Vessels about containment: raku. Text

Vessels about containment: created for the Exhibition:  Raku – Origins, Impact and Contemporary Expression. International Raku Symposium, Eagleheart center for Art and Inquiry, Grand Junction, Colorado, USA; and Exhibition Tour USA, 2005 – 2007.[1]

I created this group of raku-fired vessels, during a month-long symposium in Colorado, they were toured to four significant venues in the USA; (other pieces were shipped from the UK).                                                                               

The vessels focused on the development of the double-walled form and were a reaction to the location of the symposium –America[2]. The vessels were inspired by the idea of the Japanese teabowl and the geology and materials of the site, in the Colorado Monument, generating a focus on historic and pre-historic duration.

Richard Hirsch and I (together with Jim Romberg, who hosted the symposium) had assembled a group of artists to work together, at the Eagleheart ranch.  There were makers from the Japanese and Taiwanese traditions alongside the originators of American raku, together with leading practitioners from Europe.[4] We held a series of discussions, alongside the making, with a Tea Master from the Urasenke tradition. The symposium and exhibition allowed me to contextualise my work and thinking about firing and with these artists and writers. The American context focused attention on how the technique has developed to provide a wide variety of expressive approaches. Through these discussions and reflection, I began to examine the possibility that the expressive mark-making and fire traces on my vessels might constitute a personal language of meaning burnt into ceramics. The experience of working in Korea had engendered fundamental questions about the origins of the technique of raku; these were mythologies that held enormous importance for the owners of cultural capital, like the Ohi and Raku families. The Western artists were more of an opinion that these issues were no longer so significant in a Post-Modern environment, where artists frequently employ techniques without recourse to their own traditions and intellectual heritage. It enabled me to better understand my own relationship to tradition and the nature of expression in craft. My practice follows a methodology that draws on the ideas of Walter Benjamin who argues that:

“The uniqueness of a work of art  is inseparable from its being imbedded in the fabric of tradition…the existence of the work of art  with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function” (Benjamin, 1968,  p217 )

I view the maker’s relationship to the tradition and craft practices of raku as occupying an essential place my work and that an understanding of the piece is attained as much through experiencing the object by handling and seeing the nuances of form and surface, as in the penumbra of theory that surrounds it.  Daniel C. Dennett originally proposed “embodied narrative” as a concept that might explicate the self (Dennett, 1992). It was an idea that there is no such thing as self; only the narratives of our lives. I utilise this idea of being constituted by narratives, as also being applicable to material culture, and in particular to hand-made objects. Arthur Danto separately developed the idea that he called “embodied meaning” to apply to productions in art (Danto, 1964, p580); he seems to maintain that art eventually becomes philosophy, but   Bruce Metcalf has  further refined this theory in the context of the crafts, as “embodied sympathy” (Metcalf, 2002). This concept appears to me to be a significant way forward, and he uses an appropriate example for my purposes – Metcalf proposes the idea of “sympathetic craft as an extension of its maker’s [hand]. The pot in being touched, extends the potter’s touch to its user…for this process to work, the object must be used” (Metcalf, 2002. p7). I use this critical position of relating histories as embodied narrative to connote the metaphoric and symbolic content of a work, signified via its material, haptic and its visual properties. Narratives are very significant in my work, so I have chosen to remain with the original nomenclature. Through these embodied narratives I express a range of thoughts and feelings via a “horizon of making” which addresses aspects of hapticity (Tallis,2003). As “The Reflective Practitioner” (Donald Schön,1983), I have established a language of gesture, made permanent through firing; they are directly intuitable by the audience, not merely through sight, words and actions, but also via handling the objects. This is a model of interpretation that is significant in contemporary exegesis, and as Borgdorff states

“Art research begins by addressing questions that are pertinent in the research context and in the art world. Researchers employ experimental and hermeneutic methods that reveal and articulate the tacit knowledge that is situated and embodied in specific artworks and artistic processes.” (quoted in Sullivan 2010, p.79)

