10th October, 2023
For the past year, mostly spent in Italy in Rome I have been working with food as part of my art practice, such as investigations into dough - dough for making sculpture and dough for making food such as pasta and bread. Both types (sculpture and food) I have been exploring their materiality, and connections between the dough and other types of materials. Making a distinction between the edible and the non-edible material/objects, I make one on a clean table for cooking and eating, and the other on the floor for sculpture. There are further differences between the dough food and dough sculpture, such as the scale, ingredients, presentation and context.
On the 38 bus heading towards my studio in Angel Islington yesterday, the bus pulled up outside a small restaurant called the Afghan Kitchen on Essex Road. I see through the window someone eating. Their plate has food on it, a type of stew or curry with rice. On the table are two bowls with the two foods - Stew and rice. Taking a spoon they proceed to scoop more stew from the small serving dish onto their plate, making sure they get every morsel from the dish onto their plate. They then spoon rice that is in a similar size bowl onto their plate. They sprinkle the rice over the stew then mix the rice and stew together on the plate with a fork. I can see their hands, and also under the table their feet, and I wonder what the rest of them looks like. The bus nudges forward and I see a young slim man wearing large headphones, eating his carefully plated meal. I don’t know what kind of life or profession this person has, whether they are someone who works with their hands or are in front of a computer all day. What I do understand is how they use cutlery and approach food, and the careful and slow way they maneuver both, the dexterity of their hands, the individual manner in which they sprinkle the rice over their meal, opposed to placing the stew on top of the rice, as is more common.
I have never much liked food that is only one texture, such as blended soup, even if the taste is complex. I became heightened to this when I recently bought a block of baked ricotta in the central food market in Turin. I was attracted to this cheese by the way it looked - totally black and charred. The ricotta must have been baked on open flames to get its intense burnt exterior.
So what is sculpture? More specifically what particular qualities of sculpture am I engaged with that connect so closely to my experience of food? Sculpture is material and has a direct relationship firstly to my physical body, and then my emotional and mental body, whether as maker or viewer. It is wrapped up in the language of materiality, process and making. It challenges my understanding of inside and outside, and requires me to move around it to make sense of it. It deals with and impacts on the space around, and ignites the senses such as exploring texture, mass, weight and gravity. It explores ideas of touch. Even when we do not touch sculpture it pulls from previous experiences for us to engage with touch through our eyes. Sculpture challenges our existence in the here and now, and is a shared experience with others in the same space.
19th August, 2022
Pasta dough - salt dough
This back and forth between home and studio, is now just about location and hygiene, as the experimentation and play I am so comfortable with in my studio is beginning to happen at home with my pasta making. One process feeding into the other, absorbing the experience of both. The one real difference is that my pasta is for cooking and eating, whereas my salt dough is not, which means my salt dough objects can be any size, and can include non-edible material. I’m very aware when making pasta for eating that each chosen shape - farfalle, cavatelli, rigatoni, quadrucci, penne etc, needs to be replicated to cook at the same speed and of a size that can fit into a human mouth. My objects in the studio on the other hand have no restraints other than to explore the capabilities of the material itself. I think what I do with all material is to try and understand how they behave, testing their strengths and weaknesses to see how I can work with them. There are no two materials that behave in the same way, so how I make and what evolves through these processes and material negotiations is unique to every material I go on a journey with.
2nd February, 2022
The Colour of Stuff
Colour for me is a thing, a material, mass - not a surface, an image, or a painting. Whenever I use bright colours in my sculpture you can be sure a painter will say, it’s so painterly! For them maybe, but for me not at all. The world is full of colour - the colour of material, objects, landscape, these are the colours I use and are interested in, not to make an image of colourful things but to use colourful stuff, brown - grey - black - white clay, yellow - blue - green - orange plastics, white - pink - yellow - purple paper …
I’m interested in the colour of objects and materials, such as the colour range of polystyrene and foam for grading it’s density, the colour of gripping studs on artificial climbing walls to map an easy or difficulty route, the colour of plasticine for modeling sculpture or playing with as a children. In fact, I’m interested in the colour of most stuff, but particular the stuff that when you cut through it is the same colour throughout, and not just a skin on the surface - sprayed, painted, dipped to disguise, or cover what is underneath.
Before I piss-off all you painters - of course sculpture can be painting, and painting can be sculpture - but the presumption that colour in art must be about or influenced by painting then think again. I must remind the painting community that there was colour before there was painting. I attended a conference last week which focused on exploring less familiar sculptural materials, and I found myself smiling when Rupert Harris when delivering his paper: Cast Lead Sculpture Production in Continental Europe and England in the 17th and 18th Centuries, referred to painting as a useful device to document sculpture, I knew there was some use for it!
When we come across an object we calculate the surface to help us understand what the object is made of. Sometimes this is obvious and other times more mysterious. Is the outer appearance where the material of which the object is made of encounters the air and atmosphere, such as if we were to cut through a block of wet clay, what we would see on the surface is where the knife has exposed the clay to the atmosphere which in time reacts to the air and dries it out. Or is the appearance of the outer surface a layer that has been added to cover, contain the materials/objects beneath. I’m looking at my water bottle on my desk right now which has a bright blue matt speckled finish on its surface, a paint that I presume has been sprayed on to cover the metal underneath, the material that makes up the water bottle and which contains the water inside. I’m fascinated by the surfaces we can see and whether they are the same as the materials beyond the surface - the material mass of the object, which may be made up of a range of different materials.
I think you can tell when a surface you are looking at is the same-coloured material as beneath the surface, inside the object. A cut, a slice, a crack, an impression will usually penetrate through the surface into the object and reveal what is behind, whereas a flatter, manufactured or treated surface is probably sprayed, dipped or painted, to disguising what is beneath, or maybe to enhance what is underneath - such as a polish or varnish, but essentially trapping what is inside and distancing the viewer/handler from the materials the object is made of.
A lot of deception is played out when what we can see is different to what an object is actually made of - what is underneath the surface. Artists and designers do this all the time, coat the surfaces of an objects to appear different to what the actual object is made from. Such as a heavy object appearing to be lightweight, or a lightweight object appearing heavy. For example, to flock the surface of an object. (Flocking is the process of depositing many small fiber particles, called flock onto a surface, which takes the appearance of velvet.) An object when coated with this can then appear soft and light and not heavy. I have to say this does not always work as we are very good at deciphering weight and density of an object, even without touching it. A give away is often to observe how an object makes contact with the surface it is sitting on. A heavy object will connect snuggly with the surface it sits on, whereas a lightweight object with less downward gravitational pull will not achieve as good a contact seal and will invariably reveal a shadow line along the base where small gaps appear between the object and the ground it sits on. I often find myself observing an object’s contact with its plinth, also the joins within it to understand how it is produced and what it is made from, such as to observe the lines where the object has been stuck together, perhaps cast from a mold, or what screws, nails, rivets hold it together. There is a complex language of how things are stuck or held together. Every material has unique materials that are specifically made to bond them to the same or different materials. Check out the website www.thistothat.com
The colouring of stuff is often for very practical reasons, to identify grades and density of material, reflect or absorb light, stand out or camouflage into the landscape, catch our attention in the dark and so on. I remember many years ago in my local large hardware store filling my trolley with anything and everything pale grey in colour. I gathered a vast range of small objects, such as fixtures and fittings for bathrooms, kitchens, and gardens – screws, rivets, buttons, plugs etc. When I got to the checkout the person on the counter was totally baffled by my purchases. I did not feel I could share with them my reasons for wanting just grey objects, it was clear that I had no interest in their function! My plan was to embed these small ready-mades into clear resin to mimic the colour and texture of natural granite. I think I just quickly packed my bags and left.
It is an interesting experiment to visit a place of objects, whether that be a museum or hardware store, and focus only on one aspect of any given object in that place. For example, to look at just its colour or its material and see where that takes you… It allows you to appreciate objects for different and unexpected reasons, a screw for its matt back texture, or Peruvian wood carving for the dark brown holes made by burrowing wood worm. Everywhere we go we are given very clear context of how to engage with the stuff, but sometimes it is exciting and revealing to select your own context, which can expose extraordinary aspects of objects, such as why certain objects are coded in particular colours, or how the Elgin marbles in the British Museum reveal particular weather conditions they have endured over the ages, made apparent by the stones strata, separating and worn away by the wind and the rain.
I usually don’t choose colour for my work, but accept the colour that a material comes in. I then must deal with its colour and what that might bring to the works meaning. Choosing colour for an object can be difficult, so I like to leave that to the manufacturer or to nature. The colour of my works are the colour of the materials I use, and I hardly ever coat my objects with an additional covering colour, unless I’m exploring the materiality of the covering. I can hear painters saying - yes but paint is material, but I would say the materiality of paint on paintings is usually contained to a flat surface, even if applied very thickly, with an aim to communicate an image whether figurative or abstract and, also has to bear the complicated weight of a painting history and language which I prefer to by-pass.
I love ‘not ‘to think about how a colour might sit next to another colour, other than dealing with it when it happens through the colours the material happens to be. I was using coloured tissue paper in some recent work, using it in the rainbow order of which it was displayed in the packaging. I suppose been driven by the colours of materials, rather than selecting colours for materials exposes the materiality of things beyond their appearance and physical behaviour, such as to unravel social, commercial and politics of materials, which take on a multitude of extra meaning.
1st December, 2021
This extraordinary bean discovered in equatorial South America some 5,300 years ago before being introduced in Central America by the Mexicans, has become a go-to treat for many of us. It comes in all shapes, sizes, grades, flavours, packaging and prices. Attending a chocolate master class yesterday I learnt how it is grown, harvested and manufactured. I handled and tasted a range of solid and liquid chocolate and made truffles, pralines, bars and drinks.
Interesting fact - chocolate has to be a minimum 20-22% cocoa to be called chocolate, which is why Cadbury’s and many other cheap sweet chocolate equivalents are sold under the category of confectionary, meaning they are below this percentage and cannot be called chocolate. Notice Cadbury’s don’t use the word chocolate on their packaging, instead use the term ‘dairy milk’. This is because none of it is chocolate, just flavoured with it. In the class with me were two American women who had arrived in London that morning on the Eurostar from Paris. They were taking a quick European tour and were obsessed with searching out good quality chocolate. Interesting and dare I say not surprising there is no percentage law in America with regards to cocoa content, which is why so much American chocolate is pretty awful. No wonder they came to London to search out real chocolate!
Part of our master class experience was to taste a range of chocolate - from dark chocolate of 90% cocoa through to milk chocolate and white chocolate, which interestingly has no cocoa in it, just flavoured cocoa butter, so really can’t be called chocolate. What was interesting about handling the chocolate was it reminded me of working with other materials such as glass, plaster and liquid porcelain, all of which have similar transformative qualities. When they cool or dry they shift from runny to hard in a relatively short period of time. Glass for example, has to be hot to maintain its malleability, as soon as it starts to cool it stabilises very quickly. Like chocolate this transformation is reversible and when reheated becomes workable again. When working with warm/hot chocolate once removed from the heat you have to work fast to apply it, such as to pipe into chocolate moulds or to coat chocolate shapes. The ‘time’ of chocolate changes depending on what you mix with it - cream to make a ganache, honey to flavour and so on. The added sugar and fat prolongs the hardening keeping it malleable for longer, so giving more time to work with it.
The chocolatier running our class provided us with bowls of hot and cold chocolate which we then added textures - cornflakes, chilli, salt and nuts using a range of equipment to help manipulate it - pestle and mortar, piping bags, spachelors and knives. Firstly, taking the roasted bean we broke away the husk and crushed it releasing the fat until it became a paste. This paste forms the basis of all chocolate.
Tasting chocolate is like tasting wine and requires a developed palate to experience the subtle range of tastes and aromas. You place the chocolate on your tongue and wait for it to melt, then allow the experience of the different flavours to travel around your mouth - the warmth of cinnamon, the after taste of bananas, the texture of velvet and tingle of chilli all of which I experienced slowly and at a push with my underdeveloped palate. Sometimes you know a taste but can’t identity it. It is easy to recognise the taste of things you can see, but place that taste in something you don’t recognise and it becomes more difficult to identify. We were given a sample of low quality chocolate amongst a range of good quality chocolate samples. It was interesting how this basic grade of chocolate was kind of ok! But did not have the range and depth of flavours delivered by the better one - it was boring and one-dimensional in comparison, whereas the good chocolate delivered a range of taste experiences as it travelled around my mouth. I became acutely aware through this tasting experience of the sensitivity of my taste buds, the time it took for them to be ignited by the chocolate, how the taste changed as it melted in my mouth, and how different parts of my mouth picked up on particular flavour notes. Not forgetting the smell that I’m sure was affecting all my experiences that day.
The urgency of the material from warm flowing to cool and brittle was fascinating. When tempering the chocolate; this is a process of heating and cooling by spreading and reshaping the chocolate on a cool surface to stabilise it and which gives it its glossy appearance when set; you can see the transformation unfold in front of you. The viscosity of the chocolate changes, transforming it from a glossy flow to a dull creeping matter, and one step further into lumpy clogs if it cools too quickly.
Once we had filled our truffles we dipped our hands into warm runny chocolate to coat them. Working fast is necessary so that you coat them evenly. Once coated you place them on a tray to decorate. But, instead of following the advice I slowed the process down much to the horror of the tutor, so I could watch my hands become clogged up with the cooling hardening chocolate. I wanted to observe and feel this transformation without the pressure of making the perfect truffle. When the chocolate went hard around my hands and fingers I took satisfaction to crack it off revealing fragmented casts of my hands. It reminded me of mixing plaster in my studio when suddenly the mixture can go lumpy and hard if you make it too thick or leave it to long. This transformational moment is rapid and uncontrollable, and in the instance of plaster is irreversible, but if you go with it and not resist it, it can reveal qualities in the material that are intriguing, such as dramatic changes in the materials temperature, the different extent and speed in which the material hardens. There is a seductiveness to wet glossy materials that when dried loose that luscious quality. The tempering of chocolate allows the chocolate to harden while maintaining its glossiness. It a shame we can’t do this with other materials, such as clay and plaster, that loose their surface glistening sensuality when dry. I’m not sure why we find shiny things more appealing than dull/matt ones!
Chocolate is an amazing material that is not just a physical material, but social and political like so many materials. I have not touched on the labour intensive process of the production of chocolate or the problems associated with its consumption with regards to obesity and diabetes, due to the increase of sugar in so many of our food products including confectionary. But, the one thing I think most of us can agree on is that in whatever form we eat chocolate it ignites a sense of pleasure, whether a short fix or life long love affair.
20th October, 2021
The definition of the centre of gravity is the place in a system or body where the weight is evenly dispersed and all sides are in balance.
I don’t usually talk about my studio practice in these Tenderfoot writings, but given my fixation over the past year with dealing with this natural phenomenon in my work I feel compelled to write about it here. Many of the sculptures I have been making recently deal with gravity as much as they deal with the materials they are made of. Gravity is the invisible material in the room that can’t be ignored - it charges every molecule of space affecting every thing in it. Over lockdown I wanted to make large work, works that aimed to go as high as possible without falling down. I think it was a reaction to seeing on Instagram an increase of small bedroom art made during this period. Luckily I live very near my studio so I did not have to move my art practice into domesticity.
How to make large works without taking up too much floor space. I have a very high ceiling in my studio so loads of air space, but limited floor space. So I started small and went up. Starting with a circle of material on the floor and then built towards the ceiling without a plan of exactly how it would grow, the aim was to make decisions, one step at a time, based on gravitational occurrences and to maintain its upright trajectory, while also pushing the material and the form to the limits.
I pushed the materials and process (circular coiling technique using silicone rubber combined with tissue paper) to points where I felt out of control, and then pulling the materials back into my control. As the forms grew this became more challenging, a lean to the left counterbalanced with a lean to the right. The pressure on the material at the bottom of the sculpture became greater as it grew, this impact continually shifting the works centre of gravity, so adjustments had to be made from one moment to the next. This process of constant adaption and reacting in the moment I find addictive and surprising, with any plans I make for the work immediately challenged by the materials and gravity.
The centre of gravity is not always easy to calculate visually when the weight of the material varies as the structure grows. For example, a protrusion to the right with extra material pushed inside for reinforcement, when counter balancing to the left a few feet up may not need such a counter lean due to the lesser weight of material in this higher section. Also, these are three dimensional objects that have no right and left, but are in the round - irregular columns that from one angle may appear in total balance and from another look like they are on the brink of toppling.
I am very interested in the viewers experience of these works, how they might grapple with looking at the work, where to position themselves in relation to them, perhaps a position that feels most….. most precarious, most balanced, most safe or unsafe…. I like the fact these works cant’ be contained in an image, they resist a fixed view and need to be physically circumnavigated to be experienced fully.
So back to this thing of gravity and where the centre is. You may have come across stones on the beech that people have balanced one on top of the other to make a stack, no glue, no fixings, just using balance and the central gravitational pull to build the stones up. When balancing one object on top of another, it is a matter of trial and error until you can take your hands away and it stays standing with no support. Hard inflexible objects once balanced can stay like that for ages as long as there are no outside interruptions to destabilise, such as the wind, rain, or a person or animal knocking it or just breathing on it. However stacking objects where the material makeup is not fixed, but flexible can be an added problem, as not only is gravity at play but the material behaviour as well. The silicone rubber I use is both malleable when wet and bouncy and flexible when dry, so even if I find the centre of gravity in the work when building it, the flexibility of this material causes movement and shifts in its position even when it is dry challenging its stability even further.
When I am making my work I have more options in how it grows and stands up than with a stone stack, as the material I use is also a glue sticking the layer above to the layer below. So, although I have to work with the centre of gravity, I have greater scope to push it to its limits. I spend ages walking around my work calculating which way to lean next, all done by eye. I sometimes drop a plumb line, a long piece of string with a weight at the bottom along side the work to see where the centre of the base is in relation the centre of the top I am building on, to guide me. The twisting and turning of these columns creates optical illusions, appearing to lean dangerously one way, to then find when I drop my plumb line it is not as precarious as first appears.
As the works grow higher something really exciting happens - because now it is bigger than me, heavier than me it is more present than me and less controllable. This is where it gets really challenging particularly when the top of the work is only accessible with a ladder, and my physical balance is challenged and has to be negotiated alongside the work. The centre of gravity is more difficult to calculate as its gets taller and I spend my time viewing it from every angle to make the next decision. This constant circumnavigating creates a bigger bond between me and it, a growing partnership sometimes to point of dizziness.
The silicone rubbers’ flexibility takes a few weeks to settle once the work is complete. When I showed these sculptures at the Saatchi gallery over the summer one of the pieces was still in settling mode (only just completed) and still on the move! It was leaning slightly more each day. Luckily there were no disasters and the lean was not enough for it to fall over. Monitoring it in the studio now since the show came down, it has settled and is no longer in motion. I much prefer to live with my work for a period of time before exhibiting - but that is not always possible.
I love the way objects and materials take time to settle down. You see this all the time - in architecture, the ground we walk on. Time for the materials to bed down, to fully dry, to connect with the environment they are in. Often materials naturally settle on their own accord, until some outside influence nudges them again. As I go about my day I am aware of the centre of gravity of all manner of object - makeup and hair products, lipstick and lip gloss bottles in my bathroom and cups, glasses and bowls in the kitchen. So many of the products we own are symmetrical to achieve optimum balance, so we then have less need to be concerned with the centre of gravity as we place them on different surfaces. We take for granted that objects are designed to be balanced and centred and not to fall over easily. It is unusual to be confronted with objects designed to topple over for obvious reasons. Even if they appear that way, to enter the public realm they need to be safe. Some small objects challenge more the centre of gravity as in their toppling no one will be injured, whereas a large object that teeters on the edge of falling is dangerous. We can as artists, designers and architects create work that appear on the brink, to promote those feelings of anxiety that come with being in proximity to the precariousness of an object, but ultimately we know we are safe.
There is however something very exciting about actually experiencing a large object falling, been pushed beyond its centre of gravity. It seems to happen in slow motion, when the object moves through and then beyond its central axis, gaining momentum as it starts to fall, and then accelerating and crashing on contact with the floor. Sometimes I have caught an object as it moves off balance saving it, but other times have enjoyed its ultimate demises and all the visual and sound affects that come with its collision with the floor.
23rd September, 2021
. I have strong memories of surfaces in particular the ground - being much closer to it then.
The pub is a stone’s throw away from the beach and after a morning of playing in the sea it was our first point of call for refreshments. The crazy paving of the pub terrace which appeared not to have altered over the years, where I would have run around as a kid as my parents sat relaxing and ordering food from the menu. I’m sure the stones that make up this terrace are the same ones, but the cement between them would have been renewed a number of times over the years. I remember as a child the paving absorbing the water around my bare feet as the sea water from my wet bathing costume seeped onto and between the stones. I recall watching the stones dry out in the sunshine, a beautiful drying mosaic interrupted by bits of crisps and other food stuff scattered around. How it felt under foot - warm, smooth and dry, but with a few crunchy bits sticking to my feet.
