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The residency: Ian Byers relates his experience of 'mining uncertainty' in Taiwan.

THE OPPORTUNITY TO DEVELOP NEW WORK IN ANOTHER COUNTRY AND culture with the use of a fully equipped ceramics workshop is not something to be missed. This opportunity had arisen after showing work at the 2012 Biennale at the Yingge Ceramics Museum in Taiwan. The invitation to make an application to the residency programme was timely. I felt that I wanted to question and stretch my work, to put myself into new areas, to be uncomfortable both physically and mentally, out of my normal skin.

Of course even if you are a conceptual artist, work has to come from somewhere and any new developments will have references and reactions to previous works. They are not only bounded by time and place but by your own inhibitions and self-imposed restrictions. I wanted to see what might happen if my work was allowed to develop in a free flowing way exploring new ways to make form. The outcomes of such a residency, unlike the iconic pieces in a museum are not always immediately accessible or even comprehensible.

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Much of my sculpture in the past 10 years has been made in complicated, laborious ways with forms emerging in a handbuilding clay stage and then being refined through casting, carving, recasting and finishing. Given the six-week period that I was able to spend in Taiwan I wanted to make work using a different approach.

The residency facility was not part of the general museum galleries but curious visitors would wander in to the studios. Questions would be asked initially about process, how something had been made. This then could lead on to a conversation about what I thought my residency was about which I illustrated by my documentation via my tablet and it gave them an opportunity and time to take in the strange collection of moulds and forms around me. What they were viewing was a process of discovery and uncertainty, things lacking a clear story, within the context of a museum full of finished accredited artefacts. The museum could also now perhaps be seen as a place for new creativity, could in fact nurture it.

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I needed to make decisions about what I was making and what it might convey and emote, to find a process that could be malleable, changeable and be developed to produce images or forms that could surprise, involve an element of chance and accident and that I could modify all throughout the process of making. I like working with plaster and the fact that liquid becomes caught in a shape during setting. So the first steps of my engagement with process were investigating pressure and tension. I had taken a sheet of thin rubber with me to Taiwan with the thought that it could be a starting point to cast a number of shapes and make some forms that I did not have to model, pieces that had life and tension to them--some sort of dynamic. My brief was to try to be open but with many years of ceramic making, my experience could and would be brought to bear on both practical and aesthetic problems.

My next decision was to try to simplify and to make forms that could be repeated, thus allowing me to explore surface and colour. I thought that the rubber sheet would make beautiful folded and stretched forms but perhaps too complicated to deal with in the time I had. I hit on the idea that a balloon or contained skin form could provide the elements that I was interested in: expansion, tension, malleability, simplicity and uncertainty. I sourced some Taiwanese balloons and began to inflate and stretch them. It struck me that I had found an interesting link with thrown forms. Throwing is all about stretching and compression and it is the stretching (the pressure on the inside of the form) that often gives the piece life. I was thinking about capturing this so that the work would have an emotional life.

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The next decision was whether to try to cast from a balloon directly or to use the balloon as an intermediate form. I decided the latter because then I had a more durable form to work on and I could also distort them by subjecting them to stress, stretching, squashing, pulling and twisting.

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I set up a frame to which I tied strings that could be attached to the balloon or used to pull the form in different ways. The first forms that I cast were hollow and made by pouring plaster into the balloon through a funnel. The balloon l was then inflated and the form rotated as the plaster set. This made some interesting simple forms but I could not distort or stretch them. Most of the forms from the second attempt were solid and made by forcing plaster into the balloon from a polythene bag fitted with a nozzle. This enabled me to expand the form to any size as well as stretch and distort the piece. It also gave me a solid plaster form, which I could alter or carve after the piece was set.

I would first inflate a balloon with air, then pull it and stretch it until I had a fair idea that it might be interesting to me. The next stage involved timing; timing the plaster mixes then the stringing up of the filled rubber skins before the set began. H The involvement was direct with immediate decisions being made, constantly regarding the Hi form in space. These were suspended, caught, abstract forms being pulled this way and that. Each day for a week I made several which were then sorted on an intuitive basis.

