In the future will we be able to extract the Platonic values that Hans Coper writes about with regard to the Egyptian vessel?
This essay is an attempt to get to understand my current concerns centred around the interior spaces of things and places. This sense of the interior is itself held in place by the notion of some kind of vessel or material whether it is a pot or an architectural structure. It is this vessel and its materiality together with its form and its formlessness that I want to explore more closely.
In architecture an interior can become a ‘sensing space’ with its own particular characteristics it becomes a host space, an extension of our own existential space; it can promote memories, sensations and can act as a reflective refuge from our post modern lives. Do these vessels and spaces re-enact the particulars of traditions and livelihoods, of other lives; are they in fact built expressions on the basic needs of a civilisation whether they be pots or architecture?
Do we in some way attempt to reconcile and balance opposites, the outside with the inside; and as a result the practicality of a space depends on a larger degree to issues regarding its actual emptiness? I am interested in both the interior of a vessel, and the interior sensations of being in a space. The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard is also interested in this dialectic between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.
In her essay The Essential Vessel, Natasha Daintry (Daintry, 2007:9) cites The Tao Te Ching ‘we turn clay to make a vessel, but it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.’ It follows then that this might be where the vessel starts to embody ‘something and nothing and becomes an effortless three dimensional manifestation of both form and formlessness.’ (Daintry,2007, :8) It is interesting to note that the potter is dealing simultaneously with both form and its attendant space as he hollows out the clay to create what might be termed an ‘essay to abstraction, a clothing of emptiness.’(Daintry,2007:8) This defined air is the ‘most transcendently human of all made things; volume, inner space, an interior, the carved out air that connects the morning teacup with the domes and spandrels of San Maco. There’s nothing there but clay and air, then there’s defined air.’(Gopnik, 2014:6) Adam Gopnik essay on the pots of Edmund de Waal speaks of an ‘innerness’ and De Waal speaks of ‘a breath held inward’. My own experience of De Waals work in the Architects House at Roche Court, Salisbury, is that of a multitude of similar porcelain pots that were all uniquely able to hold just a single thought or a memory. The installed pots and their simple wooden support became a permeable wall for remembered silences.
This sentiment and its sensitivity to describing visible aspects of the world that are conjoining the concrete with emptiness becomes a poetic on the permeability of spaces and their vessels. The philosopher, Lucretius who was interested in infinitesimal entities comments in his poetic work ‘On the Nature of Things’ records how ‘knowledge of the world tends to dissolve the solidity of the world.’(Daintry, 2007:8) This lightness and its associative attendances can be found in ‘Hans Coper’s only extant piece of writing.’(DeWaal, 2004:34)
A pre-dynastic Egyptian pot, roughly egg-shaped, the size of my hand made thousands of years ago, possibly by a slave, it has survived in more than one sense. A humble, passive, somehow absurd object – yet potent, mysterious, sensuous. It conveys no comment, no self expression, but it seems to contain and reflect its maker and the human world it inhabits, to contribute its minute quantum of energy – and homage. Hans Coper, 1969.
Does Hans Coper’s text reflect through this archaic pot the human sense of innerness that this vessel still dwells with? ‘Theories of relativity and uncertainty have shown that all matter, even the airy oxygenated void inside a vessel is energy, and that it is composed of the same building blocks generated from exploded stars.’ (Daintry, 2007:8) Hans Coper’s Egyptian pot certainly as he observes, is still contributing its minute quantum of energy from thousands of years ago; an innerness put into being by the human hand. The sensing, doing and being that is caught, even marooned in this vessel talks of existential states, rituals, of things that shift and move as you inhabit the interlockingness of skin, volume and displacement.
There is a material memory at work here, an artefact from another epoch, another mindset, but our corporality and the physical traces left in the clay concur its humanity. Pottery is given a priority in its ability to reveal cultures of the past.
