Interpreting Ceramics | issue 14 | 2012

Conference Papers & Article

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Why Clay?


Stephen Dixon

Contents | Home

What difference can a description make?

Michael Hose

'You can use clay, but you can't do ceramics'

Some Thoughts on Why Ceramics isn´t Sculpture

Conor WIlson

From Ceramics to the Bronze Age:

Commercializing Sculpture in the United Kingdom and on the Continent – A Juxtaposition
Part I

Isabel Hufschmidt

Order and Disorder:

Some Relationships between Ceramics, Sculpture and Museum Taxonomies

Michael Tooby

Hans Coper:

Sculpture in Architecture

Alun Graves

Why Clay?


Stephen Dixon

Not all Cows are Piebald:

Ceramics and Sculpture in South Africa

Wilma Cruise


NB. A Word document is available to download at the end of each article.


This paper is written from a place within the complex and contested territories of ceramics and sculpture. It will reflect on the relationship between these two disciplines, and will argue that ceramics has an important position within the broader category of sculpture. This will be considered from my own particular perspective as an ‘insider’.

I studied sculpture (Newcastle University, 1976-80) and ceramics (Royal College of Art, 1983-86) and have been in professional practice since then. As a maker I am driven to make objects, and most often (but not always) these are ceramic objects. My primary interest is in narrative, and the objects that excite me the most are those that tell us about humanity, about ideas, about other people, other times, and other places. Very often these are ceramic objects. My paper will argue that there are particular reasons for this, to do with the unique qualities of ceramics as a material and as a process.

Ceramics, narrative and sculpture

It is common practice, when beginning to research a subject, to first examine the known and accepted terms and definitions of that subject. So common a practice, in fact, that it is rarely worthy of inclusion in the discussion that ensues. However, in this case the dictionary definitions of Sculpture and Ceramics are so vague, contradictory and inadequate that they do provide an interesting starting point.

For sculpture, the Oxford English Dictionary is particularly pedantic, sticking closely to the etymological source of the word (the latin sculptura – to carve) and identifying specific materials and processes; ‘the art of making 2 or 3-dimensional representative or abstract forms, especially by carving stone or wood, or by casting metal or plaster’. Putting aside (for now) the intriguing notion of two-dimensional form, the second part of the O.E.D.’s definition is interesting in its preferencing of particular materials (stone, wood, metal and plaster) and processes (carving and casting).  In terms of materials, there is no mention of clay, and in terms of process, the rather baffling omission of modelling. Thankfully for M. Rodin, and many others whose creative practice is based on the intimate, tactile connection between hand and clay, Chambers Dictionary extends the O.E.D.’s limited range of materials and processes, to allow for ‘clay modelling or moulding’. A more general and potentially inclusive definition of sculpture  ‘a 3-dimensional work of art’ can be found in the Penguin English Dictionary.

Definitions of ceramics are less diverse. Many dictionaries make the etymological connection between clay (the Greek Keramos - potters’ earth) and its transformation into ceramic by firing at high temperatures. I was unable to find ceramics described as sculpture. Instead, the ‘things’ that ceramics might be are described as objects, articles and products, although the O.E.D. does redeem itself here by describing ceramics as ‘the art of making ceramic articles’ (my emphasis).

Having experienced the vagaries of received wisdom, I decided that I would instead try to codify what I think I know about ceramics and sculpture, based on my experience as a maker, and to identify what aspects of this complex relationship I am interested in examining through my practice. In deference to the objectives of this conference, and by way of a provocation, lets call it ‘The Cardiff Manifesto’.

The Cardiff Manifesto has nine assertions:

  1. A sculpture is a 3-dimensional work of art.
  2. A ceramic object can be (though isn’t always) a 3-dimensional work of art.
  3. The processes of sculpture are constructive (modelling, assembling) reductive (carving) and replicative (casting).
  4. The processes of ceramics are primarily constructive (modelling, throwing, hand-building) but may also be reductive or replicative.
  5. Ceramics has a central role in the history of sculpture.
  6. Ceramics documents the development of human civilisation.
  7. Ceramics is a universal material.
  8. Ceramics has its own special and particular qualities.
  9. Ceramics is a vibrant and contemporary medium.

