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image of Tanya Harrod

Tanya Harrod trained as an art historian at the Universities of York and Oxford. She is the author of the prize-winning The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century (Yale University Press 1999). She has organised many exhibitions and contributes regularly to The Burlington Magazine, The Spectator, Crafts and The Times Literary Supplement. She is currently completing a biography of the potter Michael Cardew for Yale University Press and is researching a broadly-based study of the meaning of the handmade for Reaktion Books. Her latest book is Ann Stokes: Artists’ Potter, a study of an unusual, largely self-taught ceramicist with a devoted following in the British fine art world (Lund Humphries 2009).

Her current interests include the vernacular in relation to modernism, art education in sub-Saharan Africa in the colonial period, and the effect of the New Media on the applied arts. She is on the Advisory Panel of the Journal of Design History, of The Burlington Magazine and of Interpreting Ceramics and is Advisor to the Craft Lives Project based at the National Sound Archive of the British Library. She is a member of the International Association of Art Critics and of the London-based Critic’s Circle. In 1999 she was given Ceramics Arts Foundation Award for distinguished service to the Ceramic Arts. She is a Visiting Professor at the Royal College of Art, London and research fellow at Bath Spa University, Bath. Along with Glenn Adamson and Edward S. Cooke she is the editor of The Journal of Modern Craft.

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series
Image #1 Equipped Tricycle
#1 Equipped Tricycle

 

image #2 Puppet Horses
#2 Puppet Horses

 

image #3 Gallery
#3 Gallery

 

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image 4 Changes: A Performance With Drying Slip, Jim Melchert
#4 Changes: A Performance
With Drying Slip,
Jim Melchert

 

image 5 Fire Sculptures, Nina Hole
#5 Fire Sculptures,
Nina Hole

 

 image 6 Last Supper, Keith Harrison
#6 Last Supper,
Keith Harrison

 

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series

 

image 7 Porcelain Room, Edmund de Waal
#7 Porcelain Room,
Edmund de Waal

 

image #8 Acid Jars, Gordon Russell
#8 Acid Jars,
Gordon Russell

 

image 9 Trophy, Claire Twomey
#9 Trophy, Clare Twomey

 

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image 10 Porcelain Jars, Felicity Aylieff
#10 Porcelain Jars,
Felicity Aylieff

 

image 11 Toaster Project, Thomas Twaithes
#11 Toaster Project,
Thomas Twaithes

 

 image 12 Michael Cardew As Child
#12 Michael Cardew As Child

 

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series

 

image #13 Michael Cardew, Decorating Pottery
#13 Michael Cardew,
Decorating Pottery

 

image 14 Michael Cardew, c. 1920-30
#14 Michael Cardew,
c. 1920-30

 

image 15 Michael Cardew, c. 1920-30
#15 Michael Cardew,
c. 1920-30

 

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image 16 Michael Cardew, Rural Residence
#16 Michael Cardew,
Rural Residence

 

image 17 Factory
#17 Factory

 

image 18 Michael Cardew's Home in West Africa
#18 Michael Cardew's
Home in West Africa

 

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series

 

image 19 Letter
#19 Letter

 

image 20 Michael Cardew
#20 Michael Cardew

 

image 21 Michael Cardeew & Ladi Kwali
#21 Michael Cardew
& Ladi Kwali

 

image 22 Ladi Kwali at Howard University
#22 Ladi Kwali
at Howard University

 

image 23 Neil Brownsword
#23 Neil Brownsword

 

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image 24 Neil Brownsword
#24 Neil Brownsword

 

image 25 Gorsty Quarry
#25 Gorsty Quarry

 

image 26 Slope, Alexandra Engelfreit
#26 Slope,
Alexandra Englefreit

 

image 27 Clay Words, Pekka Paikkari
#27 Clay Words,
Pekka Paikkari

 

image 28 Track, Neil Brownsword
#28 Track,
Neil Brownsword

 

About the Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture Series

 

image 29 Torbjorn Kvasbo
#29 Torbjorn Kvasbo

 

image 30 Marl Hole
#30 Marl Hole

Out Of The Studio, Or, Do We Make
Better Work In Unusual Conditions?
Tanya Harrod

Eleventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture
Schein-Joseph International Museum of Ceramic Art
at Alfred University
November 5, 2009


I was honoured, but also surprised, to be invited to be your 11th Dorothy Wilson Perkins lecturer. I’ve been working for some time now on a study of the great magus potter Michael Cardew – a man of the last century - and I was not sure that cutting-edge Alfred needed to hear from his biographer. But as well as living Michael’s life for several years now, I have also been co-editing the Journal of Modern Craft. We like to think that it’s required reading for the visually literate everywhere. It is now in its second year with the sixth number about to appear.

