Finishing Porcelain

As I work, I think of how the final pieces will look. Porcelain is a strange material. Silky smooth when fired with a grainy feel 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 traces of handling and so an essential characteristic of its making.

Why do I choose the Belvedere as an example of marble statuary? Because arms and legs are functional, locomotory and grasping. The body is the centre of physical being from which other things radiate. As it was with our primordial ancestors, so it is with the forms I am working on.

Glazing speaks to me of function, impermeability. The body is not impermeable but in continual transaction with the world. In early times the clay was burnished to render vessels less porous. Decoration has always been applied to ceramics, from the rhythmical marking of the beaker people, to the finest renderings. From symbolism to shear exuberance and delight, ceramics have diversified and many left function behind long ago evidenced in the heritage of form only.

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 organic 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 can restore to some extent that sense of sensual softness and 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 have 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 and creates a colourless, translucent finish. Finally it is burnished with a cloth or brush.  

 

Uniformity, Local Conditions and Culture

I wrote the following as part of the previous post on writing. When revising what I had written it seemed a bit of a non-sequitur. It was more about creating a context for linking writing about science with writing about art. The ideas I touch on here need expanding but I think it serves as a note-to-self for the future. 

 

The scientist has to assume, indeed believe in the uniformity of the universe, otherwise no finding would have applicable value elsewhere, everything would be relative. What this means is that the laws of physics apply equally wherever you are located in the universe, there is no place where the laws might be different or behave in some other way. This is not to be confused with the theory of relativity and its stated relationship between mass, energy, time and space which is always the same, with the speculative exception of  black holes or the very beginning of the universe when the ‘Big Bang’ occurred. If the universe were not uniform regarding to the laws of physics, there would be no possibility of confirming scientific theories or indeed refuting them, for there would be no basis for predicting outcomes according to a hypothesis, phenomena would be subject to local laws only. This assumption is one of the basic principles of the scientific method and experimental philosophy and so far has not been refuted.

The religious person must also believe in uniformity regarding god or gods, otherwise there could not be an ultimate authority for morality and therefore behaviour could not be regulated. Religions rely on a uniformity of consequence, justice, compassion, love, etc. as a central tenet to their universality. Correspondences and conflicts between religions come down to what they have in common as well as how they differ in their universal applicability as much as ritual practices, credos and the like. Likewise, an artist has to trust that there are universals that when applied, bring thought and people together rather than divide them. These universal ideas or the search for them create the possibility for a coherent vision on which to base a philosophy and practice.

In all three cases, these deep level ideas, simple in themselves are nevertheless hard to demonstrate. As for proof, for now they must remain elusive paradigms, ideals, questions of faith. There also appears to be an increase in fragmentation regarding the nature of uniformity. By this I mean that scientific philosophy requires there to be what is known as the doctrine of uniformitarianism applying to all branches of science and technology. The doctrine remains the same for all practitioners whether one is talking about medicine, chemistry, biology or physics.1 With religion on the other hand, the nature of uniformity can change according to belief. The divine agency and its effects differ or agree from one religion to another. The plurality is directly proportional to the number of practitioners that adhere to one particular belief or another. When it comes to art, the situation becomes even more fragmented. The variety and number of different paradigms is a function of the countless movements, groups and individual artists that work and have worked to a particular vision across all societies. 

In science, there is a constant search for the consistency of the laws of the universe or perhaps better put, for any inconsistencies that might be observed which in turn, could lead to revised, refuted or new theories which would nevertheless still be based on the assumption of universal uniformity. The spiritual believer is ever racked with doubt about the justice of things, questioning the purpose or reason for the world behaving as it does; asking why justice, redemption and even punishment take the shape they do. Recourse is made to faith in the divine as the pillar on which the belief structure is supported. And the artist has to be authentic in themselves, find what is at the core of their being in order to make sense of things and synthesise them into something that creates a commons with others.