2nd September, 2021
is a fallen tree that is covered in thick hairy moss
24th April, 2021
This is the first week on the road to some kind of normality, as the lockdown eases with non-essential shops, restaurants and pubs with outdoor space re-open their doors. This excitement comes at the same time as the excitement of springtime, as the weather warms and green shoots sprout from everywhere. First the blossom and magnolias and now a spectrum of leaves of every hew of green, red and yellow. I’m not sure what I feel more excited about , the opening up of our consumerist world or the opening up of nature. When I say it like that there is no doubt in my mind that the opening of nature is profoundly more important if to consider the bigger picture of our planet.
I return to Hampstead Heath to check out the trees I have been observing over the winter months. There is an area of the Heath that is more over grown, more tree dense and less busy on the west side and this is where I head for. There is still a lot of light penetrating the woodland floor creating the most stunning shadows, a network of different thickness lines crisscrossing the terrain. The leaves that have started to appear are not enough to impact on this spectacle, but it won’t be long before this space will be darkened with large shapes of shade. There are small saplings that have been taking advantage of the light to grow, but as soon as the canopy of their older relations fill the skies above, these sampling’s will have to rest and slow until the day a parent tree falls creating an opportunity for them to stretch up into the lighted gap, and grow their own expanse of leafy branches. They may have to wait 100 or so years, but if they hold their ground literally, they will get the opportunity eventually.
As the canopy closes over the woodland floor it will be bereft of light. There is a window of opportunity in early spring when the weather is warmer but the tree leaves have yet grown, for many woodland flowers and plants to flourish in this opportunistic gap. First snow drops, primrose and crocus, then daffodils and wild garlic, followed by bluebells, plus a whole load of other flowers I don’t know the names of. This colourful spectacle is made all the more wonderful by is short and precious lifespan. I find it upsetting when people and their vehicles (bicycles, motorbikes, baby buggies and push chairs) push through and over these delicate flower carpets, squashing them in their wake.
20th March, 2021
Listening to small objects
6th March, 2021
Trees have become somewhat of an obsession of mine over lockdown. I have always loved walking through woodland but only in the last 10 months have I become focused on these extraordinary beings – I say beings as the more I learn about trees the more I realize that they are very like ourselves - they eat, drink, have families, build communities, listen, speak and have a life that very much reflect the environment they grow up in.
The thing most of us have been doing over lockdown is walk, walk, walk…. and what I find on my endless walks around London are the common but beautiful plane trees – they are everywhere. Many were planted when the parks were landscaped some hundred or so years ago, while others have been around much longer, longer than the urban space that has grown up around them. Every tree I come across whether that be a plane, beech or oak is unique in its shape and size, and over the winter months most are bare exposing the splendour of their trunks and branch formations. Who does not like a tree bursting with spring leaves, but actually I prefer the bare winter trees, as it reveals how their branches grow up and spread out to capture the light and interact with their neighbours.
Today I stood under the hazelnut tree in my mum’s garden in a high wind and listened to the branches swaying and clattering against one another, and colliding with a tall pine next to it. It was like the sound of children play fighting with wooden swords - a ringing clatter. Maybe I can empathize more with a bare tree than one covered in leaves, as it is more human like – branches resembling arms and fingers, and trunks like torsos. The thing about winter trees, they are more difficult to identify, we have to rely on studying the bark to know whether it is a beech or an oak, whereas in the spring and summer the unique leaf patterns are much more recognizable.
I discovered this when me and Mark went on a designated tree walk in East London. A book describing London tree walks gave us pictures of trees in full bloom to go find, but this was winter, so it was almost impossible to pick out from a row of trees on a long London street which one we were looking for. We quickly gave up on the book and instead followed our noses discovering a multitude of unusual trees in the parks and streets of Hackney. The barks are extraordinary – some smooth, shiny, others rustic with deep grooves and some constantly peeling, like the plane trees that cleverly discard a layer of bark once saturated with the cities pollution, revealing a bright and clean fresh flesh below. This extraordinary self-cleaning creates a mottled effect on the trunk of varying dirty to clean patches.
There are some great books out there on trees. The ‘Hidden Life of Trees’ by Peter Wohlleben gives an amazing insight into how connected trees are to their environment and each other. The ecosystems they create that are so complex it blows your mind. What this book has done for me is focus my attention on looking more closely and for longer at trees in order to understand them better. You have to stop at a tree and look around, what is the habitat? What is growing around it? Look closely at the bark, which will reveal fungi, moss, lichen growing on it, and then look up to the branches and its neighbours. All this will unravel the life and health of the tree. For example, when you observe a tree growing alongside a busy road where the tarmac and paving stones butt right up against the trunk, you can understand how this stunts the trees growth. The layers of hard packed materials cause pressure on the roots, that contrary to what a lot of people think span wide and not deep. The compacted earth reduces the ability of the roots to grow and pump water up the tree. Also, trees hate being peed on by dogs as the acid in the urine burns them.
Tree roots on urban streets often interfere with the water pipes below the ground, much to the annoyance of the water authority. It is not that the roots are searching for water, but that the water pipes offer some space and wriggle room for the roots to grow. Also, the severe pollarding of trees on urban streets is standard practice these days to avoid property owners and passers-by suing the council, such as for a branch to damage a wall or window, or fall onto someone. Most trees really do not need this harsh treatment, but if the councils apply this rule to all then they can avoid the occasional complaint. The tree doesn’t benefit at all from this ruthless chopping.
The thing I think most about in relation to all trees is TIME and particularly at the moment as a counter point to human time, such as the time we have been unable to live a normal life, the feeling that our weeks are careering past with the lack of variety or deviations in our day-to-day routines, and a jolt to sit up and consider our own limited time and eventual mortality. Trees have been my ‘stable constant’ throughout this last year – they carry on oblivious to the pandemic while we are in perpetual panic! The last year is not even a blip in a life of tree, that could live up to and beyond 1,000 years. It puts my life into perspective with a sense of calm submission. Reading The Overstory by Richard Powers a series of intermingled short and profound stories where trees are explored as key to human lives, there is a great quote in the last story I read where a forest is being decimated for logging - ‘Hang on. Only ten or twenty decades. Child’s play, for you guys. You just have to outlast us. Then no one will be left to fuck you over.’
The life of a tree is not just the time it takes for it to grow from a seed to when it finally falls, but the dead tree lying on the forest floor continues its life for five more human generations. I’m pleased to see more fallen trees being left on woodland and forest floors, rather than being cleared away. These fallen trees provide life for a multitude of animals, insects, fungi and other trees – they are very much alive. Since childhood I have explored a lot of woodlands around Worcestershire on Herefordshire borders. There are trees that have been there all my life and will be there well beyond. The trees that I remember the most are the yew trees, not that I am particularly drawn to their appearance, but they stand out because of their dark moody presence. They are very slow growers and keep their dark green needles all year round. These beauties mark specific points on routes I have walked and rode all my life, and have hardly changed at all over the years. (I grew up riding horses so spent most of my time exploring this landscape from the perspective and height of a horses back.)
When studying one of these old yews recently I noticed where the bark had peeled away the wood of the trunk was bright red like human or animal flesh. As I stand and look at one of these yew trees, roots clutching to the bank on the steep track I used to ride along regularly to meet my friend. I am able to transport myself right back to when I was about twelve years old looking at this tree from the same position; well a little lower this time on foot; knowing that what I am observing is almost exactly what I was looking at then. What other living thing can we say that about.
There is so much I want to explore about trees and I don’t think this will be the last time I write about them. I’ll pick this up again in springtime when they start to transform for the summer months.
5th January, 2021
A walk along the River Thames
Recently I walked from Greenwich to Rotherhithe along the river Thames. The aim was to walk all the way to Tower Bridge, but with a lack of toilet facilities along with a Tier 4 situation this unfortunately was not possible. Thank goodness the trip from Rotherhithe to home in Dalston on the Overland is a speedy one…!!
Starting at Greenwich’s Cutty Sark myself and my one and only walking buddy Mark headed west along the Thames pathway. There is a path that pretty much takes you along the entire river bank, apart from the odd area where you are directed inland, weaving through housing estates, streets and parks and then back onto the river pathway again.
On the opposite side of the river Canary Wharf dramatically presents itself like a theatre set to the south bank. The strange thing is as you walk along the river edging every bit closer to Canary Wharf and its cluster of towering reflective buildings, it seems to get further away not closer! The shape of the river guides you around this area delivering different view-points some less dramatic than others, and although at Greenwich Canary Wharf is furthest away it holds the most dramatic view and therefore feels much closer than viewing it from Rotherhithe, where you really are very close.
Walking along the Thames is very disorientating. On one hand we know that the river runs from West to East, but it does this in a very meandering manner. The part of the River we were walking runs first due west, then abruptly north, then west and south, a massive loop that has you wondering what direction you are really heading. The river is calm and beautiful, reflecting the blue sky. It seems physically closer than when experiencing it from the Centre of the city, maybe because it is literally more accessible, moments where you can go onto the beaches and dip your feet into the water. It also feels more present, there are less distractions from the river bank’s architecture on this south bank. The buildings are lower and less impressive, making the river seem bigger and wider. I also felt more connected to the activities on the water than say looking at boats from Waterloo, Vauxhall, Tower and London Bridge.
I watched for a while as a large tug boat pulled a carrier full to the brim with containers. A large wave created by the boat’s momentum crashed and splashed over the cargo. I watched the driver of the boat in his commanding raised chair. I imaginied I had caught his eye, like passing a neighboring driver in a car on a busy highway – a fleeting and unique moment. His job of driving this large vessel seemed very every-day, comfortable and familiar. This experience of the river was new to me and so different to the dramatic and yet slightly disconnected presence I knew of the Thames viewed from the heart of London. I don’t think I have ever thought about who was driving those boats through the center of the city before. River life seemed like another world totally alien to the one I was experiencing now which felt close, accessible and a part of my existence.
As I stopped to watch the water rushing past me, I was reminded of its nature, its ability to rise and fall, be calm and rough, to provide livelihoods and natural habitat for birds, fish and mammals. This water has travelled for miles, gathering and collecting from its source at Thames Head in Gloucestershire. The Thames is the biggest area of nature London has and offers a rest bite away from the bustle of urbanism. It is extraordinarily unpopulated compared to the land mass around it, and the speed of its flow as it cuts through the city is for me a reminder that change is quick and unpredictable, which I find very reassuring.
Having grown up in the countryside, and spent most of my childhood playing outside, it has always been important for me to be in the fresh air - to connect to my surroundings - water, earth, sky… So, walking around London is an essential part of my weekly routine, whether it is wondering through parks or looking at architecture. The Thames, like any river that runs through a city is the original landmark, where everything grows and stems from. It is powerful and dangerous and will define the future landscape of London when global warming takes full hold, most probably making claim to the surrounding land.
16th November, 2020
I have a strong urge to write about coronavirus barriers - the clear perspex screens we find in cafes, shops and restaurants that physically separate the customer from the staff while allowing to see through. These types of barriers are not a new thing - they have always been standard in black cabs, post offices, banks, building societies, passport control, doctors, dentists and so on - installed for security reasons to protect staff from different risks of intimidation and other threats, such as possible violence and theft. These new and increasingly familiar barriers to protect both sides of the barrier from the coronavirus is now installed in many of the places we shop and eat, and come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and designs. There are curtains, free standing shields at various heights and widths, ones that connect to architecture - resting on serving counters, mounted on wheels, projecting from walls or hanging from the ceiling, and are made of a range of transparent materials - thick and thin, clear or slightly tinted.
I have been using the word Perspex, but maybe I should use the word acrylic. I asked google - what is Perspex - Wikipedia told me....
‘Poly(methyl methacrylate) (PMMA), also known as acrylic, or acrylic glass, as well as by the trade names Crylux, Plexiglas acrylic, Acrylite, Astariglas, Lucite, Perclax, and Perspex, among several others, is a transparent thermoplastic often used in sheet form as a lightweight or shatter-resistant alternative to glass. The same material can be used as a casting resin or in inks and coatings, among many other uses.’
Whoever is selling this stuff right now must be making a packet!
When these barriers started going up when the first lock down was easing and we were invited to nudge ourselves back into places of hospitality I was kind of shocked by them - feeling they were a brutal intrusion both aesthetically and psychologically, jarring with every part of my body, repelling me from these places and altering my entire experience of eating and drinking out. A cafe I use to go to before lockdown constructed an entire wall dividing the area where food and drink was being stored and served and where customers sat. The problem with this barrier was it was so big - a wooden grid structure made of 2 x 2 then plastic sheeting stretched and stapled to one side – similar to an interior wall before being plaster boarded. I was truly shocked by this extreme intervention that went from wall to wall, floor to ceiling - dividing the cafe into two. Seeing this construction from the pavement outside I could not bring myself to go in. I never worked out how they actually served food and drinks though the plastic wall! Did they hand it through a small hatch or was there a door disguised in this plastic barrier? Cafes and restaurants for me are places to relax, to be a part of an environment and a community. So, to create such an extreme barrier is to deny everything a cafe represents for me.
There have been many more subtle barrier interventions in restaurants and cafes that almost appear as part of the original interior design and fabrication of the space. A couple of weeks ago, just before the second lockdown I went to a noodle bar and between each table was a tasteful acrylic curtain hanging between each table. They kind of looked cool and fitted in with the overall design of the place. Also, it felt quite cozy sitting in this plastic bubble with my partner, a separation that felt gentle and intimate, not imposing or out of place.
Maybe my new acceptance of the barrier is because I’m getting used to them, or in the case of the noodle bar I had not been there before to know any different, whereas the cafe I had experienced before the lockdown where the barrier was extreme required a massive adjustment for me. Some places the barriers are very subtle, installed to give the customer a sense that they are protected while providing a similar experience to before the pandemic. Our local French restaurant had minimal screen presence. (I say had as nothing is open right now!) and maintained a fantastic atmosphere even with the addition of temperature checking and social-distancing. This accomplishment by the restaurant was reflected in its popularity, and the utter joy on customers faces - like a time forgot.
The 2 meter rule creates another kind of barrier – the invisible one that has people dancing around each other to keep apart. In cities it is more difficult to maintain this distance with the increasing number of us going back to work, but there is still a constant attempt to not get too close and definitely not to touch. To brush pass someone, to touch another’s arm, shoulder, trim of someone’s coat is now a rare thing, and when it does occasionally happen I feel my senses heighten as if experiencing something for the first time - extraordinary when I consider how before we would happily collide, brush past, bump into one another endlessly.
I’m intrigued by the breadth of ways proprietors are tackling the barrier problem. I’m sure as we adapt to this new way of life these constructions will become more and more sophisticated and less intrusive, maybe a totally invisible shield will be invented - one that is not made of solid material but an invisible shield made up of flouting anti-viral particles that will form an invisible barrier - I’m sure this exist in sci-fi movies, so it will not be long before it is a reality!
Whatever way we look at it the idea of a physical barrier in my book is not a good thing! Of course we need them right now - which goes without saying, but they do represent separation and difference, which is not natural to our human existence. I wonder whether living with these physical separations is damaging our sense of being and our relationship to others. I admit I am enjoying aspects of separation during the pandemic - such as on public transport where I’m not forced into sitting close to strangers, especially the coughing sniffing ones, and having an entire carriage to myself on mainline trains, but this lack of human contact is surely not a good thing. On the whole touch between us all (in the non-creepy way of course) is very healthy. Our bodies and minds are an entangled entity so any physical separation is also a mind separation. We may find this forced psychological separation, as a result, will make us less able to relate to one another and to empathize. We may become more selfish and self-serving, less accommodating and less caring. My fear is when we eventually do come out of this crippling situation, we will not return to the full physical public closeness we experienced before, and will continue to install barriers in anticipation of the next fearful event – whatever form that emerges.
I heard a great quote the other day - ‘Don’t be afraid of dying, be afraid of not living.’ So if barriers are the future, I hope they can exist in subtle and clever ways, so that we can feel close and not fearful of one another.
11th October, 2020
A couple of weeks ago I visited a good friend of mine Maggie in East Wittering on the south coast. She cooked a lovely evening meal and we stayed over. I met Maggie a few years back in Dalston, London where I live - Maggie and I were gym buddies, before she and her husband moved permanently to the Witterings during lockdown.
The following morning after having had breakfast I noticed as I folded up all the napkins to put them away that the design on the fabric seemed very familiar. I asked Maggie how she came about them. Her daughter had made them and had given them to her mum and dad after no longer using them - maybe she got bored of the whole floral design. The pattern reminded me of interiors in the house I grew up in as a child, and where my mum still lives, but I could not put my finger on where exactly I had seen that particular design. The pattern is quite intricate - on these napkins the colours lean towards green/blue and yellow/orange. I photographed one of the napkins and have been studying it ever since. The plants depicted in the design are not ones I am familiar, but a bit like ones I know - kind of imaginary plants – a bit like a paisley pattern. I notice there are flowers within flowers and petals and leaves inside petals and leaves. Both vegetation and flowers are drawn in the same way, the edges of each shape scalloped - uuuuuu.
This sense of nostalgia was very strong, so I emailed my mum with a picture of a napkin, and asked if we had wallpaper like this when I was growing up. Immediate she got back to me:
“I don’t know the name of the design, but the bathroom was in this pattern in yellows and Miranda’s (my sister) room you shared when you were little was the same pattern in pinks - both from Sanderson. Lots of love mum”
It then came flooding back to me and I could see the yellows in the bathroom and the pinks in my sister’s room. I think I preferred the yellow version to the pink which was rather garish, whereas my memory of the yellow in the bathroom was more subtle and calming. As a baby I would have stared at the pink design from my cot, the design imprinting on my brain and placed in my memory bank, and now far back behind all the stuff that came after. So, I needed some help from my mum to access this distant memory.
I do remember when I was a child staring for long periods at the wallpaper in my bedroom - this was the wallpaper that came a bit later, and in a separate room to my sister’s. I think when I got to about the age of five I was given my own bedroom. Using my finger to sketch in thin air I would trace around the patterns repeatedly, focusing with one eye closed, and then opening the other eye to see how my finger had shifted in position over another part of the pattern. I remember lying awake in the morning until I heard my mum or dad get up - a signal that I could get up. Meanwhile I would look around my bedroom exploring the details, the corners of the room, the folds in the curtains as well as the wallpaper. I love wallpaper in rooms where there is time to stare and daydream, as you can explore the design in great detail and imagine shapes and figurations within the negative spaces.
Sanderson designs were very popular in the 70’s and 80’s when wallpaper was very fashionable. This was replaced by a tendency for painted walls in later late 80’s and 90’s. Wallpaper is having a big come back now mind you, so maybe Sanderson are doing well again. In fact, I just googled them and they are going strong, they have been around for over 160 years now! I realise looking at the patterns online that pretty much all the wallpaper and upholstery at my family’s home was and still is from Sanderson - I keep recognising patterns that were on old sofas, chairs and curtains. They really do floral well...
My mum would spend hours in the decorating shop in Worcester - trawling through the pattern books choosing wallpapers and fabrics for the different rooms in the house. These wallpaper books were very big and heavy and were laid out around the shop on big tables. Each design had samples of each colour range, and the assistant in the shop would either give my mum samples from a larger role or sometimes the whole book to take home with us. I do remember choosing the wallpaper for my bedroom and my sister doing the same - this must have been the ones that replaced the original Sanderson designs in question here. I was probably about thirteen years old when I got to choose my own wallpaper - and that wallpaper is still on my old bedroom wall to this day.
My dad took the room over when I left home and turned it into his office. I always thought my floral orange choice was not ideal for an office and wondered if my dad liked it or not! I never did ask him and he is not around anymore to inquire. This napkin encounter opened up a stream of memories for me, I love that, and now Maggie is a part of those memories, bringing them into the present and dare I say into the future with my choice of wallpaper.
2nd September, 2020
Returning to the British Museum
The British Museum has reopened its doors after many months of lockdown. I booked myself to visit on its opening day, the 27th August. I have missed this place and was so excited to be re-entering its massive doors on this big occasion. I wanted to be one of the first people to reawaken this collection, to be one of the first to land a gaze back on the wonderful objects it houses.
On entering the museum guided by floor arrows and barriers I walked into the Egyptian section, filled with its humongous stone sculptures. A mixture of emotions - excitement and joy filled me from under my face shield. Where shall I start? That was not really a question in this new normal where the route is meticulously planned. I was aware that this route curated by the museum was not going to allow me to double back or meander intuitively, so it was important that I savored every moment of each object before leaving it behind and moving to the next room. This feeling of not been able to return heightened my appreciation of what was in front of me in that moment. Also, if a lockdown occurs into the winter months it maybe a longtime before I can come back. A sense of urgency and the possibility of being denied future visits made me appreciate everything that much more.
I am always struck by the scale of these Egyptian granite figurative sculptures (ground floor on the left off the main atrium). I stared up at one of the large monumental heads with pure intensity. It was different this time, different to all the previous times I had visited over the years. These works had not missed my gaze, they had lived through hundred/thousands of years of events - trauma, disaster, celebrations before the COVID pandemic. This realization was a revelation, and put into perspective my minuscule concerns and inconveniences with dealing with the past few months. What are a few months when these works are hundreds and thousands of years old, what do they care about my short life, when they have been around for so very long. Most objects exist longer than we ever do, owning us rather than the other way around.
This new perspective was a good feeling for me, I imagined past and future generations looking at this same sculpture from the unique perspective of their own lived experience. All any of us can do is understand these works from our own perspective, mixed in with the museum’s commentary and fact collections. The position I take when looking at museum objects is very particular, with a focused interest on materials I am looking for what they are made of and how they are made.