Out of the Studio
One of things we invented to save the Journal from being a run-of-the-mill refereed, academic publication was what we call ‘statement of practice’. These appear in each issue. We invite an artist to write about their work with the act of making in mind, in what is usually quite a heavily illustrated piece. I looked back over our contributors for this slot – Simon Starling, the Turner Prize winner whose making activities have a ritualistic quality, Sabrina Geschwandtner, the participatory knitter from the United States, Gabi Gusmao the Brazilian artist and photographer, and Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler of the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa.

Just to give you a sense of these Statements of Practice - Gabi sent us thoughts and photographs from her project Street of Inventions which is a documentation and celebration of the improvisatory street-craft of Rio de Janeiro – a city with no safety nets and desperate poverty. She captures the irrepressible power of the human spirit in which people make the best of tough lives. There is Pelé with his Equipped Tricycle a moveable sound-system with sparkling decorative additions. (see image #1) She photographs a radio and homemade loudspeaker strapped to a strut of wood seen on the street, a simple resting spot made out of abandoned furniture and an neatly arranged sales display of cones of peanuts placed in an adapted can.

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler are very different artists – they make puppets. You may be familiar with their collaborative projects with the great South African artist William Kentridge. Their puppets are invariably part of a larger gesamtkunstwerk involving scriptwriters, designers, makers and manipulators. Jones and Kohler’s latest project has involved the creation of life-sized horses for the National Theatre’s hugely successful play Warhorse. The puppet horses mingle with soldier actors. (see image #2) The technical inspiration comes from the Japanese bunraki tradition; the story is steeped in Englishness. Each horse is manipulated by three puppeteers (two are inside the horse and the third at the head) so dramatically and skillfully that the audience cease to see them and entirely believe in the reality of these animals.

What struck me about our Statements of Practice was that we have tended to choose makers/artists, puppeteers/photographers who work outside the studio, often in collaboration and in unusual conditions – Starling invariably on the move, Gabi with the ingenious improvisers of urban Rio, Handspring with the National Theatre on London’s South Bank. As editors we felt we were merely tracking a current sensibility, a mood, a tendency in which a place (the static studio) and an activity (making a unique object that will be positioned on a plinth) both appear less convincing than they once were. Studio ceramics in particular has fought hard to be ‘properly’ displayed in gallery conditions, spot lit and isolated. (see image #3) And the alternatives are dire - the cluttered environs of the shop and the trade fair. So why have things changed? Why does the pure modernist exhibiting space appear less exciting than it once did?

Studio and plinth
In terms of studio ceramics, much of the power of its unique objects has been dependent on another place – the factory. In Britain especially the factories of Stoke-on-Trent loomed large in studio pottery’s collective psyche, as a network of incredible skills, analysed materials and well-planned procedures that made possible production in large, flawless and, some would say, soulless quantity. The studio, a place of solitary art making, was the factory’s antithesis – even if ceramic studios became well ordered places too, with their own carefully prepared clay bodies, glazes and hard-won procedures. The beauty and specialness of work by individual artist ceramicists has depended on the individual signature work that comes out of these private places. So why turn against the studio? Or, for that matter, against the plinth and the white cube environment? On one level such a tendency, which is very apparent in all visual art, can be identified as another example of human restlessness, the energy that drives change and experimentation on, often by looking back to some imagined better state or condition. So we have witnessed what might called ‘the return of the marvellous’ – with work shown as cabinets of curiosities, or in darkened spaces, seeking the uncanny rather than clarity.