Uncertainty, Time and Distance

Each one of these persons must trust in a different kind of uniformity but this is not static. It is a concept implicitly embedded in the idea of change. The implication being that the same change would occur under the same conditions wherever and whenever they occur.  The key here is, under the same conditions. Conditions change and so do outcomes, but an outcome is not as a result of different laws acting. The outcome is the result of the same laws acting on a different ‘mix’ of elements. This means that the laws are reliable but not necessarily predictable. Quantum mechanics has shown us that the predictable world is an illusion created by the averaged sum of an inherently unstable and unpredictable fundamental substrate. However, reliability is the knowledge gained from experience and a belief in universal uniformality, including the unpredictable quantum microcosm.

When it comes to art the matter is somewhat more subtle because art is contextual. Context is an elusive characteristic of complex circumstances or conditions. At first sight, the ‘doctrine’ of uniformitarianism might appear to fall apart but this is an illusion. An illusion created on the surface of things due to context being a chaotic complex of influences and forces, relationships and interactions that provide ‘unique’ conditions resulting in the individuality of artistic visions and production. However, there is no reason why the forces acting on each and every artist are not the same, only altered by circumstance, genetic and cultural predisposition, historical antecedents and so on. The outcomes may differ due to different causes but the underlying laws remain invariant. The result is that although they may appear vastly different to us, there are commonalities which when averaged out produce the sum of human culture. And the wider the sweep of observation across societies and periods in history, the fewer the global correspondences giving rise to the difficulty in defining what art is. 

An example of outcomes being vastly different but the laws at work remaining the same, would be the existence of life. Life exists on Earth, no other life has been yet found anywhere else in the solar system. Yet, the abundant, exuberant ecology of our planet is subject to the same fundamental laws found anywhere else in space. The differences are due to local conditions and which laws apply or not and in what proportion. For example, life on Earth is very much dependent on the planet’s distance from the Sun, its magnetic field, age and so on. 

The interesting thing though, is that the fundamental laws acting on say, the Moon are the than those acting on Earth: yet nothing much changes on the Moon except for a few parameters, conditions are much simpler. The planet Venus on the other hand has a complex active surface, more complex than the Moon’s with an atmosphere and geological activity, yet it is much simpler than Earth’ surface. On Earth, once life emerged, perhaps as long ago as nearly four billion years, a different set of laws arose. A traversal takes place with the emergence of an ecology which in turn gives rise to evolutionary processes. New laws come into play, sub-laws which are nevertheless subject to the fundamental laws that existed before and continue to do so such as, the laws of thermodynamics. However, these new laws are also different in kind because they act on different kinds of systems such as living organisms (in which case reverse entropy). Could the same be said about consciousness, that once consciousness emerges, a new set of laws comes into action? 

Art is a product of our consciousness and part of human culture. Art emerges relatively late on in our evolution, it took some time for art, religion and science to emerge in human culture despite humans appearing in their modern form long before. Could there have been a hidden mutation that caused a leap in human activity, or was time needed for new proceeses to emerge out our consciousness and interactions with the world? And if so, are these processes subject to the same laws acting on new conditions or are the laws a new emergence from consciousness? Or put another way, are there correspondences between the processes that govern society and culture and those that govern other forms of life? If so what are they? If not, what is special about cultural laws?

My hunch is that there are correspondences, as stated by Dawkins in his idea of the cultural meme acting as a selfish gene; also, crudely put, Malthusian-like forces acting on how populations react to conditions. Research into free will is throwing light on how free we actual are, whether it is an illusion or partial illusion and what the forces are that act on us to make us behave and perceive in a certain way. But my intuition also tells me that there are some elements of human activity that have produced unique rules. Whether these are inherent in the domain, such as mathematics and aesthetics or universal and stand outside the need for human presence, is a matter of constant debate.

For the very reason that uniformity is masked by differences in local conditions, the forces at work are often not self evident. They would go against experience and be counterintuitive. To begin to understand them requires prior knowledge or experience, at least familiarity with the field. You cannot understand a scientific theory without the antecedent knowledge that goes to make it up. In a similar way, to understand or appreciate a ‘piece of art’ an experience connecting one with it in some way helps. Whether it be by association, familiarity or knowledge of the field, as Dewey might have said, context creates the artwork in the receiver’s mind. 

