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Interview with Jasleen Kaur

25 Aug

Jasleen Kaur

Jasleen Kaur

Elinor Morgan: It seems like your work is a meeting of categories of making and materials as well as locations and cultures.

Jasleen Kaur: I’ve never thought of it in that way but I do think of myself as a cobbler. I pull together unlearned and culturally acquired knowledge in my work. When I was training as a jeweller at the Glasgow School of Art I had quite a particular way of making; I’m not very precise. I was brought up in a very religious Sikh family in Glasgow and although my work is not hugely autobiographical it is about meeting points. 

EM: Does this work represent that cobbling nature?

JK: My dad owns a hardware shop and I use a lot of found objects. The work I have made for the Jerwood Makers Open came from those marbled buckets you get outside hardware shops. I wanted to take the revered material of marble and shift it into a less valuable material. The people depicted shift too, from being Lords or Gods, those traditionally shown in Western portrait busts and Indian religious sculptures, to being three men or women.

EM: But they aren’t women…

JK: No, but I don’t see that as important, especially because I hope the project isn’t finished so I may add women in. There’s a very specific reason why I chose to show these three men. First first is my great granddad who moved from Punjab to Glasgow in the 1950s, the first in my family to come and make that cultural shift. When he left the Punjab he had a Turban and a beard and in the few photos we have of him in his early days in the UK he wears a flat cap and a moustache. He was keen to assimilate and because he didn’t have a community around him until later. He was a key member of the Sikh community in Glasgow; he used to borrow Bollywood films from his friends in Leicester to play in the cinema after temple on Sunday. 

Then Edward Said is in the middle. When I came across his writing at the Glasgow School of Art it gave me a real sense of place as a practitioner. I realised that people were writing about the ideas that I was thinking about and making about. The last is Lord Robert Napier. His great grandfather fought in two Anglo-Sikh wars in the time of the British Raj and there’s a big statue of him outside of the Royal College of Art. The history of British-Indian relations is so complex and so fascinating. 

I contacted the current Lord Robert Napier when I was studying at the RCA. I wanted to tie a turban on his head as a visual marker of where we are now. He said yes, so I took my dad as the turban tier to Wiltshire and we made a portrait. It feels like the three busts represent a starting point, a mid-point – or sense of place – and a sense of how I am working as an artist now to shape the dialogue. 

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

Jasleen Kaur, Lord Robert Napier, 2011

EM: Busts like this might normally be made from marble. Here they are made from marbled plastic. Beyond this pun, why did you decide to make bust portraits in this rather Western, classical style?

JK: I am very interested in the typologies of sculpture and it’s role. In the European tradition, to make a marble bust is to revere someone through a laborious material process to the point where the material inhabits its own monumental sphere and cannot be touched. I have been thinking about equivalents in Indian sculpture, which depicts Gods and Goddesses and Buddha in this way.  

People bathe them in milk and feed them fruits and in some situations people even put them to bed at night and wake them up in the morning. This humanises the statues by making them functioning objects in daily routines. The busts I have made signify meeting points between these opposing traditions and, of course, they play with the marble/plastic materials. 

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

Jasleen Kaur, Chai Tea Stall, 2010

EM: You applied to the Jerwood Makers Open; do you think of yourself as a maker?

JK: I make things that can operate in a number of contexts. For the piece ‘Chai Tea Stall’, in 2010, for example, I made a travelling tea stall with small clay cups. In the gallery it was an artwork by Jasleen the artist, but in a community centre or family home it was just Jasleen making tea. If something functions in a number of contexts then I think it works. That’s a litmus test for me. I am not interested in hierarchies between art and craft or maker and artist. For me it’s about the maker’s intentions. To do something artfully is to give it time and care.

EM: What have you gained from your involvement in the Makers Open?

JK: It has been different for each of the five of us. I applied to shift my practice away from relying on found objects, so that while my work would still be informed by the qualities of found objects I would have more independence and agency. It’s been a chance to produce something in completely different materials with a completely different aesthetic because the project took me out of a comfort zone. 