As soon as we get somewhere socially (and artistically) in the lived world we appear to want something else. We create cities of great complexity and grandeur and long to live in the countryside. We re-master the classical orders of architecture learned from the ancients and then turn to the simplicities of the Mediterranean vernacular – each unit a flat-roofed whitewashed cell. We discover perspective and soon break its rules and then abandon it altogether. We have a complex culture of sculpture with division of labour but then turn to direct carving and doing everything ourselves. Within a couple of generations this appears limiting. Artists turn again to fabricators to realise their ideas. We see a wheel and want to re-invent it. Part of this process is a symptom of a universal human unease. It is what the historian José Harris has described as ‘a lurking grief at the memory of a lost domain – a sense that change is inevitable, and in many respects desirable but that its gains were being purchased at a terrible price.’ She was talking about the period just before the First World War but the sentiment pretty much stands for all time. We have studios but we want something else – unusual conditions, surprising practices.

Counter-intuitive ceramics
In terms of ceramics as a modern art form there have always been a few who sought to go outside the zone of the studio and the unique object. It is a quest that appeared to float up in the 1950s and to become a little discussed part of what the art critic Lucy Lippard described as ‘the dematerialisation of the art object’ from the late 1960s onwards. Lippard identified a reaction against ‘uniqueness, permanence and decorative attractiveness’ and she compiled a work of reference, a compendium that charted six years of such activities from 1966 to 1972, published in 1973. She included Carl Andre’s Grave of 1967 made by dropping sand down a stairwell, Richard Serra’s Splashing in which molten lead thrown against a wall in 1968 (in a gallery but bringing a spice of danger to the gallery situation. Danger is a theme that runs through all many of these events.) In Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown of 1969, asphalt was poured in industrial quantities down a hillside near Rome.

Comparable ceramic activity in this area has been neatly chronicled in Edmund de Waal’s excellent 20th Century Ceramics under the rubric ‘A Field of Possibilities’. These ceramic events can appear counter-intuitive; one of the qualities of fired clay is its durability and indestructible nature. Shards have an infinite life span. But we can group these peculiar activities under two overlapping headings – the performance and the installation. Just to pick a handful of examples - the late Kazuo Shiraga’s Challenge to the Mud of 1955 saw the Osaka artist writhing in mud until he became so exhausted he deemed the earth to have won. Jim Melchert’s Changes: a performance with drying slip was a 1972 Amsterdam event in which participants dipped their heads in liquid clay. (see image #4) For Melchert the process turned the body into a vessel. He wrote ‘It encases your head so that the sounds that you hear are interior, your breathing, your heartbeat, and your nervous system. (It is surprising how vast we are inside.)’. Paul Astbury’s Document series of 1995 saw raw clay objects placed in sealed vitrines in a time-based experiment inspired by prehistoric wet clay models of bison, bear, and other animals discovered in cave sites in France in the early 20th century. Here we could equally bring in the remarkable installations of Alfred’s own Walter McConnell. Skipping forward to 2002 there was the performance The Dirt of Love when three young artists, Roger Hiorns, Mark Titchner and Gary Webb, spent the day together fighting with a ton of clay.

This kind of activity - where the ceramic product is challenged and negated - has had little attention until relatively recently. Only in 2004 was playful performative clay work seriously recuperated in the important Tate Liverpool exhibition A Secret History of Clay. Perhaps this is unsurprising. Performance pieces and time-based work are not collectable, save as film or photography and studio ceramics have remained particularly firmly in the realm of things. Back in 1978 Rosalind Krauss published her essay Sculpture in the Expanded Field that set out to deal with what she termed ‘surprising things’ that have been described as sculpture. She provided a list: ‘large photographs documenting country hikes; mirrors placed at strange angles in ordinary rooms; temporary lines cut into the floor of the desert’.

As I have suggested, there is a secret history of surprising clay activity with contributions by both artists and ceramicists. But look at most books on studio ceramics and we find a history of objects not events or processes. Of course there is one area in which studio ceramics has always maintained a uniquely performative quality – that is in the firing process. Some ceramicists have made firing the work of art in itself – I’m thinking of course of the Danish Nina Hole’s Fire Sculptures. (see image #5) But firing is a pretty central activity for those who use anagama kilns. A pot that comes out of such a kiln could be read as a kind of memorial of an extended and dramatic performance. We could, reasonably, reframe some of the hearty kiln building and firing events staged by potters as radical performance. One ceramicist, Keith Harrison, has reconfigured firing and made it a dramatic visual experience by doing away with the kiln - by plugging electrical elements directly into the clay. His time-based Last Supper firing in 2006 at the V&A took place in a space shared with Raphael’s priceless tapestry cartoons. (see image #6) Again we find that element of danger as his piece emitted steam and smoke in the semi-sacred museum space.