Perhaps these are intuitive thoughts trying to deal with counterintuitive ideas, such as probability (which is why quantum mechanics is such a difficult field to grasp and accept)… and certain forms of art. But why does art produce such strong emotions when debated? Art in particular divides opinion far beyond its apparent effect on everyday life with opinions being expressed in ways they would not about other matters even to the point of causing offence more readily than in other situations. I think that the effect of art runs much deeper than one might realise. People in power or seeking power have known this since early times. Art can be used to mould opinions, beliefs and allegiances from politics to economics, from status and fashion to the expression of wealth, social and philosophical ideals. Art can even persuade people to be kind, generous and cooperative or cruel and violent. Art is at the root of religion, fashion, status, politics, all complex human activity. Whether it is a simple bead necklace from the Kalahari or Michelangelo’s Pietá, whether a feature film or Homer’s Iliad, they are all expressions of human interactions between themselves and the world. The anthropologist R. L. Anderson suggests that art is:

culturally significant meaning, skilfully encoded in an affective, sensuous medium.

 

  1. I am talking here of the doctrine regarding the laws of physics and causality, not the more specific reference to early geological ideas which were proposed in opposition to catastrophism []

A Seal and Its Significance

 

I know that anonymity is the ultimate fate of everyone; after all, what is in a name?

Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, gave up his life for glory so no one would forget his name but whoever he might have been, what we remember is the name, not the man. A name transcends a person and becomes their mythology, symbol or archetype. Film actors take on a screen name, their name supersedes them and their reality. But that is not the person, the name is a mask that may continue after death, subject to the twists and turns of fame or infamy. Why would anyone think that to be famous after their time means anything at all? Perhaps because like many other human characteristics such as, looking for pattern and meaning and finding probability counterintuitive, we are hardwired to do so: it is a survival strategy handed down through our genes.

What would be the corollary of not being programmed in this way? There are those that think that if we did not perceive pattern, we would not see the symmetrical tiger in the undergrowth or the round fruit in the trees. In short we would starve or be eaten, not a very good way for an organism to survive to reproductive age and pass on their genes. In the case of probability, that is more complex but it could be summed as, calculating the probability of something happening requires a developed use of mathematics and insight into empiricism: ask that of our innumerate ancestors. Certainty is not something we can count or calculate, we go by experience and experience is something that is learnt or is baked into our inherited make up by natural selection. This could go some way to explain superstitions such as not walking under a ladder which are often about perceiving danger. Such ideas come without a critical analysis of cause and effect but do have a certain logic. However it is good to remember in such cases the statisticians’ mantra, ‘correlation is not causation’. We would do well to remember this when discussing politics but I digress. 

Artist have not always signed their work. For much of history, and still today around the world, many makers leave what they do unmarked. During the Middle Ages in Europe, masons would carve a cryptic mark on the part of a building they were particularly proud of. These would have been recognised by only the very few in what was a form of professional branding and most remain undeciphered. It is not until the Renaissance that we see artist signing their work. Michelangelo famously signed the Pieta  but regretted his vanity and swore never to do so again. He was driven by the fact that the sculpture was being attributed to others such as Il Gobbo (Cristoforo Solàrio) from Milan. The reason for and spirit in which a work is signed or left anonymous varies from artist to artist. Van Gogh signed his paintings Vincent as a way of putting distance between his hard won freedom of expression and his earlier repressive family life that he sought to reason with in vain. Pablo Ruiz Picasso chose his mother’s maiden name to make himself independent of his father who had taught him in his early years. The reason for signing a work can be deeply personal or as we witness by the branding that takes place in many galleries, auctions houses and museums of today, an attempt at creating celebrity more often than not underpinned by a hardnosed commercial imperative.

Most, if not all, want to make a difference, to mark this earth with their tread whether in a small unseen way or visible to all. It is a desire that intimates a form of fleeting immortality. I have always found it difficult to sign my work with a name. I find it disruptive and intrusive of myself and the work. I have found myself doing it in an as inconspicuous way as possible. Initials seem less intrusive but are also more cryptic and far less specific, whereas marking a work with a seal is something else. It is closer to the masons mark. I adopted this practice not so long ago, every so often making a new seal when I have felt the time was right. By making this mark I feel comfortable to follow it with initials or a name and date. It is about saying, ‘I have changed this from what it was’, it is about me, not my name. And after all, a name is given whereas a mark is what you give yourself. Coming back to what I said earlier, perhaps this is why an actor is happy to assume a new identity, it is their identity as well as a way of separating their private from public life. 

