Weight of Giving Series 2005-2006
Sarah Rice completed a graduate diploma in Ceramics at the School of Art, ANU in February 2006. This is an excerpt from her research report.
This series consists of large platters (approx. 45x45x25cm), constructed from a variety of different raku clay-bodies, built around a plaster hump mould on which a slip monoprint is made and transferred to the surface. The prints are produced from multiple layers of different coloured slips and stains, and the imagery of the print is extended to the edges and base of the platters with extra slip-painting, sgraffito and carving. These platters have a weighty archaeological appearance with a strong contrast between the smooth satin texture of the earthenware-based monoprint and the rough, stony appearance of the raku form. A similar contrast exists between the fineness of the line-work and mark-making within the print and the bold, somewhat brutal line-work exhibited in the rough gouging and scratching involved in the carving. These platters are mid-fired in reduction which produces a smoky greyish appearance in the clays and keeps the series fairly monochromatic.
These ceramic works are motivated by an interest in the processes of meaning, knowledge and representation, particularly as these processes function through the movement of metaphor and metamorphosis. The process and operation of knowledge is the central and motivational concept within my work, relying as it does on ideas of mapping the unknown, the grasping hand of knowledge versus the offering of a gift, the escape and resistance to total grasp, and the perspectival nature of knowledge which has no objective core, illustrated by the layered palimpsest with its erasures and over-writings.
The platter-form itself anticipates and initiates the conceptual framework with which to discuss these works. The concept of metaphor, defined as the 'carrying over in thought', carries over into the use of the platter-form as a vessel for 'carrying over from one to another'. That is, the platter can be a vessel-form used for offering - it can function as a symbol for generosity and hospitality: what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas refers to in terms of the 'gift', which for him denotes the heavy ethical obligation incumbent on humans to respond to and be responsible for another person. In these terms, the platter as representative of the 'gift' motivates my 'Weight of Giving' series.
This series explores the tension inherent within Levinas' notion of the gift as both the carrying-over, or movement towards the Other in a gesture of hospitality, but also, the 'impossibility' of the gift, the weighty responsibility to give-up what one cannot give. These are large, weighty, hand-built platters which demonstrate the difficulty and burden of selfless giving. The idea of the gift relates to the process of knowledge by being set in opposition to the 'grasp', a concept explained by Levinas in terms of objects being "taken in hand" (Levinas 1998: 50). That is, rather than knowledge describing the movement of the hand that takes, grasps, brings back to itself, knowledge becomes, for Levinas, the offering of the hand that gives and provides. Levinas emphasises that it is only in so far as the Subject can make the world (a) present to the Other, and present it to the Other by way of a gift, that the world becomes objectively knowable. For Levinas, I, as the knowing Subject, "must know how to give what I possess" (Levinas 1969: 171). The concepts of the 'gift' and the 'grasp' will be further explained below, particularly in detailing how they inform the aesthetic dimension of these works.
Related to the tension between the 'gift' and the 'grasp', is the tension between the textured appearance of these platters as archaeological stone: rigid, monolithic; and the loose, dynamic, lively imagery of the fish and the sea printed on their surface. For Friedrich Nietzsche, the idea of metaphor involves the idea of fixing in stone; mummifying the metaphors on which life depends into lifeless, unchanging concepts that are deemed true and objective for all time, thus demonstrating humankind's inability to hold onto the flux of life or onto live thoughts. In his characteristically poetic aphoristic style, he says:
Possessing opinions is like possessing fish, assuming one has a fish pond. One has to go fishing and needs some luck - then one has one's own fish, one's own opinions. I am speaking of live opinions, of live fish. Others are satisfied if they own a cabinet of fossils - and in their heads, 'convictions.' (Nietzsche1989: 317)
This tension between live thought (symbolised by the 'fish'), and rigid concept (symbolised by the 'fossil') is evident in my 'Weight of Giving' platter series which draws on imagery of fish and the sea, and yet whose material presence appears as stone; fossilised, archaeological. This platter series attempts to capture the meaning of the 'metaphoric', as the solidifying attempt to capture the metaphor and transform it into rigid 'form'.
Alongside these archaeological aspects, some cartographic elements can also be discerned in the mark-making. These cartographic elements refer to the process of knowledge as an attempt to map the unknown; the idea that by tracing our horizons and borders we somehow lay claim to exterior spaces and make them interior to us, known to us, whereby we can master them and claim sovereignty over them (another instance of the 'grasp').