They were interesting as plaster forms, sometimes with traces of their rubbery skins left on them, why should they be made in ceramic? I also liked the evidence of making. They had perfection in their imperfections; small creases odd holes. They had the perfection and imperfections of creation. I wondered if they needed to be made in ceramic?

My question about whether to make them in ceramic has still not been fully answered. Perhaps some will remain as plaster in the future or be combined with ceramic forms. On reaching this point I decided two things, firstly that as the residency was about uncertainty I should fire some just to see how I felt about transforming them--changing their immediate nature. Secondly, if they were to be finally ceramic, they had to prove themselves as having merit when transformed from plaster into fired ceramic.

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I went ahead with some moulds for slipcasting, then struggled to make a casting slip with the clays available. An interesting effect occurred when I tried to put large amounts of stain or oxide in the slip--it set like custard powder. Sometimes this would resolve itself after a day's standing and also I had often to adjust the deflocculants significantly and allow them to re-adjust with time. I was also a little concerned that shrinkage of the forms in firing would rob the plaster forms of their expansive life.

The shrinkage did indeed do something; it sharpened their extremities and exposed the process of moulding and casting. When you cast an object you have to divide the form spatially into sections. The process sometimes feels rather like Cubism. This sectioning becomes a feature of the finished piece and often shows as a subtle raised line. The higher the piece is fired the more this effect can be seen. These lines become part of composition and can add as well as detract from the fired work.

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As the forms had interesting qualities I chose initially to stain the slip with oxides to maintain their surfaces and lines. I had not used much glaze on my work for several years but it occurred to me that perhaps if I called the glaze something different such as wetness, glisten, transition, shine, slough, that I might change my reason for including glaze in the vocabulary I was evolving. It was also another way to engage with light falling on the pieces. The slip, which I chose to stick with, was a mixture of porcelain and semi porcelain clays that became vitrified at 1180[degrees]C. At higher temperatures some pieces slumped, distorted and lost the tension I liked, some acquired new tensions.

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I chose to keep within the confines of a small, computerised kiln, that I could fire every few days at differing temperatures, I knew from experience that being able to fire work in small batches gives a good understanding of the clay bodies and glazes. It also allows you to modify each firing as you gain knowledge. By the end of the residency, I had generated a number of abstract forms that were directly produced and which suggested the possibility for change, for grouping and interplay with each other. They were families of forms.

The crucial effect of the residency was to force me to look creatively at how I worked and to question as well as accept at times free flowing intuitive approaches. I was also beginning to think about the works context; whether different environments for the work could change the meaning of a group and if I should regard the entire outcome as more of an installation.

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I noticed that I was checking my thoughts to see if my reactions and decisions were merely learned norms. Too much questioning can lead to immobilising uncertainty but as I was dealing also with process I was an observer and intrigued with how I felt about new things and whether I could make use of the uncertainties that are produced by a development in a process. The challenge was to step back and not dismiss things immediately but to let a new thing sit with you until you could sometimes instinctively give it the opportunity for a visual life.

In many ways I was at ease with living and working in the museum and the pottery town of Yingge. I was surrounded by things I knew or recognised; a pottery and ceramics material culture. This gave a conversation and shared understanding of commitment to an activity and the plastic possibilities of clay. At the same time I was interested in the transformation of the town and its reinvention as a handmade pottery centre from its more industrial past. Change and transformation fitted in with my project's aims.

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I see the experience and the work produced as not only about the finished work but also an attitude to work, which will develop and evolve over the coming year. I intend to continue my documentation and this will be part of my idea for the residency and its outcomes, which I call "Mining Uncertainty".

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Ian Byers was born in Birmingham, England in 1947 and started his ceramics training during the late 1960s at the Central School of Art in London. He has taught, lectured and exhibited throughout the UK, Europe and the Far East. His work has developed from a vessel and figurative focus through to a more abstract minimalist sensibility.

All photos by Ian Byers.
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Author:Byers, Ian
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9TAIW
Date:May 1, 2014
Words:1877
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