In this blog I will write about the work both Mels and I made in Japan during the residency at the SCCP, Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park.
Mels prepared computer-manipulated photographs for large-scale works, which he will print on a huge printer the Graphic Studio het Gooi in Hilversum later this year. The images are based on pictures taken while he travelled through Japan. Some of these photocollages will be exhibited in the Van Abbemuseum’s library next November, together with the artists’ book we make about this residency.
The other work Mels did in Japan was throwing clay. Now throwing clay is nothing new for Shigaraki, because this is a very famous potter’s village with an ancient ceramic tradition, with many masters and deep knowledge of clay, glazes and techniques, on a par with other famous ceramic centres in the world. But Mels threw the clay in his own original way: he didn’t mould a pot on a turning wheel, but literally threw blocks of Shigaraki clay from a small bridge at the centre.
This performance-like work was a direct sequel of the performance he had done during his residency at the EKWC (firstname.lastname@example.org) in Den Bosch. There he let industrially produced ceramics fall to pieces by burning away the wires on which they were suspended from the studio ceiling. Now he dropped blocks of clay on top of each other, the impact deforming each block and the ones he had dropped before, and thus creating a sculpture.
Since the works where massive and firing massive work is a very bad idea in ceramics, they were hollowed out. That is, as much as possible. In consultation with the Japanese assistants, a very long firing process was decided upon, with some drying in the kiln. Biscuit firing took place at 900 degrees. Later Mels applied various glazes and fired these also slowly, up to 1250 degrees. Not only the clays, but also the glazes are typical of Shigaraki.
My work plan, which I had sent to the SCCP a year ago, was about the budding, flowering and dying of flowers. In the meeting with the staff at the start of the residency, their first question was: pressing into moulds or hand building? I chose hand building. I wanted to work with both clay and porcelain. Off we went to the clay shop. Shigaraki produces a vast variety of clays. In the clay shop you can find many small squares of samples, stuck on boards. They come in many colours and varieties for different techniques, like hand building or throwing, with different amount of grog (chamotte), shrinkage and other qualities. In the clay shop you will also find samples of the same clay fired in oxidation and in reduction, when oxygen is removed during the firing process. With glazes, this will usually result in a more or less bluish hue, while colours fired in an oxidative atmosphere tend to be brighter.
After choosing a white clay and a porcelain we went next door to the glaze shop. All glazes were displayed in blocks of 4 tiles: the left 2 were white clay, the two on the right were red clay. On top was oxidation, bottom was reduction. When I saw the difference between the same glaze applied to white and red clay, I decided on the spot to make this the basis for my project. We purchased 6 different glazes and went next door again for red clay with the same shrinkage. This does not sound like anything special for non-ceramists, but in fact it is not done so often: mixing two or more clays together is usually avoided, because each clay is different and mixing clays can cause problems.
I made a test piece of 40 cm high, built around a plastic pipe covered with newspaper. I carved the surface of this small tower with a clay tool while the clay was wet. It gave the impression of fluid material, streaming clay. This was a surface that interested me a lot, because with it I could represent the idea of flowers more than how the actual flower itself looks. After this test piece I built a tower of 240 cm, in six sections and getting narrower to the top.
This proved to be quite a challenge and things got even more difficult because of the air conditioning, which made the work dry faster on one side, which caused severe local shrinkage. Moreover, I obtained the best surface while the clay was very wet, which was possible with the first two top parts, but the lower parts had to be partially dry, since they had to support all the weight further up. This Shigaraki clay was quite difficult to build with, because it has a very fine structure, which of course allowed my flower work to be beautifully detailed. We dried the piece in the studio and later in the dry-room. The firing process was extra slow and the biscuit firing went up to 900 degrees. I fired in a gas kiln, o.8 (m3), with 10 gas burners. In Shigaraki the assistants instructed me how to handle this kiln. You start with lighting two burners and after one hour the kiln will reach 100 degrees. Next you fire two more burners, at the opposite side. After 4 hours all 10 burners are working and you can open the air valves and start turning up the gas pressure. You have to do that every hour or thirty minutes. You have to follow a firing curve the assistant makes for your work. If, for some reason, the kiln stays behind schedule, you have to find out why. In my case burners had extinguished and I hadn’t opened the air valves enough. If the kiln is too fast, you may have given too much pressure. Depending on where you are on the schedule, this may not be a problem and you can continue. It was amazing to operate this huge machine by hand and fine-tune it this way.
The glaze firing I did later took 18 hours, and had to work through a whole night, going up to the kiln every hour and getting the pressure up and up while dawn was colouring the Shigaraki landscape around me. My glaze firing went up to 1240 degrees. The glaze came out rather nice with rich details because the semitransparent colour was varied by the unpredictable colour changes of the clay.
I also worked with porcelain, making small flowers, with I painted with underglaze and covered with a transparent shiny glaze. These will be on show in the library of the Van Abbemuseum in November.
The big work, Flower Tower, is on its way back to Holland (by ship) and will be exhibited in Land en Beeld (www.landenbeeld.nl).
Some artists are asked to leave a work behind for the collection of the SCCP. I donated my test piece and a choice of porcelain flowers to the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Centre.
Mariëlle van den Bergh.