I am looking at a reclining granite Egyptian lion (18th Dynasty) acquired by the museum in 1835, I am focused on the material before the image of the lion - the red/orange/black/grey speckled granite. Part of the back of the lion has a large piece missing, the stone fractured and shattered off, and the back of the lion, the stone is flatter, shinier and darker. I presumed this is the polish created over years of people sitting on its back in whatever location it was previously sited, before cornered off by museum barriers. When you approach an object like this you probably first register ‘lion’ not red granite, and yet I focus on the materials rather than its subject matter, granite triggering my brain before lion. Acknowledging that I do this I become more focused on the materials and look at every artefact with the same material fascination, which made me think - are the materials mere vehicles for the subject matter or are they fundamental to the work and the images they were carrying? Granite is a very hard material that takes enormous effort and skill to work it. I know this from first-hand experience working in granite during a residency in Japan some years back. It took all matter of cutting devices and pneumatic chisels to shape the stone over a number of weeks. When these Egyptian sculptures were made, they only would have used manual hand held carving and splitting tools. The material and process affect the outcome of the work enormously, so when you are looking at Egyptian Lion you are actually looking at hard rock Egyptian Lion, shaped by the possibilities and limitations of the material, tools and process used. If this same lion was made in another type of stone, or in clay it would be a very different beast.
I am currently reading ‘Material and Mind’ by Christopher Bardt. He talks about how civilizations were organized and structured in relation to the materials they were built from. For example, the hard rock of Egypt which they build their architecture, monuments and tombs reflects the organization of their society. The discipline of constructing their cities from such hard stone was reflected in the discipline and structures imposed on society. Whereas a city built on and with soft limestone would be more casual and flexible, as to build from softer materials requires less rigor, planning and allows for change and experimentation. For example, a soft block of stone is easier to shape to fit next to another when building a wall (without a cement), and easier to redo and replace if a mistake is made or the material breaks. Whereas the same job in granite requires precise decisions and enormous discipline and hard work to achieve, and mistakes come at a greater cost.
It would be interesting to ask the viewers looking at this sculpture - what is it? they would probably say - it is a lion. But really it is block of granite shaped into an image of lion, as lions are animals, living, breathing and covered in fur surely! When you focus on material before the subject, I believe you engage with the object more insightfully.
Walking further into the museum collection I come to my favorite room - the sculptures and reliefs from the Greek Parthenon built in 447-432 BC. The workmanship is profound and every time I visit, I’m blown away by the skilled depiction of figures and horses, their realism and ability to communicate emotion and action in stone. But today this experience is even more profound, and I consciously focus on the materials first then the image - the marble in relation to the images they are communicating. I study a series of stone panel reliefs of galloping horses. The weathering of the marble has almost removed all of the carved relief in some places, leaving the strata of the marble all that is left protruding from the surface. There seems to be an equilibrium between stone and image on these panels, the combination of natural material meets human craftsmanship. The stone taken from the quarry, shaped and refined to tell part of a narrative, now returning to its natural origins. The stone very much dominates the image and not the other way around. Through the weathering of the stone over years the strata of the stone are very visible, due to the soft parts of the stone wearing away and the harder quartz components holding their form. The marble grain runs vertically whereas the direction of the horses runs horizontally. The stone and the images appearing to be in opposition, fighting for presence, and the stone is winning on this particular occasion.
All these materials in the museum used to create works of art have been pushed, pulled, torn, ripped, cut, carved, cast, bent, stretched and so on in order to create 3d images which communicate human stories and emotions. The materials play a large part in these stories being told and yet too easily we approach these objects with blinkered questions of what does it mean? what is the subject matter? To understand what they are made of and how they are made is as important and can gives us a window into their history and also the subject matter. Just imagine how we would engage with the Parthenon sculptures and their stories if they were modelled in clay and then cast in plaster or concrete - a very different experience. The plaster or concrete would age very differently to marble of course, but more importantly a manmade material would not translate the same human emotion, such as a translucency seen in human and animal skin and flesh which is also present in marble. Marble has depth and every block has unique veins running through it, whereas plaster or concrete are dead homogenous materials. Also, the activity of carving opposed to modelling and casting have very different results. How a chisel passes across the surface of marble creating a flow to the form for example. Of course the only material that could have been used is stone for its durability and architectural qualities at the time it was built - concrete was not an option then, but you can see materials are a massive part of all objects we experience, and whether we acknowledge it or not will contribute to our reading and understanding of them.
18th August, 2020
For my husband’s birthday last week, I made a victoria sponge cake - a classic English recipe that conjures up tea in the garden on a summer’s day. A victoria sponge was the first cake I ever made at school, a tried a tested recipe using equal flour, butter and sugar.
We were staying at my mum’s. I baked the cakes (two sponge cakes) in the morning before going out for the day. On returning I would assemble them - adding jam and cream between the two cake slices. I love baking cakes for the exploration into kitchen science - adding ingredients, applying methods and never really knowing exactly how it will turn out. The selected ingredients, the way I combine them, the temperature of the room and the oven, the time given over to each part of the process and the equipment used all contributing to the end result. Every time I bake there are invariably surprises as many aspects of the process are inconsistent! In this case the main difference being that I am making it in my mum’s kitchen and not mine - different equipment and different state of mind. I think I’m a bit nervous in my mum’s kitchen in fear I might break something or make a mess!
I have noticed since I started baking cakes in the 70’s as a child the methods have changed enormously. Making a cake would have usually started with blending the sugar and butter with a spoon, then adding the eggs one by one and finally the flour with the baking powder. There was always an anxious moment when adding the eggs to the butter/sugar mix, as it looked as if it was going to curdle, but with elbow grease and an injection of speedy panic the mix would come together. Most contemporary recipes instruct you to measure all the ingredient and then mix together at the same time with an electric mixer. This is fine if you have the right equipment and the ingredients are correctly prepared - such as the butter at room temperature. On this occasion I added the butter straight from the fridge, so when combining all the ingredients in the mixer the butter refused to break down, leaving lumps unabsorbed in the mix. Thinking on my feet I placed the mixture outside in the sunshine to speed up the melting process, which it did, but being inpatient I brought it back inside and continued to mix. I did not want to over mix mind you, as this would make the cake stodgy. What happens when you over-mix cake batter the gluten in the flour can form elastic gluten strands – resulting in a more dense and chewy texture.
I miss the traditional hands-on process - the bowl cradled in my arms while vigorously mixing with an old wooden spoon, being careful not to push the mixture too far up the sides of the bowl and spilling over. There is a skill to this and after watching my mum many times as a child I was pretty good at mixing. I’m not sure why I did not revert to the old method - I suppose it is something about following a recipe!
I then poured the mixture, still with bits of cold butter floating about, into the two cake tins, then placed both tins in the oven and watched through the oven window for the cakes to rise - which they did quite rapidly. I noticed bubbles forming on the top of the cake, this I’m sure was where the butter lumps were heating at a different speed to the rest of the mix, causing a reaction. They rose beautifully and were browning on the top. The question to when to take them out! Recipes are never specific about this precise moment and it relies on a cook’s judgment. On the instructions it describes taking the cakes out of the oven when they are turning golden brown and coming away from the tin edge. Looking like this was happening I took them out of the oven and immediately they began to sink a little. Had I taken them out too early, shall I put them back in? I was looking for a skewer to poke into one to see if the mixture was cooked inside, but not finding one in my mum’s kitchen I took a fork and poked it into one of the cakes - not sure I should have done that! The cake sunk dramatically creating a huge deep hollow. There was no retrieving this now. I had stupidly let the air out of the cake causing it to shrink back like a deflated balloon. The other cake had sunken a bit but was ok. After leaving them to cool a bit I turned them out onto a board. What a mess! Not sure how was I going to assemble these into an attractive birthday cake!
I am half way through making my cake and already I have negotiated a number of processes and experienced a range of chemical reactions. Mixing the butter, flour, sugar, eggs and baking powder to create a light creamy airy mixture - the different textures, temperatures and consistencies of these individual ingredients which when combined make a very different whole. Cooking then transforms the mixture from a sticky, glossy, cool fluid, to a stable, fluffy, moist spongy solid. The kitchen is a place of incredible science and chemistry, and in particular when baking cakes and puddings which involve a number of transformative processes. It is this activity of mixing ingredient to create a new material interests me and the unpredictability of the outcome, unlike say when making a casserole, where at various points in the process you can stop, alter and change the outcome, such as to add seasoning or re-heat adding more ingredients. In cake world this is not possible and once the mixture goes into the oven there is little going back... It reminds me of the process of firing clay in a kiln, once clay is fired there is no returning the ceramic to its former clay beginnings. A sense of alchemy and transformation that is out of my control.
I left the hot sponges under a tea towel to return to later to assemble for teatime. The filling between my two cakes would be strawberry jam and whipped double cream. I really dislike the butter ice that often replaces the fresh cream in shop bought VS. They do this to make the cake last longer I’m sure, whereas sumptuous whipped cream has a much shorter shelf life. The problem I find with most shop bought cakes is they are far too sweet - sugar overcoming any subtle flavours that are present. Sugar is another preservative of course.
I whip my cream in a large bowl with my hand-held electric whisker, to think in my school days we did this by hand using either a single hand whisk, or one that you operated by turning a handle to rotate two whisks at the same time. Cream when whisked goes from a liquid to a solid quickly and you have to stop whisking just when the cream is thick enough to hold together, but not too much that it goes into a set lump. I made far too much, not calculating that cream when whisked doubles in volume. Air is a major factor in cake baking - air folded into the raw ingredients, the expansion of air in the oven with the help of baking powder to make the cake rise, and now the air I have whipped into the cream to spread inside my cake. The more air applied to the process the better for making a light and fluffy cake.
I’m now ready to assemble my cake so I place at the bottom the sunken slice and cover with strawberry jam, then ladle the cream on thickly. I fill the hole in this base cake with cream - so it is now oozing, then I place the other sponge on top and sprinkle icing sugar over the entire thing. WooHoo.... Looks good. I always feel chuffed with myself when completing a cake that looks good, even when this one is disguising all manner of inconsistencies.
It’s a very hot day and we have tea in the garden. The cake is delicious and is appreciated by the birthday boy! As the cake sits on the table in my mum’s garden I can see the cream melting, retuning back to its liquid origins and the top sponge is starting to slide to one side. It is time for the cake to go into the fridge where it can stabilise and be caught in motion, saved for another day.
The following day we cut some pieces straight from the fridge, the consistency of the cake has changed irreconcilably in this process of cooling down, becoming dryer, chewier and sweeter, less air in it and more condensed. This has to do with the way the starch molecules in the flour absorb water when the batter is baked, and then afterward, starting as soon as the cake starts to cool, those molecules recrystallize, or harden, forcing the water out and to the surface of the cake, where it evaporates.
Cakes are always best the day they are made and each proceeding day the cake seems to lose more of its light springy consistency, until the last slice sitting in the fridge 3 days on has become a mere replica of its former self - a stiff, deteriorating shrunken morsel - a far cry from its bouncy birthday splendour.
25th June, 2020
The Stuff that holds Stuff together
Most objects are made up of components/parts, and in order to hold these components together we need things to fasten, stick, adhere them. The materials we use to join things together are designed to be responsive, sensitive, sympathetic and in harmony with the materials/objects that they are binding together. Surgical thread for joining flesh and skin, cement to secure building bricks, various adhesives to stick all sorts of materials - PVA for wood, Araldite for ceramics, plastic, leather etc, molten metal to weld together hardened metal, silicone to stick glass and so on. There is a whole load of materials that are produced to stick other materials together. Some of them instantly stick to create an immediate firm join, while others take days to adhere to become stable.
As an artist making objects/sculptures, one of the main features and challenges of any of my works is how things are joined together, how stable the join is and how long it will last. Often the joins within an object are disguised so that one, two, three components appear as one - a seam in a dress, a weld on a car body… Less frequently attention is drawn to these joints - fashion and design sometimes highlighting where and how things are joined - a brightly coloured zip on the back of a dress, prominent stainless steel bolts on a sofa.
I am fascinated by this ‘joining’ stuff, whether it is something of designed beauty such as the joints that make up a USM signature modular system for their shelving and storage units, or hidden joins such as within hand crafted Meissen porcelain, where there is little trace of the clay slip that joined handles to cups and figurines to bases. There are of course joins that have a multi-purpose, ones that are flexible such as in architecture to allow buildings to move over time, articulated joins - hinges, and ones that can be released such as clips, clamps or buttons.
I’m going to focus on the joins that are permanent and non-releasing, the ones that are often disguised and where possible would not be there at all! For example, wouldn’t it be great to join wood to glass, glass to rubber, rubber to metal and not have to use an adhesive, or just to be able to use the one glue. Often the glues used are what is necessary but would not necessarily want to be seen. New technology is creating new materials for joining all the time - quick fixing strong sticky stuff that can be used across a range of materials, such as Gorilla Glue. A joining material reveals a lot about the things it is joining together, such as the age of the object, who and how it was made. For example, antique furniture is often identified and evaluated by how its parts are joined together. A good carpenter will join components with barely any glue - plugs, dowels -wood joining wood … You can spot the amateur builder, carpenter and DIYer by the inadequate way things are joined/held together.
My first property I bought in my late twenties in Nottingham, a small semi-detached. I had very little funds, so me and my boyfriend spent almost a year doing it up ourselves with cheap materials and tools, and limited knowledge and skills. I fixed skirting boards, put up lining paper, installed lighting, and due to my lack of skill and impatience everything I fixed exposed some kind of gap between the joins. The glues became less of a fixing material and more of a filler. The problem was that it was an old house and nothing was flat or straight, so fixing brand-new straight materials to warped, irregular old materials was always going to be a problem. Joining one thing to another requires a flat area on both surfaces to make a good connection, where one surface without any gaps touches another surface, and that these surfaces are clean and well prepared, and that once the contact is made with the glue should be kept still until dry. That is the most difficult part. My experience is to never rely on holding the parts together while drying, but to prop up in position and to walk away until dry. It is so tempting to move prematurely to see if it has fixed, weakening the join as you do so.
Instruction on standard Araldite glue:
Make sure surfaces are clean and free from dust, corrosion, dirt and grease. For optimum bonding, slightly roughen surfaces with sandpaper and degrease metals with a suitable solvent.
These are very standard instructions with variations of drying times and specificity of material types. The thing is we often cut corners, surfaces not clean, areas of contact too small and so on, leading to these joints breaking, or in some cases the joints end up becoming the strongest parts of an object, leaving the other parts more vulnerable to wear and tear and breaking. I’m particularly interested in finding objects, usually old ones where the joining stuff is the only part of the object still in-tact - strips of hardened glue no longer holding much together, nails, rivets and screws with only our imagination of what they once held, darned areas on clothing where the darn is the only part of a garment that is fully recognizable. It is only when the joining mechanism/material/stuff is the only thing that remains of an object, that we can fully appreciate their material qualities beyond there joining capabilities.
Just look around you for a couple of minutes and notice the joins. I’m in my studio - the mortar between the bricks, expanding foam between the MDF wall boards, rivets holding my portable heater together, masking tape keeping boxes closed, thin invisible glue keeping the film on the plastic box of strawberries I just bought from Sainsbury’s.
I also notice that a lot of things are joined without adding additional materials, but by the clever design of the two components coming together - things that clip, screw, snap onto each other, which makes a very neat join without glue. There are also many materials that when heated - glass, chocolate, plastic, metal become sticky and create their own adhesive. These hot materials beautifully join to other hot or cold materials of the same kind, and sometimes create great bonds with other hot/cold objects as well, such as hot glass to hot ceramics.
Things can often stick together that are not meant to, and there is a whole load of products that are on the market to stop things sticking. Anti-rust stuff, grease and oils to make sure machinery does not stick and seize up. My plug in the bathroom sink gets stuck, jammed at the base with matted hair. I have to pour down the sink hole strong anti-blockage liquid to dissolve the waste material in order to release the plug. And the leaver on my bath gets stuck that shifts the water from the tap to the shower and needs constant spraying with WD40 to lubricate this joint to release it. Jamming one thing inside another can be used to create a great join - I use this a lot when joining hard materials with a more flexible one, such as a metal tube into a flexible rubber ring.
Nature has a great way of sticking stuff together - whether by weaving, using saliva, mud and excrement to build walls and structures. Many of our household materials are based on the science of nature - the grip of a gecko’s suction feet on slippery flat surfaces, the tiny hooks on a centipede belly, all observed in detail to help advance our knowledge to create ways and means to connect one thing to another as seamlessly as possible.
I blame gravity for us needing all these different fixings - to hold heavy things up, stop things falling apart and falling down. Mind you if we did not have gravity there would be even more need to fix things to other things as everything would just float off - however perhaps we would only need different types of fixings that did not have to be as strong but more adaptable. This could be the future of ‘joining’ stuff when we have to evacuate this ruined planet for another.
12th May, 2020
Where I Can’t Be
The place my imagination goes as I quietly reflect during these strange times of lockdown is my mum’s garden in the Worcestershire countryside. It is not just the location, but this place at a particular time of the year in particular company that focuses my mind. It is a late spring/early summer day just me and my mum pottering around the garden together. I have always gone back home throughout my entire life whenever I wanted. My parents created a home that was always available to myself and my sister. Whether I was at college homesick or having difficult times I could always go home where I felt instant love and security. So, given these extraordinary times not been able to go to the place that has always been available to me feels very strange, and has given me a new perspective of where I grew up and of which I have regularly visited until these past few months. I was due to visit my mum at the end of March not having visited since Christmas, but of course that was cancelled, so it’s now a long time since I was there - nearly four and half months.
This entire location where I grew up and where my mum still lives - house, yard, garden, terrace and outbuildings, and beyond the perimeters - fields, hills, woodlands and river, all have this association for me, but it is the garden in particular that I find myself thinking about the most right now, maybe because I don’t have a garden here in London, but I think this urge to be in this particular location right now runs deeper. My mum’s garden is stunning especially late spring into summer, when flowers are blooming and plants have not lost their spring time greenness. I’m going to include a couple of images here.
My mum built the garden from scratch when myself, my sister and my parents moved there 51 years ago (I was one years old and my sister four). She has planted every bush, tree and flowering plant, designed and dug out all flowerbeds, created seated areas and garden pond. My dad passed away three years ago and even during this tragic and sad time my mum never once abandoned this space, always tending to its green needs even when it took so much effort! I realise the reason why this place is so much in my mind right now is not only because it is a beautiful place particularly at this time of the year, taking my imagination off when the reality of living through a pandemic becomes too much for my brain to handle, but its particular association to my mum. When I am home if I am honest I enjoy most the walks I take on my own in the surrounding landscape. I savour the quietness and the opportunity to spend time observing details – grass shoots, tree bark, bluebells, birds, insects and animals. I usually find a fallen log to sit on, then wait a while and watch nature slowly move towards me – a rabbit, squirrel and even sometimes a muntjac (a small deer) which are quite rare to see. For a moment I am invisible and unthreatening to them, until I get up from my log and quickly everything flees.
But now it is not those idyllic walks I crave for but mum in her garden. I have become acutely aware of the limited time I have to physically experience this place with my mum with her getting older. So not only does it make me value the times I have already had in this place with her, and those times I hope and imagine I will have in the future, but the need to make sure that these experiences are fixed in my memory bank as firmly as possible so not to forget them, especially when there will be a time that I will have to solely rely on these memories to connect to this unique environment and situation.
I am sitting on the bench in the middle of the garden facing a small pagoda crowded with flowering plants - phlox’s and delphiniums where a bird feeder hang. My mum has just filled it with seeds and the birds come swarming in as soon as she moves away - blue tits, robin, gathering of wagtails and then a nervous woodpecker. I know there are hundreds more birds around as the noise of twittering in the bush behind me is full on, and also the bushes are twitching and vibrating with bird activity. Mum’s three Norfolk terries run around the garden disappearing occasionally under a bush seeking out mice and rats. There is a rat (one of the nice brown fluffy country versions) that I spot running from its hide out under a large yew bush to underneath the bird feeder, to grab food that has fallen onto the paving stones. This sends the dogs crazy with excitement. It is not unusual for one of them to kill one of these rodents or when things go a bit wrong (for the dog!) to get bitten on the nose. Being brought up in the country one has a very different relationship to rats than in the city, these fluffy brown coated creatures are less threatening animals to those I have encountered in the city, and if you observe them carefully they are quite beautiful. I can hear you saying - ‘No way!’ Yes, alright I’m still not a fan of rats but a country rat is much more acceptable than a big scary city one.
It is so calm where I am sitting, it puts all the madness of London life into perspective very quickly for me. There are smells coming from all directions travelling on the breeze - plants at different stages of growth with different scents and a general freshness in the air. I get up from the garden seat and walk around with my mum smelling all the different early summer roses and comparing them. My mum knows all the official names of her plants. One of the roses is called ‘Laura,’ which I love not just because of having the same name as me but the fact my mum chose it because of its name. We walk around together and sit in different parts of the garden, watching and talking about what we can see, smell and hear. “Wow that plant has grown!’’ “Yes, it is doing really well this year. Must be the mild winter we have had and that rain we had last week.”