Some of these assertions are quite straight-forward, others require further evidence and explanation:

Ceramics has a central role in the history of sculpture

Ceramics was one of a number of materials and processes of choice available to the sculptor from prehistoric times onwards.

Paleolithic Venus Figurines are amongst the oldest forms of human representation, and were made in a variety of materials; stone, bone, ivory and ceramic. The Venus of Dolni Vestonice (Czech Republic) was modelled and carved in clay and then fired, and is one of the earliest known ceramic objects (c. 29,000 to 25,000 BC).

Sculptural objects made of ceramic are also present at the dawn of civilisation, evidenced by excavations of the earliest urban settlements; in Anatolia (the Enthroned Goddess of Catalhoyuk, c.5,750 BC) Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley (Man carrying male infant, c.2550 BC).

The Elgin marbles from the Parthenon, a benchmark of classical sculpture were pre-dated by Greek temple sculpture made of ceramic (Zeus abducting Ganymede, Olympia, c.470 BC) and in Italy ceramic was the material of choice for Etruscan pediment sculpture (the Winged horses, Tarquinia, 4th century BC).

In more recent times, we find controversial ceramic objects at the heart of modernism and conceptual art, in Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain of 1917, Carl Andre’s Equivalent VIII, of 1976, and Ai Wei Wei’s installation of Sunflower Seeds for the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, 2010.

Ceramics documents the development of human civilisation

This is at the core of my own interests in the particular qualities of ceramics as a vehicle for narrative.

Fired clay, although fragile in comparison with some other sculptural materials, is permanent and durable. It will not perish, rot, dissolve or be consumed by animal or insect. Its colours will not fade. Its lack of material value means it will not be melted down for re-use. Ceramic is therefore a uniquely important material for the historian and the archaeologist, for piecing together the narratives of civilisation.

We know about the world-view of ancient cultures through preserved clay objects. The British Museum’s Babylonian World Map, (a clay tablet from c. 600 BC) tells of the relationship between the known world and the ‘legendary’ regions beyond the oceans, and an even earlier Sumerian clay tablet (c. 3,300 BC) documents the stars and maps their positions in the heavens.

The story of the development of language is equally well preserved in clay; inscribed clay tablets from Mycenae enabled the deciphering of Greek linear B text, whilst the political manoeuvrings of classical Athens are documented by their ostraca (broken potsherds used for voting, incised with the names of out-of-favour politicians who have been ‘ostracised’ - expelled from the city for ten years.

On a much grander scale, the 8,000 soldiers of the terracotta army guarding the necropolis of the first Chinese emperor Quin speaks to us firstly of megalomania, unrivalled Imperial power and wealth, but at a more human level it documents the features, hairstyles and clothing of the individual Chinese soldier in the 3rd century BC.

Ceramics is a universal material

Clay is a versatile, cheap and readily available material of choice for sculpture. It is a global material, and its potential for sculpture is represented and celebrated across cultures and continents, time and space. We find exquisite examples of ceramic sculpture worldwide; Chinese Tang dynasty horses, Indian temple sculpture, Nok heads from ancient Nigeria, Renaissance European altarpieces, and ritual figures from Central America. These examples illustrate the universality of ceramics across world cultures and, I would suggest, argue against the lowly status of ceramics in any hierarchy of sculptural materials.

Ceramics has its own special and particular qualities

Many of ceramics’ particular qualities are practical; durability, versatility and universality have already been mentioned. I would like to return to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of sculpture as ‘2 or 3-dimensional…. form’ here, as I think this touches, albeit accidentally, on a particularly interesting quality of ceramics, that is its ability to synthesise form and surface, to combine painting and sculpture within the same homogenous process. A striking early example of this can be found in the Lefkandi Centaur, dating from the Greek Geometric period (c.900 – 700 BC). It was this particular quality, I believe, that attracted the ‘painter-sculptors’ of early modernism (Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro in particular) to engage with ceramics. And this same quality has led to the emergence of the sculptural vessel as a separate and highly influential genre in contemporary practice, as exemplified by the work of Alison Britton and Gordon Baldwin.

Ceramics is vibrant and contemporary

Contemporary ceramics embraces and parallels the concerns and practices of contemporary sculpture, and the conceptual repertoire of today’s generation of ceramic makers includes assemblage, installation, site-specific, digital and time-based work.