Installations
I mentioned Edmund de Waal’s book 20th Century Ceramics. He is an interesting example of a potter who has not left the studio but has been determined to escape that solitary plinth with its unique object atop. You will all be familiar with his move from domestic porcelain to a series of installations that ‘animate’ (his word) particular interiors and to interventions in museum collections. 1999 was the decisive year in which de Waal arranged his pots in cupboards and on tables in Howe and Lescaze’s High Cross House at Dartington in Devon; he described this as a ‘personal conversation with iconic modernism’.

De Waal’s post-plinth strategy is based in part on massing. Thus he references the richesse and generous display of the eighteenth century porcelain room. (see image #7) Subliminal modern movement messages float up too – in particular the modern movement’s proselytizing for type-forms of great purity for multiple production. The furniture manufacturer Gordon Russell’s show rooms in London in the 1930s included a descending array of industrial acid jars, shown as iconic examples of pure form. (see image #8)

All de Waal’s work is text-led in that he writes extensively about his own work. De Waal’s Victoria and Albert Museum installation this year, Signs and Wonders, is an extreme example of his articulate tendency. It is more than usually heavily dependant on text – the piece is pitched high above our gaze and we come to known it principally through an illustrated book that includes a beguiling, very personal essay by the artist. Philip Rawson’s brilliant book Ceramics has a section entitled ‘Ceramics as Treasure’. It is a phrase that well describes de Waal’s porcelain installations if we view them with their accompanying texts. They are conservative in their scope and intention, monuments to order, ownership and to ceramic history.

Clare Twomey, on the other hand, creates installations that are performative and short-lived. Her installation Consciousness/Conscience, first shown at the 2003 Korean Ceramic Biennale, played with ideas of value. The visitor faced a dilemma – in order to get to some images pinned on a distant wall she has to cross the room, in the process walking on and destroying a floor made of low-fired bone-china box tiles. Twomey’s most striking project was Trophy, an event held on September 29, 2006. Twomey filled the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Cast Courts with a flock of small birds manufactured for her by Wedgwood in Jasper Ware (a stoneware stained with cobalt oxide). (see image #9) The piece was offered as a gift – the birds were there for the taking for just one day. It was an interactive event that addressed the intensely desirable nature of ceramics and presented the ceramic lover with a paradox – a gift from the artist that was also a factory-made multiple of 4000. Its interactivity extended to an invitation from the artist to the individuals who took birds home. Twomey asked them to email her a picture of how they had positioned their birds in domestic interiors. Emails came from all round the world making the point that the cluttered environs of the home is a dangerous place for art of any kind.

Industrial nostalgia
Clare Twomey’s ‘gift’ of a factory-made item reminds us of another ceramic paradox. We set up efficient well-regulated factories and then long for different ways of making. Studio pottery, as I have suggested, grew out of that longing. However, when our factories close down because of rising labour costs, we miss them and travel to their Far East equivalents. There is nothing new about studio ceramicists going to China – if you love ceramics a visit must be made. It is just that the motives for going have changed. Organised visits by distinguished British potters took place in 1978 and 1981. Their accounts of what they saw (which appeared in the British publication Ceramic Review) are fascinating to read today. The British studio potters were impressed by the high skill they witnessed. But they were also disappointed. They sought something analogous to studio pottery, a look, an aesthetic. After all, most inter-war studio pottery drew inspiration from early Chinese wares. For most of them the high point was seeing the ceramics of the past in Chinese museums. The present appeared disappointing – ‘these friendly, hardworking ingenious self-sufficient people have little originality’ reflected Frank Hamer in 1981. The British visitors had to fight to see dragon kilns and simple vernacular stoneware. Their hosts wanted to show them the latest ceramic technology. Had not Chairman Mao decreed that ‘All handwork must be swept away’? The idea of going to work in a factory (even if many were little more than large workshops) would have seemed aesthetically inconceivable to these British potters thirty years ago. As Delan Cookson wrote of the factories they visited: ‘much of what the Chinese (they) produce is garish and insensitive’.

