Articles & Reviews
Using Ceramics in a Mixed Media Context
Janet Roome's essay deals with a recent body of work inspired by the death of her Mother. Outlining the genesis of the work, this article is an eclectic journey through the creative process that concentrates on the ideas and inspirations which led to the final installation. Roome makes a case for treating clay as just another material available to an artist. She attempts to move away from the more traditional discussion of technique and materials and begins to deal with issues of memory, family, and feminism.
In this article I hope to show how ceramics can be incorporated into a body of work rather than necessarily forming the whole of it. I feel that ceramic objects can form as legitimate a part of, say, an installation as painting, drawing, video or any other art form.
I make no excuse for the fact that ceramics forms a part of my work rather than being of prime importance in it. Is this heresy? No doubt I could be seen as lacking not only a serious commitment to ceramics but 'authenticity' too. I certainly lack at least three of the criteria cited by Edmund de Waal1 as being necessary to the received notion of an authentic potter. I am self-aware, in that I know why I have produced certain objects and can talk about them. I do not belong to an easily identified and extensive tradition, i.e. I do not 'know my place. Thirdly, I do not produce my objects in quantity for everyday local living. Possibly an even greater crime is that I have only been engaged in making ceramics for just over a year and yet I am presuming to write about that experience. I make no apology either for leaving out detailed descriptions of techniques and processes. Painters, when talking about their work, do not bore us with recipes for mixing paints or hints on priming canvasses; sculptors do not subject us to lengthy descriptions of how they cast or constructed their work.
I decided at the start of my HNC Course in Fine Arts in September last year to produce work inspired by the death of my mother four months previously. It seemed like a fruitful source as it was uppermost in my mind. I had brought back from her house some homely things of hers, such as her shopping bag, a hairnet, the slippers she wore in the hospital, her fringed scarf, her overall. I started by making drawings of the slippers in charcoal and acrylic, alone, then marching in rows. I then became inspired by the work of Nigerian artist, Victor Ekpuk, which I had seen at a recent exhibition.2 He uses symbols from traditional African culture, especially Nsibidi, an ancient art of communication that uses symbols to convey concepts. I placed a scanned image of my mother's photograph in the centre of a sheet of paper and made tiny drawings in fine pen of her 'things' all around it (Fig.1). These objects symbolise for me the essence of my mother.
More drawings followed, one consisting of coloured bands each containing a dancing line of shopping bags or hairnets or slippers.
After the drawings I turned to ceramics. I wanted to explore three-dimensional images related to death. I began by making funereal type masks based on those of the Olmec period of Mexican history, attracted by the illustrations in a book on Teotihuacan.3 Realising I was moving up a somewhat blind alley I began searching for images more related to my own culture. The idea of the coffin seemed an appropriate place to start. I quickly made a lot of small clay coffins. I took photographs of them piled up in various ways: grim, negative images reminiscent of a graveyard; playful images with the coffins arranged in flower shapes or spelling out words like 'Mum' or 'Live'. (Figs. 2, 3, 4 and 5).
Then, on a visit to a local bronze foundry I saw a sculpture which gave me the idea for a bigger ceramic piece. The sculpture was in the form of a wreath composed of bones and skulls. The incongruousness of the image appealed to me. Wreaths are meant to be decorative and pretty, not to directly remind one of death in such a shocking way. I decided to make my wreath of coffins. I handmade twelve coffins each approximately 8 cm x 4 cm, and imprinted each with a cross within a rectangular plaque. These I glazed a bright shiny blue. I created a wreath by wiring them together and interweaving pink plastic flowers and green foliage plus flashing lights operated from a small battery driven box (Fig. 6).
The visual language I used in this piece works on the basis of symbols: the coffin a symbol of death, the flowers, green foliage and flashing lights symbols of life. The celebrations during the Mexican Day of the Dead epitomise this duality. Sugar skulls and skeletons are eaten, graves are decorated with colourful flowers and offerings of food, cigarettes and alcohol. There is an acknowledgement of the inherent cycle of life and death.
Wreaths are in themselves a symbol of funerals in this country. Originally floral tributes were offerings to the dead. Instead of expressions of condolence to the family, as they are seen now, they were meant to provide comforts for the use of the departed spirits, just as they are in Mexico today. My wreath acknowledges the death of my mother, in the shape of the coffins, but offers up not only flowers to brighten up her afterlife but light too.
