time’’ is central in the strategies of installation work, examining the passage of time through the use of materials that can conform to either the shape of vessel, respond to human action in a synergic way or reflect that basic association with the earth and landscape. Briony Fer focuses on how the artwork is encountered in terms of serial repetition:
What is so compelling to me about the way the art-works I discuss dramatize the temporal is that they do so through animating and transforming the most everyday and routine habits of looking. Serial repetition was one means of opening onto this new terrain.
While the artwork can induce different temporalities, themes central in the use of installation and clay include concerns around the relationship between process and materiality, historical legacy, culture, display and presentation structures and of course socio-political issues. Confronting themes of a socio-politico order, very much in the way of Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, 1000 Gestalten, (translated as 1000 Figures), is perhaps the most recent intervention that was performed in Hamburg, Germany on the 5th July 2017. Broadcast live and viewed both by an audience of over three hundred thousand people online and (referencing a growing platform for the viewer), the public present on location, the performance was scheduled to precede the recent G20 Summit that took place from July 7th through July 9th 2017. This was an opportunity designed to tackle issues and concerns around the effects of capitalism and globalization. A protest against political apathy, it called on change in our society to come, not from a political hierarchy, but from each and every individual. Event organizer Catalina Lopez told Reuters TV:
The goal of our performance today is to move the people in their hearts, to give them the motivation to get politically engaged again.
The performers who numbered several hundred, resembled zombies, in their head-to-toe uniforms of clay encrusted clothes, moved steadily, slowly and silently, to a point of culmination where a transformation of the zombies took place through an awakening of the possibilities for potential change in the world. Discarding the clay encrusted clothes to reveal bright coloured clothes underneath, the zombies were symbolically freed from their transfixed gazes and shuffling strides, into dancing, laughing and happy people. Volunteers and participants numbering over 1000, descended on Hamburg from over 85 cities all over Europe to take part in this creative gesture of protest. It is no wonder that the annual G20 Summit is regularly the scene of protest, bringing some of the world’s most controversial leaders to a central world stage. As Organiser Sven Kämmerer said of this creative protest:
The great power of art is that it’s a universal language. It doesn’t matter if you live in e.g. Germany, Canada, China or South Africa – our images can be understood anywhere by anyone…the first step to start any political action is to ask the right questions. We think that art is a great way to do that.
Using clay in this way with the scale achieved by the number of people involved, provided that spectacular performative gesture that was discussed earlier in this paper. While 1000 Gestalten is a very recent example of this kind of work, it has been used before by Jim Melchert in a performative work called Changes (1972). These works display a more socially engaged practice, a heightened engagement with site, context and concept for the artist and audience, proposing new opportunities for public interventions, furthered by Hal Foster in The Return of The Real, who states ‘in the social expanse of everyday life, the possibilities for participatory art are endless’.
This use of clay to bring attention to concerns around socio, geopolitical, economic, environmental, and political is a recurrent theme for artists who work specifically with clay. In one particular work, Clare Twomey, an artist at the forefront of post-studio clay work and repeatedly featured throughout this paper, presented the opportunity for participants to seek ways that could bring about a more humane society and asked the participants “what qualities we need in society to be humane”. The work called Humanity is in our hands began as Twomey’s response to the life story of one Bosnian war concentration camp survivor Nisad ‘Šiško’ Jakupović, whose experiences of brutality and torture preside at the core of this work. In a proposition that perhaps human solidarity can overcome even horrific circumstances, began one Holocaust Memorial Day, January 27th in 2015 on Westminster Bridge, with the artist encountering and inviting some 2000 participants to become involved in this artwork. This invitation proposed:
Today you are invited to be part of a new work, your words will be placed on thousands of beautiful porcelain objects that will be made in the coming year. These objects will be handed back to the public as gifts on Westminster Bridge, on this date one year from now, 27 January 2016. The recipients will become the custodians of your thoughts.
The response was one of beautiful words, texts and stories from those participants to encourage a more prevalent humane and cherished society, Twomey produced 2000 porcelain spoons, based on a spoon carved by Jakupović using wood and glass, a keepsake Jakupović had retained from the time of his incarceration. The spoons were inscribed with those beautiful words, onto porcelain which is a material that exemplifies fragility and permanence. On that same day, one year later 27th January 2016, Twomey returned to the bridge and offered the artwork, the 2000 spoons, to a new set of people in this exchange of words and text that evoke unspoken promises to care. Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said:
27 January 2016 will be the culmination of Clare’s ambitious, thoughtful and profound project, which honours the life story of Nisad Jakupović, and challenges us all to consider our responsibilities to create and preserve a humane society. The gifting of these 2,000 beautiful objects is a wonderful and fitting activity for Holocaust Memorial Day.
Some works in this genre reflect the ‘making’ process as the art experience redirecting usual considerations of what the art object is, that traditional end-point of making. This is reinforced by Japanese philosopher Nishida Kitaró’s thinking on what he called pure experience as:
To experience means to know events precisely as they are. It means to cast away completely one’s attitude of discriminative reflection, and to know in accordance with the events.
