The installation Durch das Feuer Gehen was commissioned by Keramikmuseum, Westerwald in Germany. This site specific installation also employed the methodology of suspending the ceramics within the space on metal plates held by cables; this brought a new range of references for this particular site, that were embodied by its nature as a museum dedicated to ceramics. Durch das Feuer Gehen was installed in proximity to historical ceramic vessels within the museum. The metre-square metal plates hung from the roof, the fixed measure scaling device of an archaeological dig, as the ground is divided up into segments; through positioning the plates at different levels my intention was to reference the stratifications of a dig.
In their firing raku pots also have their own archaeology, for on removal red-hot from the kiln, they are buried in sawdust and the charred sawdust must first be washed from the vessels. By positioning the plates at different heights, it was possible to suggest the stratification of archaeological remains left by humans; some of the vessels were laid on their sides to suggest the way in which this might have been discovered in a dig. It also suggested a sub-text of chaos – perhaps an intimation of the flight of my grandparents and mother, as well as physically embodying the interpenetration of Western and Eastern philosophical and ceramic, traditions operating in the work.
Durch das Feuer Gehen literally translates as going through fire or, tested by fire. I used my first opportunity of a museum show in Germany to examine the narrative embodied in the concept of testing – of both clay as well as maker. The raku vessel cannot easily survive the sudden heating and cooling involved in removing the red-hot vessel from the kiln. For me raku-firing can evoke the purificatory aspects of Fire; I wanted to use that concept of testing to also interrogate myself, the maker, and my relationship to Germany.
The installation suggested a burrowing down through suggested layers of history, excavating memories, denying the weight and mass of history to deeper and deeper personal and national pasts. Germany, the site of the exhibition, is also the country of birth of my mother, her siblings, and the country in which my grandparents perished. My mother left Germany aged 15 on the Kindertransport in 1939, leaving my grandparents behind. I wanted to use this first exhibition in a German public gallery space to address those family issues embedded in my upbringing. That narrative is embodied by the scars made in the work by penetrating the clay surfaces with knives – cutting open the skin of clay and peeling back the fleshy covering of space. Eva Hoffman suggests that the ultimate source of meaning might be found in our pasts: “earlier worlds have formed us, are inscribed somewhere within our bodies and sensibilities” (Hoffman,2005, p205). These expressive manifestations have led me to read the work from the point of view of a 2nd. generation Holocaust survivor, as she describes. These narratives embodied in the clay stand for the penetration of human skin and ultimately of the body; the creases and gashes – finger marks registering the sensitivity of the body. As my practice developed, a synergy slowly became apparent between firing in raku and Holocaust, and became their embodied narrative which was inscribed into the matter of the vessel and burnt into them. Holocaust etymologically is: holo = whole / caust = burnt – it stands for the complete combustion of the sacrifice in the temple. The heat involved in firing my vessels is even hotter but the effect on clay bodies is not so total as on human bodies.
The methodology of Durch das Feuer Gehen and the development of a phenomenological perspective to the work depends on the realisation of the rejection of the mind-body duality, as Merleau-Ponty understands it (Merleau-Ponty, 1970, p.xiv) and then “new synaptic connections form in response to embodied interactions”(Sullivan, 2010, p131,2). The focus on myself as an embodied maker – that is also a reflective mind/body – led me to understand my work through phenomenology, for we are born into the world, embodied; our narratives unfold:
“Phenomenology is a transcendental philosophy for which the world is always ‘already there’ before reflection begins – as an ‘inalienable presence’; and all its efforts are concentrated upon re-achieving a direct and primitive contact with the world, and endowing that contact with philosophical status” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p.vii).
Merleau-Ponty states that embodiment is the starting condition for making, since: “I cannot be other than the constitution and the experiences of my body, which enters into the world which is always there for it” (Merleau-Ponty, 1970, p.vii). He adds: “Because we are in the world, we are condemned to meaning, and we cannot do or say anything without its acquiring a name in history” (Merleau-Ponty 1970 p.xix). Thus our embodiment leads to meaning.
As human beings we have a particular point of view; we experience the world from a unique perspective – but one that is shared with others. In phenomenology this essential basic condition is referred to as the horizon; in my case that is the horizon of making – a perspective deriving from a personal and historical understanding of forming, firing and critiquing ceramic objects. Our body enables us to walk around an object while making or appreciating it. The solidity of our own body also provides the reference for volume that we experience with a 3D object; moving around is a much easier activity than standing still, as human morphology predetermines us to locomotion due to the oversized nature of our heads. Our body provides a schema by which to assess the rightness of proportion of an object as we unconsciously use our own bodies to register the relation of parts.
In Durch das Feuer Gehen there was a reference to the horizon of site; it was constituted by the presence of the history of the material culture of ceramics in the rest of the museum but in addition by images of clouds above German forests, projected onto the walls, which suggested also the smoke of firing and of the crematoria. To complement the theme of fire, the idea of museum and its artefacts (for the largest proportion of all historical museum collections are ceramic remains), also generated an understanding that involves a focus on the vessel. I understand “the vessel” as a Modernist/Post-Modernist concept that has developed from an understanding of “non-functional containers” (Houston, 1991). The vessel is one of the icons of the craft tradition. The vessel contains. It traces its lineage to both functional and ritual ceramic forms, and can be decoded, semiotically, as a carrier of embodied meaning; it is a signifier that points to use both in everyday domestic environments, as well as in rituals.
Clay, as a material is amorphous, and in itself not expressive; it is, though, pre-eminent in recording gesture and mark, and making them permanent through firing where clay can become as hard as stone. We have a sense of our selves/our bodies as part of the world – either in Nature or in man-made urban environments; we can also abstract ourselves and perceive ourselves as separate from them, thus providing the bases of a white-cube gallery experience of an object aesthetically separated from our everyday existence (Kant’s “disinterest”). Our human experience is not limited to solely the sense of sight; even when just looking we experience the world by bringing a range of our other senses into play – hearing – by tapping the piece, its roughness and smoothness- by stroking it and indeed smell (of the porous, smoke-impregnated raku vessel). Our bodies act as a register against which to measure our later experiences; in this sense we are both within and standing outside of experience. Thus there is a sense in which the objective encounter with objects in the world is always related to the personal subjective standard that was established as children and then trained as adults.