The smells and the sounds of my mum’s garden I miss. In fact it is these two sensory experiences that I can recall with the most clarity. I’m writing this in my living room, door slightly a jar on to my balcony where I can hear traffic and police sirens on nearby Dalston Junction in the East End of London. I can block out the urban sounds and I am right there in my mum’s garden listening to the birds, my mum’s voice, the scuffling of dog activity and smells of all those fresh sweet plants. I question whether the memory is better than actually being there - and the answer is ‘No’ - I want to be there with my mum and the dogs, and I feel sad I can’t. There have been times I have sat in my mum’s garden unhappy and rather wanting to be somewhere else, but even then, its constructed natural beauty has overridden any external feelings - family frictions, anxieties back in London, problems at work. This environment cuts right through all the shit and never fails to overwhelm me shutting out the bad stuff and connecting me to my mum and to nature, which I feel cruelly denied right now.
This lockdown is revealing so much about how I feel about things I would usually take for granted. It has been a profound and reflective period that has made me appreciate so many things I did before lockdown - visiting exhibitions, eating in restaurants, coffee in cafes, friends for dinner, holidays in Italy and those days in the garden with my mum. It also puts into perspective what things are important and those that are less so. There are people I have not missed at all and others I crave to see - clarity of what I really value and what is just life’s padding. Spending time with my mum in the place she loves most is definitely not padding, but sits at my very core, and I wait patiently for that moment I can return.
16th April, 2020
Not wanting to directly write about the abominable C virus here on Tenderfoot I cannot avoid the experience with regard to touch, or more specifically not to touch, a new requirement to reduce the spread of ‘C’ which is very much now a focus of our daily routine. When I am away from my home I am either using other parts of my body to touch things to avoid skin contact, such as pressing the button on the escalator with my elbow, placing a barrier between myself and objects, such as using a disposable tissue to create a barrier between my hand and a door handle, and trying to avoid touch at all, such as to rely on balance rather than a rail, wall to steady my body.
In a life before ‘C’ we constantly touched loads of stuff in public life without even thinking and probably can’t even recall all the different objects and surfaces we have touched in a day, whereas in this new life we move more carefully observing and thinking about all these contact surfaces - judging them to evaluate what is safe or not to touch. Shiny smooth surfaces seem to be the worst for passing on viruses, the surface keeping alive the virus for the longest time, and living in a city I have become very aware that pretty much all objects we touch in a public urban space are shiny and smooth - mostly metal, surfaces easy to clean but clearly not hygienic. Perhaps this heightened awareness of where, what and how our hands are coming into contact with things might encourage us to observe our surroundings with a bit more attention to detail. Such as the type of handle my local café; which is still serving takeout coffee; is made of and looks like, the scale and size of the handle of my apartment and the dimensions and recess of the elevator button. This may or may not be interesting to you, but I find it fascinating to understand why objects are designed the way they are to accommodate our bodies, and to enhance our experience (or not!) as we move through our environment , such as the minimal effort needed to release a locked door or the bad design of a handle that requires more effort to turn than to push open.
Touching things using some kind of barrier - glove, tissue, wet wipe also heightens my touch experiences, a deeper understanding of both the barrier used and my fleshy hands. When using my coat sleeve to open doors I am aware how slippery metal is, due to the equally slippery surface of my raincoat. If I use my bare hands the metal makes a firm contact with my skin, whereas most fabric and metal slide off each other very easily causing contact in this way awkward and unpredictable.
My tacit knowledge enables me to know exactly how firm to grip most recognisable objects - to hold/push them into action and functionality. A barrier such as a tissue between my hand and the objects makes this more difficult and I have had to learn new skills with my hands, such as to grip handles differently so not use all my hand but just my fingers, and to push the button of the escalator only in the centre rather than as a random target. Precision is my task to make sure my hands do not spill over the edge of the tissue and onto the object in fear of picking up a germ.
I have been looking at my hands today admiring their ability to grip, feel and detect stuff. They are very sensitive to temperature and textures but also very durable and hardy. You can wash most things off your hands. I’m often surprised when my hands are covered in some coloured material from working in my studio, even if the residue of this stuff does not come off in the first washing of my hands, over a day of further washing will become clean and unstained, whereas the same material on a piece of ceramic, rubber or fabric will be much more difficult to remove and may leave a life long stain.
With touch being a denied activity in many context at the moment I find myself taking real pleasure in the things I can touch without fear of picking something up or passing something on unknowingly. Such as running my hand over new green leaves of the bushes that run along the edges of peoples gardens, the blossom bellowing out from fruit trees and the un-mowed grass on small raised garden spaces outside shopping plazas. Engaging with nature is really coming into its own at the moment, a reassuring constant of seasonal change that takes no notice of the enforced changes we are experiencing.
I have a great deal of sympathy for those individuals who live on their own who don’t have any human touch in their daily lives and don’t have animal contact either. My mum lives on her own and when I go and see her I always give her big hugs, and she comments on the joy of holding someone in her arms of which she is denied when I am not there, and I am aware it has been a long time since I have hugged my mum and will be able to do so! However, she does have dogs and they are an amazing substitute for human touch. I keep imagining the future day when we will be able to touch again freely, people and objects without pre-risk calculations. The hugs that will be felt, the handling of objects and the freedom to allow our hands to wonder in discovery around public and outdoor spaces, perhaps when it happens with an appreciation we may not have ever acknowledged before.
4th April, 2020
I am using clay to build a wall - an experiment to learn about weigh, mass, drying, wetness and gravity of this material.
I build the clay wall by layering up with clay coils which I form in my hands, the coils approximately 2cm in diameter, each layer joined to the layer below by means of pressing the clay from the coil above into the coil below and so on. My hope will be to build the wall as high as 8 foot or more!
As I build my wall up from the floor it is my job to take care of the wall as it grows – I’m the grower and the caretaker. To build the clay wall up until it can’t take its own weight and collapses was my first intention. Each layer of clay I add relies on the layer below to be stable. I can usually add about 5-6 layers of coils before this fresh part of the wall starts to bend and want to fall to one side, then it is time to stop and wait for this fresh clay to dry a little so it can hold its own shape and for the next layers to be added.
I’m often adding more clay to the base to make it more secure, my fear that if the base is too narrow is will be more likely to topple over. When I started to build the wall - the first 2 feet I did not allow the clay to totally dry out, covering it over night with loose polythene, thinking that a moist leather hard clay is stronger than a dry clay - the very dry might crack more easily. Now the wall has grown to 70 cm high I have decided to let the lower part dry out more as I’m now thinking the dry clay might be stronger than leather hard clay, and as it gets taller will rely on the base being dryer to hold itself upright. But you know I’m not sure!!! I’m making decisions as I go along - tangible and visual decisions based on my knowledge of clay and previous experiences of balancing stuff... The wall is getting higher and I am having to be more careful when I add layers not to add too much pressure in fear that I will crack or break it, so I work much slower. This gives me time to enjoy the qualities of the clay and pay attention to the detailed way my hands are working and moving.
Every day I build the wall to a point where I am confident that the recent layers will hold themselves up on their own, and I stop and leave to dry a little until the next day. Sometimes I build up too much, more than 5 layers, and the fresh clay starts to bend, so I create quick supports around the work - bits of wood, metal and foam packed around to stop it falling. These temporary structures are placed for as long as it takes for the clay to dry a bit then I remove the supports. I don’t like doing this as I prefer to find the materials own point of balance, although I have observed when the clay starts to dry out it contorts and bends in unpredictable ways that then change the stability of the wall. Perhaps adding these structures for periods of time will help to prevent this type of distortion, holding it in a more rigid position.
I find working on this wall everyday very exciting and can’t believe after a week it is still stranding. I am tempted to build permanent supports around it, such as a jesmonite wall on one sided, but this may just make it more vulnerable to cracking, as applying jesmonite to damp clay might inhibit the natural drying process of the clay, but also it may be more interesting to see this as a clay experiment to see how high I can go with it - what are the clays limits and my limits! I’m still not sure what I want from this work and each day when I come into the studio my plan changes. I’m constantly responding to how the material is behaving, while also seeking my own rewards from it in the context of my art practice.
Seven days in, after leaving the wall for two days I returned to find that the foam which I had wedged between the top part of the clay structure and a metal frame had dropped down to the floor and the wall had leant severely to one side cracking almost entirely across the lower part. I sat looking at it for a while - was this the end? To give up and accept an element of defeat. Or to address the situation as just another part of the process and to make slightly different decisions on how to proceed. I sprayed water on the crack and added new soft clay while propping it up with various objects. Then off I go again adding more clay coils to the top. The wall is no longer an aspiring pure clay form but accepts its dependency on supports from other materials - a combination of clay, metal and foam.
I tried removing the support from behind the wall when the wall was over a meter high, but immediately felt that the crack at the bottom was still there, and for all my attempts to repair it, it was cracking in exactly the same place. Clay has extraordinary memory, making it very difficult to repair a crack/break.
My plans for this wall have changed many times over the two weeks I have been working on it, decisions made in reaction to the clays behavior alongside exploring the wall as a sculpture with and without supports. I could carry on building the wall as high as it can go but I have now taken the supports away from the wall and it has a singular clay support (like a walking stick or arm) holding it up – so it has gone back to being an all clay object, and I am now interested to watch and learn what will happen next – how it will dry out and whether it will collapse on its own. It may never collapse and then I will break it down myself, a gesture of destruction to re-cycle the clay back into its original state.
This work was never about creating a stable moment/permanent sculpture, but about exploring my relationship to the clay and to making a wall from it. I have responded to what the clay does and will do, and adapted my decisions to accommodate these qualities. It has required me not to plan and be flexible, and to adapt and be open to change at every stage. It has challenged my expectations of what a clay wall sculpture might be, and what this work might communicate to others. It has opened up questions about what the work is! If and how this process might be exhibited in a gallery, or whether the process of me with this clay in my studio during these unprecedented times is EVERYTHING, and there does not need to be anything else…
13th March, 2020
There are those objects that once have been placed, fixed or discarded by us, on walking away and leaving them alone continue to move, slide, rock or unfix themselves without any help or nudge, appearing to have a life of their own. I’m talking about those inanimate objects - everyday items that once we put them down and leave them alone carry on moving one way or another. Such as the electric toothbrush that continues on rocking after I have placed it next to the soap dish on my bathroom sink. It rocks slightly when positioned, but once left it increases in momentum, the small rock becoming a full rocking chair rock until it rocks itself crashing into the sink. And the self-adhesive clothes hook stuck to the back of my bedroom door that chooses to peel and fall off along with all the clothes hanging off it at 3am in the morning. This happens every few weeks when there is a little too much hanging from it, and it never happens in the daytime, always scaring the living daylights out of me in the middle of the night.
Last night before going to bed following my ritual of washing my face I squeezed the last bit of facial wash from its tube - twisting and squashing the tube as much as possible to make sure I got every last bit of the cream out. I then snapped the top back onto the tube and left it by the sink while I splashed my face with water. I was surprised when noise started coming from the empty tube - the plastic container resisting the shape I had contorted it into and was trying to push itself back into its original manufactured shape. This plastic crackling sound carried on for what seemed like ages, but was probably only a few seconds. I watched the tube wriggle and unravel like a butterfly pushing its way from it's chrysalis, but unlike the birthing butterfly my tube gave up, residing itself to a semi contorted shape and demise for the recycling bin. These types of objects very quickly go from fully active, valued items to useless and unvalued detritus, and yet they still have a life beyond us, even if just with a last cry!
There are objects that appear to move very slowly without any assistance from me, and unlike the hook on the door over laden with clothes or the toothbrush that falls into the sink because I did not place it securely enough, there are those objects that move slowly over long periods of time and are activated by other environmental influences - such as temperature, the architecture, the furniture - the environment. For example, I have a number of framed prints hanging up and over time they move quite considerable. I have a train station directly below my flat and at certain times you can feel the building vibrating and this must affect everything in the building to some degree. Some objects it does not matter that they move as they are attached to the architecture, such as the artwork on the wall, but there are others that are not tethered and slowly work themselves into a position of vulnerability, such as to manoeuvre themselves to the edge of a shelf and then that last small vibration pushes them over the edge. This has happened on a number of occasions - jars, bottles, boxes that sit on bathroom shelves for weeks then suddenly crash to the floor and smash in their last throws of self-propelled movement.
Looking at the aftermath of these accidents I forensically build the story of the objects demise. The materials that make up the object, the materials of the surface it has sat on and the environment it has lived in. Polished surface on polished surface creating the best conditions for voluntary movement and for the object to move/slide/slip to the edge and jump off. There are objects that have been carefully designed to cope with this self-propelled movement, such as those designed for the bathroom that are made to cope with bathroom slippery surfaces - rubber objects made to suck onto smooth flat and water-resistant surfaces - like the metal basket shelves in my shower that have plastic pads on them to suction to the shower wall. (suction = the act or process of removing the air, water, etc., from a space in order to pull something into that space or in order to cause something to stick to a surface.) This is a balance between suction/sticking power and weight of items on the shelf, like the door clothes hook when over laden, both have their limits and breaking point whether we are there to observe or not.
I live in a new building predominantly made of variations of concrete, but for many years I lived in older houses where there was more wood in the infrastructure - floors and walls. A material that naturally grows and once installed in architecture continues to live on - moving and creaking, such as when the temperature changes with the central heating coming on or turning off in the winter months. I have worked in wood and it is a fascinating material how it keeps changing over time. I have wooden objects I made over 30 years ago which are still shifting and moving - splits appearing, opening up and then closing again as if breathing. It is a material that although severed off from its natural roots lives on at a slower but sympathetic pace.
My ever-increasing understanding of the life of objects and materials beyond my control is a reminder of my coexistence and entwined existence with all this amazing stuff, and that objects very much have a life beyond us.
9th January, 2020
I am a member of a ceramic studio in Camden and in order to access the premises I have to open a large gate which requires grappling with a combination lock. I say grapple, as I have to first manipulate the lock chain through a gap in the gate to access the lock and sometimes it gets caught up in the gate railings, and if you are also carrying heavy bags and an umbrella in the rain it can be quite a tricky maneuver.
Each member of the workshop has the 5-digit combination imprinted on their brain, or maybe some on a piece of paper in their wallet or in my case stored on my iPhone - just in case I have a senior moment and forget this vital arrangement of numbers. The lock is one of those heavy duty locks you usually see to lock bikes. We have had a number of locks over the years; the locks breaking through wear and tear; but the combination number has remained the same. If you were to ask me what the number is I’m not sure I would remember, but as I approach the gate and pull the lock combination towards me and focus on the lock the number conveniently pops into my mind, so I am easily able to line up the numbers on the lock and release it. I think this is a very common experience with remembering combination numbers - it is only when you are handling the device - the lock or key pad to pay for something on a card that you remember the number - because it is not just the numbers but the position of the digits on the key pad and the shape of the digits that visually guide us to type in the correct combination. Many people set combination numbers to work visually for this very reason. This we have done at my studio in Islington where the door mounted combination lock, the digits map out on the key pad the shape of the first letter of the name of the studio, so shape and numbers working together for a visual and physical experience.
One of the things about using the combination lock at the ceramic studio is when you first grab the lock you can see the number combination left by the previous person entering the premises, where they have rearranged the numbers to re-lock it, leaving a trace of the way in which they have handled the device. This person may have pushed the numbers all at the same time to move all 5 digits 45 degrees around the lock barrel, or maybe only moved 2 digits leaving the other 3 in the same position. It crosses my mind, is the lock less secure if only 2 digits have been moved? Or as long as one digit is moved that will do! When I lock the gate, I tend to move the digits in all different directions, which then I suppose is more fiddly to line up for the next person, but it is my way of leaving the gate in its most secure state.
This movement of the numbers on the lock reflects the previous members body movements, how their hands have grabbed hold of the lock and then moved the digits, the speed in which they have handled the lock and also perhaps the mood they are in, the weather etc. All these factors affecting the way the handler engages with the object and how the digits appear to the next user. I often find myself guessing who has used the lock immediately before me, whether that person was in a rush, whether they were holding bags or opening and closing the gate to bring their car in and so on. There is someone at the studios I’m pretty sure I know when they are the last person to use the lock before me – they are an inconsiderate person who does not spend much time thinking of others, I’m pretty sure they are the one that only changes one digit - just too lazy to move all 5 digits. In fact, I’m sure sometimes they barely even move the one digit to lock it, mind you they have to move something as the lock will not close if the digits are in release mode.
I think we are all more careful how we lock the gate when we know there is no one else in the building - a bigger responsibility to leave the premises secure. Perhaps the combination number we leave the lock in is more considered when leaving the building than when we enter. I’m sure when I leave the premises at night, being the last person out of the building I double check the lock has worked by tugging at it to be sure it has locked.
This combination lock ritual that I go thought to access my studios marks a particular moment in my day. It is the transformation into work mode, the moment I lock the gate behind me I am ready to enter the studio and give total focus to my work.
23rd November, 2019
Paper and Ceramics
I am currently combing ceramics and paper in a new group of object/sculptures I am developing in my studio right now. The reason this came about was that after having high fired a collection of crank clay objects, I noticed they looked remarkably similar in colour and texture to brown paper I had been printing text on for a handout I was doing for an exhibition. The similarity was to do with their appearance - both the ceramic objects and the paper were a sandy colour and texture - one actually textured (the ceramics, gritty like sand) and the other looking textured (the paper.) However beyond this immediate visual surface connection, these two materials/objects were very different - or perhaps not!
The way I have been combining the ceramics and paper is to take sheets (A4 or A3) of the ‘Kraft’ (its product description) paper and to try mimic the shapes and forms of the ceramics I have made, such as to mimic tubes of clay by rolling paper into tubes and then joining tube ceramics with tube paper. Combining ceramics with paper has raised a range of questions and associations for me - such the material qualities of paper and ceramics (weight, density, malleability etc), where and when we come across and use things made of these materials, their value, longevity/ephemerality and so on.
The material qualities for paper and ceramics are very different, and yet they both have qualities that are similar, such as being strong materials (strength measured in relation to material quantity). At first glance ceramics seems stronger than paper, but maybe not! Taking into consideration how thin paper is in comparison to the ceramics I am using (approx 1 cm thick), it is incredible strong, such as when you drop it onto the floor, unlike ceramics it does not crack or break. In fact it is quite difficult to destroy paper just using your hands, you can rip it, but it only breaks where you tear, whereas ceramics if you drop can shatter into hundreds of pieces. If you roll paper up tight to make a tube and then twist it, it gains even more strength, and is almost impossible to break apart if you pull from each end of the tube shape. The more I have experimented manipulating and using these two materials the more knowledge I have gained about both material qualities, such as how incredibly strong paper is and often more durable than ceramics. For it was the paper I could manipulate to mimic the ceramics and not the other way around.
Museums all over the world take care of ceramics from millenniums past, it is a material that has lasted the test of time, ceramics from Roman and Greek history and way before. The discovery of ceramics from the past has given us a window into understanding how communities lived their lives, what they ate, what they grew, lifestyle and so on. Paper on the other hand even though museums are able to preserve historical documents, unless kept under strict temperature control to allow no damp air to penetrate the material it will rot and breakdown. So, these two materials have a very different life trajectory, based on their ability or not to resist water and also heat.
Given the understanding we have about the potential life span of ceramics and paper, aligns them within different value systems. A paper document for example in a museum can be incredible valuable even beyond its valued content, due to its precarious material qualities making it very rare, and yet as an everyday material can be very undervalued, as it is cheap to buy and easy to access, although with our ever increasing paperless society, there may be a time in the future when paper becomes very rare and will become more valuable, even the type that is disposable.
The use and function associated with these two materials is also very different. Ceramic objects often used to contain liquids, whereas paper is definitely not, although I’m sure there is a designer out there that can prove me wrong. Paper is great for packing ceramics to protect during transit, as it can be formed into different shapes and sizes when crushed up, whereas ceramics once fired is not a flexible material and is fixed to the shape it was fired at. Once clay has been fired it cannot be returned to its previous clay properties or broken down very easily, whereas paper can easily be broken down when water of heat is applied. These very different reactions to heat and water highlights their extraordinarily different transformative qualities.
I love the contrast and yet similarities of these two seemingly familiar materials, and when placed next to each other, touching and connecting challenge our perception and relationship to both, and maybe stop us in our tracks when next we come across them, which we do almost everyday of our lives.
21st October, 2019
Opposite where I live is a large building being redeveloped. I live on the 4th floor of an apartment block about 200 meters from the site and look across the roof of this building being transformed from run down, boring and scruffy warehouse/offices to smart apartments. I have become fascinated by the methods being used to transform this building, the speed in which things happen and how I read and understand all this activity from the position of my apartment window and balcony.
It struck me that the planning and engineering intelligence to transform a building of this scale is probably more complicated than if the build was being constructed from scratch. The skill of working within existing walls and floors, connecting new spaces through old infrastructure, must take an enormous amount of intricate planning. They - the developers are building on top of the existing building roof to extend up a storey, which is the area I can see from my apartment. The first activity I witnessed was scaffolding being erected over the main part of the roof to protect the new extension from the weather - wet, wet weather on exposed architecture is not good! The part of the roof closest to me weirdly had no scaffolding, giving me a great view.