These considerations could be assigned to several of the artworks mentioned throughout this paper but particularly referenced in 1000 Gestalten. Kitaró went on to say:
In pure experience, our thinking, feeling, and willing are still undivided; there is a single activity, with no opposition between subject and object. Such opposition arises from the demands of thinking, so it is not a fact of direct experience. In direct experience, there is only an independent, self-sufficient event, with neither a subject that sees nor an object that is seen.
But perhaps it is in the “lived experience” and “incarnated mind” in the writings of French phenomenological philosopher, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s, who reflect these ideas best when he said “What is given is not the thing on its own, but the experience of the thing” evoking for the viewer, that personal response and not an orchestrated response as a direct communication of the artist.
- The stake of these repetitions (or as Repetition as a method) is not only the destruction of art but also (moreover, they go together) another conception of the human subject: repetition affords access, in effect to a different temporality
How Repetitive Strategies Inform the Diverse Possibilities of Clay in Contemporary Art Practice
This paper set out to explore the opportunities available with the congruent use of clay and serial repetition, as a device, in art making. This exploration required a fine art contextual background, relative to the time when serial repetition began to emerge as a method of practice. Specifically, with the demise of modernism, artists began to discover new ways to think about and make art, that have since expanded the possibilities for art since the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lucy Lippard’s dematerialization of the art object, a phenomenological act of engagement, heightened immediacy and the decentring of the art object, all gave structure to new art practices. Focus on how art inhabited its space gained much ground at this time as well as Mel Bochner’s ideas on seriality. The use of clay to make art is accompanied with the benefits procured from repetitive processes that historically belong within the traditions of making ceramics and these processes also invite possibilities of making multiple objects whether identical or not. This was the climate that begot an avalanche of new ideas to do with the art object, clay and serial repetition.
Ceramic processes have generated ways to overcome materially difficult aspects of working with clay, such as scale, that were discussed with Clare Twomey’s Shoal. The use of repetition provides for the possibilities of grand visual gestures, evident in works such as Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red and Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds and has become a common feature of contemporary installation. Ceramic installation that rely on the power of repetition to impact the spaces they inhabit, can be considered as sculpture, which is how Edmund deWaal’s views much of his serial artwork, citing that in recent art history, ceramics art could be considered as the link between painting and sculpture, and does not think that these definitions are relevant any more. The circularization of authorship, specifically Field by Anthony Gormley is used to illustrate the impact of multiples, confrontation and on the space, they inhabit, overthrowing traditional museum convention.
The museum has become a key space for much ceramic installation. Confronting behavioural norms, museum and gallery spaces that are loaded with semiotic value that is available for interpretation by the artist. Strategies that include display rationale, taxonomical structures, collections and the act of collecting and the ability to assign new meaning to a curated object, are all used as a language, but specifically it is the fragile properties of ceramics and its ability to provide the aesthetic power of destruction that is of interest in chapter two of this paper. Sometimes referred to as Art Vandalism, destruction can be of an iconoclastic nature or simply to rupture perceptions of value and culture. It can involve breakage, theft or in some instances, simply the conferring of the objects to the public. Some of these works that have been discussed have demonstrated a practice that is more socially engaged, rely on curatorial aesthetic strategies, depend on the museum as medium, and even require the viewer to complete the work of art in these spaces. All of these artworks display the many different ways that repetition is employed and not just with serial production of objects. Whether the use of identically cast objects to the repetition of the sound of an object been broken in In Use. These were just a few samples of hugely innovative ways that artists have exploited the site of the museum, repetition and clay in their work.
Many of the work discussed throughout this paper have been interconnected and belong across the chapters. Ceramic installation art and interventions feature as much within the museum space as some of the extraordinary work that has taken place in the public sphere. The artworks discussed in chapter three have included either performative, theatrical, immersive and experimental aspects, as espoused by Claire Bishop, using clay, repetitive strategies and the relationship between the artwork and the viewer in the production of the work. What is remarkable about 1000 Gestalten is its potentially unlimited online viewership, that now represent a whole new way of reaching an audience and adopting innovative ways of how an artwork can be seen. It is specifically the materiality and processes available with clay that enabled this work to be completed as well as the multiple performers who engaged in the performance of this piece. The natural processes of clay also provide for work that relies on temporality. Providing an act of theatricality, the removal of the clay encrusted clothes resulted in clouds of clay dust ascending above the heads of the performers, reinforcing an expression of liberation. Perhaps it could be said that this kind of work continues to expand the boundaries of how fine art practice continues to develop. 1000 Gestalten represents creative ways to address socio-political issues with the use of more socially engaged strategies. Clare Twomey’s Humanity is in our Hands, is also representative of a more socially engaged practice, highlighting the transient and participative opportunities often used to appropriate and seen across this artist’s practice.
While it must be addressed, clay and ceramics within a fine art context continues to be a subject that is fraught with ambiguity and ambivalence. These concerns are usually to do with the historical legacy of the vessel and its ubiquitous role within our civilization as well as its association with craft practice.
Most of the practice addressed in this paper are as
Accessed 14th June 2017
 About Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.http://www.aiweiweiseeds.com/about-ai-weiweis-sunflower-seeds