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Weird Matter

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Here is a quick look back at my time studying Ceramics and Glass at the RCA and the final project that emerged at the end of it.

For the first blog post on my website I wanted to take a minute to reflect back on my degree show project and talk about how my research and developing material knowledge over the 2 years of study led to my final body of work at the degree show.

This project grew from a fascination with materials and how they change through the firing process. I spent most of my 2nd year of the MA exploring certain materials, such as manganese and copper, attempting to find out their peculiarities and learn how they behave as they are being fired. I became fascinated by the transformations that happen to clay and glaze mixtures, and as I developed a knowledge of the variety of textures and colours that can be derived from raw materials, I became amazed by the strangeness of certain results and their apparent 'unnatural' appearance. For the end project I focused on the behaviour of several metal oxides; cobalt , manganese and copper, and designed forms that were inspired by these characteristics. To do this I pursued a range of different techniques of making, slip casting in porcelain, press moulding and glass casting. Although my research was very technical it was not my intention to simply demonstrate this information in the final show. My aim was to express the characteristics of these materials through various stages of growth and decay, to suggest a personality to them.

New inspirations

A big inspiration for this body of work was 'The Periodic Table' by Primo Levi. I read this at the beginning of the year and it had a profound effect on the way I viewed the materials I was working with, and the relationship between human experience and the materials of the world around us. It is a book that uses elements of the periodic table to retell stories from the authors life as a chemist and survivor of the holocaust. Rather than being an empirical description of each of the element's characteristics, the stories are deeply personal and poetic, expressing the nature of the particular material and an aspect of human nature within the same story.

This sentiment was also prevalent in my dissertation research, which drew on the philosophies of the Alchemists, as early scientists who developed their own personal psychology and understanding of the universe through the technical mastery of physical materials. I saw the way in which they worked through a processing of raw material, to refine it, develop it and understand it to reach a state of perfection, as a fundamental human activity that strongly relates to the activities of an artist. This is most notable through the activities of ceramic and glass artists as we use fire to transform raw materials into a different state.

Consequently my work became focused on using the transformations occurring during the firing process as inspiration to explore the relation between human experience and physical processes of the substance of the world around us.

Drawing from the past

Through my discoveries in the ceramics and glass studio I found a way of articulating a quality I have long been interested in within my practice as a sculptor. This is an encounter with strangeness and something ambiguously 'other'. I have been strongly influenced by science fiction literature and cinema in the past, which is often described as using the narrative device of 'cognitive estrangement'. This relates to it's ability to offer an experience of something uncannily different, that can be alluring and terrifying at the same time, but that is ultimately used to allow a broader perspective, to look back on the familiar with new light.

The interior atmospheres of cast glass and the strange textures and colours of ceramic tests I was creating in the studio, reminded me of the landscapes and atmospheres of science fiction (particularly the sub-genre of Weird Fiction), such as the strange landscapes in Roadside Picnic, Van Der Meer's Annihilation and the worlds created by H P Lovecraft and Olaf Stapleton.

Just the beginning..

With these ideas in mind I designed a varied collection of objects resembling a landscape or cityscape. These included architectural shapes and organic amorphous forms, all of the pieces expressing some form of growth or decay. It was important to me to include elements that appeared perfected, or man made, and some that appears biological or geological.

This display was primarily a starting point, there are many more possibilities in the research I have collected and I am excited to process these into more exhibitions in the near future!

Further reading..

Weird matter project images

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

Roadside Picnic by The Strugatsky Brothers

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

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