I found it incredibly difficult to make sense of the scaffolding structure being assembled from my singular view point. I could not understand the depth of the structure, only the width as my sight line was the exact same height as the top of the scaffolding, so I had no sense of perspective and the extent the scaffolding receded. It always looked like they were working on one singular horizontal structure, but in fact they were probably working on 20 individual structures going right across the roof. Scaffolders climbed precariously to rig up the structure, making light of the task. I watched them early in the morning and sometimes intermittently over a whole day if I was working from home. But usually I would come home after 6pm, and if by magic things had gone up... they worked at such great speed.
I’m in awe of the scale of a human in relation to any major building, human ability to build structures that they dwarf. I am witnessing only a part of this building construction, and have no idea what is happening underneath the scaffolding and tarpaulin, and inside the building, but this small section of activity I can monitor builds a sense of wonder as well as confusion for me. For example, there are all these smart materials being hoisted into position and used to build this extra floor on the roof, but the parameters, and outer walls of which this new structure sits on and within is still the old concrete plane building with its big featureless windows and brick work of no significance. Also, I can’t see how on earth this new storey connects to rest of the building - where are the stairs connecting it to below? This extension seems to sit like a tree house up high in an old tree - settled in its branches and yet totally incongruous, as neither the tree or the house convincingly connect, apart from the fact they both happen to be there!
Yesterday, the scaffolders turned up 5 month from when they erected it to start disassembling the scaffolding. I watched them for over an hour - impressed by the speed in which they seemingly move objects. Heavy, sharp and large materials maneuvered as if made of polystyrene. I watched one scaffolder passing large sheets of corrugated panels (I presume made of heavy sharp metal) from the scaffolding roof to a lower level. He did this with the ease of posting letters thought a letterbox. These guys know exactly how to move materials efficiently and work as a team - passing, throwing, carrying stuff to one another, choreographed beautifully. This one guy when carrying the scaffolding poles always ran with them, and I don’t think it was to save time, but that the rhythm of running with the poles made it more comfortable to carry on his shoulder, and the flexing of the pole in motion helped to propel him forward.
So, I’m really intrigued, now with the scaffolding being removed from the roof exposing the entire roof extension, how will they then deal with the existing outer walls, windows and structure of the old building, that from where I am standing have no signs of being changed yet. It must be a method of working from the inside out, the outer layer being the last thing to change - like a cygnet coming to maturity eventually shedding its grey adolescent feathers, to reveal its white mature swan plumage beneath.
Humans may be the destroyer of the planet in terms of environmental issues, but at the same time they are extraordinary builders of things - tower blocks that disappear up into the clouds, tunnels that pass under entire cities. If only we could apply more of this extraordinary ability to build, into preserving the planet we build on!
7th September, 2019
Stickers appear on all sorts of things - new things to be sold, old things to be validated, those that have been Pat tested, some that display warnings, others that indicate they are sold and no longer for sale, such as the small round red sticker that can be found on sold artworks in galleries, serving as a kind of trophy mark for the joyful artist! Stickers are a great way to attach non-permanent information to all types of objects, and yet some of these stickers are more permanent than one would want! I noticed the other day a soup bowl I bought some years back still has its price sticker on the base, and even though it has gone through numerous washes (hand-wash and dishwasher) the sticker is still there with all its information still readable - barcode and where it was made.
Some stickers are small, discreet and hidden on the base of an object while others are placed intrusively slap bang on full display of an object, like the one that was imposed with all its stickiness to a gas fireplace that was condemned in my old house. The large sticker with its black and red bold text threatening me never to turn it back ON! There are the decorative stickers children are obsessed with collecting and stick all over school books and fridge doors, some are even padded containing glitter and plastic jewels, and the more serious stationary stickers that can be applied to files and documents, like those small colourful ones you can add to book and document pages - I love these - they always peel off leaving no trace.
I purchased a beautiful tray designed by Robin Day recently - he is one of the most significant British furniture designer of the twentieth century. We also have a chair by him, so when I spotted this tray I was immediately attracted to it. It is streamlined veneer wood, very simple and functional. This tray is as much a sculpture as a tray. I have leant it up against the wall in the living room and look at it as much as use it to put glasses, mugs and snacks on. You have probably guessed what I am going to say next… On the back of this object was a sticker which had the price and logo of the shop that sold it. The shop I bought it from only sells high end designer furniture and accessories and you would expect would know how to look after its produce - well clearly not in this case! When I got the tray home I tried to peel the sticker off the back. I do this slowly and carefully not to tear the sticker aiming to get it off in one piece. If it tears it will be difficult to grab the edges to continue peeling off, and also you can end up with the sticky part still attached and the paper top layer coming away, and then it is almost impossible to remove the lower sticky strip without having to scrape off with your nails leaving a sticky mark on the object. Well this sticker appeared not to be one of the easy removable type, which you would expect from this kind of shop, but was a cheap sticker the ones that weld themselves to the surface and impossible to remove cleanly.
I was getting so agitated as I tried to remove this sticker - what were they thinking sticking this monstrosity to this stunning object. My partner was equally shocked about the choice of sticker and offered to take the tray back to the shop to swap for one without a sticker, or a less sticky sticker, but really using this as an excuse to go back and complain to shop about their ridiculous choice of cheap stickers. I almost took him up on the offer, but then thought, what a hassle and probably all the trays had this type of sticker. Also, each tray was unique, and I had chosen this particular one as I liked its grain and tone of wood, and you can be sure other trays in the shop I would not like as much. As I calmed down, I reflected on the possibility that perhaps the sticker was not cheap but old and that was why it was so sticky - this happens to stickers - they perish with age and adhere themselves to the surface and lose their flexibility to be peeled off. And to go back to the shop to complain, in my head, increasingly became rather petty!
So - how to get this thing off myself - a solvent? - one that would dissolve the adhesive and not damage the wood! Turpentine maybe - but that has such a strong smell, so I use nail polish remover, slightly less smelly, which seems to work. The tray still has a small trace of the sticker on its base, but you know only I would probably notice! So time to let it go… and enjoy my tray even with its circular slightly sticky motif on the back.
4th August, 2019
We recently rented a house for a week while on holiday in Minorca. It was a beautiful converted barn with everything we needed - air con, good kitchen and bathroom facilities, tv with sky (which was a bit of a surprise - meant I could watch the finals of the tennis at Wimbledon - the only sporting event I watch all year.) As I inspected the house, as you do when you first enter a rented property, I noticed close to many of the appliances were instructions, small handwritten notes cut out of paper, laminated then stuck with blu tac close to the appliance or the switch where you would turn them on - with information such as “Turn ON and OFF, use arrows to alter temperature but do not touch any other buttons”. This particular notice was for the air con in the bedrooms. There were lots of these visual indicators instructing us how to turn things on and off, and even more advice for what not to touch, such as not to touch any of the buttons on the boiler, WiFi box etc. These notices prompted me to be extra careful when handling all these notice carrying machines in the property as I did not want to break anything, especially now I had been forewarned how NOT to use them!! Would I be the first person who breaks the thing with a protection label!!
So, as I navigated my way around the house finding out how everything worked we settled into the space and made it our home. When the owner of the property came by to check we had settled in and to get our sky tv working, we got talking about how previous guests had treated the property - people managing to break all sorts of things - Now I understood WHY the multiple labelling! And phew, reassuring we probably won’t be the last people to break something! After he had listed a number of label ignoring catastrophies he said, “holiday makers leave their brains on the (airport) tarmac when they come on holiday”, insinuating that guest do all sorts of strange things when they are away from home, such as pouring inappropriate stuff down the kitchen sink and blocking it, dropping tissues into the pool, to make pool papier-mâché! He described a guest who insisted that the pool cleaning pump was on 24/7 for no rational reason - not sure that was such a crime! My first thoughts were - how bloody annoying, I would never do that. But as the week progressed we managed to block the sink and break a glass or two. It got me thinking about how it takes time to learn how a space operates and how individual objects/appliances work. For example, at home I know exactly how all our machinery and appliances work in the apartment - tv, cupboard doors, central heating, WiFi, door lock and so on..... Plus the learnt short cuts to turn things on and off quickly, whether that be with my hands, single digit, foot and so on - it becomes automatic to a point where most things I’m sure I could operate blind folded. Whereas when you stay in an unfamiliar place it takes time to tune into the way these new objects and appliances work. And in this process of learning accidents can happen.
It is not just the activation of machines and appliances that can go wrong (wrong button, wrong sequence, wrong pressure applied...) but also just how one might move in a space with objects. A good example of this was when a glass flew onto the tiled floor and smashed in our holiday home when Mark opened a cabinet door, and did not notice that a wine glass was sitting in front of the opening glass door. Before you are fully familiar with how a space works it is easy to put objects down in vulnerable places, whereas at home we know exactly the parameters of where to place a delicate object to avoid its destruction. This might be the nuance of placing a glass on the sink drainer just enough to the right not to fall into sink or to the left to collide with the cutlery drainer. These precise placements we learn over time, which allows us to pack a lot of objects into one place safely as long as we are the ones using them. But in an unfamiliar places we are novice placers and things will get broken.
I remember Mark coming to stay at my parents many years ago. He went into the downstairs toilet and wanted to pull the curtains shut as the windows were not frosted and was cautious someone might look in. Well as he pulled the curtain the entire curtain and rail fell down. Poor guy, it was an early visit to meet my parents and he had to own up to my mum, who was rather annoyed, even though she tried to disguise her emotions not knowing Mark that well then. Me, my mum and dad never closed this curtain, we knew how old the curtains were so would never attempt to try and draw these dilapidated object, also all the family knew not to look in the window from outside in the off chance someone might be in the toilet! But Mark was not to know all this inside information. These learned behaviours can only occur after spending some time in a place. So really although I can’t imagine dropping tissue paper into a swimming pool I do think most of our brains are ‘not on the runway tarmac’, but just a little relaxed, and are not attuned to the new holiday surrounding.
27th June, 2019
Underneath - the bottom, behind, inside
Most objects have a base, bottom, behind, inside - the part of an object that is usually hidden or not intended to be seen - the back of a chest of draws, the bottom of the legs of a table, the underneath of a bed, the inside of a football...
The inside of an object may not be accessible whereas the backs, bottoms (and tops), like the top, back and bottom of a domestic gas boiler can be accessed, even if it might be a bit awkward to get to. When an enthused specialist navigates or picks up an object they will explore these areas to find out about the item, it might be where the craftsperson/maker signed it, but more revealing is that these areas often expose qualities and information about the object that may not be apparent anywhere else. For example, a 17th century polychrome (wooden) religious figurative sculpture, the parts that are not meant to be seen such as its base, expose how it is made, the materials used - paint covering gesso, gesso covering wood etc. It is unlikely that the object is painted on the base, so revealing the material of which its mass is made from, and also the artist that made it may not have paid much attention to refining the base and it’s surface, leaving exposed the marks of the tools used to make it, and also the raw qualities of the materials used, such as the wood - its grain, type, age and so on.
The bases of objects are often scuffed and unkept, as there is less need to preserve this part of the object as no one is going to see it! Also, it is the part of the object that has the most physical contact to its surroundings, picking up traces from its location, these marks and residues can reveal where and how the work has been situated - what it was sat on or attached to - on stone, wood, earth - inside a building or outside in the landscape. The bases of objects can unravel histories of the object. Also, it may not just be the base, as objects can be attached to their location in all sorts of ways - leant, sat and clamped to architecture, furniture, the ground, and that once removed from their site expose their inner workings.
The back of an object or the side not meant to be viewed! is a product of the process of making the object. So although it has not been given the same type of care and attention that the rest of the object has received, it is a vital part of the object, such as structurally. A chest of draws would not work without a back, as clothes would fall out and get trapped between the wall and the furniture, or fall down the back onto the floor. These parts provide support for the rest of the object to hold itself together, and might be the key component that enables the object to exist at all.
For example, I was working in clay the other day, rolling out large 1.5 cm thick slabs, then pushing my hand and lower arm underneath the clay slabs and using my hand and fingers to push up into the clay, watched from above the clay distort, crack and bend from the pressure of my hands beneath. The front/top of the clay slab was being formed/created by my actions from underneath, and although I did not look at the underside of the clay, I could see the affect these actions of my moving hands were having on the side facing up at me. So, the back was making the front, and without the back the front would not happen! The backs, underneath, insides of such handmade objects - the parts that are never intended to be seen or paid much attention to, and which are not part of the objects final appearance are the ‘made unseen,’ and kind of make themselves without any consideration to how they will appear. Yet when you look and study these parts closely they can be the most revealing and interesting parts of an object, as they expose how the object is made, the material used, its age, its previous locations and its aesthetic appearances.
I love the idea of backs, bottoms and insides… and the actual discovery of these parts of object - the ‘unmade made’ - parts that are hidden and yet reveal so much about an object, and can be extraordinarily exciting visually in themselves.
16th May, 2019
Food for the Eyes
When we consume food, we are influenced by what we see before we put in our mouths to taste - and this aspect of eating - the looking part - cannot be separated from our experience of consuming and tasting food. Smell is also incredibly important in making up the 3 key aspects of the eating experience - sight, smell and taste.
I’m going to focus on the visual experience here which was brought to my attention in technicolor (or maybe digital HD for those of you who don’t know about the early technicolor revolution) when visiting a luxurious French restaurant on my birthday this year - La Dame De Pic in London.
I’m a massive fan of the TV programme MasterChef - in fact watching anyone make something skillfully using their hands I find both incredibly interesting and addictive to watch. During the last series of Professional MasterChef, the contestants visited La Dame De Pic in France where they had to make one of the signature dishes to be judged by the creator Anne-Sophie Pic herself. One of the dishes was a white millefeuille. I chose this desert when I went to her London venue in order to experience it for myself, after feasting on it with my eyes on the TV screen. It was an experience both profound and unforgettable. A white cube surrounded by white foam - everything white - lacking the usual colourful sweet seductions of red berries, orange passion fruit, golden pastry or rich dark chocolate, often associated with deserts. But its lack of colour highlighted the textures - fluffy bubbly aerated foam, speckled compact foam and smooth flat shimmery surfaces, presented on a shiny mottled ceramic glazed serving plate. It’s like many experiences - if you take away one of the sense the others become more heightened - so by removing colour (or experiencing only through one colour) the textures become more pronounced, and the mystery to what was inside this pristine white cube and how that might taste was building my expectations.
In some ways this neutral, colourless dish seemed to want to deny the customer any visual indicators to what was inside and to be experienced through taste ... Once I cracked through the thin white chocolate sheet lying proud on top of the cube and then through the soft meringue exterior the surprise was revealed within - layers of thin pastry, vanilla cream and jasmine jelly. These were also lacking colour - a range of pale brown and cream coloured textures. I can only tell you the exact ingredients of this interior from the description on the menu, and now a few months later as I browse through pictures and descriptions on-line.
The most extraordinary thing about this plate of colourless food was the textures both visual and through touch (mouth touch not hand touch.) Texture - I must add as a sub-section to my 3 aspects of eating experience and I should also add temperature, which is also key to food experience - smell, sight (colour and texture), taste and temperature.
The visual experience is both about colour and texture (as well as shape, form, scale etc.) Take for example buying a whole fish. The colour of the eyes, scales, fins and tale may appear the same with both fresh and less fresh fish, but the texture - lustre - shine are very clear indicators of freshness. If the eyes of a fish are dull and not shimmering (reflecting light) this is a strong indicator that the fish is not fresh and to be avoided.
Another extraordinary dish on the menu that day was the ‘Beenleigh Blue’. The menu describes it as - pebbles, white chocolate and meadow sweet. Another beautifully crafted ceramic white bowl was bought to the table with a collection of these pebbles nestled inside - some real pebbles, collected from a beach somewhere, and others not! White chocolate pebbles perched on white stone pebbles all of which were cool to the touch (food and stone pebbles both chilled in a fridge). This was another culinary surprise, but this time what visually said white chocolate and sweet, once bitten into was a mixture of subtle sweetness and savoury blue cheese tang. The visual deception and intrigue leaving plenty of room for the surprise taste of cheese.
It seems that so often we know what the taste of a food will be purely based on appearance, so by messing with that, the taste can then be experienced unexpectedly and with a level of purity, by removing any visual preparation. It was only when I bit into it I could experience its taste. This was a double whammy of deception, as once I had eaten the two white chocolate/cheese pebbles, I found myself testing the other pebbles to see whether they were for eating or not!
30th April, 2019
The Clever Girl Painter - The Blocks
Black or white, left or right. These were concerns my grandmother Joan Ellis had when she made her wood-engraving blocks for printing. I am less interested at this point with the prints that these blocks produced, but in the wood blocks themselves, divorced from the much loved monochrome images that hang framed in my home. I'm fascinated by the materiality of these blocks, their surface, mass and behaviour in relation to the body - the handler, the observer, the maker.
Handling these blocks in my studio I study them closely. I find myself looking while feeling with my fingertips in search of something I can't see. They are smooth as well as textured, a range of repetitive cuts and grooves, some so fine it is impossible to detect through touch - the sensors on my fingertips are simply not sensitive enough, my fingers just run over these details as if they don't exist, but with my eyes I explore their minutia detail and precision. The back of the blocks are much coarser, unkept and slightly furry even, the impressions left from hard metal surfaces - cutting saw, printing press, desk clamps, a reminder of what this raw material can withstand and the process it has undergone. There are also some pencil sketches on the reverse, ideas that were never realised and the workings out that would eventually become the final image. How can I gather the maximum information from these objects, with my eyes or my hands as I explore front, back and sides, occasionally lifting right up to my face to smell them?
Cracks occasionally occur separating the individual wooden cubes that are dowelled together to make up any one engraving block. Most of these cracks run between the grid structure, but occasionally stretch across the entire surface following neither the geometry of the multi block or the grain of the wood. This is a consequence of the wood breathing, changing its shape as it responds to different temperatures. Each time these blocks are stored whether that be an attic, cupboard and now my studio the boxwood reacts to the temperature of that location, and dare I say once in the gallery may alter again. Some of the cracks I fear have widened in the last few months in reaction to the heating in my studio, but maybe they have always been there, it's just that I did not notice them before. These cracks will be widening slowly over time, pushing apart the wood to create dark creeping lines, like a crack in a cliff face leading to a cave deep inside.
These are different to the intentional cuts made by my grandmothers’ skilled hands, crafted incisions sitting shallow in the wood producing a multitude of marks, textures and subsequent shadows. Both types of dissections operate within their own time and history - material time meets makers time (this includes the wood block maker, artist and printer). The slow seasoning wood interrupted by the artists' intervention, grounding each block in a unique material condition.
Blacks - cool black, warm black, charcoal black, coal black, metal black, leather black, grease black... from the ink build-up on the surface of each individual block. (Every time a block is inked up for a print, a thin film of ink adheres to the surface, building up gradually with every print run.) These blacks vary from shiny smooth reflective black, like pools of oil, to coarse deep absorbent matt black, which appear to retreat deep into the block. Each variation fragmented and partitioned by cuts and furrows. These colour readings depend on the light that reflect off the surface. With the colour black this is extreme - black appearing silvery grey almost mirror like, revealing the ripples of the annual growth rings of the wood, and as a deep dark black as if the lights have gone out, so dense one cannot understand the surface at all. There are also shades of brown where the wood is exposed, where no ink has come into contact, roughly cut away and never to be evidenced on the paper print. These brown shapes are the exposure of the woodblock interior and natural wood structure, darkening over time through prolonged exposure to light.
The tight uniformed wood grain is dense and very stable facilitating lasting sharp edges. Boxwood, which all these blocks are made from comes from the boxwood slow growing shrub, the main stems rarely reaching more than five inches in diameter, and when cut into small pieces to make up a wood-engraving block produce a very strong and versatile material to work with. A softer wood such as pine would not withstand this process, the edges crumbling, bending and losing their definition when carved, or collapsing under the pressure of the metal weights of the printing press.
These print blocks are the art objects that are usually never seen - OMG what am I doing! Am I exposing the process my grandmother may have wanted to have kept hidden. I'll never know!
The shapes between overrule the figuration for the intended subject matter of the print, exposing the gaps between things and the process and interaction between artist and material. How did Joan work on these blocks? Did she hold in one hand and cut with the other? Or did she use a work surface to wedge/clamp the block leaving both hands free to exert the force required to push the cutting tools into the wood? These are the objects most close to the artist - many hours spent handling and working on them. I can follow each mark she made, her precise calculations and then the pressure, angle and action she applied with each cutting tool to create the incisions. If you look closely you can see small mistakes, where tool slips too far and travels with less control, but these are very few. Most marks are incredibly precise and I can only imagine how this was done. Did she use magnifying glasses for the delicate minute cuts? How did she maintain so much control with wood and tools?
This is the work of a professional artist, one that knows exactly how wood and tools behave - and then takes that skill to create extraordinary carvings that simultaneously think in reverse, while never loosing site of their printed ambition.
