Shards: Dr. Jo Dahn explains the process and concept behind her installation.
IN JUNE 2008 I INSTALLED A 'CARPET' of ceramic shards in the gallery at Bath School of Art and Design (Bath Spa University, England). The account that follows is a first reflection on its genesis, development and production.
I was digging my vegetable plot when the idea began to form. Like all city gardeners, I kept finding small pieces of ceramic. Blue and white, polychrome, unglazed earthenware, bits of tile, pipe stems ... fragments from so many past lives. The pile grew steadily. After a while I went inside for a break; idling with a cup of tea, I turned on the television. As luck (or serendipity) would have it, there was a programme about the exhibition of the Chinese Terracotta Army at the British Museum. (1) An archaeologist was holding a fairly nondescript terracotta shard with a trace of red pigment on its surface. His account of how this fragment had been pivotal in understanding the original colouration of the warrior figures was gripping. From that mere trace it was possible to draw conclusions about how the figures would have looked when they were freshly made. It also emerged that the Army was first discovered when Chinese farmers who were digging a well came across piles of shards.
As the curator of the small gallery at Bath School of Art and Design and Senior Lecturer in Ceramics History and Theory, I was about to embark on an exhibition to accompany a Symposium whose overall theme was the ceramic surface. (2) I had not yet determined the nature of the exhibition; now I began to consider it in earnest. Down-playing the form, I reasoned, would bring the surface into sharper focus. What about dispensing with the form altogether and displaying shards in the gallery? There have been precedents. Susan Hiller, for example, produced an innovative and influential arrangement of hundreds of Pueblo Pottery shards, alongside drawings and photographs that showed how they had been collected. As Moira Vincentelli has observed, "... the work offered a critique of ways of understanding the world through classification and organisation of these tiny fragments of evidence." (3)
I conjured up visions of something less orderly, though still contained: a carpet of fragments from whose surface shapes, textures and colours emerged, ebbed and flowed. Apart from the fascination it would hold for a ceramics audience, such a thing might coalesce into more than just the sum of its (ceramic) parts and achieve a wider appeal in terms of sculpture and painting. I liked the fact that a carpet is readily associated with the domestic interior, that the word 'carpet' is both a noun and a verb and that a carpet has a particular, almost intuitive, geometric relation to the human form. I was also influenced by photographs of people walking on hot coals, where again a particular proportion generally operates: big enough to test the walker's resolve; not so big that they can't get off it in a hurry.
To form the sort of carpet I aspired to would require a huge number of shards and I sent out an appeal for contributions:
"I am working on an exhibition for the gallery at Bath School of Art and Design and I'm writing to ask for help. I want to lay a 'carpet' of fired ceramic shards. It's going to take lots of them to achieve the right effect and ideally I'd like the carpet to be made up of pieces that come from all over the place. Please send me a few of your breakages! Even just 2 or 3 bits would be a useful contribution.
[...] We will display a list of the names of all who send contributions. Incidentally, the gallery is fitted with web cameras (http://gallery.artbathspa.com) (4) so you will be able to see the carpet when it is finished--which will be the last week in June 2008.'
An important factor in considering the energetic response the appeal elicited involves the notion of 'craft community'. By this I mean a shared commitment to working with a chosen material that amounts to a kind of intensity, perhaps even an obsession. This notion of craft community resonates with what Peter Hobbis called 'the craft ideal', which "sees human life as essentially communal and collaborative" so that individual crafts people are "acting positively to serve the interests of others" and "the productive activity of each harmonises with the goals of all". (5) Even though their own approach may be entirely traditional, in my experience many ceramists are willing to engage with practices that challenge conventional notions of ceramics, on the assumption that such challenges have emerged from and are rooted in a fascination with the material. The lively response to my call for shards supported this theory and the very fact that people were willing to take the time to package and post their breakages to me was immensely encouraging. They sent pieces of ash glazed stoneware, of printed earthenware, tiny fragments of embossed porcelain, long thin strands, scraps with painterly effects ... Every time I opened one of the parcels I experienced a frisson of excitement.
Some came from well-known makers, including Edmund de Waal, Emmanuel Cooper, Paul Scott, Stephen Dixon, Peter Hayes ... Among my students, these were christened 'celebrity shards' and they quickly assumed the character of saintly relics (reminiscent perhaps, of how the slightest sketch by a famous 'artist' is revered). They were passed around and scrutinised for evidence of glaze application, print techniques, type of clay body--I hadn't properly recognised quite how much information can be gleaned from a shard. In some sense too, handling them was a privilege: many ceramists, especially when they are well known, are not willing to expose their mistakes. Not everything we received was the result of a maker's mistake of course. One single exquisite shard by Edmund de Waal, for example, was from an exhibition piece that had been broken by gallery assistants during packing.
Even if hundreds of ceramists had sent several shards each, it would not have been enough. We needed a great mass to cover an area that could be called a carpet; in order to eliminate any possibility that viewers might glimpse the floor underneath, we were aiming for a depth of at least 15 cms. I had two volunteer assistants, Janet Hill and Martha Orr, both about to enter their final year of studying ceramics. They put containers in the ceramics studios with notices requesting that from now on no-one should throw anything away. Two other university ceramics departments followed suit: the University of Wales Institute at Cardiff, and the University of Glamorgan; in due course both delivered crates full of breakages. Every so often the contents raised a chuckle, as when we discovered a box full of misshapen ducks. Many students expressed approval that we would be recycling their waste, but in truth, that was a secondary consideration, although it has become more significant on reflection.
