Ceramics break out

Ceramics to most people mean pots, clay, porcelain, stillness, even death, but with many people (and certainly me) failing to notice, ceramics have burst into exuberant anarchic life. Alun Graves, senior curator of ceramics at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Told the story of how this has happened at last night’s Peter Dormer Lecture at the Royal College of Art. https://www.rca.ac.uk/schools/school-of-arts-humanities/peter-dormer/ Three events from the Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate the story.

The first event was called Clay Rocks! in 2006, Clare Twomey used the famous blue clay from Wedgewood to produce 4000 small bluebirds with eight different designs. One Friday evening the bluebirds were scattered around the sculpture gallery with some on the floor, others perched on the sculptures, some high up. It was as if a flock of bluebirds had flown into the gallery. With music playing and drinks available, people wandered among the birds. Visitors weren’t explicitly told that they could take a bird, but it had been reported in the press beforehand that they could–and if they left with a bird they were asked to record where the birds would be going. People faced two dilemmas: firstly, should they take a bird, bringing joy to them but diminishing the group experience as the birds disappeared; secondly, which birds should they take? As Twomey intended, the magic of the group diminished as the birds disappeared.


The idea that people could be allowed to “steal” the exhibits changed the traditional concept of a museum as a treasure house of closely guarded objects.


In another room on the same evening Keith Harrison placed a series of coloured blocks of clay each presenting Jesus and one of the disciples in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting last supper. Each block had been shaped in a domestic oven, and each block had the element of the oven inside it. The elements were connected to electricity, and during the evening the electricity was switched on and the blocks began to heat producing smoke and steam.

Again the traditional concept of the museum is being challenged in that the exhibit is being consciously destroyed.

Harrison took the idea of destruction further in a second event called Moon. Harrison, who comes from a Northern working-class background, is keen to reach beyond the usual middle class audience for ceramics. While artist in residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, he held special events for heavy-metal fans and members of bowls clubs. But the crowning event of his residence was inspired by Keith Moon, the drummer of the Who, famously smashed up his drum set at a concert. Harrison modelled the drum set in clay and wanted at least some of the drums to explode. This was clearly a challenge in a museum filled with treasures and with an audience watching. Graves and Harrison thought it likely that the health and safety expert of the museum would forbid the event, but surprisingly he turned out to be an expert of explosives.


So in 21 April 2013 in a lecture theatre in the museum Harrison dressed in a white boiler suit walked up behind his clay drum set. The audience were asked to put on safety goggles. My Generation started playing at top volume, and Harrison smashed the clay cymbals and side drums before two bass drums exploded. You can see the event on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8yvQYxrB_k0

Harrison wanted to do another event where heavy-metal music played at top volume would shake ceramic tiles from the front of huge speakers, but rumours, reported even in the newspapers, began to fly that the music would destroy the whole museum. The event was cancelled.

The third event was Barnaby Burford in 2015 creating The Tower of Babel in the Sculpture Gallery of the museum. The tower was made with 4000 ceramic models of shopfronts. It was inspired by consumerism and credit, although the shopkeepers between them would have talked hundreds of different languages, evoking the original Tower of Babel. The tower was built with poundshops and other cheap shops at the bottom and expensive designer stores at the top with museums (palaces of consumerism?) at the very top.


Graves suggested the tower broke the final taboo of museums in that the exhibits, the shopfronts, were sold. Although the shopfronts were the same size and quality in terms of the ceramics, the poundshops sold for £90 and the designer shops for £4000. Sales people with Ipads making the sales were part of the event, and 2500 of the shopfronts sold, making a profit for the museum.

So boring-old ceramics have stretched the boundaries of the museum by being evanescent, stolen, destroyed, exploded, and sold.


PS. Inspired by the lecture I briefly visited the ceramics galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum today, and they are huge, stuffed with exhibits, good to look at, and inspiring with the collection ranging across the world and from the ancient to the modern. I’d never been in those galleries before, and walking a long way to reach them and return to my bike I realised how many extraordinary and beautiful objects there are in the museum. If you’ve never visited it, you should.

