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.  

 

On Materiality

 

My works are based on a strong sense of materiality as a means of grasping abstract ideas. To translate these from objects of the mind to ones that occupy three dimensional space is to rescue them from ephemerality. This in itself changes their nature as they arise in the making, capturing feeling in the material, moving away from the imagined to the physical. Concrete as they are, they probe into what is ephemeral and evanescent. Is it the phenomenon of being or the idea of being that is being represented here?

Clay is a material that can be shaped according to one’s own senses. Its inertness permits me to freeze moments of feeling and embed them in its corporeality. It is ideal for my approach, not to represent in some way thematic notions but to reify them. What emerges from these thoughts is that cycling and continuity are the abstract processes that underlie the thematics of time and life; and that in the work, space becomes actual material and that material defines the work, its thingliness, alongside its theoretical and contextual characteristics and qualities. 

Albeit I see the work as the thing itself, it is also a vessel holding allegorical content. It brings forth into reality the very notions that led to its making. However, in all probability these might well remain hidden if not layered with or disclosed by context. Context can wrap around the work in many ways, through text, juxta-positioning, placement, images, sound and so on. It is an area that I must work on diligently.. 

To make the object of the mind otherwise, digitally printed, commissioned or projected in another (more resistant) material, would not be the same. I need the direct contact between hand, eye, mind and material that makes it what it is and nothing else. The directness of touch as a principle conduit for embedding feeling in what otherwise might be materially impersonal. It is a synthesis of the untouchability of an idea and the inability to express that ideal form physically. It is as direct as stroking an animal or smelling a flower yet one can not be an animal or a flower. This creates a bridge between maker and receiver that subverts the continual increase in faux intimacy engendered by the current use of technology in today’s society, as in social media and infinite multiples of the same thing.

The human haptic mode encodes a complexity of information transmitted from in-the-making and passes on to experiencing. They come close to being one and the same thing. The object becomes more than something that can be seen and touched: it is a vehicle for subtle empathy. Not the sentimentality we attach to cherished, used objects of mass production. 

This subtle empathy which, placed in a human context, links me to the themes of the work relating to natural forces. I no longer am an observer but a participator in creating and remaking the world. The work is overtly human but also non-anthropic. It reminds me that we are part of nature but not necessarily central to it. We only make it so for existential reasons as do all other plants and animals. It is this survival, cycle, continuity that is again at the root of my ideas. But unlike an animal or a plant I can see beyond my immediate world, give form to other worlds and times. This gives me a special privilege and responsibility.

As to the basic form of the vessel that appears in much of my work? The vessel is a plane, folded on itself to become a container. We all were born as balls of cells that began their journey into the world as simple dimpled  spheres from which a vessel was formed. This form defines the boundary between the physical inner and outer environment. It defines the limit of our corporeal existence. We can only project out of it through our senses and the mind. However complex the vessel might become, its fundamental property of containment remains.

I see the vessel as inviting exploration of what is within and without and more importantly what it is that connects the two. My particular area of interest is not only located in the now but in the connections with the past and how this is part of what the future might become. The present is the vessel for all things yet it is elusive, an idea ever changing. It is an elusive membrane whose allusion becomes object in much of what I do. The membrane of the present, the inside and outside, the self and other.  

 

Site and Touch: Molyneux’s Problem

I came across an article about the 300 year old Molyneux’s Problem regarding the relationship between sight and touch as it concerns internal world building. This is something that has come to my mind many times in terms of the aesthetics of three dimensional objects and my approaches in making something tangible. 

What was once taken as purely a thought experiment due to the impossibility of giving sight to someone congenitally blind has now been presented with an empirically verifiable solution. 

In 2011 Richard Held and Dr. Pawan Sinha leading a team at Project Prakash (Prakash mean light in Sanskrit) demonstrated that which Locke had intuited. That the cognitive association between touch and sight have to be learnt and are not hard wired in our brains.

The experience of shape in each sense is independent of the other and they are not associated from birth. A congenitally blind person being given sight would not recognise a cube, say, on seeing it for the first time even if they were offered an identical one for comparison. However, they would soon learn to relate what they experience through touch with what they see. This seems self evident enough but it was not verifiable until recently with advances in eye surgery and indeed many thinkers thought otherwise. Look up dear old Bishop Berkeley: yes the one that thought if you turned your back on something it disappeared.  

How does this affect my ideas about making? I work a great deal with touch through my hands. I have been aware that if I were not able to see the composition of a work it would be very different using touch alone. The aesthetic qualities that would arise out of working blind would pertain to another world; one in which light is alien and the mind would navigate and construct form in quite a different way. 

 

 

I have often referred to navigating form in my mind with an inner eye, moving around the object in question in a virtual world. Although I am not using my eyes this ‘sighted’ world relies on having experienced sight. How different this would be had I been congenitally blind. So imagining being able to create in the absence of light experience would be well nigh impossible

 

 

 

Pure Data

The previous post talked about sound and sculpture in terms of building blocks of non-verbal language. This is a fascinating area of theoretical practice that seems somewhat neglected whether because it is seen as irrelevant or the two areas are separated by a formal academic-professional gap I do not know. Artists have used sound and sculpture together, but as I have said before, one as the container or instrument of the other, not as equals. I do not presume to find a perfect balance between the two but I do approach them as having, at least theoretically, homological correspondences. Using basic units as the building blocks of each respective language, much as phonemes are the basic units of speech, I can perhaps meld the two together. Curiosity as to whether this succeeds is part of the impetus for the exploration.

I still maintain that sculpture is silent and sound disembodied. Sculpture primarily finds its place in my kinetic being, sound vibrates the corpus as an intangible organ sounding within me. Regardless of how they are interpreted they at least have this in common, that they inhabit the body as the closely related physical senses of touch and vibration. 

I have been looking at Pure Data as a means of generating sound, the basic components of it, vibration as frequency, pulse and volume. At last I have worked it out by following some videos on YouTube. The actual mechanics are simple, the syntax is straightforward enough. The learning curve seems to reside in understanding what each object does and how it interacts with other components. From this sounds can be generated without reference to outside associations. This seems the way, at least in great part, for crossing the boundaries between sculpture and sound in the purest sense; how sound can be shaped and moulded to correspond with sculpture… and vice versa, or perhaps even shaped synchronously. Sounds generated can then be edited in some other software or generated in situ and manipulated in real time.