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

14 Aug

Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen

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Conversation with Malene Hartmann Rasmussen
Recorded at Jerwood Space, London
10 June 2015
Listen here.

Interview with Studio Silo

30 Jul

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Sylvain Deleu

 

Your work appears to start with an interest in subverting and confounding expectations of materials.
We start with how to challenge the use and perceptions of materials. It is very difficult not to have a preconception of how something will look when completed but we try to be as open as possible. We generally approach things in a naïve way and learn through making.

For us it is really important that the making is evident in the final piece. So, for example, when we made glass pieces with fabric moulds it was very important to us that the stitches and texture of the textiles that had formed the vessels were visible in the final objects.

Tell me a bit about the process of making and how these works came about.
We work with material, process and basic physical principles. Our research involves reading, playing with materials and watching YouTube tutorials. We were both interested in rotor moulding, a method used to make large, hollow plastic objects, tanks for example, or plastic chairs.

What is rotor moulding?
1. It is a two – or more – part mould.
2. You put powdered plastic inside, not to fill the mould, just a little.
3. Then it rotates and is heated and the plastic gets distributed and sticks to the mould.
4. When it cools you have a shiny object that pops out the mould.

It is a cheap process to use for small scale production. It was invented by Swiss Chocolate makers and is used to make Easter Eggs.

I often think about where materials come from but don’t always consider the way that processes of making develop.
All technology has a route; often it is military. Those routes are part of our research. In this instance we were looking at Liquid Mirror Zenith Telescopes, which are a cheaper alternative to conventional telescopes which use glass or polished metal as a mirror. Liquid mirror telescopes are spinning discs of liquid, low-melt alloy, often mercury. When spun the mercury makes a perfect parabola shape. You then put a lens on top and can see things that are directly above the liquid. We realised that this was rotational moulding but only on one axis.

In that instance the liquid is in continual motion; perfectly stable but never set.
Exactly, and we started looking into this and thinking about how Isaac Newton had described inertia with a theory now called ‘Newton’s Bucket’. He hung a bucket of water on a rope, twisted the rope and let the bucket spin. He described how the water remains flat at first but after a while the bucket communicates the movement to the water and the water adopts a parabola shape.

We started to experiment with rota moulding aluminium but we realised that it did not convey the movement in the making process so we started to use acrylic reinforced gypsum plaster (or Jesmonite) which enabled us to use colour to describe the motion. We poured liquid Plaster of Paris with acrylic hardener into a hemisphere shape and rotated it. We used different colours to describe the motion, for example, in the green piece, the middle part doesn’t move as much as the outer part which communicates something of the inertia principle. The bowl starts turning and the liquid has to catch up so you get a dynamic S-shaped curve.

How do you keep the colours separate?
There is an additive in the material that ensures they don’t blend. When we started with plaster this wasn’t the case. This material is much harder and the colours stay clear and clean. We polish the bowls to make them more vibrant.

Are these functional objects? What do you imagine people will use them for?
We see them in the applied arts area so you would not eat from them but they are decorative pieces to be used in people’s homes. They’re not high functional and they’re not high art. We often work in series and these pieces are between a multiple and a one-off.

Silo Studio, Newton's Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

Silo Studio, Newton’s Bucket, 2015. Photo: Anna Arca

 

The vessels sit on three-legged metal stools that reference the kitchen stool. Tell me a bit about the display of the work.
The display of our work is important to us. This is something we think should be well considered as it has a strong impact on how the pieces are perceived. Our glass blower made the glass stands so that you can see the complete object and our design studio logo on the base. The metal spinner who made the moulds for the bowls made the tops of the plinths for us and we selected the grey to match the tone of the gallery.

Do you share all of your processes in an open source way?
We don’t want people to copy what we are doing but we want to excite people to explore some of these processes and materials. In fact, that is why we avoid brand names like Jesmonite. It is important to us to use more scientific terms that better describe the materials as you can’t get branded materials across the world and we want to encourage others to make.