Finally, the idea that knowledge is a palimpsest with no core, only sedimentary layers of meaning, motivates my work. These platters take the metaphor of knowledge as a palimpsest, where meaning is layered and overlaid, as the basis of their construction. That is, the plaster monoprints are made up in layer after layer of painted slip. The imagery is often scratched or sponged back to reveal other layers beneath, and the whole process must be layered backwards - that is, starting with the front layers and exposing the hidden ones behind. Furthermore, the monoprinting process often leaves only a portion of the print adhering onto the surface of the platter. This allows two further stages which continue the palimpsest theme. First, it allows me to continue the pattern of the print on the underneath layer of exposed clay surface by carving the imagery into it or painting it with slips. This allows several layers of imagery to build up, each existing on a different level but speaking of a certain depth of expression which continues through the layers of slip print to the surface of the platter itself. Secondly, this partial print results in some of the original print being left on the surface of the plaster which allows for the next print to be built up over the top, with the result that the final print is a combination of layers of previous prints.
Knowledge as the attempt to grasp the ungraspable, or of the world to elude and escape this hold is portrayed through the distortion, cracks, breakages, etc. that tear the object away from our intentional grasp. Thus, the handles of these platter forms are torn, twisted, and pulled, bearing the mark of the maker, and thereby establishing a physical link to the hand that will next hold and use them. Similarly, the cracked surface of the earthenware print over the raku clay body demonstrates the tension existing between materials pulled by different rates of expansion and contraction, parallelling the process of knowledge in terms of layering, overlaying, fragmentation, and deconstruction.
Levinas explains that to know amounts to grasping being out of nothing or reducing it to nothing (Levinas 1969: 44). For Levinas, to conceptualise is to seize and possess. He discusses consciousness and knowledge in terms of "exposure to the grasp, hold, comprehension, appropriation" (Levinas 1986: 35). It is because the Subject is free to know, which means free to comprehend and thereby possess and appropriate, that knowledge comprises the bedrock of all forms of domination, totalisation and totalitarianism. Levinas explains: "here every power begins. The surrender of exterior things to human freedom through their generality does not only mean, in all innocence, their comprehension, but also their being taken in hand, their domestication, their possession" (Levinas 1998: 50). The current 'Weight of Giving' series embodies the notion of the 'grasp' in terms of the method of construction made by grasping a slab of clay and twisting, distorting, pulling, ripping it to leave the trace of my grasp, the marks from my fingers, hands, nails, etc within the clay surface and form. For example, the platter's handles are pulled from the clay by my hand, and this grasp will be mirrored later by the grasp of the user. Fingerprints remain and are used as both a design element and as a feature when carving the body.
Part of the rough, pitted, rock-like texture of these platters, and the choice of raku clay with its high grog content, mean that these platters themselves are uncomfortable and difficult for the hand to hold. Although they embody a certain notion of the grasp, they are in themselves an object that cannot easily be grasped, in the same way that the otherness of the other, the external world cannot be completely grasped. This feature may also be seen as part of a strategy, often co-opted by art-forms used for social critique, to make work that is beyond the grasp of society as traditionally conceived. Ceramics is an excellent vehicle to explore how the external world resists and eludes my grasp of it. As a medium, ceramics is formed by the grasp, but often resists it through the cracks, distortions and breakages that accompany the firing process. These platters retain and express the moments when the medium escapes my grasp and knowledge of it. Similarly, the cracks which occur between the print surface constituted from white earthenware and the raku clay body are produced because of the tension between the different rates of shrinkage the two clay bodies undergo during firing.