To my mind, this form of contemporary ceramic practice is at its most successful when the work conceptually engages with the ‘stuff’ of ceramics – when concept, context, material and process come together, and where the rationale for choosing ceramics, as opposed to the many alternative materials and processes, is clear and focussed.

The detritus of ceramic manufacture is collected, re-processed and then incorporated into Neil Brownsword’s installation works, for example Salvage Series (2005), which physically documents the industrial decline of the Staffordshire potteries where he lives and works.

Keith Harrison’s work engages with science, technology and public performance and contains the edginess of possible failure. Last Supper was a live firing event in the V&A’s Raphael cartoons Gallery, and re-invented Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic painting using embedded electrical cooker elements to ‘fire’ oven-shaped blocks of raw Egyptian paste.

Reflections on ceramics, narrative and sculpture, from within practice

As well as being a maker, I am also an academic. As Professor of Contemporary Crafts, MIRIAD, at Manchester School of Art, my research interests lie in the potential for narrative within sculptural, (as opposed to functional) ceramics.

Over the years I’ve explored this interest through my practice in a number of ways. This exploration has resulted in a re-thinking of my working methods, and a regular re-positioning of my work and its relationship to ceramics and sculpture.

My earliest work used the vessel-form and the commemorative and satirical traditions of ceramics as a platform to construct narratives reflecting on contemporary political and social issues. ‘Momento Mori’, for example, focussed on the participants and events of the Gulf War of 1991.1

Later pieces involved a more layered and graphic visual narrative, often exploiting a particular vessel-form as a metaphorical component of the narrative. This can be seen in ‘Babylon’ 2003, in which the oil-can form and the transfer-printed surfaces combine to critique the 2003 war on Iraq. The processes and traditions of ceramics were fundamental in most of my earlier work;  ‘Through the somewhat unlikely medium of ceramics, Dixon voices penetrating satirical commentaries on contemporary issues, pushing beyond the ephemeral to explore the muddy historical background to present day events’.2  

Up until this point, my work could be generally categorised as studio ceramics, and was primarily produced for a conventional ‘white cube’ gallery setting.  However, in 2006 an AHRC funded research residency in Australia provided the opportunity to re-think my methodology, particularly my approach to materials and materiality.

At the Jam Factory in Adelaide, out of my usual comfort zone, I experimented with a much wider range of objects, materials and processes than I had before. Desert Fruit was made in response to an encounter with the hardships of life in the Aboriginal homelands. Discarded soft drink containers were re-filled with desert sand, lake salt and kangaroo bone, and sealed with a red wax, evoking the poisonous jequirity berry, which is commonly used in Aboriginal crafts for its vibrant colour. This small but (for me) significant piece ‘acknowledged the centrality of land in Aboriginal identity and the damaging history of colonial intervention’.3 The eventual outcomes of this Australian research added a new element of ‘embodied narrative’ to my work. Bush Pantry and Cargo both focus on the material culture of colonial settlers, and exploit authentic artefacts as ‘resonators’ of narrative. Cargo literally ‘embodies’ narrative, as the clay casting body contains calcined kangaroo bones, collected in Australia. Here, ceramic is chosen because of its contribution and relevance to the story I am telling though the work, not simply because it is my material of habit.

Another opportunity to rethink my methodology, this time in terms of site and scale, was given to me in 2009, when I was commissioned to produce a temporary site-specific piece for the British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent.  Made at the height of the banking crisis, Monopoly is based on the board game’s battleship token, and is constructed of a timber armature, clad in a thick coating of clay, and covered with 30,000 discarded Staffordshire bone china flowers. This piece challenged many of my own pre-conceptions around authorship, category and definition. The concept and design were mine, and the heavy wooden armature was built in my workshop, but the final sculpture was assembled by a team of volunteers, on-site at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. And the sculpture’s ‘material resonance’ came from the quality and quantity of the hand-made flowers, skilfully modelled by the (now) anonymous Aynsley factory workers.  The work evolved into a collaboration between myself and a large number of knowing and un-knowing contributors.

