Fixing Light Fixing Fire. Text. 2002

In the installation Fixing Light-Fixing Fire, I used the ideas generated by the traditions and techniques of raku and Tea Ceremony, to structure the space of the installation.

The title, Fixing Light – Fixing Fire, reflected the relationship, and differences, between photography and fired ceramic, focusing on the acts of making permanent embodied narratives that is a feature of both. It was a flexible hanging structure, designed to be adaptable to a variety of gallery sizes; it suspended the ceramics on horizontal steel sheets and zinc litho plates, hanging on fine wires fixed to the ceilings and walls of the galleries, which served to subvert  the material heaviness of the vessels. The floating installation was physically anchored by a series of trays weighted with gravel and heavily used kiln slabs (given by Ibstock Bricks). This concept of the footpath, emphasised connections: it referenced the oriental garden in which the everyday world was narrowly connected to the tea-house, situated in the garden

The tea-bowls also referenced nature – the rim embodies a narrative of a mountain range. The connections I wished to engage with concerned central issues in my work East/West; fired ceramic/photography. The footpath was also a symbol standing for the meeting of three disparate collaborators; we each employed a separate discipline. Thus it embodied the narratives of clay geology, as well as the latest developments in digital photography and the space-age materials (ceramic blanket) employed in raku-kiln manufacture (we were aware of the use of china clay as a major component in photographic paper as well as in my clays). The suspended structure of metal plates on wires read as a bridge: a bridge carries; for Bell, Dorling and I, it became a significant metaphor for the joining together of cultures and ideas. In the exhibition there were pots that were actually held and supported, floating; there were photographs, hanging beside them, not nailed to the wall, but occupying the same physical space, as the ceramics that some of them represent.  

My proposal to Arts Council England involved collaboration with both the designer (John Bell) and the photographer (Rod Dorling), whom I had previously commissioned to assist on the book, Raku. The installation was curated by Sara Hughes (currently assistant curator at Tate St. Ives). I proposed to use raku, and its embedded  Zen-Buddhist aesthetic,  that emphasises hapticity through the embedded narrative  of wabi-sabi, to inform not merely the making, but also the display and structural design. The photographs were hung in space besides the ceramics; photography represents time that is frozen in the camera at the moment of taking the picture, and then in chemicals, just as the pot is frozen, when  it ceases to react, on removal from the kiln. The embodied narrative is made permanent through the  fixing of the performative element in both raku-firing (solidification of the molten glaze) and in Photography (in the fixing process both of the instant of pressing the shutter and in developing the photograph).

The installation addressed a paradox, that had surfaced in writing Raku – Investigations into Fire –  readers become acquainted with 3D experiential haptic objects through 2D photographs. In Fixing Light – Fixing Fire raku (making and firing) is a way of creating embodied narratives of haptic enquiry as well as objects for the gaze; this developed into a “way of thinking through fire” (Jones, Firing,2007,p156). As a means of communicating with the audience the thrown raku vessel can be immediate, through embedded hand-skills, via synaptic contact with the vessel. The making of the photograph, by contrast, is mainly reliant on the gaze, as Susa Sontag observed in her book Photography:   “between the photographer and subject there has to be distance” (Sontag, 1979,p13).

Walter Benjamin talks of the photograph’s use in “establishing evidence” (Benjamin, 1968, p220); this is one aspect of the embodied narrative of the installation in which the photographs document, and evoke, the firing process. Sontag notes the apparent ability of photography to freeze time:

All photographs are momento mori…to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. (Sontag, 1979,p15)

Through its essential nature, the photograph preserves both the past of the performance that brought the object into being, as well as the past of the object itself. The photographs by  Dorling captured my performance in firing the ceramics – disrupting the direction of time, by making  the past and present of the object  to co-exist, focusing attention on a “kind of immortality” as Sontag puts it (Sontag,1979, p11). My ceramics, like all fired clay, also embody the freezing of time in their creation (in the chemical change from clay to ceramic in fire). The ceramic vessel, hand-made, carrying marks of making and individually fired is an original, auratic, authentic object as described by Benjamin: “The definition of the aura as a ‘unique phenomenon of distance, however close it may be’ represents nothing but the formulation of the cult value of the work of art in categories of space and time” (Benjamin, 1968, p236). The Tea-Ceremony is just such a cult activity, connoting value, and the longevity of past objects. In particular the way in which the provenance of Raku family vessels has accreted value to them in Chanoyu is an important aspect of their aura (Pitelka,2005). This aspect of duration is highly significant in the installation, through the time embedded in the manufacture of the vessels; (the concept of duration became a significant aspect of  the Holocaust related installations, where I used it to represent the impermanence of human lives).

The narratives embodied in the installation Fixing Light-Fixing Fire were of  Chanoyu – the Zen tea environment – teahouse, path, raked garden, the feel of ceramic. They emphasised  the “thingliness” and “readiness-to-hand” (Heidegger,1962, p96-98), of the vessels through drawing attention to the haptic experience of ceramic vessels. There was a handling area, within the installation, to reference the experience of the tea-bowl passed from hand to hand in the Japanese tea ceremony. 

The large hanging images depicted raku firing; they featured images of fire, my firings, and also of other makers and their kilns, as well as images of my ceramic work hung beside the actual objects. One of the significant features of raku firing is that it is  very dramatic; performance is a well-documented  aspect of the process (Andrews, 1994; Branfman, 1991;  Byers, 1990; Hirsch 1975), but in these books the  images often lack tension, and fail to evoke the mystery and excitement that is spoken of by nearly all these commentators. Thus, for the exhibition we staged photographs that captured this excitement.

The photography also made a reference to the source of the clay (used in my clay body and also in the photographic paper; Dorling created a 360º photograph made by photographing from within a clay pit and joining the images together in Photoshop. This ran round the periphery of the spaces in which the installation was hung, and referenced the Zen ideas concerning the rim of the teabowl echoing the mountain range. 

The long process of collaboration enabled us to create not just an exhibition of ceramics and photographs, but also a series of considered installations, relating  to the different spaces that we were offered, designing a carefully deliberated structure for each location, and permeable to many local interpretations.