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.