We encourage openness in our practice and make videos that communicate how our work is made. These act as a visual aid that helps us to communicate more quickly but also describe the tone and pace of the studio. The videos are shorthand but we also run workshops to teach people some of our methods.

Meeting the Makers

15 Jul

I am not a maker. Like others my understanding of materials is aesthetic: formed by haptic, physical and sensorial experience that has developed into embedded memories of objects and surfaces. My knowledge of making is vicarious, learned through watching, reading and listening. Thinking about how materials are formed fills me with the same feeling I had during most maths and physics lessons in secondary school: a kind of detached wonder that makes my brain float and my body distant. I imagine procedures that probably could not happen, but without any attempt or desire to make them a reality. Sites of industry are for me, as for many others, mysterious places, disconnected from a present where surfaces are coated, veneered and anodised.

Until recently I sat next to artist Ruth Claxton for 2 days every week at Eastside Projects. For me and many of Birmingham’s younger artists Ruth is a font of making knowledge. She is someone who has learnt partly through trials in her practice and partly through more formal training previously available in the form of City & Guilds courses. This type of knowledge, embodied and learnt through activity, is very different to mine. I could ask Ruth questions like: what actually is shellac? And which metals can you weld together? Of course Ruth doesn’t know everything but she has routes to finding out most things. Along with Architects Alessandro and Mike Dring and musician and print maker Sean O’Keeffe, Ruth is planning Birmingham Production Space, a national site for making, both digital and analogue.

I inhale parts of the research undertaken by the artists I work with and thus have a rock-pool-like picture of materials and processes, with areas of shallow and slightly deeper understanding. Recently I have spoken extensively about casting, a process that endlessly fascinates all sorts of practitioners and which (like developing photographs) uses a mesmerising process of reversal. Casting formed the basis of one of the most enchanting artist talks I have encountered, given by artist Florian Roithmayr at the brilliant production site Grymsdkye Farm in August 2014.

Conversations with artists Marie Toseland and James Parkinson have triggered much of my recent thinking on casting. Both are currently showing cast works (in ceramic and glass and plaster respectively), in a group show I curated at The Sunday Painter, Peckham. For Marie casting is an intimate, erotic process wherein the original or container is suffocated by the substance filling it and eventually replicating it; whereas for James it is a system of loops and references through which he can explore the space between the actual and the virtual to look at notions of representation, embodiment and provenance.

I often think about the origins of, and journeys undertaken by, matter. The recent trend in tracing the lives of materials and objects (think Jane Bennett, Maurizio Boscagli, Mark Miodownik, OOO) has perhaps refreshed my interest in this, which began when I was an undergraduate student in social anthropology. I think too about how the politics of materials is formed by processes of extraction and the environmental and human costs incurred. I wonder if we will come up with a way of manufacturing some of the rare minerals that we currently depend on for our well-loved smart phones and tablets, whether we can produce them in a laboratory as we are now able to produce diamonds, or whether this will come with its own substantial problems. The V&A’s current show, What is Luxury, poses many interesting questions around the production of value through the employment of time, skills and expertise and rare materials.

At a recent conference on production, Fran Edgerley, a member of Assemble, proposed that production is an opportunity for people to be involved in productive activity, and noted the phenomenon of social prescription whereby GPs prescribe activity to aid all sorts of issues including depression and addiction. This reminds me of the meaningful activity utilised in the field of Occupational Therapy and brings me to an internal debate I have been having about the contemporary push for mindfulness and wellbeing. With the Conservative party’s Budget having been announced only 2 days ago, the idea that those who do not engage in normative, healthy, happy working lives are not of value or interest to society is fresh in my mind and I feel increasing scepticism seeping into my understanding of Britain’s new-found ‘understanding’ of mental health issues.

From this position of commissioning and curating as a way of questioning and absorbing knowledge (and let’s not forget that writing and curating are a processes of making and shaping material too) I find myself newly part of a group of people looking after a collection at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, which is comprised in part by twentieth century ceramics and a significant collection of contemporary jewellery. As such I have begun to swat up on studio ceramics practice and to learn about the field of contemporary jewellery, which I have to say is more interesting and political than I previously imagined (my limiting preconceptions showing).