How things have changed! We no longer mind the garish. We like Jeff Koons and Grayson Perry and Richard Slee. We revel in the inauthentic, the simulacrum, the quotation. Now there are streams of ceramic visitors going specifically to Chinese factories for whom bright and shiny wares ‘garish and insensitive’ hold no fears. The high skill and frenzied activity in such places appears full of romance, especially as our own ceramic heartland of Stoke-on-Trent falls into ruinous decay. The contrast explains the success of The Pottery Workshop Experimental Factory, which opened in Jingdezhen in 2005. Under the guidance of Takesi Yasuda, very much a British studio potter (though Japanese born), and a thrower of exceptional originality, the Workshop offers residencies to artists. They are given superlative technical assistance, and can call on many of the skills of the city, making it possible to realise practically anything in clay.

Recently the British ceramicist Felicity Aylieff has been resident at the Pottery Workshop and has had a series of monumental porcelain jars made at Mr Wu’s ‘Big Ware’ Factor. (see image #10) These she decorated using a range of techniques – from intricate patterns employing the famille rose palette to bold painterly iron and cobalt brushstrokes. Aylieff’s imaginative interest in historicist quotation is less startling than the scale of these objects – each standing over 3 metres high, thrown in sections by the Big Ware factory artisans. Impressive though they may be, these pieces have the quality of souvenirs: ‘I have been to China!’ they seem to say. Their presence brings to mind the scholar Susan Stewart’s characterisation of the souvenir as an object that ‘always displays the romance of contraband, for its scandal is its removal from its ‘natural’ location’. If studio pottery at the beginning of the last century was defined against the factory, today, factories are places full of marvels, more exciting and challenging than the studio, exotic places for the service-industry nation we have become in the United Kingdom.

Starting from scratch
So, the exotic factory has become one way out of a perceived studio ceramics impasse. But there are other ways of creating unusual conditions. ‘Starting from scratch’, ‘beginning with zero’, ‘a tabula rasa’, ‘the Robinson Crusoe syndrome’ – these are all phrases that suggest a new dynamic, not just in ceramics but also in the applied arts in general and in design. It might be argued that there is nothing new in this. The idea of having to work from zero was at the core of the Bauhaus Vorkurs and the method of teaching known as Basic Design that began to be taught in arts school in Britain in the mid 1950s. But the context and the reasons for turning away from established procedures and tools are always changing. At the Royal College of Art where I occasionally teach, design products students are currently strikingly drawn to old materials like bamboo or rubber and to archaic techniques. The idea of beginning again – and maybe failing – recalls Robinson Crusoe’s boat. Alone at that point on his island, Crusoe painstakingly hollowed a canoe out of a great trunk of wood, taking three months over the task. But, as it turned out, the boat was too heavy to drag down to the sea. It was made, Crusoe concluded philosophically, ‘to teach me to be wiser next time’.

At a moment of perceived ecological crisis many of us seek to ‘be wiser next time’, a desire reified in Thomas Twaithes’ Toaster Project presented at the Royal College degree show this summer. Twaithes whimsically attempted to make an electric toaster starting from scratch (see image #11) – ‘travelling to disused mines in Britain, attempting to dig up raw materials, attempting to process them and to make a hand-craft version of a product sold at Argos (read Wal-Mart here) for the throwaway price of £3.99.’ He tried to ‘mine, melt and purify copper, iron ore, nickel, mica and to make plastic. The project was as much as anything a symbolic commentary on consumption, on industrial decline (there a virtually no active mines in the UK), and on the ridiculousness of toasters as discrete objects performing a rather limited task. The results of Twaithes’ quest were hilarious, annoying and heartbreaking. In striving to become an industry of one, Twaithes reminds us that the provenance of the things we buy is too important to ignore. Yet we scarcely think of the sophisticated networks that make our toaster possible.

