Catalogue essay for Fu-Le International Ceramic Museums
The warriors of 5-12, created for the FuLe International Ceramic Art Museum, Fuping, Shaanxi, China. 2008.
The title of the installation was suggested in discussion with a young Chinese artist, as ideally suited to my project about my heart, community, collaboration and site. It directs the reader of the work to consider a multiplicity of embodied narratives: it references not merely my own cataclysm of the heart and major operation that had occurred only eight months earlier, but also a great tragedy experienced by the host country: “5,1,2” was appropriated from the actual date of the great earthquake of May(5) 12th., (2008) that devastated Sichuan province, thereby drawing attention to the victims of my host country’s (natural) disaster. The title embodies a complex set of references: “5,1,2” (wo-yao-ai in Chinese is a homonym for “I want to love – I want to be loved” and is therefore considered a symbol for the heart; it has been appropriated as texting shorthand for love that young couples send to each other at the end of an SMS, while sending a contemporary message of affection. (The same earthquake is also the focus of So Sorry, the installation created by Ai Wei Wei of rucksacks reminding the world of the corruption that allowed shoddy school buildings to be erected, leading to the death of thousands of school children). My piece shares with the installations of Ai Wei Wei a strong ethical and political embodied narrative, as well as a personal identification, but, unlike Ai, I used my own craft skill expressively, to symbolically re-instate lost humanity.
The warriors of 5-1-2 was an installation of tall, marked pipes, appropriated from the factory production in Fuping, China; they were marked with cuts. It was explained to me that the Chinese character xin whose primary meaning is heart, also means mind, which emphasises the Chinese belief that our mental life is also somatic; thus at the centre of the installation, I placed a symbolic heart vessel, (whose last iteration was in Affairs of the Heart). They were installed on a path of fired clay bricks appropriated from the factory site, which I took to represent the paths taken by the workers of the factory and also the inmates of the Death Camps in their alienated routines. Thus I had in mind T.S. Eliot’s “crowds” of Modernism and roll-calls at the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The Warriors of 5-12 critically examines the relationship between “the Readymade” and the hand-formed; the pieces were made in collaboration with a team of workers from the factory who brought the pipes to my work place, but I transported them the nearly 300yards along the length of the tunnel kiln that fired the great part of the production of the factory, in 40ºC heat. Thus my work was fired with the output that represented the livelihood of the workers. The palette of colour is close to that of raku – black and white, but the pieces are much harder fired to approximately 1230 C; they are much more permanent than raku. The obsession of the Qin Emperor to leave a memorial in clay (The “Terracotta Warriors”) had made me contemplate the possibility of creating a durable monument to my grandparents and others who had perished in the ovens of the Holocaust.
As my work developed over time, the idea of the body had become a central concern manifested in the individual elements, qua crafted artefacts, composing the work; it was also to become implicit in the embodied narrative of this installation, The warriors of 5-12. Merleau-Ponty underlines this aspect of our humanness, when he asserts that: “The body is our medium for having a world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1968, p146). My research had focused on the factory site, which is near to Xian and the “Terracotta Warriors”, as well as more obviously to the great tradition of Chinese vessels, which has proven so influential in Twentieth Century British ceramics, including my own. The concept was to use multiples to express ideas about Chinese ceramic culture while referencing the new scar on my chest.
This somatic inscription is associated with life, death and survival of my Being; it was interpreted using the ceramic language of scarring developed in my previous raku vessels. I created multiples from the undifferentiated clay tubes from the production-line, and closing off one end to create a vessel-form, they were stood on the open end; they were further individuated by slashing, cutting, beating, distorting. This is where the trajectory of thought leading from raku as a technique of firing to a methodology of making, and indeed “raku-thinking” concerning ceramics, came to fruition – in the appropriation and both spontaneous and pre-meditated altering of materials from the Chinese factory. Inspired by the Terracotta Army of the first Qin emperor, the aim of the work involved appropriating and altering ceramic products from the factory production and re-interpreting them as symbolic of my own duration on the earth. These separate narratives were set against the contemporary context of the recent earthquake (Dated 12th/5th 2008), that affected thousands of people in China; my heart attack had implicated mainly my own life.
This symposium in Fuping represented a significant opportunity for me to work in China and within the confines of a ceramic factory, to make work for permanent museum installation. It enabled me to research the embodied narratives of the alienation of industrialization (and its current manifestation in globalised outworking), in both West and East, in addition to the history of Chinese ceramics. The installation employs original production pieces from the Fu Le factory and manually altered elements which were fired within the factory’s continuous production kilns to represent the alienated labour of workers and the disenfranchised condition of my grandparents’ generation in the Nazi camps. Our studios were situated in the factory; around us there was much low-tech hand production involved in the manufacture, in addition to small levels of automation. The clay tubes I appropriated from the production were from a large extruder, which had produced them to be cut for roof tiles.
My ideas concerning the hand, and the premise that it still plays a critical role in creating meaning, are fundamental to the concept of embodied narrative; this is informed by a variety of thinkers from Heidegger to Raymond Tallis. The latter is a doctor who also writes philosophically on somatic experience. He speaks of the way hands explore or possess other bodies, providing a possible explanation of the dialogue between hand and material that occurs when clay is moulded by a potter: “…the caress. Its strokes induce tactile sensation in the stroked and, at the same time, gives knowledge of the body to the stroked” (Tallis, 2003, p141). Likewise the clay (body) responds to the hand of the potter – either in its firmness or gentleness and it reflexively returns information to the body of the maker. The vessel carries a narrative of its making; it is an embodied story told through embedded physical memory; the object communicates the skill of the hand. Heidegger’s concept of “readiness-to-hand” (Heidegger, 1962), underpin my reading of the significance of hand-made objects as part of my installations. I read the ways in which the hand is burnt into the clay in firing as symbolic of the development of humanness; this trope is seen as fundamental to the methodology by which a symbolised respect is returned to those murdered in the Shoah/Holocaust. The experience of the embodied memory of the maker embedded within the object transfers in the intuitive handling, and viewing, of the vessel; the eye and the hand sense its story. The hand is an extension of our bodies that both senses nature and the man-made environment and also acts upon it, but in our post-industrial world the hand and many of its associated processes have been superseded and replaced by vastly more efficient machines and working practices where the hand has been displaced as an agent of making and philosophical decision making. The hand has become instead merely an adjunct to the machine. Thus, I used the concept of the handmade vessel as a signifier for the domestic and of a nearly vanished traditional world; the elements stand for the alienated and disenfranchised workers, soldiers and also the crowds of Jews at the roll call.