These are the references that form my thoughts on Friday 10 July as I travel to London to see the Jerwood Makers Open 2015 and meet some of its makers the morning after it opened. The posts that follow will reflect on some of the threads initiated above.

Gallery Tour

17 Feb

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Gallery Tour of Jerwood Encounters: The Grantchester Pottery paints the stage.
17 February 2015

Listen to the tour here.

Laundry Notes

29 Jan

I remember playing in washing, a romantic memory of the feel of warm sun and the smell of cleanliness mixed with a hint of the not-allowed (to dirty the clean sheets would have been trouble). Standing between lines of towels, pants, trousers and T-shirts is like occupying a place between the layers of acetates that make up a cartoon image. When too dry washing becomes crisp and flat like a paper cut-out. Inhabiting this space I had a sense of what the characters made for my theatre must have felt like when shunted back and forth between layers of a cardboard stage-set. The theatre was called The Royal Theatre. An adult had tried to persuade me that The Theatre Royal was more fitting but this backwards syntax made no sense to me at the age of six.

Photograph by Terrill Welch

Surely one of the most-often taken tourist photographs of Venice is one of laundry strung precariously above canals. It gets me every time. The intimate, the familial, hung out across grand, historic vistas interrupting the stasis of set architecture. This laundry evokes personal resistance in a place that is slowly crumbling, a sense that by living and making Venice present its inhabitants might halt the city’s inevitable sinking-sliding.

The two-way nature of those lines, strung up between buildings, makes me wonder if people have washing line wars. The to and fro nature of the thing: does it provoke the kind of neighbourly anger that I have seen result from parking on suburban British streets? Or do people peacefully share lines- one day each perhaps, or one half per flat? Is it possible to feel that kind of petty rage in a place as beautiful and romantic as Venice, or can anywhere feel humdrum once you’ve been there long enough?

Photograph by Craig Atkinson

Perhaps it is this sense of mundanity that modernist architects wanted to avoid when designing their monolith towers of steel, concrete and glass. Hanging such untidy things on the balconies of minimal tower blocks feels heretic, rebellious. To see these garments necessitates an acknowledgment of the individual lives taking place within, of their irregular rhythms and tastes. I enjoy the fragility conjured; the flapping shirt that might fly from its perch high on the side of a building is as precarious as the sock that might plop into the Venetian canal, its owner only noticing its absence much later, when looking for a pair.

Architects might also have been aware that washing on balconies draws attention to inhabitants’ lack of private outdoor space, offering ammunition to the British objection to modernism that comes from a conservative love of boundaries and privacy: ‘but what about a garden?’. And perhaps class is an issue here too. I’m thinking of the intro to Coronation Street: the camera pans down, from a skyline of tower blocks to the more intimate scale of terraced housing, across roofs and onto a yard where a ginger cat picks its way between two washing lines. Does the laundry here in small brick yards highlight the working class yet independent nature of the neighbourhood?

However old fashioned this may seem, perhaps the idea that people are doing their own washing, not outsourcing the work to a maid or using dry-cleaning services, demonstrates a lack of financial resources. Before the widespread ownership of the washing machine in Britain, doing the laundry was a day’s work. Most people in the UK now have a washing machine, meaning that laundrettes are generally places for those in transitory situations or those with very little. Is the washing line, as a public trace of domestic labour, uncomfortable for some people?

Drying washing inside feels sad, cloth lying limp on radiators or huddled around gas fires. When no outdoor space or too much rain make hanging out impossible an endless damp smell pervades, of things that never quite dried. And then there’s the danger of nylons near heat… Here’s to the flapping of clean sheets like sails on a ship. Here’s to the loss of garments from tall hoists above water and motorways. Here’s to the intimacy of showing your smalls in and on public piazzas, yards and balconies.