There is a duality in the coffins themselves. They are heavy and made of clay, symbolic itself of the soil to which we all return. Yet they are bright blue and shiny. Shiny surfaces reflect light, symbol of hope and new beginnings, as in the dawn. Blue has many meanings both positive and negative. Positive connotations, which I attribute to my coffins, include the blue of the sky, of the heavens, of the Virgin's gown (see the blues in El Greco's paintings), blue blood. According to Derek Jarman, the Japanese sleep under blue mosquito nets to give the illusion of peace and cool.4 Then there are the negative connotations of blue: blue language, blue movies, blue with cold, singing the blues, Bluebeard. As Jenny Diski points out, 'blue is an odd colour: the signifier of good things to come ("blue skies, nothing but blue skies") and of dark thoughts ("Mood Indigo"). Different shades, different promises, same colour'.5
The construction of the wreath, with its heavy clay coffins and artificial flowers and leaves reflects our obsessions with permanency. We want to preserve, keep things as long as possible. This contrasts with the Mexican Day of the Dead where everything - skeletons, elaborate altars - is designed to last only for that period. Everything is ephemeral, reflecting the Mexican acceptance of the ephemeral nature of life.
This work is also designed to surprise in its juxtaposition of death symbol and flowery wreath. We are not used to being brought up starkly with a symbol of death in this context. It also introduces a note of playfulness. In combining death symbol and bright flowers and lights I am attempting to lighten up the whole subject, to convey death as being a normal part of life instead of something to keep hidden.
One important difference between my wreath and the one composed of bones and skulls which inspired it is that my image is a much more subtle one. One initially sees the flowers and lights; it is only on approaching the wreath that one is confronted with the coffins.
More drawings followed this work: 'Mum' written in ink and brush hundreds of times, interwoven, in the centre of a large sheet of paper; a 3D 'drawing' consisting of 'Mum' cut from card dozens of times and suspended.
Then more ceramic work suggested itself. I admire the work of Japanese ceramicist Katsue Ibata and particularly the simple dishes covered in recurring motifs. I made three dishes from press moulds, painting randomly placed symbols on each: slippers on one dish, shopping bags on another, scarves on another. (Figs. 7, 8 and 9) I chose the dish form as it represents the homely, the comforting everyday object. They are in warm shades of creams and dark browns, with a little black detail. I deliberately contrasted the treatment of the objects depicted on these dishes with the same objects in my drawings on paper. The latter are drawn finely; some have almost a hieroglyphic quality. On the pots I have drawn the objects crudely, in an almost childlike way, to match the simplicity of the vessels.
I next went on to make a small painting, oil and watercolour on paper, in which the word 'Mum' is written many times along lines which connect the various sections of the painting.
Choosing a theme which has great significance for me has paid off in two ways. Firstly it has helped me to come to terms with a difficult life event. Secondly it has furthered my artistic career in that I have now amassed a coherent body of work. This has enabled me to create an installation at a recent exhibition.6
I decided to show at the exhibition not only the drawings, painting and ceramic pieces, plus photographs of my mother which I had taken at various points in her life, but to include the objects which had inspired me, i.e. my mother's things. I suspended from coat hangers her slippers, overall, etc. (Fig. 10)
I owe this idea to a presentation at a ceramics conference entitled 'The Fragmented Figure, which I attended in the summer of 2005.7 Social anthropologist, Dr. Jeanne Cannizzo, from the University of Edinburgh passed around among the delegates a series of body-less heads, small Mexican ceramic figurines dating from 1,000 BC to 1,000 AD. The delegates were encouraged to create new bodies for these heads from modelling dough. Dr. Canizzo talked of the importance of appropriating ancient artefacts, or fragmentary pieces of such artefacts, and incorporating them into new rituals/art/cultural practices. Doing so means that they are no longer 'the other' but part of a continuing tradition, constantly updated. I could instantly see the relevance to my work. I determined to incorporate my mother's things in any presentation of the work inspired by them. Although objects like her slippers are hardly ancient artefacts I could see the significance of using them afresh, making the past a part of the present. I had already started doing this in a sense in that I had been using her pink striped nylon overall, which she always used to do her housework, as my ceramics overall. Now I was not only bringing part of the past into my everyday life but into my art as well.