The piece that grabbed my attention as I walked was Rachel Kneebone’s 399 Days, which stands on the same spot as The Tower of Babel–and is equally tall if not taller. It’s made from a series of plates, and each plate seethes with bodies. It reminded me of Rodin’s Gates of Hell and Trajan’s Column, a cast of which is close by. Very well worth a special visit.

399 big




What happens to you when you read Middlemarch?

One of the multitude of joys of A Suitable Boy is the way that Vikram Seth mocks himself and his book. Seth’s book is 1500 pages and comes in one volume, making it a doorstop or a murder weapon. I’ve already blogged one extract where he complains about books that are too long and get out of control, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/10/27/how-to-write-a-novel/  and below is another.

Seth must have used himself as the model for Amit, the Calcutta poet who writes in English and is a potential suitable boy. Amit gives a reading of his poems to the Brahmpur Medical Society and is asked by a lady if he believes in “the virtue of compression.”

‘Well, yes,’ said Amit warily. The lady was rather fat.

‘Why, then, is it rumoured that your forthcoming novel—to be set, I understand, in Bengal—is to be so long? More than a thousand pages!’ she exclaimed reproachfully, as if he were personally responsible for the nervous exhaustion of some future dissertationist.

‘Oh, I don’t know how it grew to be so long,’ said Amit. ‘I’m very undisciplined. But I too hate long books: the better, the worse. If they’re bad, they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they’re good, I turn into a social moron for days, refusing to go out of my room, scowling and growling at interruptions, ignoring weddings and funerals, and making enemies out of friends. I still bear the scars of Middlemarch.’

Middlemarch is about half the length of A Suitable Boy. Seth clearly hopes that his readers will turn into “social morons,” and I suspect that most do. To start a book of 1500 pages can be intimidating, but it isn’t long before you wish it were longer.


What were you doing when man landed on the moon?

I’m listening on the radio to an obituary of Charles Manson, and the “cultural commentator” links Manson’s Family, their murders, and their excesses to the summer of 1969, a beautiful summer, being the high water mark of that decade of change. The murdered president, JFK, had promised that the US would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, and on 20 July 1969 it happened. Sharon Tait and her friends were murdered by the Manson Family on 9 August 1969. Talk of the moon landing reminded me of the absurd thing I was doing when man landed on the moon.

In the summer of 1969 I was 17, bursting with hormones and lust, and obsessed with Susan Collins, a beautiful girl who attended a convent and wore dark eye make-up and black flowing clothes. Although a Young Communist who attended anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, I was like a typical adolescent largely wrapped up in my own world: I hadn’t paid much attention to the moonshot.

On the evening of 20 July I rang up Susan. Her father answered the phone. I asked to speak to Susan, and he quickly shouted to her. She came to the phone.

“Hallo,” she said, “what on earth are you doing? Do you not know that man is walking on the moon for the first time?”

I didn’t. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’ll ring back later.” I felt extremely foolish, and I concluded ringing at such a moment would indicate not my ardour but my idiocy.


As a footnote, Susan later became a female separatist, cutting herself all from all men, including her father, and becoming a lesbian. Some 30 years later I met her again at the filming of a television programme called “Fat Bloke,” another episode that demonstrated my foolishness.

Who will get the girl?

Reading Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy day after day is like living a second life. That’s true, I suppose, of all good novels, but the great length and vast scope and ambition of A Suitable Boy makes it especially engaging. I will experience a small death when I finish it. But what grabbed me today was what I thought might be a clue as to who gets the girl.

As the title suggests, one of the themes of the book is one central to all mothers but perhaps especially true of South Asian mothers: finding a good husband for your daughter. Mrs Mehra Rupra, a largely comic figure, is trying to find he husband for her daughter Lata. We care a lot about Lata: she’s highly intelligent, creative, fun, sensitive, tolerant of her crazy mother, good to others, a lover of poetry (an important signal with Seth), and capable of strong emotion. We want her to find a good husband.