The seal above is the latest carved for the period of the MA. The design was not predestined, it emerged as I worked with the tiny piece of boxwood. In fact, this was the fourth attempt; I had never cut curves on this scale using crude tools. I liken it to drawing with a mouse: the slight recalcitrance of the tools reduces control. The tension between what is sought for and the outcome opens a space where something else can arise. Neither before nor during its making, could I say what the design represented if anything. However, I sensed that it had some sort of meaning, following the radial symmetry of my previous work. There is little that cannot be given a meaning again coming back to an earlier point about pattern and meaning; working a priori to any thesis can give rise to hidden ideas when analysed later. In this case I find that the pattern generated speaks to me of different elements mixing, merging, assimilating, hybridising. This after all is what I am attempting during these two years. There is also a breaking from symmetry which continues something I began since Chaos Contained.

Where does this leave the signing of work and authorship in the digital sphere? This is a complex issue regarding a medium that is connective and infinitely distributable. It is changing the way we look at authorship and copyright. There are those that would place restrictive bounds on what can and cannot be accessed or used, there are others that open out all code to everyone. There are those that hard bake their mark in the code and there are others that realising the futility of practical ownership of digital information ask for accreditation and little more. Then there are artists who, in a time honoured tradition, restrict their output by creating limited editions and destroying the matrix. Putting a high price on these CDs, flash drives or what have you, and restricting access to these works is in my mind a mirage in the eyes of those that believe it to be a true representation of value, at least in the short term. With changing values and obsolescence only time will tell what happens to the way digital works are perceived. Perhaps they will become cyber archaeology, as anonymous as the vases, statues and artefacts we wonder at in museums. This brings to mind, Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Liebovitz . This may be a topic I return to later as it has implications on what artists do today. 

 

Drawing Studies 2: The Simplicity

Studies: graphite on paper, 237 x 316 mm

Today I drew another set of studies.  It really is an exploratory activity and a reacquaintance with drawing. The images do not conform to the ideas I have for project work but I am glad for that. Breaking away from the constraint of a predetermined outcome fills me with a sense of freedom and renewal; what I talked about in my first post, Elastic Thinking, Synthesis and Renewal. It is in the true spirit of the MA. From these studies something may come but come what may, the thing itself seems to be what matters. The action, the thought, what it might lead to, give me the same feeling I had when I first started years ago. This happens from time to time but for it to happen now is wonderful. 

As I draw I think. I think about what I am doing and how it can be done better. I am learning rapidly as it comes back to me compounded by what I have learnt and experienced along the way. These small sketches represent much more than what they are in themselves. 

As part of my brain focuses on the technical activity, another part nudges me into feeling my way, sensing the concept and translating it into a language expressed in pressure, sense of space, distance and closeness, weight, light, volume. These are all empirical technical aspects. There is also another part of my brain that is released and wanders and thinks of other things. Reflection on the doing and reflection on the reflection. 

I like the way that all this is achievable with the simplest of tools. A block of toothy paper and two graphite pencils. Is this not the simplicity with which artist worked before? From Lascaux to Phidias, Michelangelo to Ingres, Picasso to Moore. The most exquisite work was done with simple tools and materials. How does this compare with digital media? Is the digital another freedom or is it a self imposed exile into consumerism? I have drawn with digital media and found it a rewarding exercise but more for the outcome than process. The smooth layers, the faultless line, edges that leave no ambiguity. It is indeed very seductive and aesthetic. I have rationalised it and it appears valid. But I ask myself, have we become so accustomed to perfection that we are in danger of losing sight of what human creativity is and where it comes from? Is the machine to be the paradigm by which we measure and are measured and origins lost in time and made irrelevant? So many questions come to mind offering contradictory views it is overwhelming. For now I shall continue building this small, simple, limitless world and see what happens.