Affairs of the Heart
The installed exhibition work Affairs of the Heart was created in a month long international ceramics symposium with the interrogative title: Wofür brennen wir? (What do we fire for?) in Halle, in the eastern part of Germany . The site, 30 kilometres north of Leipzig where my mother was born, stimulated my first significant work that was the direct product of reflection on my grandparents, who were killed in the Nazi death-camps.
The objects that comprised the installations reprised some of the outcomes realised in the installation Durch das Feuer Gehen which had itself stimulated this introspection into my own heritage that touched on Germany; there I had installed some of the vessels lying on their sides, to convey the chaos of archaeological finds as well as the sense of disturbance in a regulated environment of the museum, to symbolically suggest the disruption of ordered existences. This meant that the opening existed on the side of the vessel and negated the need for a foot; so the individual vessel elements were developed, turned to a point – the classical shape of the amphora. I understood this archaic image of transportation and containment to carry the metaphors of damage and destruction that are suggested by my conflicted association with Germany. The mark-making began to be more violently expressed and dominant – a crease incised down the length of the piece. These were complemented by small porcelain thrown forms which were pressed, fossil-like, into soft, receptive clay and raku fired black; to create a cradle for the forms. The discussions at the symposium of Wofur brennen Wir, in which I interrogated my own rationales for firing, helped to clarify the possibility of there being a personal meaning to firing, bringing to fruition a glimpsed perception that had been gestating during the writing of my second book, Firing – Philosophies within Contemporary Ceramic Contexts that was nearing completion
A further meaning and significance was later attributed to the work: as the vessels without a foot, having been turned to a point, and scarred with a deep impression on the side, were also reminiscent of the shape of the heart; with no premonition I was to require a quadruple heart bypass operation only months later, yet my coronary arteries must have been in a critical condition during this symposium. This re-consideration of the meanings of the work led to the next installations, which I understood as representative of the body – of mine as well as of others’. Thus this experience was critical in forcing me to read my work not merely as crafted artefacts , but also as objects of embodied narrative. I had experienced the reality of what Joseph Beuys had said: “Illnesses are almost always spiritual crises in life, in which old experiences and phases of thought are cut off in order to permit positive changes.” After the operation, as I was recovering from open-heart surgery with an eight inch scar on my chest, I re-interpreted the meaning of the vessels that had been presented on their sides: the intended disruption of the convention of a foot on the pot became heart-shaped objects with a symbolic gash. Achim Borchardt-Hume, in critiquing the actions of Doris Salcedo in her intervention Shibboleth reflects on this activity of cutting and incision in a symbolic way: “The act of cutting is motivated in equal measure by anger and the will to harm as by a mode of doubt and enquiry, of testing the limits. By creating a moment of disjuncture, cuts offer a means to find out what happens beneath the surface” (Salcedo, 2007,p17). In the indentation and cutting of the vessels I likewise am seeking for a meaning below the surface.
This idea of the surface, and its implication of touch, is highly significant for me as a potter. I focus on the way that the clay can be left very rough by scraping, ultra shiny with a terra-sigillata, sand-blasted or glazed with matt or gloss surfaces. Thus it is not merely the skin of the clay that is a liminal arena betwixt observer and object but I also utilise glaze to create a further interface. The perceiving of an individual ceramic object is highly complex experience. The senses are not distinct, and our gaze is not an innocent, passive receptive looking; rather there is a very close interplay between seeing, touching, and the body, in which perception actively seeks out sensation: a “reciprocal insertion and intertwining” of the “seeing body with the visible body”, as Merleau-Ponty describes it in his posthumously published essay, The Intertwining – The Chiasm (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p138). There is a blurring of subject with object. Not merely does seeing implicate the seer in every act of active looking, but it can also bring into play the sense of touch and its sensations of haptic space: “Every vision takes place somewhere in the tactile space…palpating it with our look…the gaze envelopes them, clothes them with its own flesh” (Merleau-Ponty 1968, p134, 131). This phenomenological perspective on art and its making is far from the “disinterest” of Kant, it provides an explanation of the way that the hand combined with the eye is an essential part of the decoding as well as the making of the embodied narrative.
In my practice, the body has a significant range of linguistic connotations and plays a variety of roles: our corporeal body, the body politic, the clay body (the technical term for the mix of clays that a potter uses– for instance, for raku we formulate a clay body that will withstand thermal-shock well). The essential part of a vessel is known as the body; the other additions also have human body references: foot, neck, belly, etc. consciously develop this reference to the body, extending the hollowness to the chambers of the heart. In religion and mythology the first beings (like the Adam of the Bible) are often created out of clay. The body politic is an expression used to describe our societies. It carries an implicit analogy with the human body and brings a physical dimension to ethical, social and political discourses Thus the personal experience of cardiac-bypass surgery had forced me to re-read the embodied narrative of the objects as the “betwixt and between” (liminal) state of life and death, when the body is essentially cooled to stopping for the duration of the operation, just as clay hovers between muddy re-usable material and stony ceramic in firing. This event lead to an important transitional practice, for, prior to the event, I had been making autonomous vessels and then integrating them in installations but now the vocabulary of mark-making was appropriated for a quite different kind of expression; this was to be consciously developed in the Installation The Warriors of 5-12 in China, which was the first work I completed, eight months after the operation. This brush with mortality led to new ways of thinking about the manipulation of clay, and its firing, to develop the embodied narratives dealing with my own body and Being, and by extension with the mortality of my grandparents.