Michael Cardew
Strangely it was the Toaster Project that brought me back to my day-to-day existence as potter Michael Cardew’s biographer. It occurred to me that maybe his was a story worth telling during the course of this lecture (even if he was a man of the 20th not the 21st century) and that his life as a potter was relevant to our discussion of counter-intuitive ceramic practice. I started looking through images connected with my book – Michael as a child in front of his father’s collection of early industrial wares; Michael with his family in North Devon on a shrimping expedition. North Devon stood for rural freedoms and was where he encountered Edwin Beer Fishley, one of the last country potters working in slipware. There is a photograph of Michael in North Devon just before the Great War presciently holding a skull; (see image #12) His beloved older brother Richard was to go to the front. He had just left school and survived there for just four months. I looked at images of Michael, the handsome classical scholar who, to everyone’s amazement, turned to pottery busy slip decorating with a slip trailer; (see image #13) Then we have Michael the married bohemian; Michael’s work of the 1920s 1930s, technically quite rough but full of power and greatly admired as ‘modern pottery’ despite its roots in the vernacular; see image #14,   see image #15) Michael in a Stoke factory, Copeland in 1938 after reading Capital, enjoying it and making prototypes which were never used; Michael miserable, not making much of a living, residing in a rural slum; (see image #16) Michael translated to Gold Coast, West Africa to take charge of a factory making water cooler and tiles; (see image #17) Michael failing (the ruins of Alajo today surrounded by the slums of an extended Accra)and deciding his mission was to teach a young man Clement Kofi Athey to be a potter. Michael abandoned his wife and children to set up a pottery on the banks of the Volta where he had to make everything from scratch - bricks, buildings, kiln, saggars. Michael lived in a round house by the mosquito-ridden river where local women potters worked more efficiently. (see image #18) Michael wrote home explaining how he would decorate his pots with ‘2 interlaced lilies – not a lily that grows anywhere at all – just a symbol of tropical exuberance and generosity and gravid fruitfulness’. (see image #19)

Those years at Vume from 1945 to 1948 were like ‘a season in Arcadia’, ‘so much pleasure and joy’ - so different to the meagre world of studio pottery in England. At times they were also like a season in hell. The end results, the pots, are beautiful, but hardly revolutionary. (see image #20) They don’t convey the intense suffering, the illnesses, the joyful interludes, the life changing nature of the experience. Perhaps they need to be seen as a component of a larger performance, in which Cardew courted death and near madness to create an alternative to his English career. From 1951 he created a training centre at Abuja (now Suleja) in Northern Nigeria where he was happy. Some of the best work at Abuja was made by Ladi Kwali, a traditional woman potter, whom he encouraged to work in stoneware. (see image #21) But if Michael was a performer and an enabler who made things happen he sometimes made mistakes.

In May 1972 he was at Howard University in Washington. He talked and explained while Ladi Kwali decorated a pot that she has hand-built. (see image #22) His motive in taking Ladi Kwali round North America was to show black Americans something of their roots. But he misjudged the mood of the time. His black audience would have preferred to encounter African politicians or intellectuals. A village woman making a pot did not seem to represent the future and the University’s Professor of Journalism disrupted the demonstration by denouncing the event as a propaganda exercise linked to US interest in Nigerian oil. The tour was appreciated by white potters, not by black university students or their tutors.

But Michael went on performing. During the 1970s up until his death in 1983 his pottery at Wenford Bridge in Cornwall became a safe haven for many young people to enact life experiments and find their own path. They also learned to make pots but they were struck how Michael never wanted them to make very many and how he put off firings as long as possible. He offered them erudition, Enlightenment humanism and bracing logic. Growing vegetables was as important as potting. He was not concerned with the plinth and the gallery and preferred to sell his work from a local museum in the small town of Camelford, placing them on trestle tables in a big old room overlooking the moors. His career was really about romantic refusal.

Maybe I am pushing the facts of his life too far in trying to braid him with the present and present him as some kind of conceptual artist. But he certainly sought unusual circumstances. His strange book Pioneer Pottery of 1969 is a testament to starting from scratch, beginning in fact with geology and with the earth’s crust - what he called ‘the warm-hearted fertile Magna Mater in whose bosom we all live’. It was included in The Whole Earth Catalogue as a truly ‘alterative’ text. Michael spent an ordinate amount of time researching raw materials, climbing down into quarries and clay pits. He was never studio bound.

