Surveying the Precious
How wonderful that ceramics can still be so precious to us? At least I think for the majority of us, if you forget the advent of mass produced cheap plates and mugs and billions of paper cups for super-fast coffee and tea consumption, (no time/need to sit for a tea ‘ceremony’) ceramic objects either shunted out of the display cabinet, or even worse, the whole cabinet gone! Its preciousness is obvious to someone like me (and possibly you reading this, if you are a clay enthusiast) years of studying and pressing its faults, refining its specialness, for me clay and specifically porcelain needs no explanation or forgiveness. I have been through all its frustrating moods. A character that is a loved one, I put up with it and its position in society, I cannot imagine being without it in my life. Clay is the main tool I have in talking about the world.
But little did I know how the public felt? I guessed or rather gambled that maybe 15-20 people would take part in my simple questionnaire but 90? Over 4 days? Wow! Such a response. The event I am referring to, entitled “How Precious, Precious How?” (HPPH) was launched in May 2017 at Stroud Valleys Artspace, as a precursor to a four week long residency at Cove Park in August that same year. HPPH gave the public a chance to explore their memories, feeling and associations when looking a ceramic element in conjunction or in proximity with another material in front of them, without touching it. The title first establishes how special the clay element and other materials are for the viewer for each sample before them, placing a value on the strength of that feeling. The title then asks for some kind of description of those feelings to back it up, at times relying on a knee jerk reaction, at times a longer chance to ponder by asking the viewer if it sparks off any memories. This was a device to kick start to think and feel, useful if anyone believed they felt ‘nothing’ towards a particular sample. Often this resulted in a stream of thoughts and feelings.
Our pre-determined responses to a material and what the shape of an object might conjure up is based on experience of touch and sight over our lifetimes. Thus, any children who filled in the form (there were eight) could describe how it made them feel but understandably could not directly rely on many memories to write their responses. It is also important to note also that an individual that knows clay very well, a ceramic artist/maker or curator will view the combination with an enhanced level of material knowledge so as the responses may (or not be) more related to the memory of using and making in clay. For example, those makers who know porcelain mentioned the uncomfortable ‘squeak’ that they knew would have occurred as the porcelain was inserted into a block of floral foam. I remember at my interview for Cove Park, Dawn Youll taking a sharp intake of breath when I first talked about that in-between rough, warm, puce-coloured and porous state of bisque-fired crank clay and how unsettling it might be to add foam to it, listen to it fizz, or to be annoyed as fluff snags on its rough surface.
Asking for knee-jerk reactions, the meanings and associations of these materials was for most participants an engaging experience. HPPH comprises of 14 samples, each (with the exception of two samples) are presented on plates, not so much to suggest food but a device to perhaps allow the viewer to feel they can ‘taste’ the object. Babies of around 5-8 months tend to put everything in their mouths, not to shout out that they are hungry but to use their mouths as the prime tool for understanding an object’s qualities, surface textures, weight, sponginess, stickiness and flavour.
As one would expect, many results were similar and predictable, where the shapes of the forms might resemble some other recognisable substance, for example ‘ice cream’, or ‘caramel’ but for all expected results there were many more alarming responses, caramel turns to ‘thick blood’, ice cream to ‘vomit’. A ‘jewel encrusted piece of coral’ becomes a lump of cat sick’, the jewel becoming the visible grain of blue poison that poisoned poor pussy.
When dealing with all these personal thoughts, it is fascinating to know or be reminded through public engagement, that presentations of artworks in this context are subjective and that beauty remains in the eye of the beholder. It means so much to me that by purely looking at an object/artwork, we get a deep gut feeling about it, if it holds any power, important for any crafted object, painting or film. The last Joseph Beuys exhibition I walked around left me with major toothache, it was the felt and fat and copper that did this to me and my teeth still ache if I think about it for too long.
So why make clay more precious/special or one might say, Now Precious, Precious Why? For years I have explored and discussed the fragility of nature, nature as fact and nature as fiction. I am constantly asking questions of “what if?” But I am also playing my part in communicating to the viewer not only my concerns about the natural world but an understanding of science, of concepts too hard to grasp, perhaps too fantastical. There are countless examples of artworks illustrating and revering natural forms with skill and in my opinion, none are better than the Blaschka Bros beautiful glass creations. For my piece ‘Bacteriophages’ currently on show at Eden project’s Invisible You: The Human Microbiome, the individual ‘phages at 8cms tall are slip-cast porcelain, assembled, fired and six fired ‘protein strands’ are inserted into each phage, making them unmistakeable from any other kind of virus. Their platforms are two large fluorescent acrylic glass C.difficile cells. The strength in this piece is in making it appear other-worldly (although ‘phages are not fiction) through the glow of the acrylic in conjunction with the extreme fragility of the porcelain, these two material types work in sync, with ‘Bacteriophages’ the ultra-modern material of acrylic glass and its colour, highlights the porcelain’s special qualities. Porcelain, with its dichotomies, fragile yet strong, pure white as a new botanical shoot and pure white as dead coral, has such enormous power.
For over a decade now I have been exploring how this power be further emphasised. A porcelain flower/organism that breaks out of a lump of concrete is at once powerful in this action but might also to another person appear trapped, it doesn’t matter which feeling is ‘correct’ what is important here is that concrete and Porcelain do mix and give a powerful message. The materials highlight each other’s qualities. A high metallic shiny glaze in conjunction/proximity to a flocked surface, was a real ‘hit’ with many of the participants, as was silicone with porcelain. Here colour and all its complexities when combining these two particular material combinations opens up possibilities that I haven’t been able to find in glaze tests alone.
It is important to me that people continue to find my work accessible. As the work is increasingly viewed in public spaces and invites dialogue and discussion, I have been overjoyed that the public’s responses are still, on the whole reverent towards clay in any shape or form, confirming the material remains semi-precious, fragile, needs to be respected and protected. How perfect for symbolising nature!
You can still take part in the survey on this blog by clicking on the portfolio section at the top, thanks you for your time.
All photographs credited to Aimee Lax – September 2017
Aimee Lax studied gained a Masters in Ceramics and Glass from the Royal College of Art, London in 2005. She received a Crafts Council Development Award in 2008 and has exhibited extensively in the UK and has permanent collections in the V&A. Her work stands to discuss our endeavours to create and exist in a world that she terms as artificial nature. She explores themes of attraction/repulsion the familiar/unfamiliar and the senses of ‘other-worldliness’. From 2019-2020 she was Ceramics artist in Residence at the V&A, exploring themes of the Anthropocene and our energy crisis.
The ceramic methods she uses in making are often traditionally based and she works in a range of scale. The sculptures can exist in a variety of environments, often made in components they can transform and change through installation and presentation. She aims to continue working in scientific collaboration, using her artworks to communicate a different level of understanding in the progress of science. In doing this she presents a reflection on the contemporary situation, of the relationship between nature, science and culture.