The V&A Residency

Also in 2009 I was appointed as the first artist in residence in the newly established ceramics studio, in the ceramics galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum. This glass-walled studio was created as an integral part of the Making Ceramics Gallery (room 143), and allows museum visitors access and insight into the working processes of the artist in residence.4

There were two elements to the residency brief, firstly to produce work in the studio in response to the museum’s collections (as a whole, not just the ceramics collections) and secondly to find ways to engage the public within this process.  I brought my usual interests and pre-occupations around narrative to the residency, and somewhat dazzled by the range of opportunities available, began a number of diverse strands of research.

I became fascinated by the drawers of ceramic shards and fragments, and in other fragments of narrative in the museum archives, the inventories, ledgers and card indexes that documented the history and trajectory of each and every object. And I was particularly interested in the cultural diversity and richness of the objects across the museum. Gradually these interests came together in a study of sculptural portraiture, which exploited my freedom to range widely across the museum’s collections.

I assembled an alphabet of head-forms, drawing on a range of portrait heads, which mixed cultures, materials and processes. The heads were combined with images from my archival research of historical texts, drawings and records, to produce a series of collage drawings. These ‘identi-kits’ mixed up faces and features from different drawings to produce ‘Frankenstein’ heads, and my studio visitors were invited to participate, making their own drawings and ‘Frankenstein’ portraits. In turn, these drawings led to a series of small ceramic heads, which replicated the collageing process in three-dimensions.

The residency was for six months, but no matter how long a residency is, it’s never enough, and I left feeling that my research had only just begun. Latterly I had become interested in examples of political portraiture, particularly the porcelain busts of revolutionary heroes, Chairman Mao and Ho Chi Minh, and these have since become the catalyst for a series of new works, which have re-engaged with my political agendas, and in which the context and traditions of ceramics are once again central to the narrative.

Restoration 1 was made at the time of the release of Burmese human rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in November 2010, and looks optimistically forward to a ‘restoration’ of democracy in Burma/Myanmar. The concept of restoration was built into the work as a metaphor, by paraphrasing museological reconstruction techniques to ‘restore’ a pseudo-historical portrait from an assemblage of ceramic shards. The intention of the work was to explore the dialogue between the political portrait and the viewer, within the familiar tradition of ‘commemorative’ ceramics.

Restoration 1 (Aung San Suu Kyi) was the first of a series of three portrait heads, which will collectively raise issues of human rights and freedom of expression. The portraits are based on three Nobel Peace Prize winners, Karl Von Ossietzky (Germany, 1935) Aung San Suu Kyi (Burma, 1989) and Lui Xiaobo (China, 2010). They are linked by the fact that, as prisoners of conscience none were able to travel to Norway to receive their Nobel prize in person. The second head, Restoration 2 (Lui Xiabo), was completed in January of this year, and the final portrait of the three will shortly be underway. I hope to show the completed series together for the first time at the V&A in 2013.

Category and intention

Throughout the writing of this paper, I have been wrestling with terms and definitions, with an increasingly disturbing feeling of paranoia about the accuracy and veracity of my categorisations: is Monopoly, for example, a ceramic object or artefact, is it simply a sculpture, or is it a ceramic sculpture, or is it a sculptural ceramic?

We might return to Duchamp’s Fountain here, and reprise his groundbreaking argument, that although the urinal is in itself a mundane and  everyday object, it was selected and re-contextualised by the artist, and has, through this process, become an artwork. Intention is the important factor here, and we might extend this idea further, to state that if the maker intends the work to be ceramics, or to be sculpture, then that is what it is. In my text, I did describe Monopoly as sculpture, because that is what I intended it to be. Whether or not it’s any good at being sculpture, we can leave to posterity to decide.

For me the exciting thing about contemporary making is the growing trend towards inter-disciplinarity and collaborative practice, about the freedom to blur boundaries and explore new territories, practices and disciplines. Speaking from the heart, I don’t much care whether we describe a fired clay object as pot, sculpture or ceramic, or whether its made by someone who calls themselves a potter, a ceramicist or a sculptor.  I’m much more interested in what it has to say to us.

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To return to the article click the relevant note number.

1 Garth Clark, The Potter’s Art, London, Phaidon, 1995, p. 208.

2 Lesley Jackson, ‘War Paint’, in Crafts, no.188, pp.46-49.

3 Liz Mitchell, Ceramic Review, (draft for forthcoming issue)

4 Gian Luca Amadei, ‘Produce’, in Blueprint, no. 284, pp73-78.

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