Ceramics is an interesting medium to explore this notion of the grasp not merely because the objects are literally an expression of the grasp, but also because ceramics itself can be seen to be a metaphorical expression of the grasp. Anna Fariello for instance asks:
What is it about ceramists that they remain forever loyal to the vessel? The concept of containment is a fascinating point of focus. The ability to hold, to save, to possess, these simple basic human capacities were among the first truly human acts. (Fariello 1999: p.30-2)
It is intriguing to me that ceramics is described here in a way that directly parallels what Levinas describes as the operation of knowledge in its attempt to grasp and hold, contain and preserve. While Fariello is specifically concerned with describing the work of Donna Polseno, a figurative ceramic artist, her words have a wider significance for my project, when she says: "[e]mbraced by each figure, the container is a metaphor for its potential to hold, to possess, to preserve." (Fariello 1999: p.30-2) What is crucial to recognise at this point is that the metaphor of knowledge is 'carried' by ceramics as a medium, given precisely its orientation towards the grasp, containment, and preservation. To herald the upcoming theme of the 'gift', we can see that while Fariello describes how through Polseno's use of "the female body as generic being, containment becomes a metaphor for human capacity" (Fariello 1999: p.30-2), these women are "posing in a timeless gesture of ritual offering." (Fariello 1999: p.30-2) Interestingly therefore, ceramics seems to offer the cure as well as the cause of knowledge as 'grasp', and that is, by the 'gift'. Philosopher Martin Heidegger elucidates the potential for 'gift' inherent within the objects of the world: "'To pour from the jug is to give… the jug's jug-character consists in the poured gift of the pouring out. Even the empty jug retains its nature by virtue of the poured gift'" (Heidegger in Newman 1991: 181). Ceramics thus seems well situated as an arena in which my work can navigate between these dual notions of the grasp and the gift.
As mentioned earlier, the platter-form itself is important in conveying the concept of the gift. For instance, when discussing the morphological derivation of the platter, plate, open dish, charger, trencher or tray, Philip Rawson explains that whereas the plate needed to be kept flat, and was thus predominantly for table, "[t]rays or open dishes, on the other hand, are typical serving or offering vessels" (Rawson 1971: 97). The platter is an object which is carried from one to another in a gesture of hospitality, offering, 'gift'. It is this cluster of concepts which motivates this series of work and sits in tension with the other founding metaphor for knowledge - the 'grasp'. Gift lies in opposition to the grasp, it is a form of offering to the other, rather than a form of taking and (mis)taking the Other. 'Gift' precisely captures the sense of the orientation towards otherness, away from the self that is necessary for knowledge to avoid falling into Totalitarianism for Levinas. Thus, for Levinas, I, as the knowing Subject, must "refuse both enjoyment and possession, I must know how to give what I possess" (Levinas 1969: 171).
And yet Levinas also discusses the impossibility of the gift: that is a gift is only really a gift if I cannot give it. A gift that is unwanted by its owner is not a gift: instead, there is an inherent difficulty in giving away that which one does not want to give up. This impossibility or weightiness of the 'gift' is expressed in the physical weight of these platters, their ragged texture and the near impossibility of lifting them, let alone carrying them to another as a gesture of offering. To bear these platters as the symbol of gift is to bear a heavy burden, as is expressed in the title for the series: the 'Weight of Giving'.
The weight of these platters combined with their heavy, traditional 'foot', bear witness to their contradictory status as vessels of offering. That is, the foot grounds these platters, gives them a tendency to stay put, to stand, to remain unmoved. The foot is a "'symbol, here do I touch earth, on this I stand, my Terminus'" (see de Waal 2003: 91) - such is the tendency of humanity to remain committed to the standpoint of the self in the face of the difficulty of moving ever outwards in a gesture of responsibility and hospitality to the other.
Dr Sarah Rice
Lecturer, Art Theory Workshop
ANU School of Art
Following the lead of other ceramic artists like Curtis Benzle, who is fascinated by cracks as part of the working process, I too reinforce and even emphasize them in this series. Benzle explains that '[f]rom the beginning, there were often small cracks. And in the past, I would throw away pieces with significant cracks. When pieces appear with significant cracks today, I think, 'Excellent! Better! It's a better piece.'" (Ambrust 2004: 66)
- Ambrust, Margaret (2004) 'The Phoenix Lives: Curtis Benzle on Porcelain and Repairs', Ceramics Monthly, February, p.66
- De Waal, Edmund (2003) 20th Century Ceramics, Thames & Hudson, London
- Fariello, Anna (1999) 'The Container as Metaphor: Figurative Works by Donna Polseno', Ceramics, no. 37, pp.30-2
- Levinas, Emmanuel (1998) 'Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity', in Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh
- Levinas, Emmanuel (1986) 'Bad Conscience and the Inexorable', in Richard A. Cohen (ed.) Face to Face with Levinas, State University of New York Press, Albany
- Levinas, Emmanuel (1969) Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh
- Newman, Michael (1991) 'Richard Deacon and the End of Nature', in (eds.) Bann, S. and Allen, W., Interpreting Contemporary Art, Reaktion Books, London
- Nietzsche, Friedrich (1989) On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. W. Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books, Random House, New York
- Rawson, Philip (1971) Ceramics, Oxford University Press, Oxford