Finishing Porcelain

As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired, grainy if left unglazed. I want to give the surface a skin-like feel.

 

 

The Belvedere Torso in the Vatican collection was a seminal inspiration for Michelangelo. Signed “Apollonius son of Nestor, Athenian”. Marble acquires a softness that bellies its nature as stone. Sculpture in stone influences my choice of material. But I choose ceramic as a pliable stone which is transformed by the alchemy of heat. Porcelain is like the white marble of stones and glazing it seems to me betrays the essence of handling in its making.

Why do I choose this as an example of marble? Because arms and legs are functional, for locomotion and grasping. The body alone is the seat of being from which other things sprout, as with our primordial ancestors. So it is with the forms I am working on.

Glazing is primarily a functional process which renders ceramic material impervious to liquids. In early times this was done by burnishing the clay compacting it on the surface to render it less porous. Over time, many ways of rendering materials waterproof were developed and what is used can also be decorated, given symbolic images and text, finally assuming aesthetic and symbolic significances, leaving function behind as part of heritage. 

I have experimented extensively with Parian clay which was developed to look and feel like marble, it is soft, vitreous and warm, but it is hellishly difficult to use and is subject to warping and cracking. It is better suited to casting large pieces. Casting at this stage is not for me, it is not sufficiently spontaneous and better left as a means of reproduction. However, I shall continue to work with it on smaller scales. 

I do not want to use glaze because it covers detail and the sculpture looses the surface nuances developed during its making. However, the raw biscuit low fired material is brilliant white and unsubtle. It is also prone to get dirty and due to its porosity very difficult to clean. When fired to a higher temperature, the surface vitrifies and becomes sealed to a large extent, less porous and prone to atmospheric damage and the dirty that comes with handling and storage. However, the crystalline surface is still very white and lacks the surface quality I am looking for. 

When the porcelain is unfired and still wet, it has a flesh like look, a warm grey that responds to handling developing a beautiful sheen where it is burnished. However, this disappears on firing. I have looked for a finish that has the following characteristics:

  • does not yellow over time,
  • is colourless,
  • does not create a thick layer,
  • is not glossy
  • and is easily restored.

Having experimented with a number of possible candidates I found that the humble paraffin wax candle is the ideal substance. The porcelain is heated with a hot air blower and the wax rubbed on building a very thin layer that penetrates the microscopic pores on the surface. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.  

 

On Methodology

Starting is always the hardest thing, unless one were to consider finishing. Both are difficult for different reasons. Finishing is the moment when you realise you have done what you can, it cannot be otherwise. It is the collapse of the potential that had been possessed before and during the making. Its gift is to whisper or shout according to its own inclination how the next work might proceed. And that brings me back to the beginning, starting a work.

I am starting a new piece in porcelain, white as the blank canvas of a painter, the beginning of a long journey. And as I set out without a set destination, only a sense of what I am looking for, that freedom is frightening. It reveals my shortcomings in the midst of a vision pulling me back to how I did things before. What is that the right course of action, how do I navigate this landscape of decision and indecision? 

To know what to do is not the point. It is the how and the why that will give me the framework to hold on to. Take that journey, on foot say, into a forest with neither the stars to guide me nor compass or map. I have no destination, only the ends of the Earth. If I try to walk in a straight line I will simply do so in circles and find myself back to where I started. I must decide on a course of action, a simple set of rules to break the bias of my own nature. Sometimes rules are changed a little but not so much as  for me to loose my way irrevocably.

Over years a method is perfected as is the reason for it. I work as a cartographer, marking each point as a star to guide me, a landmark to aim for. But this is art, not some field to be gridded out with a surveyor’s precision. To do so would yield little more than what is in the ground and the rule itself. To look beyond that field is where progress lies. Progress is born of change, imposed, contingent or better still by means of my own agency.  To do so is to turn the world on its side and refresh sight from another vantage point. But habits possess inertia, to turn them over I need help. Something I have learnt working with Janet is to do what I would not do normally. This is just one way of changing the course of things and refreshing what might otherwise become limp.

And so it is with the work I do now and the research statement. By this stage, I should not have to worry about where a work will end, it never ends as each finish is but the start of the next.

Art and Science

It has finally arrived, a beautiful collection of poetry. A few weeks ago, as is my habit, I woke up during the night and settled to listen to the radio. BBC 4 Extra was playing a programme about the life and works of Rebecca Elson. A cosmologist, equally known for her poetry who died tragically young. She wrote about life with as much insight as her work as a physicist. Her latter writings deal with her imminent death in an inspiring fusion of fact and vision. I was enthralled.

Elson brought science and art together in a way seldom done. When the two branches of knowledge come together, not as appropriation, comment or illustration but to speak in a single language of experience, empirical fact and authentic metaphor, something powerful is unleashed capable of prising open this world to reveal others as nestled together, ready to be felt and understood as though they were here. Ted Hughes does something similar but from a darker interior, a biblical horror as opposed to a cosmological creation. The beauty of both poets lies in the merger of nature and culture, with an insight and ability to move from the very small to the unimaginably large, to show the connectedness of all things and that existence is something greater than us.

 

First Circuit

 

What struck me when I got the Arduino board was, how small it is, how small all of the things are. And that means, that they will be far less obtrusive than I had previously thought. And seeing how easy it is to work with I look forward to learning a great deal. 

The next step is to get to grips with the coding. Fortunately there is a lot of help on the web and even if some piece of code is not exactly what I need, I feel much more confident to be able to tailor it to my needs. 

How do I feel about using digital sound in conjunction with sculptures? I have always felt there is an equivocal relationship between sculpture, or statuary to be more precise, and sound. Is a statue not meant to be silent, to be contemplated without the distraction of noise?

But what if the sound comes from within, trapped, allowed a small breathing hole to reach one’s ears, fingertips, barely audible, sensed; a sound that is neither music nor the result of some kinetic accident? I see the sculpture as the receptacle of its own soul, the embodiment of what it is in its nature to be gently radiating outwards, translated into vibrations seeking connection. 

There is of course an element of humour in all this, for it to be otherwise would be melodramatic and to what end: humour can be poignant, questioning, engaging, cathartic. All I know is, I go with where the work takes me as it also follows me.  

Tutorial 4: 01 August 2019. Gareth Polmeer

 

Always you were drawn to the composite creatures, the broken and reassembled, for that is what you are.

Gregory Maguire                  

 

The first Research Paper tutorial was a sounding out of the initial outline. It was helpful in thinking about the way the narrative might go and how to apportion space to each component. My responses so far are:

There is a dialogue between the literal and metaphorical manifest as the biological and the cultural.

This leads me to think that I am dealing with three different ecosystems: biological, cultural and machine;

embedded in the Cambrian explosion, Early Bronze Age and the age of digital (for now) machines.

We are currently living in the cultural age which is on the threshold of the cultural-machine thinking period.

Useful worker to look at is William Latham.

Comparison between biological systems and machine systems – for now the human element is still the predominant one and machines are used as ‘intelligent’ tools.

The tutorial helped me in re-evaluating what I have done so far and how to place the historical knowledge element as a contextual framework for talking about the contemporary state of things. This will need a great deal of focussing but I think I can condense the historical elements into just a few hundred words.

The paper really touches on the philosophical ontology of current biology-computational art in relation to truly biological systems… in the context of culture.

Useful worker in the field of computer generated life: Eric T. Olson at Sheffield. He looks at the relationship between animals and humans at a philosophical level.