‘The special historical value of pottery is due to its stillness underground. Almost uniquely, it does not corrode or disintegrate when exposed to earth and water, and so it forms the most important part of the physical record of the past. Like an invisible architecture, inverted and buried out of sight, they are our most reliable evidence of human endeavour.’ (Adamson, 2009:36)
Gaston Bachelard writes in his Poetics of Space that ‘We absorb a mixture of being and nothingness.’ He is interested in the dialectic of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. He asks is outside vast and fluid and inside concrete and small? He surmises that perhaps there is some membrane or intermediate surface that could separate the two states or rather a duality of ‘outside’ and ‘inside’. But these are concepts and abstractions, ‘the real experience is more kinetic, more fluid and interchangeable.’ (Daintry,2007:11) Can it be that as Bachelard argues that the mind and its imagination actually blurs the duality of inside and outside. He comments ’everything, even size, is a human value, even the miniature can accumulate size.’ In this way he explains further ‘being does not see itself, it does not stand out, it is not bordered by nothingness: one is never sure of finding it, or of finding a solid when one approaches a centre of being. We absorb a mixture of being and nothingness.’(Bachelard,1994:53)
Bachelard seems to be in accord with the poetics of Lucretius as described by Italo Calvino in his Six Memos for the Next Millennium as ‘the poet of physical concreteness, viewed in its permanent and immutable substance, but the first thing he tells us is that emptiness is just as concrete as solid bodies.’(Calvino,1996: 61) There is a lightness and an exactitude in this ‘interior space’ that exists between its states of form and its formlessness. The vessel seems to have the ability to inhabit, mediate and transpose spaces between the ‘rich liminal territory of uncertainty and abstraction.’ (Daintry,2007:12)
The transformative power of the vessel on changing spaces and our perceptions through its existential condition is illustrated in the poem “Anecdote of the Jar by Wallace Stevens” cited by Edmund De Waal. The jar or rather its vessel qualities becomes a spatial metaphor as it ‘practices’ the landscape around it by taking dominion as it were over the unmade. Perhaps Wallace Stevens’s ‘Jar’ promotes an architecture for the soul, an intimate yet social interior illuminated through the imagination?
Natasha Daintry asks are we now using objects to lead us back to ourselves, objects that before were used as a way of feeling our way into the world? (Daintry,2007:13) She remarks on the strong resonance that clay in particular has to human civilisation and as a material that can socially inform us.
I am interested in exploring further these notions of material and spaces, of form and formlessness through the social contexts and professional practices of Hans Coper and Edmund de Waal. I am particularly interested in the making process ‘throwing’ as it promotes the situation of attending to the physicality of things which has the effect of locating you in the world and connecting you to your own physicality. Daintry comments ‘it represents a way of existence of felt experience, of being known, and knowing the world through the corporeal.’ (Daintry,2007:13)
Pottery Making, Inner Spaces, Installation Art and the Post modern.
‘When potters throw a certain curve in a vessel wall, they are in affect in dialogue with every kindred pot that they have seen or held. Like an archaeologist’s excavated shard, the experiential dimension of making can act as a bridge across temporal distances.’ (Adamson, 2009:44) The pot can be seen as a cultural trace that can bring a sense of immediacy from across the centuries.
Hans Coper’s assembled ceramics are constructed from a number of thrown components, throwing a process that he remarks on by saying ‘I become part of the process, I am learning to operate a sensitive instrument, which may be resonant to my experience of existence now.’(Birks,1983:63) Tony Birks comments that all his works were containers and that they were all thrown and that some of their energy is the direct response of being solely conceived on the wheel. This ceramic practice of throwing gave him his sense of livelihood, dwelling and skill.
Coper’s pots celebrate the studio potters pioneering spirit of innovation and discovery through the daily practice and discipline of a craft. He produced composite forms of his own invention that underpinned his modernist aesthetic. His ceramics have evolved through a series of archetypes, families and groupings, from which he could propose subtle amendments and adaptations.
Hans Coper’s pots are objects that seem to spatialize their surroundings with their complex inner spaces. They seem to set up in their interiors, narratives and intimacies that radiate outwards to the surface of the vessel and then beyond into the scale of the world.
The Pots themselves have an almost mechanical surface treatment. This is caused by abrading the glazed engobe layer. This seems to give their interior space a reverence for the handmade and sensibilities of the once plastic clay.
Hans Coper’s candlesticks made for Coventry Cathedral could be seen as epochal points of reflection and reconciliation with humanity.
His pots take up dominion as thinking, sensorial vessels, artefacts that enter into our existential social realm.