One candidate is Kabir, a handsome, smart cricketer. He’s madly in love with Lata, and she loves him. In one crazy moment she offered to elope with him, but he declined. Lata is left feeling silly, and the big problem is that Lata is a Hindu and Kabir a Muslim, although neither of them devout. For Mrs Mehra Rupra it’s unthinkable that her daughter should marry a Muslim, and Lata does not want to disobey her. She tries her hardest to suppress her love.

The second candidate is the dreamy Amit, a published poet from Calcutta. Although he trained as a lawyer, he’s abandoned law for writing–and is writing a novel on the Bengal Famine. He’s too inert and indecisive to find a wife, despite being much sought after, and lives at home although he’s 30. His two pushy sisters think that he should marry Lata and plot accordingly. Their plot stirs something in Amt, and slowly he begins to think that he might love Lata. Mrs Mehra Rupra has, however, the traditional suspicion of poets.

Her favourite is Haresh, the third candidate. His introduction to Lata has been arranged, and they have all the awkwardness of learning to know each other with a possibility of marrying. Haresh is hardworking. ambitious, and extremely capable: he increases production in the shoe company where he works from under 200 pairs of shoes a day to over 600. But he’s lowly compared with the Brahmin Amit. In addition to working in a shoe factory, he dresses in a way that Lata’s snobbish and unattractive brother Arun finds flashy and common.

But the section I read this morning suggests to me that a fourth–so far undeclared– candidate may be the winner. The section described a cricket match. Cricket, as everybody who knows anything about South Asia knows, is central to South Asian life–and ideal for providing metaphors.

Kabir is batting for the university in a match against the alumni, and Lata, as he knows, is watching. He’s taken a hat trick, and now he’s made a century. He’s very much the man of the match. It’s the last ball of the match, and he needs to hit a six for the university to win. He makes a huge hit, and as the ball is in the air victory seems certain. But then unexpectedly Maan, a desultory cricketer who has been put on the boundary to be out of the way, leans back over the boundary rope and catches the ball. If he falls over the boundary then it will be a six rather than a wicket, but he doesn’t. The alumni win, for the first time in many years.

I read this as a signal, plus we have got to know Maan better than any other man in the book. He is the younger brother of Lata’s brother-in-law, and he’s a waster. He doesn’t know what to do with himself. He has a business in another city, but he neglects it. He drinks and plays polo, and worst of all he becomes obsessed with and regularly sleeps with a Muslim courtesan. She likes him too because he’s handsome, charming, funny, generous, good natured, and has a poetic soul. Plus we have recently discovered that he’s extremely brave and sharp witted, saving the life of his Muslim friend caught up in Hindu-Muslim riots.

We have come to love and admire Maan as we have Lata, and my money is on him to be the suitable boy, although he started off extremely unsuitable. (If you read this and know the answer, please don’t tell me.)

Suitable Boy

Remembering Vonnegut

I went to a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut some 30 years ago, and I still remember some of it. Most of the lectures I went to 30 years ago I don’t remember at all, so it’s a tribute to Vonnegut that I remember something.

It’s perhaps especially surprising in that I remember him saying about his experience of teaching at New York University: “The lectures I gave were so boring that I used to fall asleep in them myself.”

He said how he never ever had any love in his novels–“Because if you do readers care only whether the boy gets the girl and pay no attention to anything else.”

Vonnegut came from Indianapolis and said: “Where I come from we have no culture. If we want a song we fly in Frank Sinatra and if we want a joke we fly in Bob Hope.”

I should confess that I don’t, of course, remember his exact words–so I shouldn’t put them in quotes; but I don’t think he’d mind–and he’s been dead for 10 years.

“We are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

This comes from an interview with Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve loved it for 20 years and you might too.

“I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterward I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “Okay, I’ll send you the pages.”