26th January, 2019
My home accumulates little bits of fluff - stuff - fragments of materials that lay waste on the floor - usually no bigger than a speck, the size of a small fly, a seed from an apple... These bits appear in every room on every floor. Our apartment is kept pretty tidy and yet everyday I catch myself picking up these small bits off the floors - carpet, tiled, linoleum flooring. In the carpeted bedrooms there is what I call 'sock fluff'. I'm sure these bits of fluff come off all sorts of clothing, but I think mostly from socks - particularly new socks, the balls of fluffy woolen sock material produced by feet rubbing on the inside of the sock, especially the toe and the heel area where there is the most pressure, or the sock rubbing on the inside of the shoe causing it to collect into little balls, which when you take off your shoes and socks sprinkle out. In the bathroom where I hang up the washing the same 'rubbing' action has occurred in the washing machine - lots of different types of materials rubbing up against each other as they tumble around inside the washing machine drum, which when I shake out to arrange on the dryer these balls of fluff float aimlessly down onto the tiled floor. There are definitely more bits of fluff around in the winter than the summer due to many more wooly type clothing being worn and moving around the flat - jumpers, fleeces, cosy nightwear and so on.
In the kitchen and living room these mini balls of matter are harder in consistency and more varied - such as bits of food - crumbs scattered around the linoleum floor gathering in particular areas where me and Mark eat, prepare or discard food, such as near the bin, under the table and near the bread board. The other day I was on the floor of the kitchen and stroked my hand over the floor and felt loads of little bits. I looked at my hand and could not see anything on it but could feel these bits on my hand. I vacuum this area daily, but bits must just float down continuously - small particles in the air, such as pollution from outside that comes in the windows and doors, airborne bits that can float over long distances opposed to the bits that drop where they are created.
Admittedly I have a bit of a fixation around picking up these little bits - hence the need to write about it! I have started to try and identify some of the individual bits I come across - giving time to dissect to try and locate their source. Sometimes a bit of fluff sitting on an un-textured surface, such as a tiled floor can look very much like a small fly - due to the fibers lifting the ball mass off the floor as if to hover, like the legs of a fly raising the flies body off the ground. I invariably find myself swatting fluff thinking it is alive. We have a lot of small flies that breed on the many house plants we have - so an easy mistake to make. Most of the fluff type is what I expect - parts of our clothing, often identified by the colour matches to sweaters in my wardrobe. But there are others, such as specks that are wet, and smear when touched - such as the oil paint my husband walks into the flat from his studio - however I can usually recognize these specks pretty quickly by their vibrant colour and glossy consistency.
Yesterday I spotted two bits that were especially long and thin, opposed to round, therefore this had to be something hard in its material make-up in order to hold its slim form. On picking the two similar shapes up off the bedroom floor I could see they were small dry pine needles, and with it being January they were clearly the remnants of a discarded Christmas tree which one of us had bought in on our shoes. It was not from our Christmas tree as ours is fake - well ours is not even a fake pine tree - but more a bare tree in winter fake! That is another thing, winter shoes tend to have more tread on their soles than summer shoes, so less bits are bought in on our shoes in summer than winter. There are hard specks that are grittier like a small pebble (stone, tarmac, earth), that I'm less keen to pick up wondering where they have come from and how they have managed to lodge themselves between the tread of my shoe, to then drop inconveniently onto the floor. Moisture does that very well, sticking stuff, which when dries out releases the material to then drop out.
There are some small marks on the kitchen floor that I repeatedly think are crumbs, and then realise when trying to scrape them up are in fact indentations in the floor (probably caused by a heavy implement such as a saucepan being dropped on the floor at some stage leaving a dent). Concave and convex forms are quite difficult to distinguish when small and near your feet not your eyes - it is an optical illusion when trying to identify if a shape is coming out towards you or going away from you - raised or recessed. The raised for removing and the recessed to live with perhaps!
The shape of these bits I find on the whole appear round in shape - although if I was to look at them through a microscope they would be far from it I'm sure. But being small they are roundish! - like pebbles on the beach that have been rounded by being tossed around in the sea - knocking off their sharp edges - this has also occurred with these bits of stuff in my home - rounded by multiple actions imposed on materials, knife cutting bread and small bits from this action escaping the bread board, sock/shoe/foot friction, washing machine tumbling, wiping food accommodating surfaces and bits getting caught in the action then falling to the floor.
These bits are mostly dark in colour - or maybe it is only the dark bits I notice. Which means there are probably loads of bits on the floor that I just can't see. It is not a problem that these bits occupying my flat (apart from the wet ones), I just don't like the look of them on my pale floors - an aesthetic judgement - for me floors appear more attractive when uncluttered by the gathering of dark coloured specs that are not the same colour as the floor. For neat and tidy people like me these accumulating bits are very noticeable - I just have to decide whether to pick them up or wait until I get the vacuum out later.
7th December, 2018
I recently had two crowns replaced on my two lower front teeth (lower central incisors). This was an aesthetic decision after noticing that my previous crowns; which where fitted when I was a teenager after falling over and knocking all the enamel off them; as I have got older have become less attractive! Over recent years my gums have started to recede and there was a significant gap appearing between my gums and the base of the crowns creating a dark shadow, so I decided at great expense to have them both replaced. This process to remove the old crowns, take impressions - negative imprints of my original crowns and the teeth below (live tooth matter) from which a positive reproduction (cast/model) could be formed to create the new crowns and also the intermediary caps, was an intricate series of procedures which stimulated all my senses. Touch (pressure from cutting the old crowns off, sensitivity from my living teeth beneath the crowns), smell (the odour of the old porcelain crowns being cut away mixed in with general dentist clinical smell), sound (cutting, drilling, clanking of tools and machinery) and sight (probably the least sense being activated apart from the bright lights shining onto my face, my focus on the detailed texture of the dentist room ceiling, and the face of the dentist, which I tried not to look at too much.)
The thing that is foremost in most people’s minds when entering the dentist to have work done is - how much pain will there be? More than often an injection of local anesthetic is needed to mask the pain - these are not that pleasant in themselves - a small sharp needle poked into the muscle of the jaw or gum, but once taken affect you are safe in knowing there will be limited pain, although the pressure of cutting and pulling, plus the cold jets of water that clean your mouth during the process still can cause sensations that are not very comfortable.
Pain is an interesting sensation and it partly psychological. As the dentist injected the anesthetic into my gum I tried to shift my instinctual calculations of pain and subsequent negativity to thinking of it as an interesting and even enjoyable sensation, that was not negative, which helped me to feel less discomfort during the second injection. This is all well and good, but it is very easy for these focused positive feelings to be quickly overcome with those more familiar negative feelings associated with pain and often fear, so my attempt to disguise the pain was very fleeting…
Once my mouth was numb I proceeded to experience the rest of the dental process with reduced sensitivity. The thing about a local anesthetic is that you are aware of sensations but not fully, which on one hand is of course a relief not to experience pain, but on the other hand this numbness feels a bit disconcerting, as the ability to sense when things are going wrong have been removed. So, for all I knew the dentist could make a mistake, cut through a live nerve and I would not know until the anesthetic wore off - a sense of feeling out of control and a little removed from one’s own body. There are some people who do not experience physical pain at all, which often means they are unable to protect themselves from harm and as a consequence of this have reduced life expectancy. Imagine burning yourself on the hob of a cooker and not noticing until the smell of human flesh starts penetrate your nose, whereas for most of us if we accidentally touch something too hot we retreat immediately, reducing the amount of damage to our skin and flesh. Sensing pain is an amazing defense mechanism which is difficult to live without - so perhaps we should try and enjoy it more.
The mould making for my new crowns and temporary caps (those fitted between when the old ones are removed and the new ones arrive) was the most interesting of the sensations I experienced - partly because the materials used to do this were soft and kind on my mouth, so I was able to relax and fully engage with the process with very little anxiety. The dentist used different gels/alginates, each one a different colour (materials are often colour coded so that it is clear which does what) to achieve this - pressing my teeth into mouth shields full of these variant materials and waiting until they set before removing - in attempt to get the perfect cast of my teeth. The squidgy gooey feeling of this fluid material seeping between my two front teeth and then becoming rubbery as it hardens. To remove these casts the dentist had to pull quite hard to release them, each time the material suddenly releasing, almost then jumping out of my mouth. She did a number of these in order to get the perfect impression.
I went away from this appointment with my whiter than white temporary caps - they did look a bit odd but seeing as I only had to wear these for a couple of weeks before getting my new crowns I was going to have to put up with them. I did find myself over this period not smiling as much as usual - being rather self-conscience of these two very white shapes glaring out from my mouth.
Two weeks passed and I returned for the fitting of my new crowns. The dentist greeted me with my new crowns presented to me in a presentation case - the crowns perched between a full set of display teeth - like being shown expensive jewellery in an unnecessarily oversized padded box. I heard myself saying - 'wow these look great!' - they really did! - they looked just like teeth! A bit disappointing if they hadn't! I was only going to know if they looked like 'my teeth' once placed in my mouth next to the rest of my nashers... Once the dentist had cut away the intermediary caps she placed the new crowns on for me to look at in a mirror. They looked pretty good - not a perfect colour match, but when I looked carefully I realised that the tone of these new crowns was dependent on the amount of light/shadow being cast on them. The slightly thick crowns were never going to be the exact same shape as my other teeth and so the light bouncing off them was always going to create different shadows and tones. I have had them fitted for two weeks now and hardly notice them any more - the over focusing on them in the few days after has been replaced with a general lived-in satisfaction, where I hardly look at them at all - which is probably good enough proof that they have worked, even if I am probably the only person who notices them at all.
21st October, 2018
Putting clothes on in the morning
Depending on whether I am in a hurry, whether I am tired, feeling energetic will depend a great deal on how I put my clothes go on in the morning and how smoothly or frustrating this process can be and end up. Of course it depends a great deal on what clothes I am putting on, but let's say I am putting on underwear, jeans, a tea shirt and shoes.
I am quite an impatient person so I like to get dressed quickly, which is probably where the problem lies. Most actions when done slowly while relaxed will work better than if tense and are rushed.
As a woman I have to deal with the whole bra thing… Every bra is designed slightly differently and requires a unique way of putting your arms through the arm straps and then fastening the clip behind your back. Some people fasten the clip at the front then rotate the bra into position and then put their arms through the arm straps - very sensible. While I go straight for the arms and then fasten behind my back - it is quicker and after doing this for many years you get pretty good at it, however every bra is designed slightly differently so sometimes the action is quick with the two sides clipping together on the first attempt, while other times it can take four or five attempts to clip the two parts together. You are doing this blind so you rely totally on touch to negotiate the process. Once I have my 'breast harness' on. I say this as it does feel like a harness, especially when you are sitting down and the strap around your rib cage can dig in and feel most uncomfortable. The first thing I do when I get home after work is to rip this device off - so much more comfortable without... Sometimes I wonder why I wear one at all. I don't have very large breasts, but there is some social etiquette out there that says I should wear one. My mum stopped wearing a bra years ago and it suits her. Mind you over the summer, once when we were going out she suddenly panicked that her nipples might show through her top which might be a bit in appropriate at the age of 80 - umm - not sure what I think about that! - in appropriate for who I think!
Anyway, after putting on my bra I put my nickers on, well actually I do it the other way round. Nickers first and bra second. When you do something so automatic everyday, similarly like cleaning your teeth you can easily forget the details of how you do it when you try to recall it later - it has become fully automatic. Actually when I think about cleaning my teeth as I am cleaning them, I then can't do it - I forget which set of teeth I clean first. It only works if I do it automatically and don't think about. It probably does not matter if the process is different to the usual routine, but I think when you hone a process to work really well, you want to keep to it as it works. If you break the automatic routine it can go very wrong. For example, yesterday I left my flat and when I got into the lift to leave the building I looked in the elevator mirror and noticed I had forgotten to put mascara on. How on earth had that happened? I do it everyday. Was I going mad? Was I loosing the plot? Something pretty minor like forgetting to put on mascara can have a serious impact on how we perceive ourselves.
I could not leave the building without my mascara on so I returned to my flat and applied it. Probably no one would have notice at work that I was without it, but putting on clothes and makeup is a routine that you cannot tamper with. It is a routine that prepares us for the day. For me it is the routine that lets me know I am ready for the day, so if the routine goes un-smoothly then it can define the kind of day I'm going to have, perhaps a less smooth one! To be truthful it probably does not, but psychologically in that moment of thinking about the disrupted routine I feel it will and that is enough to actually impact on my day. It may not be the same for everyone, but as someone who likes to be in control and enjoys the feeling of order, for these routines to be disrupted or denied is problematic for me. It is less that it disrupts the day, but that it reveals to me some kind of inadequacy of my own, such as a reduced dexterity, a lack of body flexibility, a memory disfunction, and ultimately getting older - the biggest fear of all perhaps.
So putting my clothes on in the morning can go from a fluid choreography of body and textiles, to a comical clown sketch. I tricky procedure can be putting my second leg through the nicker leg hole, which I can miss and end up catching my toes in the fabric, pulling and stretching the elasticated nickers to the point of almost ripping them. So I pull my leg out and try again, if this happens twice then I can loose my balance, hopping around the bedroom and on a bad day falling into the bed to then try to regain my balance. So I now have my bra and nickers firmly on and are no longer naked and feel safer. Even when walking naked around the flat there is a level of vulnerability, such as the anticipation of someone looking through the window at me, or an emergency and having to leave the building or deal with some emergency inside my flat. Underwear is the bare minimum cover, and for most people is the decent level of appropriateness for being seen in public. It's funny really when you think about it - that covering our front and back bottom for men and in addition for women their breasts is a sign of basic decency.
These private bits are the sexual and reproductive component of the body, and waste exits, and to keep these protected we need to cover them, or maybe deny we use them at all. A bit like shitting, we all do it but no one wants to think of anyone else doing it. There goes another automatic routine. Do you crunch your loo paper to wipe or do you wrap it around your hands and then apply. I bet you can't remember, as it is such an automatic action.
With my underwear on I go to the wardrobe and chest of draws to retrieve my jeans and my top. First I put my skinny jeans on. I have a pair that stretches so these are easier to pull on than the non-stretchy type that I have to carefully pull up by pulling by the waist band, but also just below the knee as they are very tight and need pulling over my calf muscles and also to arrange them so they are not twisted, aligning the seam along the inside of my leg. This lower leg action I sometimes sit down to do, or if I am feeling confident I do standing up, leaning double over to arrange the fabric. All these decisions, to sit/to stand are done in a spilt moment, we make these types of decisions every second of our day. Turn the light on or off before putting our shoes on before leaving the house, putting gloves on before or after locking the front door and so on. It is interesting to observe these things we do, as they reveal a lot about the type of person we are. Are you someone who is prepared, organised, thinks ahead, uses your time efficiently? I find it fascinating observing my husband do everyday activities. He can start to hang the washing on the dryer, then half way thorough the task he goes to his computer to deal with a work email, and then moves on to put the kettle on, leaving the cup and teabag sitting by the kettle for the next hour. Sometimes the tea never gets made and the washing takes hours to get hung up. It is beyond me why someone does that, as I would never. I always finish one job before starting another, believing that is the most time efficient way to get through my day. But I am beginning to appreciate that we all do things differently and other ways work just as well (although I still think I get more things completed than my husband and in much quicker time!)
However being quick and efficient might not always be the best way to realise a task. Doing things in parts might give time for reflection, responding to what the brain needs in the present moment and responding to that might be better than postponing into some kind of efficient order. There is always a fear I might forget the things I need to do so the way I deal with that is to do each job to completion and if I don't, I have to make a note, usually on a small piece of paper that then sits on my desk until it is done and I can then cross it off, which I find very satisfying. Where as my husband jumps from one job to the other and does not write reminders, and still he gets it all done in his way eventually with a few reminders from me! I love watching other people's ways, it makes me realise how specific and unique each and every one of us gets through our day of tasks and activities.
So I have my trousers on and now I go for my top - Arms, holes, tubes of fabric to negotiate, entry smooth, entry with hitches, then shoes. I sometimes sit down to put my shoes on and other times balance on one leg while I aim my toes into the boot, like bringing a ship into its moorings, being careful not to touch the harbor walls until the boat is in its right position for tying up. I aim my foot into the opening of my boot and if I don't catch the sides I can push it in, in one smooth action, but if I'm not so precise my foot can get caught on the rim of the boot and my balance becomes off set and I'm likely to hop around a bit re-stabilizing myself by leaning on the wardrobe or any other nearby furniture.
What a complicated skill to get dressed. We do take it for grantage, but when you start to break it down and think about what is happening, it is beautifully choreographed to adjust to the particularities of the garment we are putting on. Our evolving experience of fabrics gives us an enormous amount of knowledge to how to handle our clothes, adjusting our bodies accordingly to maneuver inside the fabric shapes.
2nd October, 2018
Breaking glass and chewing gum
I read once that there are only two ways that stuff breaks, either it shatters through a crack occurring or it stretches becoming so thin it eventually separates. Glass and chewing gum are two good examples of these different types of breakage, one seemingly more dramatic than the other.
On New Year's Eve my sister-in-law accidentally knocked her wine glass, which fell off the table onto the chair, distributing the remainder of wine on the seat then catapulted onto the hard laminate floor, shattering in all directions. Some parts of the glass that broke off were large, such as the thick stem and others so small I only saw them the day after as the day-light reflected off these tiny shards, dangerously sparkling close to my bare feet! I would have loved to have seen this action in slow motion, to make total sense of the way the glass broke and distributed the wine. A dramatic event enhanced by the sound it made as it met the floor.
Whereas, playing with chewing gum as I pull it out from my mouth, in order to see how long I can stretch it before it collapses and breaks into two parts is a very different breaking process and experience. I don't much like the sensation of the part of chewing gum that has been pulled out of my mouth, gathered in my finger tips and then pushed back into my mouth, as it feels cool and rubberier than it was when moving around my chewing teeth.
All objects break in one of these two ways to different degrees and as you handle things you learn the breaking point of different materials and objects. I have been working with a silicon type material in my studio for a number of years, constantly learning about its capabilities. I often make a long sausage shape with this material and then fix one end to the wall, by simply pressing the material with my thumb about eye level to the plaster board, and then I watch it stretch. At the point in which it is about to break I race to repair it with my finger, meanwhile other parts of the strand start to stretch and I rush up and down the sausage form chasing the vulnerable parts to squish the material closer together to try and repair it. It is a losing battle as the weight of the material will continually stretch it and eventually break it apart, unless I can keep repairing it until the material starts to dry and go hard. But this does not happen, because as it dries it gets more brittle and is then much more difficult to repair and breaks even more, the stretching break becoming a cracking break and is a lost cause to keep it whole, but an enjoyable challenge to be dancing around a material that cannot and will not be fixed or controlled.
As we go about our daily lives encountering objects we are constantly making judgements to ascertain how we can interact with them! Such as negotiating a weight to decipher whether we can pick it up unaided. When I am moving my artwork in the studio I position my body around the object to see if I can take its weight and then in one move lift and relocate it. It is easier to move an object if it remains at the same height, such as table top surface to table top surface, but it is when I am lifting something from floor to table height or visa versa that it is more straining. It is in that moment of contact with the object and with an initial attempt to lift that I am able to calculate if the job can be done, that the lift can be made from one position to the other. There is a very small margin between can and cannot do. The more experience we get from lifting things the better we are at judging whether it is possible. It is lifting so many different things in our lives that gives us that knowledge of what is achievable and what is beyond our means. This is also true of measuring stuff. Recently I have been making large quantities of bread dough for an artwork. I add 300ml of water to every 500g of flour. I have a measuring jug and scoop the water from a bucket of water using this implement. I am now so accurate at scooping exactly the right amount of water with the jug from the bucket that I hardly have to check the marker on the side of the jug.
I have learnt from having to move large pieces of stone in the past how things can be moved which are beyond my physical capability with very little extra help (mechanical or other). Such as rolling things on wooden poles, balancing the stone on one of its corners (most blocks/boulders of stone have some kind of ‘corner’ to work with) and then turning it to move the distance of the length of the stone and then repeating the action until it is in the desired location. Also, by putting sand directly onto the concrete floor, ideally one can drag heavy stone over the small resilient grains. These methods go back to ancient times when there were no machines to move large pieces of masonry, but imagination, ambition and mathematics.
I remember making physical calculations when making plans to move a block of stone and one way or the other I would do it. I recall collecting a 1 ton block of limestone stone from a quarry. The stone had been lowered onto the back of my 1 ton limit pickup truck. To get it off the back of my truck I placed large pieces of thick foam, like the ones from an old sofa on the ground at the back of my vehicle below the lowered tail-gate. I then slung some strong slings around the bolder of stone and attached them to the building (my then studio exterior wall). I then drove forwards very slowly until the bolder was pulled off the back of my truck falling and catching the foam cushion then rolling onto the ground next to them. I then levered the stone into the position I wanted it, wedging it with wood and then I was ready to start cutting and carving it. Where there’s a will there is definitely a way, and I love how the mind works (you can almost hear the brain ticking over) in relation to the body to make sense of the task at hand.
21st August, 2018
I have a set of delicate glass cups that sit on stainless steel saucers. The glass is incredibly thin and yet is pretty strong. I use one of these cups and saucers every morning to drink my green tea that I pour from a glass teapot - it is quite a ritual for me in the morning to drink my tea with a bowl of muesli and almond milk - preferably on my own listening to the news on the radio.