Hans Coper was part of an ethical avant-garde. He produced modernist artefacts that sat on his studio shelves; his pots had no need of biography, plinth or cabinet. They exist solely through the agency and inquiry of their makers’ situation; they reference the modernist traits of their time, yet they are touched by an archaic timelessness, an entropy that they and we can never escape. These pots now question the new social consciousness that has itself left art in the world of the Post modern, which is itself addictive, conditioned and fetishized. Hans Coper’s pots remain humble in their humility despite market forces; but can they really gives us some sense of ‘a vision that affords perspective on our existence and the hidden aspirations of man?’ (Kuspit,1994:5)
Suzi Gablik in The Re-enchantment of Art confirms that our way of thinking about art (has become conditioned) to the point where we have become incredibly addicted to certain kinds of experience at the expense of others, such as community, or ritual. Not only does the particular way of life for which we have been programmed lack any cosmic, or transpersonal dimension, but its underlying principles (have become) manic production and consumption, maximum energy flow, mind-less waste and greed. (Gablik, 1991:2)
In sharp contrast to the abraded and textured reworkings found on Hans Coper’s pots, Edmund de Waal’s contemporary installations furnished with his own hand thrown porcelain pots; shimmer and shine with a suffused surface of reflections producing a delicate aesthetic that promotes his ‘dialogue about the use, preciousness, survival, presentation and display of ceramics.’(Graves, 2008:8)
His large scale installations show large groups of ceramic vessels, these are often in historic architectural settings. He is both an artist and an historian of ceramics. His installation Signs and Wonders contains up to 425 pieces of wheel thrown porcelain. Through working with specific settings De Waal has produced installations that by their very impermanence offer ‘new and unexpected dialogues’ through staged interventions that are ‘framing pots within architectural features or the intimate spaces of furniture.’ (Graves, 2009:10) This site specific installation is located high up in and under the main oculus window at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. The installation will be visible to viewers as they look upwards into the space of the monumental central dome.
Signs and Wonders could be about seeing and sensing pots from a distance, De Waal is seeking to reflect the sentiments found in Wallace Stevens poem that makes the pot itself appear as a still centre from which we can step back from and observe as it helps us to gather in our surroundings.
‘De Waal has placed his pots in circulation, but not in the sense that they can be held and passed around. They are even, to some degree withheld.’ (Adamson, 2009:34) De Waal’s porcelain vessels (shape shifters) are in effect objects from memory brought into a shifting nature of influences from the Chinese porcelains, the 1800 Century European porcelains and the collections of the Modern era from Vienna, Bauhaus and the Constructivists. ‘The way in which the pots are displayed has become an integral part of the work. And increasingly there is a sense that it is about putting on a show, albeit one that might be for a private audience.’ (Graves, 2009:8)
This work is not about tactility, immediacy or possession, perhaps De Waal has succeeded in producing a collection that is also ‘a talisman of subjectivity’ of one man’s personal vision of ceramics.
His work and the interior spaces associated with it are in some way becoming endemic of his and our post modern world. Is there some sense that De Waal’s throwing, his vessel making has itself just become a function, an endless repetition. Is there a fear that the presentation and the framing of De Waal’s vessels actually ends up with him filling in the spaces he has strived to construct?
Although the body has been existential throughout the throwing process and is clearly represented in Edmund de Waals work. It might now appear that these new thrown pots destined for another staged presentation, are being crafted with this aim in mind.
Rebecca Solnit explores Susan Bordo’s claim that ‘if the body is a metaphor for our locatedness in space and time and thus for the finitude of human perception and knowledge, then the post modern body is no body at all.’ Solnit comments on this post modern body that it is more of a passive object, appearing most often laid out upon an examining table or in bed. ‘A medical and sexual phenomenon, it is site of sensations, processes, and desires rather than a source of action and production, this body has nothing left but the erotic as a residue of what it means to be embodied. Which is not to disparage sex and the erotic as fascinating and profound, only to propose that they are so emphasised because other aspects of being embodied have atrophied for many people.’(Solnit, 2002)
We return back to the urgent need to make and experience things that in someway that lead us back to ourselves. The creative architectural work of Peter Zumthor is something that I am engaging with. He has developed architectural design practices that consider each project in terms of a comprehensive and encompassing sensory experience. He looks beyond the mere physical form and its fabric. He attempts to address issues of the body and how it may interact within a built environment. The use of memory as a spatial narrative to accompany the atmosphere of his spaces is realised through evocative material surfaces and densities. I feel that there is a synergy here between the opening up of the interior of a pot and the opening up of a space to dwell in.
In sensing a pots interior from its surface, we are as it were in some intimate tacit correspondence with its spatial sensing centre. We become known to it through its maker’s creative gesture of innerness. This anthropological inner space linking us to the potter is both sensual and distant; its vacancy allows us dwell in the maker’s absence. We become part of the vessel, we enter its philosophy of solitude.