Then I go down the steps and my wife calls, “Where are you going?” “Well,” I say, “I’m going to buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in the closet.” And I say, “Hush.”

So I go to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately.

I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of Forty-seventh Street and Second Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it.

Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home.

And I’ve had a hell of a good time. I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.”


When death took a holiday

I’m working on a Lancet Commission on the Value of Death, and I’m gathering material. That’s what led me to my 2009 review in the BMJ of José Saramago’s novel Death at Intervals. http://www.bmj.com/content/338/bmj.b941  I and the rest of the team will be grateful for any material or thoughts you might like to share on the value of death.

“If,” wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein, “you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be truly strange if, in doing so, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic fields.” José Saramago, the Portuguese author who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1998, prefaces his novel  Death at Intervals with this quotation—and presumably saw it as a challenge. He rises to the challenge with aplomb, and Wittgenstein would not be disappointed.

Saramago’s first way to think about death is to imagine that it stops. The “death strike” begins with the New Year in an unnamed country. It takes a while for people to realise that nobody is dying, and the health minister immediately gets into a mess by telling the people, as is the instinct with politicians, that nobody should be alarmed. A cardinal is, however, alarmed: “Without death there is no resurrection, and without resurrection there is no church.”

But once the people realise that death is no more “a high tide of collective joy sweeps the country.” The joy is, of course, short lived for some. Undertakers are the first to ask the government for support—rather as banks, car manufacturers, and private schools are doing now in Britain. The answer is for the undertakers to bury cats, dogs, and other domestic animals with full funereal rites. Next to complain are the directors of hospitals, which have rapidly filled and become “cemeteries of the living.”

In the middle of a characteristic Saramago sentence, more than two pages long, he writes of how “the rhomboid of the ages will be swiftly turned on its head, with a gigantic, ever-growing mass of old people at the top, swallowing up like a python the new generation, who, transformed for the most part into nursing or administrative staff to work at these eventide homes…” Such a future, which we are experiencing in the real world where death is only partly interrupted, is, he writes, “the worst nightmare that could ever have assailed a human being.”

The people, as they quickly begin to realise that the end of death is far from a cause of joy, demonstrate their initiative by taking relatives who are near death over the border, where they die and can be buried—overtones here perhaps of euthanasia. The “maphia, with a ph” quickly turn this transportation of the nearly dead into a business and blackmail the government into supporting them.

Eventually death has had enough. She—because death for Saramago is female—sends a violet coloured letter to the director general of the television station announcing that she’ll resume work at midnight and that henceforth people will be told a week in advance of their death. The note is grammatically weak, and one newspaper publishes a corrected version. This infuriates death, who sends a letter for publication: “Dear sir, I am not Death, but death, Death is something of which you could never conceive, and please note, mister grammarian, that I did not conclude that phrase with a preposition, you human beings know only the small death . . . one day you will find out about Death with a capital D.”

People hear of their forthcoming deaths in violet coloured letters delivered by the postman, and, unsurprisingly, the advance warning is hated. Death personally signs 250 letters a day but is very taken aback when one letter keeps coming back. Manifested as a beautiful 36 year old, death sets off to explore, and the last quarter of the book becomes small scale and personal in contrast to the large public stage of the first three quarters.

The letter that kept returning was intended for a 50 year old cellist, and death tracks him down. Seduced partly by the charms of the cellist and his dog and partly by Bach’s sixth suite for solo cello (and who couldn’t be?), death ends up in bed with the cellist, and, as she neglects her duties, the book ends with the same sentence with which it began: “The following day, no one died.”

Can doctors, many of whom deal with death every day, learn something from this fictional examination of death? I think so. The book might be thought of as a series of thought experiments, and they illustrate the centrality of death to human experience. Ivan Illich accused doctors of destroying cultural mechanisms of dealing with death in their implicit attempt to defeat it, and Saramago, while hardly mentioning doctors, warns too against attempts to push back death too far.

Death at intervals