These notes come, in part, from a conversation with Paul Schneider on the opening of his show ‘Hanging Out To Dry’ at Jerwood Visual Arts’ Project Space.

Painting the Stage

21 Jan

I am on the train to the opening of Jerwood Encounters: The Grantchester Pottery Paints The Stage, curated by The Grantchester Pottery. The exhibition includes work by each of the artists, makers and designers who have made work as part of The Grantchester Pottery. I am Writer in Residence at Jerwood Visual Arts from today until the end of February and then again for July and August. I have known The Grantchester Pottery since they began to work together. I had the privilege of curating the first public showing of their work at Wysing Arts Centre in 2011 and we have stayed in fairly regular contact since, working together from time to time. I am currently wearing a top designed by The Grantchester Pottery as part of a clothing range launched in the summer at an event organised by Her Eyes and My Voice and hosted at Gowlett Peaks, a programme I was running in Peckham. It is black shot silk with a pattern in mint green and claret devised from punctuation. I am afraid that by wearing this beautiful garment and reminding The Grantchester Pottery that I am in ownership of it I will invite them to ask for its return.

The Grantchester Pottery is a construction. It is a workshop and an approach to making. It is two people (Giles Round and Phil Root), their circle of friends and people whose work they admire. It is, in this sense, a familial structure that recalls biographer David Gadd’s description of The Bloomsbury Group: ‘[t]he circle of writers, artists and intellectuals to whom the name is attached was an informal group of close friends, and it was nothing more.’(1.) Its name evokes a sunny place in the early Twentieth Century where friends discuss ideas, eat, drink and swim. The Grantchester Pottery is a fictional proposition. Its name shrouds the group in mysterious anonymity. The Grantchester Pottery is not a collection of ceramicists and they are not based in Grantchester. There is, as Giles, Phil and I found out, a potter in Grantchester already. In fact, if I had to root their work in one medium, I would say that The Grantchester Pottery is primarily concerned with painting.

 

The Grantchester Pottery take their form and structure, in part, from art historical precedents. They are not beholden to the past and do not in any way replicate it, or even treat it with much reverence, but certain ideas and movements have impacted on their thinking. From time to time The Grantchester Pottery borrow Omega Workshops’ title, ‘Artist Decorators’. Like Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops Ltd., the Grantchester Pottery’s work is concerned with removing the false division between the fine and decorative arts. Also like the Omega Workshops, The Grantchester Pottery makes work anonymously, the collective endeavour being more important than the individual voice. The fictional construction and the communal name allow the group to expand and contract, inviting and absorbing other people, their ideas and making.

 

Making and production, both practical and theoretical, form the defining structure of The Grantchester Pottery. The Ceramics Studio at Wysing where Giles and Phil began to talk and make work, sometimes with coffee, sometimes with wine, has become a conceptual and practical home. In 2012 Giles and Phil decorated the studio with murals, a gesture that simultaneously made an offering to the site from which The Grantchester Pottery arose and stated that the studio was the group’s conceptual home and practical base. Interestingly, Giles and Phil do not own the studio. In fact they do not formally own any studio space. In many ways their production processes are post-studio. They have a roaming practice that uses each site of display as a site for production.

The loving decoration of the ceramics studio, though, showed an investment in place that situated the studio as a social and productive meeting place in the mode of Charleston, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s home in Sussex or Red House (but with less laudanum). This activity added to the development of the group’s fictional narrative or creation myth. Red House, William Morris’ short-lived but much-loved home and base, was a collaborative effort in which furniture was used as the bearer of personal messages between friends. (2.) The architectural design for Red House was created by Morris and Philip Webb, and the interior was developed over time, by a number of Morris’ friends and peers on workday visits and holidays. One gets a sense of the growth of a shared vocabulary of references in The Grantchester Pottery’s work with conversations becoming embedded in objects, shapes and colours.