When I wash up the glass cup I notice it is flexible, I can feel the thin transparent material flex as I wash it with a sponge in hot soapy water. I am careful when I wash it , but not overly as I have a set of six, so if it broke it would not be the end of the world! I think because I wash it quite firmly I can feel the glass bending, as if I am pushing its flexibility to the limit, just within its breaking capacity. I don't expect glass to bend but I suppose the science will tell me that all glass bends when heated up and with the glass cup being so thin when I wash it in hot water the molecules that make up the material can move. With a thick pain of glass it would need to go into a hot kiln to bend, whereas my small glass cup can bend in hot washing up water. The thing I enjoy most about this, is that every morning I do this it takes me by surprise, and I can feel myself anticipating the glass to break but it never does.
21st August, 2018
The inside and the outside
I am very interested in what we see on the outside compared to what is going on in the inside. We can apply this to so many things – whether that is politics, society, people, objects, animals etc. But what I want to think about right now is objects, and in this particular case the functional airplane chair. Objects reflect and reveal so many aspects of our lives, such as when we talk about the furniture we own - the appearance of a sofa, say in pink luscious leather looking all beautiful and inviting to sit on. Of course it has to be comfortable, but what it looks like is essential in our decision to purchase this type of object to fit within our personal taste, the decor of the room where it will go and the statement it will project to all those who see it - lavish, expensive, practical, new/antique and so on... The outward facing exterior of objects is so important, whereas the inside we have different concerns, as to provide the technology to make the sofa comfortable, safe, long lasting, such as using sustainable materials that are fire resistant and so forth. Almost all things have an outer and inner set of concerns and requirements, and this can also be applied to people. In basic terms - the outer appearance, body presentation - makeup, clothes, hair etc, and then the inner and inside - organs and brain capacity that generate belief systems, ambitions, morals and so on.... For example, when listening to politicians communicate on tv, using the familiar rhetoric to attract us to like them and ultimately get our vote, this outward facing act never reveals the mechanisms and workings behind, the actual truth to a political situation, mental and physical health or hidden lies of the individual - always disguising the details as this may not be so attractive, and will surely loose our vote! We are all too often given the surface without the substance, and this happens with so many things - the outside preoccupied with 'the look of it' and the inside about how it actually works.
Last time I was on an airplane on a cheap Ryanair flight to Italy I started to investigate the chair in front of me - well as much as I could without making a scene (suspicious behaviour on airplanes never goes down very well!) or disturbing the person sitting in the seat in front of me. Each chair is made of metal, pale grey with crude fixings to hold it together and bolt it to the floor. The ugly mechanism is pure function, with no designed aesthetic consideration from what I could see, especially from the back. The only consideration on the back seems to me to be able to accommodate a small flip down table, so bolt holes on the side of the chair to connect the flip table arms. What makes these seats functional to sit on is the addition of foam padding and fabric covers that are coloured coded to match the airline colour scheme. Also this fabric comes with pockets to hold magazines and space for additional information to be attached, such as a diagram to describe how to belt yourself in and to position your body if the plane is about to crash.
From the front - the seating side you are very unaware of the inside structure of the seat, whereas from behind it is revealed between the gaps of the fabric. The fabric cover reminds me of those hospital gowns you have to wear that do up at the back with quick release ties, exposing your bum. I kind of get their practicality as to be removed quickly in an emergency, but they seem to humiliate you first, exposing your rear as you walk around the ward! The airline seat covers are held together with velcro seams that equally expose what is underneath, but less embarrassing or maybe not!
I think more than any seat I can think of an airplane seat is one that you would expect to be built incredibly well, so to secure you in flight and hold you as safe as possible in the event of bad turbulence, and even worse a crash landing. But exploring the Ryanair seat from behind gave me little reassurance, appearing to be very clunky, and I could imagine these seats easily getting meshed up and distorted in a crash wreckage, in fact I could imagine the crude metal structure causing more damage to a human body than the crash itself, with their angular metal parts, protruding bolts and screw fittings all impacting on flesh and bone.. To me these chairs are a great metaphor for so many of life's disappointing and often frightening realities - things - objects - people that appear one way and are quite something else when you go beyond the surface!
27th June, 2018
Wear and Tear
I’m interested in the wear and tear and ultimate demise of material things. Having lost my father over a year ago I have become acutely aware of how things breakdown, stop working, wear out, fall apart and disintegrate. Everything has a life span whether it is a human being (0 – maximum 117 years, although in the future we may push this even further) or a mahogany chest of draws (0 – 1,0000 years at a guess) all depending on the condition they are kept in and the quality of the materials they are made from.
When I touch (with my body) an object, I am aware of the impact I am having on its life span. (Life span here I am referring to the timeframe an object/thing maintains its complete/whole, before it breaks down into smaller parts. So, with the mahogany chest of draws its lifespan will be defined to when it is a box with draws and not bits of rotting wood on a scrap heap.) The computer I am writing on right now, each time I press a key I am slowly wearing away its plastic surface and the shape of the individual keys. Even when I am very careful to preserve an object it will still deteriorate. I notice this particularly with clothing, the effect of wearing, washing and even storing individual items degrades them – the material qualities of fabric are quite unstable and change very easily. I relish the qualities of new clothes, crisp lines and defined shapes, those visualised and created by the designer and manufacturer opposed to the ones moulded, stretched, disfigured and worn-down by my body.
The environment – air, water, light, heat, dust, dirt landing and settling on objects without me even touching them affects an objects makeup, appearance and lifespan, and then when I touch with my hands putting pressure on as I lift/hold, this impacts on the object even more, the object absorbing the grease from my hands which react causing it to discolour, alter its texture, change shape and breakdown, as well as other affects such as to alter its smell. While reading ‘The Smell of Fresh Rain’ by Barney Shaw, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the complex experience of smelling, I learnt that metals do not smell, it is only when they come into contact with moisture such as when we touch metal, the sweat from our bodies reacts with the metal releasing the metallic odour we most commonly associate with this hard cool material.
It may be hardly noticeable with some things but over time the deterioration becomes more evident. You see this very clearly where an object has been repeatedly touched or handled, such as religious objects/relics, hand tools, children’s toys, a library book, handles and railings in public spaces and on public transport, or monuments where the act of touching has claims to bring good luck, such as the famous snout of the bronze boar sculpture in Florence, made in 1634 which since 1700 people have rubbed its nose for good luck, a very slow erosion of the metal brought to attention by the golden shine created by this bodily interaction. This wearing away is incredibly slow with materials such as bronze, but never the less it is still changing and is never fixed.
The need to stabilise things is very common in our culture, to preserve in museums for future generations, however I find there is something reassuring about the inevitable demise and unavoidable state of flux of all material things in this world. I say this as the thought of all inanimate material objects remaining the same would create enormous anxiety - to what to do with all this fixed stuff! and would only go to highlight our own contrasting and inevitable demise.
We do however also live in a society of the ‘replacement’ rather than ‘repair’ – iPhones, computers, garden furniture – when it breaks chuck it away for a new version, probably buying the new one from Amazon or Apple and it being cheaper than repairing the old one. The need for the new even when the old is perfectly fine or repairable indicates that for some things we do not want to see the evidence of wear and tear, traces of age while other things we definitely do, such as admiring the qualities of antique objects, where the beauty is in capturing age, history and nostalgia and is embedded in the materials themselves. These extreme values we assign to different materials and objects is driven by the vast range of markets and environments, which categories of objects/materials sit within, and when investigated further often make little rational sense.
This constant state of flux is in all material things, and even when we come across something old and preserved – a piece of jewelry, furniture or a building we are not experiencing the original but an object that is a rejuvenation and reinvention, a continuous new. Walking thought the Richard Hoggart Building of Goldsmiths College where I have worked for the past 12 years almost all the surface furnishings have changed over that period – furniture, lighting, wall coverings – the windows replaced, doors and floors upgraded, bricks and mortar patched up and treated, electrical wiring replaced, drains redirected and so on, so really this building has very little of its original material makeup to the one I entered those 12 years ago, and almost nothing of the original that was built 150 years ago. This seriously questions my sense of nostalgia for things, such as the storage jar my grandmother had in her kitchen which she kept her teabags, and when she died I inherited as a personal reminder of her, however it is now a different object in my kitchen - different tea inside harbouring different smells, handled by different people transferring different grease and dirt onto the objects surface, which over time will affect the material mass of the object. So, even though very subtle it has been changing its appearance and properties extensively over the past 10 years since I took ownership of it. I wonder what it is I have left!
Accepting that everything is affected by time prompts me to appreciate things more in the present and embrace the inevitable death of all things – or maybe more specific the inevitable transformation of all materials from one state to another, however we might choose to evaluate and judge those different stages.
15th April, 2018
Inside Orange Sculpture.
Putting it on was the difficult part. I fed one of my feet followed by a leg through the rubbery bars – weaving them between each part until my foot met and sat on the ground. Once I had secured this foot on the floor I lifted my other and started to weave that through the object too – lacing my way from the top to the bottom. I could feel my balance severely challenged as I moved my second leg through the structure, no longer having a leg/foot outside the sculpture to secure me. I maneuvered myself close to a table nearby, by wriggling a little in order to put one hand on the table top to keep me and the sculpture upright. As I fed my legs down through the object my trousers got hooked on the bars as they passed them – the friction of my dungaree legs coming into contact with the irregular surface of the plastic object caught, pulling my trousers upwards as my legs stretched down towards the ground, exposing the skin of my ankles and lower leg.
Once I had both feet securely on the ground (well as secure as they could be given they were now being held tightly by the sculpture encased around them), I pulled the top bars of the object upwards to sit on my shoulders. This was quite an effort, and as I pulled up and up I could feel the pressure of the object pulling me up at the ankles and knees. It felt that by pushing up the top of the object with my arms that it would eventually lift me off the ground completely, like some magicians levitation trick. Once the top bars of the object were mounted onto my shoulders I was able to stand upright, although a little bow legged. Feeling like a large spring at full extension, but if I were to relax I would quickly concertina towards the floor and entirely crunch up.
The feeling of this object around me was like nothing else I had experienced before. I felt completely incapacitated, and I suddenly thought that if someone came to my studio door right now I would not be able to get to the door to open it. I was literally entangled inside one of my own sculpture - trapped. The only way to get myself out was to fall/roll over with the device locked around me and then on the floor to wriggle my way free.
It made me wonder what it would be like to be inside all sorts of objects/stuff - such as a lampshade, chairs, sofas, tables, or the walls of my studio, the soil in a plant pot, the food on my plate. I was reading the other day in 'Object-Orientated Ontology' by Graham Harman how the only way you can fully understand something is to be inside it - like we are with our own bodies, experiencing from the inside out - so maybe this urge to get inside a sculpture I had made was my way to understanding this object better.
You are probably wondering what kind of object/sculpture I have been getting in and out of - well it is a sculpture of which the armature is a clothes drying - one of those 3-storey concertina ones, that can collapse on itself for storage. Mine I had covered with bright orange sculpting silicon, fixing it in its upright and extended position, and then carving into the dried hard coating so that the surface was rough and irregular - hence the catching on my trousers. In covering the dryer with the silicon I had gone over the joints so it could not collapse anymore, but I found when I was inside it and sitting down in it, it moved under the weight of my body braking the silicon seals - so essentially breaking the sculpture through my body movement. As I sat down inside the object I was able to sit in it without it breaking completely, and I tried lifting my feet off the ground to balance inside the object - this was very difficult - however I did manage it for about 8 seconds, before me and object rolled pathetically over onto one side. I was a bit worried that if I got into a very awkward position I might not be able to get myself out - and would have to scream for help to be rescued!
Being held inside this object was like wearing the object as clothing, and it made me acutely aware of particular parts of my body, such as the tops of my shoulders (bone and muscle components) as I pulled up with the object resisting, and the limited bending capacity of my legs when I was initially weaving them through the object.
The main objective of this activity was to take a selfie of myself with/in/on an object. I like the idea of the selfie - that it requires one hand to control the camera as it points back at yourself (without using one of those selfie extenders) - just to use only the extension of one's arm. This limits what you photograph, and you can't really get far enough away from the lens to take the object selfie - so the pictures you get are pretty odd and distorted, it said more about the action of taking a selfie than the object I was wrestling with.
18th March, 2018
I did a day weaving at a workshop in Dalston recently - London Loom - run by two very enthusiastic woven clad woman, (they wore woolen woven jumpers, woven earrings and all sorts of other woolly constructed accessories.) The room was set up with 5 small wooden looms and wall to wall spoils of colour coordinating wool and other weave related material - a very colourful and warm room, literally insulated by the materials present.
Once allocated my loom one of the women showed me the basics to using it and how to spin my chosen wool onto a spindle that was then placed inside a shuttle ready to weave with. The loom was already set up with the warp so I could straight away apply my chosen weft, weaving through the fixed dark blue fine strands. There has to be a level of body coordination between feet and hands - the hands pushing the thread from left to right thought the warp while alternating foot pedals that lift up alternate warp to allow the weave to take place. Apologies for not explaining this more technically - but I think you get my drift - in, out, in, out - up, down, up down ...
As I became more familiar with the process I was able to push my thread through quicker and with more rhythm and fluidity - sliding the thread baring shuttle between the warp and catching it on the other side before flipping the warp with the pedals and then pushing the shuttle back through. This repetitive process is the part I really enjoyed the most, plus the sound the wooden loom made as I grappled with it with my wooden tools - wood on wood - creaking, clattering, like the noise of children playing with old fashioned wooden building blocks, or a group of adults playing a game of dominoes on a wooden table in a quiet pub. As you make your weave you roll it up at intervals at the front of the loom, which means that you don't get to see the entirety of what you have woven until the end when you take if off the loom. This reminds me of other processes where the outcome is not revealed until completion, such as traditional printmaking like etching where you don't get to see the final outcome until you peel off the press blankets and lift the etched plate to reveal the image on your prepared paper - this always builds anticipation and creates a sense of surprise, allowing the maker to experience their work a fresh - as if someone/something else has made the work - I suppose in some ways something else has!
Like so many processes once you have tried it yourself you get to appreciate in so much more detail all those objects you come across in daily life that have been made in a similar way. So since I did this weaving workshop I keep checking out the weave on all sorts of fabric surfaces - rugs, clothing, furnishings and so on, brushing my hand across woven items in shops, cafes, restaurants, public transport, friend's homes and my workplace and so on…. Most of the fabrics I come across are of course made by a machine, but even so when you roll your hands across most fabrics you can feel the variety of woven texture and the process of its becoming - from the tight to the loose, smooth to the lumpy weave.
For my woven piece I kept to a palette of orange and grey - but with different variations of these colours, combined with varieties of thickness and textures of thread. Occasionally I took short strands of un-spun wool to introduce moments of bright fluffy orange-ness, and as the day went on I became more clever with creating shapes within my design - squares and diamond shapes by a complicated method of catching different wools from each side of the warf. I'm not going to even try and describe this process as it would take me a page of very boring description to do this - all I can say is that it took a lot of concentration to work out what my feet and hands were doing, and to make sure I repeated with precision these more complicated manoeuvres so not to 'double weave'- my term for sending the spindle through twice across the same warp. As the weave grew in length I kept touching with the palm of my hands the fabric I was creating with all its lumps and bumps. There was a regulatory to the interior, but the edges were a different matter altogether, snaking irregularly caused by my pushing and pulling the shuttle through the warf with varied tensions. These edges revealing a very accurate graph of my physical actions - line/edge = spindle/thread activity. I could look back along theses edge and see exactly my weaving behavior that day - where my body and materials were either relaxed or tense, and all the variants between.
Like every workshop I have done there is always the expectation of ones achievements, the product you take home with you, the thing you can say to family and friend - look at what I did today! My woven fabric now sits hanging over the back of one of our chairs in the living room to show it off! Although I'm really not sure I like this thing with its snaking edges cluttering up our minimal modernist furniture - but what else do you do with a rectangular piece of weave! Hang it up, fold it and put it in a draw, make a very simple square bag out of it by folding it into two and sewing up the sides - but my sides are so wiggly it would make a very awkward shaped bag - umm not sure about that! Anyway, for the moment I am leaving it on the chair to look at, touch as I pass by and reflect on its layers of texture, and the experience I had that day with the two colourful woven girls and a loom.
10th February, 2018
Recently I went on a blacksmithing course. After my experience with working with glass on a short course I wanted to work with another hot material! The fire/heat involved in both these processes dictates so much of the outcome and requires a great deal of fire knowledge and respect if you want to avoid burning yourself as well as get the most from this natural resource. On arriving to the workshop I was confronted by the stoked up forge and the tutor prodding and poking it to great affect - increasing the flames furiously as he increased the air flow from underneath the coals by loosened the coals from beneath, so that the upper pile could generate more heat. I knew this fire was going to be my focus of attention for the next 8 hours and the first 10 minutes was spent running through all the health and safety issues with working with this hot stuff...
Working with mild steel the tutor Jo showed me step by step how to make a toasting fork. It is a good object to start with as it involves stretching, twisting, curving and wrapping the metal rod by heating it in the forge, then with hammer, pliers and other tools manipulating the steel on the anvil or in a vice to shape the material.
It is interesting when you begin to learn a new skill how initially by copying, alongside listening to instructions from the tutor you learn how to manipulate the material, but the copying can also hinder your development, as to remember and simulate exactly what you are shown is difficult even though necessary to initially learn a process. The copying of someone else is essential at first but after some practice you can then start finding your own way - position of your body, tools and material and respond directly to what is in front of you and not the memory of the actions of the tutor. I find it much easier to calculate for myself how I position my body in relation to the task at hand (hands, feet, shoulders), but when you begin to learn a new skill this can take a long time to work out the best position and technique, and help from the specialist tutor can get you there quicker, but once you have the basic knowledge you have to find your own version that makes sense for your own body. For example, Jo was showing me how to bend the hot metal bar around the anvil to make a circular shape, but I got twisted up around myself as I seemed to run out of room - my body in relation to anvil and rod. I was trying to copy the tutor (well remember what he had shown me 5 mins before and then reenact his actions), which by then I had forgotten or had got mixed up!
I found that when left to my own devices I could begin to find my own body position to do the task at hand, which felt more comfortable and natural. Learning from one's own mistakes is often the only way to really make sense of a task, because if not there is no real understanding of how and why an action is successful in achieving a task. Also confidence plays a large part in the development of hands-on skills. To tentatively hammer metal into a shape for one thing takes a long time - you have to use a lot of pressure and power to hit the hammer and that takes confidence. Also confidence to work with fire - to not be afraid of it - to know how close you can get to it. But on the other hand if you become too confident then mistakes can be made - such as picking up a hot piece of metal without checking it first.
So after a bit of practice I began to feel more in control of the material and the tools I was using, although my body was clearly not used to either - resulting in large blisters developing on my hands and a sore hammering arm.
The words that my tutor kept repeating to me all day was - " you can only work with the metal when it is hot", so as soon as it starts to cool down you must put it back in the fire. I had a tendency to work on my metal for too long allowing it to cool down - making more work for myself as cold metal is much less pliable than the hot stuff. I realise why I kept doing this - it was because it took me about 30 second from when I removed the metal from the forge to understand exactly how I should hit it and where, and once I got into position, got going 'and flowing' the metal had already cooled down too much... Again you have to build up your confidence and work quite quickly to make progress - which by the afternoon I was doing much more even with the throbbing blister under my protective glove.
The heat from the forge was incredible and with it also being a hot day I could feel the sweat pouring down the inside of my clothes. There is something quite rewarding about getting that hot - a direct result of hard physical labour - very satisfying on a basic level. The noise in such an environment is also very extreme - as you can imagine metal hammer meeting metal bar at full swing by two/three people working in the same space creates a lot of noise, however after a while although you are aware of the ringing noises you pay less attention to it as you become so focuses on what you are doing/making.
There is a definite rhythm to blacksmithing - not at least the repetitive beating of the hammer on metal, but also the stoking of the fire and the backwards and forwards movement from fire to anvil. These kinds of rhythms contribute to the concentration and focus required to work with challenging material like metal and fire. I am very aware of the moods that accompany my experience when learning a technique like this. From the frustration of not knowing what I am doing and feeling totally inadequate as a maker, to those moments when suddenly things work out and I can push the material to do what I want it to do - a feeling of elation and mass achievement - and a big smile on my face, even thought for the professional teacher what you have achieved is minor to their capabilities - but it feels so good when something appears as it is meant to! It is only when you have more experience that you can begin to respond more intuitively to the material and allow for the exciting mistakes to bring their rewards.
There is always a sense of expectation on a short courses like this to finish up with an object - a toasting fork and knife in my case. Not that I mind whether I own either of these or not - but to have something recognisable in the category of recognisable objects to go home with. I really don't know why I feel this pressure. Maybe I need to prove to myself, the tutor and my husband that I have learnt something and now have a new skill! Or I really want to own a toasting fork and knife made by my own hands, or I'm slightly deluded to think that in a day I can learn any new skill properly! But what I do know is that I am totally fascinated by these experiences in so many ways, such as the relationship/difference between amateur and professional knowledge, the process both physical and emotional when learning a new skill, and how these experiences feed into my own studio practice as an artist - it is all these questions and inquires that I find so fascinating and which keeps me going back for more.
6th January, 2018
The door that has lost its mechanism
At Cubitt where I have a studio the door into the ladies toilet has one of those devices attached that when you open it, it will automatically close after you, it also stops the door from banging closed and instead closes it slowly, smoothly and without making a noise. We had this fitted in order to reduce the noise for the surrounding studios every time someone entered and left the toilet.