Some ceramists delivered their shards in person and the fullest story of the installation would include the conversations that ensued: what went wrong, the tone of regret, the frustration somehow embodied in the flawed article; for though all brought objects destined for the dustbin, they were often handed over more or less intact. "I'm not happy with this," someone would say, "please smash it." At first we were taken aback at what seemed rather like catharsis by proxy, but we developed a perverse kind of confidence and entered into an orgy of destruction. Indeed, our temporary insanity attracted others and when the day came that we assembled our materials in the gallery, we were surrounded by a horde of extras who displayed a manic delight in reducing crate loads of pottery to rubble. We sorted as we smashed and gradually accumulated mountains of broken pieces, graded in terms of their suitability for base, middle or surface.
Not much more than a week before the installation was due to be opened to the public the process of laying the carpet began. A fine straight border was important to contain and control the variegated chaos of the shards. We used a simple rectangular wooden frame screwed together at the corners so that each side could be slid away horizontally without disturbing the edges of the carpet. (6) (illus) The size of the finished installation was 421 x 188 x 15 cm. Employing a construction method akin to dry stone walling, much of the foundation layer and all the bottom outside edges were built of biscuit fired red earthenware. We had received a crate-full and figured that being less slippery than glazed ware, it would have more staying power. It also acted as an effective visual anchor, an aesthetic grounding. No adhesive of any sort was used; treading the shards into the frame helped to bind them together but the finished piece was a balancing act. The middle bulk of the carpet was the mundane flotsam and jetsam of ceramics studio production: all those experiments that didn't quite come off, as well as a vast quantity of glaze tests. The top, most visible, layer consisted of all the 'celebrity shards' in amongst the widest and most colourful variety of surfaces and shapes from the rest. During the smashing and sorting process my assistants and I separated out anything and everything that caught our fancy and reserved it for the surface of the carpet. The speed with which we came to know individual fragments and remember their location was a revelation.
Although it may look like barely contained chaos, there was little accidental about the finished piece. Every inch of surface was brushed free of dust so that it gleamed and what at first glance appeared random did--I hope--reveal rhythms and occasionally motifs on further contemplation. Emmanuel Cooper, for instance, has been a support and inspiration to many ceramists over the years. His shards were laid in a rainbow shape. Stephen Dixon sent substantial remainders of three plates, which were greeted with squeals by my students. Bearing in mind how much his work was admired, I laid one of the plates on top of the carpet and just tapped it with a hammer.
On the gallery wall I posted a list (in alphabetical order) of all who had contributed shards. Students joked that henceforth they would be able to claim that they had exhibited alongside all of the luminaries whose names appeared. Further entertainment ensued when the installation was open to the public, from watching visitors read the list and then attempt to locate the 'celebrity shards'. My assistants were sworn to secrecy.
Shards had a documentary aspect; it afforded viewers the opportunity to survey a broad range of ceramic surface effects produced at a particular moment in time. It could also be regarded as a snapshot of my connections in the ceramics world, since-unsurprisingly--I am personally acquainted with many of those who contributed. Despite the fact that at time of this writing the carpet no longer exists (we shovelled everything into a skip on 29 August 2008), further layers of meaning continue to emerge. (7) The mass of shards evoked, however fleetingly, a sense of the sublime and perhaps there was, as some viewers have suggested, a relationship with minimalist sculpture, although that was not a deliberate ploy during the process of development and construction. It has also been pointed out that the Shards carpet can be situated in a continuum of sculptural carpets, such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres' carpet of wrapped sweets (untitled Placebo 1991) (8).
It is worth remembering that the installation was constructed in response to a university symposium. (9) In many ways, for an academic such as myself, Shards was like giving a paper. This was my comment on the ceramic surface and I hope that on the day it wasn't really necessary to know exactly how it was put together; I like to think that it made a visual statement and expressed something beyond all of these words.
Although the Shards carpet was my conception--I knew how I wanted it to look and I orchestrated its construction from beginning to end--ultimately its success was the result of a concerted group effort; tangible evidence, I want to suggest, that the notion of 'craft community' is a sound one. I plan further explorations of this nature. I intend to make a net--or perhaps a suspended grid--of buttons. Readers are invited to send me one button each. It should have at least two holes in it, should not measure more than five centimetres in diameter and can be as simple (or as complicated) as you like. As before, we will display a list of names of all contributors. Please post a button to: Dr Jo Dahn, Bath School of Art and Design, Sion Hill, Lansdown, Bath, England, BA1 5SF.
(1.) The First Emperor; China's Terracotta Army British Museum, London 13/9/07-6/4/08.
(2.) Idea and Act II Ceramics Symposium, BSAD July 27th, 2008.
(3.) Susan Hiller, Fragments installation 1978, in Vincentelli, Moira Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels, Manchester University Press 200; p.257.
(4.) At the time of this writing, the web cameras have been removed as the gallery is about to be relocated.
(5.) Hobbis, Peter "The Value of Crafts" in Harrod, Tanya (ed) Obscure Objects of Desire, London Crafts Council 1997, p.37.
(6.) The frame was built by BSAD Ceramics Technician, Tim Wright, to whom I am very grateful. When the moment came to remove it, I held my breath--but it worked!
(7.) A 'skip' is an industrial size rubbish container; I did keep a selection of the 'celebrity shards'.
(8.) I am grateful to Moira Turner, PhD student at BSAD for alerting me to this work.
(9.) Idea and Act II Ceramics Symposium, BSAD July 27th, 2008.
Jo Dahn, PhD, is the gallery curator at Bath School of Art and Design and Senior Lecturer in Ceramics History and Theory.
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|Date:||May 1, 2009|
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