As an introduction to the diversity and breadth of contemporary ceramics today, it would be hard to trump Jo Dahn’s New Directions in Ceramics: From Spectacle to Trace. The book is approachable, concise, slim, easy-going, and abundantly illustrated – even before I read a word I had seen full-page photographs of works by Keith Harrison (on the cover), Linda Sormin, Conor Wilson and Phoebe Cummings. Although published through Bloomsbury’s academic arm, the book does not intimidate; it is not a heavy volume with reams of imageless pages and words tightly packed within narrow borders. There is a sense of space, a sans serif typeface, and over one hundred high-resolution photographs.
The introduction offers an overview of the discourse within contemporary ceramics, an essay that has drawn praise from Shane Enright who, in his review of the book for Crafts magazine, asserts that it is ‘worthy of the price of her book alone.’1 It is hard to disagree. The prose is clear and crisp and grasps the multiple concerns within ceramics today. It glosses over the tiresome etymological differences between art and craft and vast historiographies of ceramic writing, and instead highlights the field’s recent expanded remit: ceramics in a ‘post-studio,’ ‘post-industrial’ environment where countless disciplines are drawn to the medium for multifarious reasons. Dahn relates this commentary to the living, breathing world of the studio and the university seminar room, smartly drawing attention to the academic contexts that have led to the increased use of the term ‘expanded field’2 to take account of durational, site-specific, participatory, performative and inter-disciplinary directions ceramic practice is venturing into. The writing is assured, distinguishing the critical writing that helps us understand the ‘new directions’ – for example by Glenn Adamson and Jorunn Veiteberg – from what we might call old directions, but without driving a wedge between what might initially seem as opposing intellectual positions. It is an accomplished and generous survey.
Throughout the text Dahn guides us through the ‘zeitgeist’ of contemporary ceramics, categorising the broad array of practice into four ‘new directions’: performance, installation, raw clay and figuration – the headings for the book’s four chapters. Each chapter starts with a description and exposition of its theme in relation to contemporary ceramics discourse, and is followed by a succession of case studies of artists whose work speaks to the issues raised. For example, the second chapter Installation, starts with a brief précis of the term’s vogue within contemporary art from the mid-1970s; its relevance examined as a way to understand the museological and domestic contexts in which ceramics has long been displayed, and its popularity as a form of museum ‘intervention’ from the early 1990s, citing Claire Bishop, Brian O’Doherty and Amanda Game in the process. After this contextual overview, Edmund de Waal, Neil Brownsword, Anne Gibbs, Anders Ruhwald, Claire Twomey and Conor Wilson are introduced as artists whose works speak, in different ways, to the theme of installation.
There is a tightly structured format to the text that at points can feel restrictive. As a reader you are not always given enough time to dwell on the ideas provoked by the artists that are introduced before being moved on to the next one, something that was particularly acute with the inclusion of quite a number of artists in the Figuration chapter. In another example, I wanted to read about how the work of artists included in the Performance chapter – The Brick Factory, Alison Fall and Alexandra Engelfriet – relate, in their different ways, to Nicolas Bourriaud’s definition of the ‘relational artwork’ already cited by Dahn, or indeed some of the issues surrounding the ethics of audience participation. Skirting over complex areas, no doubt, was just one of the demands of the brief.
Another consequence of the book’s structure is the inevitable subjects and artists left out of the four ‘new directions.’ The digital is not singled out as a direction (which might include Michael Eden and Jonathan Keep, among others), neither is the recent ‘sloppy’ ceramics trajectory, and can we exclude the ‘vessel’ and perhaps more established makers like Alison Britton and Richard Slee from ‘new directions’? You could list, as I have above, new directions of ceramics that are not covered in the volume. Yet Dahn admits to the limitation of her selection, stating in the introduction that her account is ‘necessarily a partial view’ (p. 9), and then again clarifying her position in the epilogue:
This has been a view of the expanded field from my perspective: I have selected work that I am intuitively drawn towards and where I think I can say something useful. (p. 153).
Dahn does not simply select makers pick n’ mix-style to suit a particular theme. She has been able to characterise the concerns and theoretical contexts for contemporary ceramics through her choices, as shown by the fruitful overlaps between the rich selection: works like Cummings’ After the Death of the Bear (2013) or Twomey’s Specimen (2009-10), could have fitted within any one of the four chapters.
In addition, Dahn mitigates the slightly encyclopaedic structure through fluid prose that sustains and builds on each chapter’s thematic basis. There is a fantastic flow of information from page to page, delivered with ease. To use the Installation chapter once more as an example: de Waal’s well-known museological interventions give way in the text to Brownsword’s ethnographically-informed installations in Stoke-on-Trent, the narrative shifting from ‘national stages’ to ‘the intimate arenas of the domestic arena’ (p.71) with the work of Gibbs and Ruhwald. The chapter then culminates with Twomey’s interactive installations, and Wilson’s practice-led research. Although the book’s structure does not allow for the kind of incisive, specific argument that Dahn is more than capable of3, it is a survey of great quality that will be indispensible to students and a wider audience that contemporary ceramics often finds difficult to reach.
If, like me, you enjoy reading footnotes, you will notice the amount of evidence that Dahn has gathered from artists ‘in dialogue with the author.’ Much of the book’s content was gathered through Dahn’s communication with makers, and their enlightening responses are reflective of their willingness to invite the author into the heart of their making and thinking processes. Dahn fully acknowledges their contribution, and brings our attention in the epilogue to the ‘conversational immediacy of email, iChat and Skype’, that helped her bring the book into production. It is a form of research gathering that keeps the writing fresh and attests to the cooperation of those from within the close-knit community of ceramists heading in these ‘new directions.’
1 Shane Enright, “The State of Ceramics Today” Crafts 260 (May/June 2016), p. 64.
2 'Ceramics in the Expanded Field: Behind the Scenes in the Museum' was a three-year research project sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Westminster, resulting in a major international conference, a series of essays and a forthcoming book … See their website http://www.ceramics-in-the-expanded-field.com/home (accessed 29 April 2016).
3 For example see Jo Dahn, “Elastic/Expanding: Contemporary Conceptual Ceramics” in Maria Elena Buszek (ed.) Extra/Ordinary: Craft and Contemporary Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).
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