I have tried to think what kind of work he would have found sympathetic today. Not easy as Michael’s sensibility was extraordinarily heightened and critical. Surprisingly perhaps I ended up with an event, a happening, not a body of work. I think he would have appreciated the young ceramicist Neil Brownsword’s recent project Marl Hole. Stoke-on-Trent is Brownsword’s hometown, where he trained as a Wedgwood apprentice before taking a different road, to art school. (see image #23) He did not forget his former workmates and his earliest work collaged an archaeology of broken shards, kiln furniture, clay pipes and recycled sprigging to make punkish figures that were living dead-end lives in what was becoming a town of silent service-industry sheds. (see image #24)

By the late 1990s, seeing factories being demolished as the ceramic industry moved to the Far East, Brownsword began to interview and video and write, recording the skills of the Wedgwood workforce. He also embarked on his Salvage Series (2005) an extended work made up of hundred of items arranged in a mapped-out plan that records the discarded detritus that underpins the industrial production of ceramics – drip trays and trivets, the props and spurs used to support objects in the kiln, tangled strips of clay left after turning, collapsed and fused saggars, the ghostly residue left by the process of plaster-lining damaged moulds.

In August 2009 Brownsword spent a week up to his knees in mud in a Staffordshire clay pit, Gorsty Quarry, on a project he called Marl Hole – he wanted to be ‘displaced from the comfort zone of the studio.’ (see image #25) He chose as his companions Alexandra Englefriet(NL), Pekka Paikkari(Finland) and TorbjØrn KvasbØ(Norway). They had the use of earth-moving equipment and wore industrial fluorescent jackets. Alexandra pushing clay around, using her body as a tool. Her piece was called Slope. (see image #26) Pekka made the clay liquid and flowing, using it as slip to write out letters and half words all connected with ceramic processes – Bagwall, Bisque Fire, Body, Bone Dry. The piece was called Clay Words. (see image #27) Neil made rivulets down a steep hill for a piece called Track. (see image #28) He made another piece called Burr – a kind of trench. Torbjorn poured a mass of thick liquid clay so it had to flow past boulders. (see image #29) They were grappling with ceramic history (literally) for the red Etruria marl of Gorsty Quarry had been used to make precise red stoneware in the eighteenth century – and continues to be used to make bricks and tiles. They each made an individual work but all five works had a unity within the landscape. (see image #30) Marl Hole is recorded in film and still images, but is not collectable in its actuality.

As we have seen, Brownsword and his collaborators are by no means the first to fall about and play in wet clay and call it art. But they each brought a special kind of ceramic understanding to the task. Marl Hole is about the material of clay and its properties, encountered head on in the raw. Marl Hole too is about the pastoral-industrial dimension of Britain – the way in which iron works and potteries and textile mills grew across fields and hills, wherever there were sources of water and fuel.

To end I’m going to show a short clip of the film of the Marl Hole project made by Jonny Magee. It might make you laugh but there is no harm in that! The music is an important part of the joke. It is actually rather telling, in a tongue in cheek way – for as much as anything the project is about heroics – an engagement with rough work and intractable materials, with what Michael called ‘pioneering’. Torbjorn, for instance, referred to poetically and enthusiastically to ‘physical action, hard manual sweating labour, bodily intelligence and practical philosophy’. For Alexandra ‘descending into this large hole in the earth was a transforming and liberating experience’. This is ceramics in an expanded field.

But I’d argue that we may still need the studio and even the plinth and the white cube. When I left London the critics were busy scribbling about an exhibition of paintings by Damien Hirst – who has gone back to the studio to paint paintings all by himself – instead of using an army of assistants to realise his ideas. He chose to present these large oils as formally as possible, as his idol Francis Bacon did, in heavy glazed frames, hung against silk wallpaper and physically close to a collection of old masters in the Wallace Collection. Hirst’s new work conveniently serves to remind us of our capacity for restlessness: as soon as we get somewhere in the lived world, we want to be somewhere else.

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