The Road to Rumbola catalogue essay

Catalogue essay:


I came to Daugavpils to further develop a mode of expression in ceramics that would extend an analysis through ceramics of the fate of my grandparents, amongst the total loss of life under the Nazis in WW2, through the particular studio facilities offered to us. As a participant, I knew that we were invited to the “Mark Rothko Centre”, named after the city’s most celebrated artist; his work came to figure significantly in my thinking, sketching and photography. Rothko was also born into a Jewish family, who fortuitously had already escaped to the USA, when he was 10 years old, when the real atrocities in Latvia occurred.

My own work in ceramics focuses on the nature of mark-making: through the trace of the hand and associated tools on the soft clay body, and the marks left by flame and fire in raku and anagama firings. The central insight of my recently completed PhD was that I could use the idea of the clay body to represent a human body; marks left in clay stood for damage and final effects of fire on flesh.

In his philosophy, phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty primarily asserts that individual subjectivity is indissoluble from the body; an understanding central to a maker, like myself, concerned with the significance of hapticity. My own analysis of a language of ceramics commences by examining individual vessels, via an analysis of related pieces in exhibitions to an emergent installation-practice that reveals new insights and a new reading of the work as by a second-generation Holocaust survivor.

This is manifested to an audience through narratives embodied in clay through its handling and firing: Richard Shusterman provides an explication of the way in which a study of hand-made objects can be a tool that provides shape to our lives. This involves a reading of the marking of clay objects in their making and firing which is understood within the framework of handleability provided by Martin Heidegger.

My practice is situated within a context of Raku (Raku – Investigations into Fire),which located raku (as a technique of making and firing) within the original Japanese (Zen-Buddhist) sensibility, in addition to the revised framework of raku, set by American re-invention of the technique by Paul Soldner and Richard Hirsch in the 1970’s. The extension of the investigation from a critique of individual raku-fired vessels to examination of practices that emerged from my raku sensibility into other modes of firing, like anagama, was contextualised in the book Firing – philosophies within contemporary ceramic practice.

Subsequently a new practice evolved where groups of vessels were read as multiples. The work further developed into an installation practice where meaning is communicated from such structures and their relationship to space. An installation is analysed by Claire Bishop as an “immersive experience”; the work intended an engulfing or confrontation of the audience. This led to the emergence of a personal installation practice, that derived from ceramic practices rather than just as an appropriation from fine art modes of expression; in it the transformative material clay, the marks it permanentises and the traces of firing became the embodied narratives of my antecedents killed in the Holocaust. For instance I utilised the abject and valueless quality of cheap, fired clay to stand for the gold rings that the Nazis had appropriated from the Jews before they were cremated; they were stolen only for their monetary value, not for the symbolic value that they embodied.

The work used the ideas of damage inflicted on the clay body – to represent the disruption of the domestic by the physical brutality of the Nazis, and developed the charred surfaces of raku through the traces of combustion embedded in ceramics by the marks of flame in an anagama firing. Additionally the work embodied a discourse that examined the ways in which the ceramic language could be deployed to express another (positive) message – of peoples coming together. To that end I evolved the Zusammenstücke; these were made to sacralise the meetings of Beings – by forming the space of meeting by filling the void between our clasped hands with clay, which when fired, will last longer even than the duration of civilisation; they were presented like a pile of bones.

My work at the Daugavpils symposium further explored the range of this ceramic language to speak of other experiences external to my immediate family. My preliminary research filled in the details of a vestigial awareness of the massacres in Rumbula Forest, outside of Riga, and of Daugavpils Forest in 1942. These were the two sites that followed the massacre at Babi Yar. In Rumbula Forest 27,000 people were shot in a period of two days. A few weeks later perpetrators were sent to Daugavpils to continue this successful exercise in murder: people who had been forced into the Daugavpils ghetto were marched to the forest, stood in front of a vast pit that had been dug by slave labour. People were “processed” per hour, for 10 hours per day; the guns overheated and jammed, the soldiers were stressed, but the task was completed. But even the Nazis found these methods of murder problematic; human beings were directly involved in killing human beings and suffered stress, so they created factories of death based on bureaucratic processing to evolve the “Final Solution”. (As part of this plan to exterminate human beings my grandmother was rounded up in Antwerp, where she had escaped from Leipzig and deported to Auschwitz). As part of the research for my work in Latvia I made the same walk, on an August day, from the Daugavpils Fortress (where we were housed in considerably greater comfort than the ghetto had provided) and I walked to Daugavpils Forest to the murder site, where the memorial stood, that had only been permitted to be placed after the liberation of Latvia from the dictatorship of the Soviet Union.

Thus my work at the symposium involved a conceptualisation of a walk, and a representation of bodies (using the form of a vessel) made from a local red clay body, to stand for the earth that had nourished many of those victims. I created symbolic paths from slabs of clay and introduced a new surface to my work based on colour fields developed by Rothko. The pieces were fired in Black Firing kilns, built by Valentins Petjko to create a lustrous, burnt clay body. This latest refinement of the language of ceramics is one that I shall take from Latvia to develop my next installation piece which I have been invited to create (in the city of my mother’s birth) for Jewish week in Leipzig in June 2017.

Dr. David Jones 2017