fixing light – fixing fire.
Reflections on a ceramics installation curated by David Jones.
In fire, all is movement, all is change. As flames jump and dance, so particles swirl, molecules split apart, and chemical structures are transformed. Wild or tamed, malignant or benign, fire has no single manifestation: candle-flame or forest fire, ember glow or volcanic spume – such are its many faces, many forms. Of all the elements, it is fire that most imitates life. It is born, it dies . . . and in between, like ourselves, it needs oxygen, it feeds, it moves, it emits energy and heat, it sighs and spits, it makes sound. For Heraclitus fire was the essence of the universe – not a mere symbol of the life-force or of a definitively changing world, but its very ground, its constituent material, the primary stuff of which the cosmos is made. It is fitting that this exhibition should have come under the imprint of fire. In fire atoms collide and combine and, in the process, undergo radical transformation.
David Jones has curated an installation – in collaboration with the two other artists – and the three very different minds have come together – potter David Jones, photographer Rod Dorling, and designer John Bell – sparking one another off and firing individual enthusiasms so as to create a whole new formula, a compound that no one of them could have brought about on his own. Moreover, it is not only concepts, rationales, approaches, and ideas that have been thrown into the melting pot, but materials and media too. Part of the intention of the installation is to examine and critique the very assumption of a magazine like this one, which relies on the flat image to communicate ideas about physicality and the tactile nature of clay objects, without these experiences being available to the reader. Thus the photographs in the installation, as objects in their own right, are hung in close proximity to the clay works within a carefully designed theatrical set. These images are multi-layered in their intention. They encompass the traditional idea of a representation of a thing in the world while also having a reality of their own, as evocative memories of things and processes, without being mere explications of how the pots came into being.
The Cornish clay-pit depicted in the photographic frieze that runs like a horizon-line round the gallery wall serves to remind us that china clay does not only go into ceramics manufacture. The bulk of it, in fact (up to 80%), goes into the paper-industry, above all into making the high-gloss finishes and coatings of photographic paper. Positioned inside the clay-pit ourselves, the very clay of which we are made – and to which we are destined to return – finds itself reflected back both in the material photograph and the image that it carries, as well, of course, as in the pots by which we are surrounded. Observer, observed, and the process of observation are thus captured and collapsed in a single moment of alienation and self-recognition. Light falls on photographic film, fire on clay, and both are changed forever, form and image fixed for good. Fixed, that is, but not finished. For, as Heraclitus taught, the world is “an ever-living fire, with measures of it kindling and measures of it going out”. Fixity is not the opposite of change – the final point of rest to which all things tend – but only one of mutability’s many aspects. Fixed forms are not the end of the story so much as punctuation marks, points of arrest in the ever-shifting play-dance of stasis and flux. An analogy here might be with drama or performance. Here all the multiple elements – script, players, actions, speech, stage, scenes, lighting, audience – come together in a recognisably fixed form: a unique, contained, and one-off event that is played out each night to its end. Yet every night its various elements are unthreaded, broken up, scattered and dispersed, to be re-played the following day, each repetition being the same yet irrevocably different. There are endings, fixed forms, even deaths, but these animate change rather than laying it to rest.
This stress on performance is brought out most powerfully by Rod Dorling’s photographs which hang like great stage-banners or screens, commanding the space. We are a world away here from carefully composed pictures (framed and two-dimensional) of pots on plinths – killed, dead, and exposed like corpses to view. In classic representation, the fall of shadow and disposition of light was a way of introducing time into the image: a still-life, landscape or figure was painted or photographed at this particular time, when the window was open or curtained, the sun high or low. The shadow so cast told a story that was already over, its moment captured, preserved, frozen in time. Dorling’s photographs, by contrast, dramatise time and bring the moment back to life. Their angled, blurred, and smoky shots do not just record movement and making. By sharing the same element – light is fire – they capture in their own serendipitous fascias the tension, speed, excitement, danger, and uncertainty of the firing process. Neither photographer nor potter is in total control – both are subject to the vagaries of their medium. This setting free of light and time is accentuated in turn by the gallery lighting that slowly changes and shifts round the hour, creating a mobile chiaroscuro effect as its slow flicker illuminates some quarters while throwing others into shadow.
Foot, neck, lip, skin, mouth, ribs, folds – pots have anciently spoken to bodily forms. Somehow massively bodied and heartfelt, David Jones’ pots work to accentuate this age-old relation, communicating (for all Raku’s deceptive lightness) the weight and drag of the human body. These objects not only echo human orifices and curves but ask to be cupped in the hands or cradled in the crook of an elbow. Ridged, pitted, and scored, their surfaces are often deliberately slashed and rent. But such cuts do not seem the stigmata of suffering: they are less wounds than scars – marks that have been left behind, traces of experience, testaments to life having been lived: like rings on a tree-trunk or undulating strata of rock. Mute yet eloquent, these pots speak of history as a record of existence, a testimony to the passing of time. Indeed, this is a story which, of all the ceramic processes, Raku is perhaps best fitted to tell. Earth first unearthed as clay cut wet from the soil is then resurrected a second time, dug out from the smoking sawdust of its secondary firing. Clogged and blackened, its lustre gleaming beneath layers of ingrained soot, the pot is for all the world like an archaeological find: an ancient funerary urn hauled up out of its own ashes. Raku seemingly contracts time – reproducing in a few hours the unearthing of ancient shards that were buried thousands of years ago – and, in doing so, it reminds us that these objects are not dead, the relics of some finished past, but current and contemporary, alive with meaning and pathos, their enigmatic marks still to be deciphered and their survival part of a longer, older story that will never cease to be told. This exhibition would be nothing without its environment – the setting designed by John Bell to set off these pots and photographs with the utmost reverence and authenticity. Indeed, his concept radicalises the whole notion of “display”, revolutionising the standard presentation of ceramics as so many dead heads stuck coldly on their plinths or behind glass. Here, the suspended photo-banners form a shrine – a secluded, colonnaded space that is squared off from its surroundings without being enclosed (its own questioning of the nature of containment is picked up again by the pots, vessel-forms that yet seem to spill out from the open “walls” of the enclosure). The created space alludes to ancient ritual sites – stone circles or sacred temples – and the pots themselves to ritual objects, as if they contained sacrificial offerings or libations to the gods. Except that the god does not dwell in this shrine as a separate presence – a capricious deity to be appeased, propitiated, or bought off. Rather, what is made holy here is the pots themselves, the whole space being designed to set them forth in their absolute irreducibility. “In the work of art the truth of things has set itself to work”, wrote Heidegger. In art, things are not presented as useful (“pots”) or as objects of critical interpretation (museum-pieces) but are allowed, finally, to radiate the ordinary but amazing fact of their mere being: the sheer matter of their existence, their full presence and utter actuality, the inexplicable fact that they are not “not”. For Heidegger, the quintessential setting for this holy presencing or disclosing of Being was the Greek temple: a building that brought out the truth of things – alætheia – a truth that was already unconsciously present; John Bell’s design seems to me to revive this temple setting, and so to infuse with simplicity and power the meditative experience of this remarkable exhibition.
Professor Catherine Bates is the Head of the Department of English Literature at the University of Warwick, UK ——————————————————————————–