 

The production processes of The Grantchester Pottery sit somewhere between Memphis and Morris & Co. The importance of the handmade is obvious in their work. The ‘camaraderie and joyfulness in labour’, described as a key element in Morris’ vocation by Fiona MacCarthy in the current show ‘William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty’ at the National Portrait Gallery, is apparent in The Grantchester Pottery’s ceramics, painting and fabrics. (3.) The work is imperfect in a painterly, gestural way. The group could outsource all making to ensure the production of identical and symmetrical vessels, but they don’t. The process of learning and experiencing materials, of making together and with others is important to them. Like Morris they have set up a certain amount of facilities with which they can produce work. Other works are developed with specialist makers. They tell me that if they were to mass-produce an item they would be more interested in a narrative and concept than the finished, polished outcome.

 

Their approach is also akin to that of Californian artist Peter Shire or Memphis’ Etore Scottsass, who used glue in the making of ceramics and glass respectively as a way to ‘depart from… the hermetic milieu of specialized skill’. (4.) The imperfections and signs of production in The Grantchester Pottery’s works signal their methods and intentions. They demonstrate a relationship with the work and a conversation in the studio. Giles and Phil have spent time rolling clay, playing with and delighting in the alchemy of glazes and working out how raw canvas takes paint. They want you to see that. One of many ways in which they differ from Memphis is in their relationship to making. Etore Scottsass stated that Memphis designs could be machine-made, which although not strictly true (his Carlton sideboard is a good example of something that would be far too fiddly and complex for a machine) underscored the point that the ideology of craft revival was not at the heart of their thinking. (5.) (Having said this, I should also note that Memphis were in fact heavily reliant on the innovation of Italian fabrication and design.)

 

I am not claiming The Grantchester Pottery as craft revivalists. As I have noted, they are interested in corroding the line between the craftsperson/artisan/maker, the designer, the artist and the theorist. Their work is just as much about conceptual and theoretical making as it is about handling wood, paint and fabric. The group frequently work with others to fabricate certain work (including ice cream, clothing and a metal mural). It would be misleading to state that The Grantchester Pottery collaborate with every artisan and craftsperson who is involved in their production. Some, with whom they work closely, including graphic designers, weavers, artists and writers are acknowledged, while other relationships follow a more traditional contemporary art approach whereby works are fabricated by un-named expert makers. I do not want to get into a complex discussion of craft and the division of art and craft over the past 200 years here, but that is something I may explore in later texts.

 

The Grantchester Pottery take strong cues from these historical precedents but their work is not defined by the past. It is not nostalgic. It does acknowledge, but does not mimic its predecessors. It asks: what does it mean to employ these strategies now? How does this work with or against contemporary production, technologies and notions of the role and status of the artist, designer and maker? Why is there still such a division between the useful, the decorative and the conceptually-led? I do not wish to romanticise The Grantchester Pottery’s processes or history. Their work does not come from heroic gestures. It draws on a quietly subversive British history of modernist art and design. Its core is formed of shared activity and friendship. Other programmes, theorists, makers and artists are currently exploring this but what draws me to The Grantchester Pottery’s work is its grounding in a collaborative making process that enacts what it proposes and discusses.

 

This is what I know of The Grantchester Pottery. I know that Giles is an amazing cook who has a deep knowledge of modern art and design and that Phil listens to lectures while he is driving, has a pretty good understanding of European philosophy and doesn’t like Žižek. What I do not yet know is how they have worked to make their current exhibition, how they arrived at the stage set that they are developing or what the work will look and feel like. I do not know how the stage will be activated now that it is painted. But I hope I get to keep my top.

 

 

Image by Anna Arca

  1. David Gadd, The Loving Friends (London, 1974)
  2. National Portrait Gallery, William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty, Curated by Fiona MacCarthy
  3. National Portrait Gallery, William Morris: Anarchy & Beauty, Curated by Fiona MacCarthy
  4. Catharine Rossi, Making Memphis: ‘Glue Culture’ and Postmodern Production Strategies, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90 (London, 2011)
  5. Catharine Rossi, Making Memphis: ‘Glue Culture’ and Postmodern Production Strategies, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970-90 (London, 2011)