Articles & Reviews
Introduction to the 'Speak For Yourself' project, supported by the HEAD trust and SW Arts.
At the September 2000 launch of this journal at the V&A, Edmund de Waal challenged the common assumption that ceramics with real integrity need no words; they tell their own stories and thus can be left to 'speak' for themselves. (An amended version of his text was republished under the title 'Speak For Yourself' in Issue 5 of Interpreting Ceramics.) Instead, he asserted that if ceramicists shrink from acknowledging the critical/theoretical contexts within which (like it or not) they operate, they leave their work open to appropriation by those of us who seek interpretations that exceed the familiar, ubiquitous accounts of technique and material, which, in his 'Speak For Yourself' article, he disparagingly calls 'potchat'. Since then the topic has regularly featured in discussions amongst the editorial committee of Interpreting Ceramics and we decided to organise a series of activities under the 'Speak for Yourself' banner. This edition of the journal represents the culmination of those activities.
In September 2005 we held a well attended, energetic day seminar on the subject at Bath Spa University. Prior to the event, I asked participants to send me their thoughts on the kind of texts they aspired to. Their varied responses were indicative of the diversity of writing that can be associated with ceramics. Some sought to develop texts for publication, whether they be artists' statements, catalogue essays or reviews. Some envisaged writing as private reflection, perhaps read by other makers, but principally to progress their ideas as an end in itself. It was encouraging to find would-be writers aiming for 'truthful, understandable (accessible) evocative, layered' accounts, and 'clarity without dryness; inspiration without preaching'. There was a general desire to 'convey concepts without getting too complicated', to 'expand the philosophical and theoretical field for ceramics' and to 'explore ceramics as part of wider visual culture (no pigeonholing)'.
The 'Speak for Yourself' writing competition ran alongside the seminar and the closing date was mid-November 2006. There were two categories: an open, international entry, and an entry restricted to UK based students. The judging panel consisted of myself (Jo Dahn, chair), Edmund de Waal, Nick Lees, Matthew Partington and Linda Sandino. We are all published writers in the ceramics field, and all have experience of ceramics in Higher Education. With no competition rules as such, the call for entries simply invited submissions of any length that 'deal with any aspect of the process of making ceramics or that explore, analyse or reflect on any issues that the work raises. The focus may be on something particular to the work or something of more general concern.'
We received submissions from ceramicists in Canada, Nigeria, the USA, Mexico and France as well as the United Kingdom. The quality varied; in a few cases, it was clear that English was not the native language of the writers and we tried to make allowances. Many of the essays, though not successful as written accounts, nevertheless gave intimate insight as to makers' concerns and we felt privileged to be accorded that insight. One of the challenging aspects of the judging process involved the images that accompanied the essays. How far should our assessment of the writing be affected by our appreciation (or not) of the ceramics they showed? In the event, we rewarded those essays that most effectively evoked the circumstances, especially the intellectual framework, within which the work was produced. No-one can absolutely dictate a particular reading of their own work, but the maker who also writes (or who perhaps collaborates with a writer) can present the discourses - from philosophy to process - within which they believe it is most usefully discussed. The winning 'Speak For Yourself'entries in this edition of Interpreting Ceramics vary enormously in terms of length, content and style. They may not all be perfectly resolved as essays, but they are all testament to the fact that an effective written account can direct the viewer's attention, imbuing layers of meaning that enhance their appreciation of the work and extend the time spent in consideration of it. We hope you will enjoy reading them.
The Winning Essays
Carol Hanson Epp, Canada (winner, open competition)
In the open category, Carol Hanson's essay stood out as a clear winner and the judges' decision was unanimous. There is much to enjoy. 'A collection of small miseries' is a considered and sophisticated account of the thought processes that inform Hanson's activities as a ceramicist. She argues for a notion of the artist-maker as 'presenter of critical dialogue', capable of initiating social change, whose work can 'situate the viewer in a position of self-reflection'. The discussion covers a wide intellectual territory; topics such as 'appropriation', 'resistance', 'kitsch' and 'consumerism' are handled with aplomb in a weaving together of personal concerns and socio-political issues. Hanson references (for example) Michel Foucault on power relations and Guy DeBord on the Society of the Spectacle. She has a light yet incisive touch with so-called 'heavy' theory and never loses sight of 'my own practical production of objects and attempts to imbue singular objects with the content and context that I desired'.
Sharon Blakey, UK (2nd prize, open competition)
This is an evocative piece of writing which uses an everyday object imbued with personal significance to the writer to address issues of memory and loss. It would have been good to have read more about where her interest in the everyday was taking her work but the article ended all too soon.
Edith Garcia, UK based but originally USA, (highly commended, open competition)
This entry is not 'academic' in structure and content, but is more in the format of an artist's statement. As such it does not attempt to place the artists work within any kind of theoretical framework. However, it is personal, direct and lucid in describing the artist's motivations and something of her methods and thought processes during making. It also has clarity and concision in language and composition.
Ozioma Onuzulike, Nigeria, (highly commended, open competition)
Despite its brevity, we felt this entry conveyed a very real sense of what it might be like to make ceramics in contemporary Nigeria and were impressed by the highly moving section subtitled 'Casualties Idiom' with its lists of horrifying practices. It is a percussive, at moments frantic, piece of writing that gathers in pace, rises to a crescendo and mutates into poetry.
Olivia Horley (winner, UK student competition)
At the core of Olivia Horley's essay is the belief that so-called 'functional' objects, such as cups and bowls, can 'evidence ideas as well as technical expertise'. She writes of her intuitive 'feel' for beauty, and of her pursuit of it through connecting with 'the broadest spectrum of serendipitous sources.' Her critical context often emerges in parallel with her sensual engagement with her materials. Some passages might be characterised as 'neo-formalist', so detailed is their consideration of the aesthetics of making. Others demonstrate just how richly writing can evoke the experience of touch. Horley's ultimate quest is for 'utilitarian innovation which invites the viewer to contemplate the object anew'. She relates her intellectual position to 'two creative mindsets' and attempts to marry a desire for emotional content with 'a rationalist approach'. Such themes are mobilised in a minutely observed reflection on her creative process as the work emerges in studio.
Janet Roome, (joint 2 nd prize, UK student competition)
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.
Yesung Kim, (Joint 2nd Prize)
This essay stood out because of its limpid, understated writing style and the delicate ease with which it inserted its freight of illuminating references. It managed the difficult task of combining conceptual exposition with a poetics of process.
|A Collection Of Small Miseries Issue 7|