I have since discovered that the use of items of clothing and memorabilia is not a new phenomenon in the field of art. Tracey Emin, for instance, used them in her exhibition 'I Need Art Like I Need God' at the South London Gallery in 1997. Emin's objects, like mine, are chosen for their personal resonance, objects such as her grandmother's chair, partly embroidered as she travelled across America in 1994 giving readings from her book Exploration of the Soul .8 I feel I owe a debt to feminist artists and to post-feminist artists such as Emin. The way in which they have openly explored highly personal issues in their art has in a sense given me permission to explore the issue of my mother's death and my relationship to her in an intimate way.
One of the decisions I had to make regarding the placing of the various objects which made up the installation was how to display the ceramic pieces. The positioning was crucial to the overall effect. As funeral wreaths are traditionally placed horizontally on the ground or on a coffin, I chose a low plinth. (see Fig. 10) I placed the wreath on a simple starched white linen cloth on top of the plinth, initially as a way to conceal the box containing the batteries for the lights. This then became a ceremonial cloth which transformed the image entirely. The three dishes I decided to display on a traditional high plinth. On reflection I might choose in future to use a table and a homely kind of tablecloth in keeping with the mood of the pieces.
This installation aroused comments like 'touching', 'moving', 'courageous', 'light in touch, 'playful', 'tender'. I believe that the ceramic elements formed an important part of the overall feeling of the work.
Having benefited from choosing a theme so close to my heart I have now launched on another equally important to me: the relationship with my sister. Sibling rivalry is the name of the game. To this end I have already planned my next installation, or elements of it. Again I intend using a variety of media: drawing, painting, photography, sculpture and ceramics. So far I have made two large flattish clay dishes. I researched images of fighting figures from books on ancient Greek art. I then tore silhouettes of pairs of figures based on these images from paper and arranged sets of them on one of the dishes. The images have been linked and separated by coloured slips and areas scored with deep gauging marks. On the second dish I have made stencils of the letters of my sister's name on one side of the dish and mine on the other. Kitchen knives flash from one side to the other plus more gauging marks.
In this article I have deliberately incorporated descriptions of a variety of the work around my chosen themes, not only the ceramic work. This is to explain the ceramic work in context. I hope the article has also illustrated my original point: that artists are not compelled to make or show ceramics in isolation from other work and that work from different media informs, reflects and interacts with each other. Other ceramicists have, of course, taken a similar route. Blandine Anderson's recent exhibition at the Dartington Cider Press Centre featured boxes, drawings and paintings as well as her more usual sculptural ceramic pieces. Sculptor Kiki Smith's works are made of such diverse materials as paper, glass, cloth and wax as well as terracotta and porcelain. There is a relationship, too, between one of the central motifs of her work and ideas I have incorporated in mine, namely the notion of using objects and materials from the past, 'reviving what is lost, what seems to belong to the past, what is declared dead'.9
I intend to continue using ceramics in my artwork as and when it seems appropriate as a medium, rather than feeling that I need to concentrate on it to the exclusion of other means of expression.
2. 'Black President: The Art and Legacy of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti', Curve Gallery, Barbican Centre, London, 9 September - 24 October 2004. back to text
3. Karl E. Meyer, Teotihuacan , London, Reader's Digest Association Ltd.,1973. back to text
4. Derek Jarman, Chroma, London, Vintage, 1995, p.106. back to text
5. Jenny Diski, Skating to Antarctica, London, Granta Books, 1997. back to text
6. Bristol Artists' Open Exhibition at the Pierian Centre, Bristol, 24 - 25 September, 2005. back to text
7. 'The Fragmented Figure', Cardiff School of Art and Design, 29 - 30 June 2005. back to text
8. See Mandy Merck & Chris Townsend (editors), The Art of Tracey Emin, London, Thames & Hudson, 2002, p.35. back to text
9. Carl Haenlein (ed), Kiki Smith: All Creatures Great and Small, Scalo Zurich, Berlin, New York, Kestner Gesellschaft, 1998, p.34. back to text
|Using Ceramics in a Mixed Media Context Issue 7|