Meaning is embodied in a ceramic object through the making. Then, in the secondary activity of interpretation, the finished piece is read by the maker/artist. Finally it is read by the audience. Some of the imprinted meaning is conscious and is deliberate mark-making imposed on the soft receptive clay; other marks are the unconscious product of accustomed (craft) practices embedded, as Richard Shusterman suggests, through “muscle-memory”, which is that ingrained habit that a craftsman develops through practice: “muscle-memory extends our range of attention and perception  and thus enhances our freedom of action” (Shusterman, p 99). These textures are made permanent in the firing which also adds a further dimension of fire-marking.

Traditional aesthetics provides an account a background which frames the concept of embodied narrative:  Aesthetics was a term coined as a new discipline by Alexander Baumgarten as recently as the mid-eighteenth century; it was created as a field of philosophical investigation that explored beyond the limits of conceptual knowledge into the arena of sensory perception. Kant, in the Critique of Judgement, developed the high-seriousness of this new project through adopting the contemplative position of disinterested objectivity, and a denial of utility in the aesthetic object. Kant suggests that art objects are autonomous: they possess a unitary identity that is fixed ontologically (Kant, 1972 p38), and derives from a dominant emphasis on opticality; sight is the sense that provides the most distance in perception. For a  ceramicist of my persuasion this attitude of  disinterest seems at variance with the real physical pleasures of making, handling and looking at ceramic objects; mine is an involved sensuality, in which the entire body and all its senses are involved; the performative activity of making vessels is an important part of my practice. In understanding my own practice I recognised Nietzsche’s  mockery of the dogma of philosophical disinterestedness in aesthetics, in The Birth of Tragedy; where he  asserts the primacy of the ecstatic, desiring artist, who recognises the embodied passionate creativity of making. Ceramics, and much other expressive work, is  appreciated by utilising similar bodies  to that which created it: indeed one of our unconscious standards is the forms and proportions of the human body itself (a theme that is further developed in The Warriors of 5-12). My  thinking has developed out of raku and study of the  Tea Ceremony concerning how objects communicate. InChanoyu the tea-bowls are passed from hand-to-hand for inspection and appreciation; the nuances of the marks of making, both deliberate and accidental are considered. The questions asked concern enjoyment – the physical pleasure of drinking, holding and seeing.

Thus, for me, pleasure is a quality that is as significant as disinterest in making assessments of art objects. Richard Shusterman argues strongly and cogently for a parallel between physical experience and aesthetic enjoyment – using the memory of the former as a paradigm for the pleasure to be located in aesthetic experience (Shusterman, p265). He suggests that the Cartesian emphasis on the body as a machine (to be governed by the soul), that has dominated our culture has led to a denigration of  the sensual appreciation of artistic objects. In his theory of Somaesthetics, Shusterman embraces a complex Pragmatist aesthetics that combines  Western with Eastern aesthetics. Shusterman states that it seeks for an appreciation of the everyday, to generate a “transfiguring intensity of awareness, perception, and feeling, but without high art’s alienating difficulty and  elitism” (Shusterman, p305). And it is here, in the creation of unique pieces, that one can perceive the evolution of an original language of ceramics that I critically analyse through the conceptual tool of embodied narrative.

[1]2006 American Museum of Contemporary Art, Pomona California, USA

  2006 RC Gallery, Portland, Oregan, USA. [For NCECA].

  2007 Ceramics Research Center Gallery, Arizona State University Museum, USA

[2] The USA  is where the resurgence of interest in the new hybrid raku technique started in late 20thcentury.

[4] including: Toshio Ohi, Paul Soldner (the originator of American raku and the author of  the article that first alerted us to the possibilities of the practice), Richard Hirsch (who had written Raku – the first significant book on the practice), Tim Andrews (who had written the first major book on raku in the UK), Jean Biagini (who was one of the earliest European exponents of raku).