On entering the toilet the other day I pushed open the door as I always had with an exact level of pressure needed to push the door open, but instead of the door having some resistance the door had no resistance and opened dramatically, quickly and flinging open wide, slamming into the wall with a very loud crash.
The door mechanism had broken off and was now lying on the table in the toilet reception area, the screws that had attached it to the architecture wrenched from the masonry and wooden sockets of wall and door, evidenced by bits of mortar dust and wood chip still attached to the screws and plugs hanging from the redundant mechanism.
Now, without this mechanism on the door I would need to open and close the door in a very different way from before. 1. I had to apply considerably less physical pressure when opening it. 2. Once inside I had to close the door behind me (with the mechanism it would have closed on it own) 3. Leaving the room I had to carefully pull the door slowly open as not to let the door slam back on the wall 4. Close the door behind me with equal care. So my routine of opening and closing this door had been dramatically altered. You would think well so what! All doors need opening and closing in different ways, something I suppose I had not thought about much before. No door action is the same even if it is the same mechanism and same door type from the same manufacturer. Depending on where and how and who fitted it, it will behave in a different way. For example, the temperature in the rooms/spaces on each side of the door will alter how the door materials expand and retract and affect the doors movement, such as if the wood has expanded in the door it will sit and react differently to the frame it is set within when opening and closing. The size of the rooms, the movement of air in both inside and outside space will affect the way the door opens and closes and so on.
The door into the ladies at Cubitt I had used many times and knew exactly how much pressure to apply to get in and out so that it had become an automatic action. Whereas when entering an unfamiliar door (such as a building one visits for the first time,) then we tend to act with a level of caution as we are not to know how that door will behave - new door encounters we have to establish the affective effort needed to open and close it.
Every time I went to the ladies at Cubitt since the mechanism broke, clearly not thinking reflectively I slammed it open with almost as much surprise as with the first time it happened. What was going on here? Why was it so difficult for me to remember to open the door carefully? This was down to a deep rooted muscle memory - well brain and body memory - establishing an automatic interaction with the door built up over days, months and years of using it, and I was clearly finding it difficulty to reprogram myself to open the door differently. It was not just me doing this, but others in the studio, as I found out when leaving the toilet recently, the door been flung open nearly hitting me in the face. The person coming in was genuinely shocked by the doors’ erratic movement and anxious that they might have caused an accident if I had been a few centimeters closer. When a material or object acts/functions in an unfamiliar way this can create all levels of surprise and anxiety for the handler and also those in proximity from marginal to severe. I would say the toilet door scored about 7/10 where as a slate falling from the roof of a building and smashing on the pavement next to you only missing by a few inches (this happened to be recently) scored a frightening 9/10, to peeling blu tac off the wall and it annoyingly pulling with it a bit more wall paint than anticipated a 3/10.
What I found was that leaving the toilet was less dangerous than entering just because the mechanism that had broken off the door lay inside on the table next to the door acting as a visual reminder as one left the room to apply less pressure to the door when opening it to leave. Also, the time spent in the toilet was little enough not to forget about the doors new behavior before leaving. So now I have to conscientiously think about the door when entering in a way I have not had to before. I'm thinking of putting a red sticker on the door as a visual indicator to stop me in my tracks as I career towards the toilet door to open it. I did this at my parents home on one the kitchen cabinets, because one of the doors had loosened and when opening you had to support it from the bottom to stop it dropping down (the hinges were old and could not take the weight of the door anymore so as it opened it dropped down, and so when closing, it was then out of alignment with the cupboard and would not close). By placing a small red sticker at the exact place where one would usually open the kitchen cabinet acted as a reminder to treat this door differently to the others - and it really worked. The sticker has been there for 15 years and still does the trick - mind you it is crazy that it has still not been fixed. I do hope the Cubitt toilet door will be fixed a bit quicker!
14th November, 2017
I was in a restaurant a few days ago having lunch with my partner Mark. I was sat with my back to the wall facing into the center of the room where a few steps ascend from the bar and kitchen space into the main seating-eating area. It is a smart place, a French bistro where the waiters wear tightly wrapped long aprons and are constantly checking everything is satisfactory with your meal - which can be a bit much sometimes - I'm not overly keen on having my glass constantly topped up with wine - never having the chance to get to the bottom of a single measure until the end of the bottle!
As we finished our meal we both looked up suddenly in response to a loud crash, to see one of the waiters hurtle across the room, tray in one hand heading towards the floor at high speed. He had tripped up on one of the stairs and dived forward landing on one knee, his other leg lurching forward to block a full fall. The contents of the coffee cups on the tray lifted up out of their containers and headed downwards to splash and disperse across the floor in slow motion. I know this sounds like a cliché - but it really does feel that time slows down when you witness an incident like this, because you can see the event unfold in front of you but are powerless to intervene in time to prevent the unfortunate outcome. It is as if it takes time for the viewers’ eyes and brain to engage the rest of their body (legs to move, activating torso and arms in an attempt to rush forward and catch the falling waiter and his load), so all you can do is watch like an audience trapped in theatre seats. The waiter amazingly managed to keep the tray upright, and although he maintained control over the tray and to a certain extent the cups and saucers on top, only loosing one of the three, he had no control over the fluid contained in the cups, so the milk and coffee of all three vessels lifted out and headed for the floor, splaying out into a multitude of energetic arc shaped crowns as the substances exploded on impact with the floor.
This dramatic event, of which I had a front seat, displayed a number of material actions and reactions. The different weights and consistencies of the material the waiter was carrying reacted distinctively. The tray at the base held directly by the waiter was the most stable material and the item the handler had the most control of, then the cups and saucers above - one resting on the other with their own potential slippage and then inside these cups the hot unpredictable liquid that moved with the slightest exertion. So from the bottom upward the stack of materials was increasingly vulnerable when subjected to such rapid motion - as being dropped as the waiter fell. The contents of the coffee swept across the floor in the direction of the forward plunging waiter. It becomes clear when observing any liquid spill which direction the action was generated by the shape of the splatter. Looking at the aftermath on the floor I became the forensic scientist deciphering a murder case. Which direction did the killer attack their victim - where did the attacker approach from to cause the blood splatter on the floor... was he attacked from behind or taken by surprise from the side...
A hush fell across the restaurant as the single cup, contents of all three cups and waiter crashed to the floor. Also, as the waiter fell he knocked the table and chairs in front of him - creating a cacophony of jarring noises - ceramics meeting wooden floor, wooden table and chair legs dragged across wooden floor, human body protected by fabric colliding with wooden floor and liquid splashing onto wooden floor and surrounding wooden furniture. I wanted to applaud the waiter for his performance and achievement to hang onto the tray and three remaining cups and saucers, but no one else appeared to want to join in so I refrained and just quietly told the very embarrassed waiter when I left what a fantastic spectacle his fall had been and that I hoped he was ok. I could see that the restaurant manager was annoyed with him, whereas his colleagues where supportive, 'taking the piss' out of him in order to lift his spirits. The next few minutes that followed I watched the clean up procedure - two waiters wiping, mopping and brushing up the aftermath while the fallen waiter stood back to recompose. He seemed quite shaken up, from both the fall and the immanent reprimand he was anticipating from his manager at the end of his shift.
The table and surrounding chairs where this spilt liquid had shot underneath was swiftly moved to one side, a waiter came out with reams of blue disposable toweling dropping it on top of the liquid to absorb the majority of the spill, then a waiter with a brush and pan magically appeared sweeping up the broken ceramics, followed by a broom and bucket to mop up the remaining liquid, and then followed by more blue paper to dry and polish the floor. No more than five minutes had passed from the opening fall, and table and chairs were back in position and service was elegantly resumed. It was a magnificent cover up - as if nothing had happened - as if a restaurant of this caliber could never make such a blunder! But if the forensics had returned traces of milky coffee would have been detected travelling between the herring bone parquet flooring, droplets hidden on the legs of the table and chairs and minute fibers from the cotton apron of the fallen waiter wedged between the grains of the wood floor.
Exhibited at Gallery Box, Gothenburg, Sweden. 10/11-10/12 2017
26th September, 2017
The ground we walk on
When walking in a crowded place, we weave paths to avoid collisions with others. We are constantly reading and calculating the surface of the ground we are walking on, the objects protruding from it (bollards, sign posts etc) and people coming towards us, while also being able to have a conversation with the friend walking beside us. Aren't we amazing! We are constantly taking a visual record of the surfaces around and beneath us to make sure the path is clear and will not cause us to trip or stand on something unpleasant or dangerous, while also reading the body language of the person/s coming in our direction to make sure we do not bump into them. We might be making eye contact, but more likely we are reading their body language, the way they move to calculate which way they are likely to move next. A child or dog can be less predictable and collisions are more likely.
I'm particularly interested in the way we respond to the ground, what it is made of and how we negotiate it. Depending on what footwear we have on, or if we are barefoot will alter how we walk on a surface. For example, in summer when I am wearing sandals with thin soles I am much more careful to how and where I place my feet, not to tread on anything that will push up through the sole, like a sharp stone that could distort the base of my sandal making it uncomfortable to push down on, or to avoid wet areas, such as puddles of water that will seep over the shoe edge and creep between my toes, and probably the most common and uncomfortable the stray bit of grit or small stone that finds its way into the shoe getting trapped under the sole of your foot. Depending on the size of the intrusive material it is likely that you have to stop, take off your foot ware and remove the culprit, or if you are wearing a sandal, to tip your foot upside down to allow the hard piece of stuff to fall away.
I enjoy wearing walking boots in order to minimise these chances of stray intruders so I can walk confidently without worrying about the irregularities below my feet, and instead look up and forward to where I am going. However looking down and really noticing what you are standing on is an education in materials, an acknowledgement of the part of our bodies that are most in contact with the world of stuff and an insight into the environment we are moving through. For example, recently when walking down the streets of Palermo in Sicily I noticed unlike the pavements of London they are covered in loose bits, whether building debris, dog shit or other! In most cities in the UK we take for granted that the payments are kept clean so that we can walk along them without paying much attention to our feet as we do so. This makes getting from a to b pretty straight forward but maybe this clean flat journey disengages us from our feet and our contact with the earth beneath. I found walking the streets of Palermo incredibly visceral, as if the ground was offering up an experience that was a truthful reflection of life around - gritty, irregular and unpredictable, definitely not tidy or artificial. I would even go to say that the experience was life changing in exposing key elements of Sicilian lived life - a dead dog, bird, rat, a carcass of a fish, excrement..... Walking on sanitised pavements is pleasant but you could say artificial, it is whether you want pleasant and nice or real and challenging.
This makes me think of air conditioned spaces, keeping us cool and comfortable inside when outside is hot and uncomfortable, but this can create a very detached environment and I personally would prefer to be more in tune with the spaces I occupy, warts and all..... We are in danger with having so many high tech amenities in our living spaces - heating, air conditioning, air fresheners, dehumidifiers, padded seating, thick piled carpets, the list goes on, to become detached from our environment and also our own physical bodies. The smell of rotten food, exposed weather conditions, our own physicality, such as using our bodies to rest without the support of a chair or stool, ie to squat using the lower part of your legs to support the weight of you own torso. When doing this, not only do you create your own chair but you also become very aware of your own body mass and weight. All these things help us to connect to a vital and more honest environment, which is heightened further when something goes wrong - a loose paving stone that traps water underneath it that when trodden on squirts this water upwards soaking your legs, or more dramatically a sump hole causing the earth to literally disappear from under you.
It is important to be reminded of the planets unpredictable crust, what lies beneath, where things have gone before and where new things will be built on top, and that below the multitude of slick surfaces there hides an array of exciting materials and surprising matter.
12th August, 2017
Why is touching glass so dissatisfying? I was reading 'Stuff Matters' by Mark Miodownik, and he was describing how glass was 'smooth, transparent and cool', and as these are not human physical qualities we therefore find it difficult to relate to or care about it. Also it is a material that we look through rather than at, and there is a lot of it about! So, maybe not a very special or extraordinary material, and yet it is a miraculous material - its capacity to be totally transparent, very strong, and facility to be distorted to make all matter of lenses (glasses and microscopes etc.)
Well, after reading this chapter about glass in Mark's book I started to touch glass a lot more, beautiful crafted glass such as the colourful cut vintage wine glasses I have collected over the years, and plain glass in windows, display cabinets and simple drinking glasses etc. When you focus on just clear flat glass apposed to the ornate colourful stuff, it is a bit like drinking water to touch. If asked what water tastes like, I can only say it tastes like water and water tastes like nothing else. I can describe its cool refreshing-ness but not its flavour. I feel the same about plain clear glass when touching it - feels very neutral with no one outstanding characteristic. Maybe it's transparent-ness affects the way we interact with it. It is like an invisible touch that struggles to go beyond my hand, but remains in the sensory pads on my fingertips. I do think coloured glass has a different sensation to clear glass. This experience of touching the transparent colourless stuff makes me think that our experience of touch is very much affected by what we see, the sensory and visual working together. So if something is totally transparent it feels visually empty and therefore sensory deprived, but if glass is coloured, I experience it differently through touch, as the eyes and the fingers are both working together, or more specifically the hand and the brain are working together.
This brings me to the idea discussed so rampantly in the area of anthropology, the notion that the hands feed the brain, (apposed to the other way around) and through actions of touch the brain is formed and can evolve, for it is the hands when they come in contact with a material send the experience literally up our arms and to our brain where then it is made further sense of. Of course it is not that simple, but given it has been described the other way round for so long – that the brain informs all our physical actions, and through its intellect makes sense of all things physical. This seems to me very limited given that without a physical interaction with things, how can the brain begin to understand the world and the stuff in it other than as an abstract idea.
I am very sensitive to this hot wire between my hands (although this can be extended to other parts of my body, such as feet and elbows etc,) and my brain. For example, a repetitive action performed by my hands to learn and master a skill, such as peeling an apple, my brain and hand work in unison, the brain making decisions to how to hold the apple and the knife and my hands responding with an action that is within the capabilities of my physical material body. Everything the hand does is directed by the brain and then the hands send sensory signals back to the brain so it can make the next decision and together the action can take place - but by no means in that order, but as a continues and sophisticated flow between the two. The importance of the hand and brain as an interlocking unit, gives them equal value where there is no hierarchy between intellect and physical interaction, knowledge and dexterous skill. Even if the brain is devoid of its body, such as the body becoming physically disabled, the brain uses its memory of the physical world in order to generate its imagination of physical experience. Without any interaction with objects and stuff there is no intellect of these things. So get of the sofa from your theory books and go and interact with the world, or else the words in the book will have no meaning!
23rd July, 2017
I have to talk about glass, as I am so excited about it!
Yesterday I went on a glassblowing course. Ricky Keech was our tutor - myself and a woman called Sally. Ricky explained very clearly and carefully (very important when you are dealing with very hot and dangerous stuff) each step of the process and then trusted in us to handle it! Well handle is probably not the right word - more a mediated handling, as one thing you never do is touch/handle the molten glass with your hands - even though it looks so incredibly inviting to touch. The furnace had been heating up since 7am so by the time we got started at 10 it was incredibly hot and the glass inside was glaringly pale yellow - almost white. The main reason I was interested in doing this course was my intrigue to work with a material I could not directly handle, and to see how my hand-material engagement skills would be tested, and whether it was possible to ‘feel’ and understand the material through the tools I was using apposed to direct (hand) touch, unlike say working with clay on a potters wheel.
The first thing that struck me was that when you enter the furnace with the long metal rod (long so that you are at a distance from the heat) to gather the molten glass by turning the rod in the liquid crucible, when you pull it away out of the furnace you can hardly feel the material gathered on the end of the rod - how it moves or its weight, due to the relatively small amount of glass gathered which is slight compared to the weight of the rod. It is only when you get considerably more glass gathered on the rod (I know there is a proper name for this rod but as a total amateur I don't feel too guilty about calling it this) that you feel its weight beyond the weight of the metal rod.
I began to realise as I worked with this material that my understanding of its behavioral qualities was being obtained primarily through vision and not touch. And where I was 'feeling' the material through the tools I was using, I was really interpreting the sensation of feeling through what I was gathering visually. In fact visually the moving molten glass appears seductive and calm, not aggressive and dangerous like the fire in the furnace and you almost feel you can actually touch it - but of course if you did you would end up with the most severe burns.
What was so extraordinary for me was how malleable and yet extremely strong it was. I mean that when for example you stretch glass, pulling thin into strands, you think as you pull the glass using pliers it will break - but it doesn't - it can be pulled so thin and when it starts to dry and fix itself it is incredibly strong. Ricky showed us long strands that he had pulled in glass, which when I saw them I thought they were strands of nylon wire, but when I touched them they were flexible and incredibly strong. Of course you could break them if you wanted, but in the scale of strong materials - thickness to strength - glass must score very high.
The experience of glassblowing was pure wonder - somehow because you are dealing with fire you have to have total respect for the process and maintain extreme concentration. Once you start to make something there is really no stopping, as everything needs to be done while the glass is hot and in constant motion - you can't put it down and rest! This intensity stops you thinking about anything other than the job at hand - which is a rare thing. I did this course a few months after my dear father passed away and in these moments of glass manipulation I totally released myself from any thoughts of sadness and melancholic memories - only thinking glass, glass, glass. This total uninterrupted concentration I had also with pot throwing, but then again you can always stop the wheel and rest at any point unlike working with glass. Glass is a material that relies on being in constant motion when in it molten state of becoming - turning, turning to stop it being pulled towards the floor by gravity, and being extremely hot in order to shape, so you have to work fast once the glass comes out of the furnace, and then return it to the furnace when it becomes to cool to work with.
So - with my rod in the fire gathering glass from within the furnace crucible and the constant turning so that the material does not fall off you become acutely aware of the changing positions of the rod and your hands that are doing this - although you never really get to look at your hands as you are always focused on the ball of hot matter at the end of the rod. It is like walking with a tray full of cups of tea constantly adjusting the level of the tray to keep the tea from not spilling over the edge of the cups and never taking your eyes off the moving material.
Once you have gathered enough glass onto your rod then other things can happen - pulling, blowing, shaping. One of the ways you shape glass is by taking a thick pile of very wet newspaper about A5 size and an inch thick (so lots of layers); using this as a shield you can with your hand cup the glass to shape as it turns. It is the moment when you almost feel you are touching the hot glass in your hands – pretty amazing.
Blowing glass is another way of shaping. You blow down the metal rod to push air into the ball of molten glass and like blowing up a balloon, after an initial hard exhale the glass begins to expand. Of course being at the other end of the rod you cannot see if the air you are pushing out is creating a bubble or not, so you need another person at the other end of the pipe to say STOP when you have blown enough air into the molten glass ball. If you blow for too long on one gather you are in danger of bursting your glass bubble.
My experience of working with glass was mind changing as far as material experience. I have never worked with a material that I have had so much respect for - a kind of alchemy was taking place in front of me and I was really taken a back. Also the idea of handling but not directly - feeling the materials through tools and other materials and feeling/understanding through visual interpretation. It was totally exhilarating, scary, exciting and quite frankly mind blowing - mind blowing glass blowing.....
22nd June, 2017
On a holiday to Italy, me and my partner Mark rented a small cottage and every time we entered through the front door, usually when returning from the local market carrying piles of fresh fruit and veg, Mark would get his rucksack strap caught on the door handle as he entered the house, this was due to the fact that when the door was pushed open it got stuck halfway due to catching on the uneven tiled floor and therefore making the entrance much narrower, and consequently Mark's rucksack strap getting caught as he miscalculated the width of the doorway.
With this particular material encounter I am less interested in why it happened - the door height and floor imperfections, but the affects the incident of loose strap catching the handle had on me and Mark in that moment. The primary affect being that it yanked Mark back into the doorway when it got caught, making him agitated and surprised, while it made me laugh, partly due to the fact that it happened everyday, which amused me as I thought after the second time Mark would have adjusted his body position so that there was enough room for him and the bag to enter without catching the handle, and his predictable reaction - how many times can a person be surprised at a predicted incident! Also, when you put one of the straps over your arm while leaving the other to dangle, that functionless loop becomes a hazard waiting to happen! Quite a big loop for catching on things! The design of a rucksack is of course to loop both straps around each arm making it comfortable to carry heavy weights, with equal distribution across the back of the rucksack bearer. When it is used correctly it is a brilliant device, and when back-packing in my twenties with a lot of stuff crammed into a very large rucksack it was amazing how much weight I could lift using this clever object. But when used incorrectly, such as to loop a single strap around one arm it was massively less comfortable and affective.
The upper back of a human can take a lot of weight if the weight is placed high enough on the body, if on the other hand the weight is too low where the back is weaker it can be very painful when carrying a rucksack around for hours. When you see people carrying large weights on their heads (very high up on the body) - such as what I witnessed when I was traveling through Africa - women carrying enormous loads wrapped up in fabric balanced on top of their heads. You can see how when the weight is placed on the top of the body it can take much more weight than lower down the body, and also it is about having the weight central to the body axis so that the head is in the strongest position in relation to the spine, the weight being equally distributed throughout the entire body frame, although you have to build up some strength in your neck if you are going to carry the kind of weights I saw woman carrying in Tanzania.
As we move around we are constantly making spatial decisions so not to bump into things, so that when we do catch/touch/bump into something it often comes as a bit of a shock, as if when we do collide we are annoyed with ourselves for failing to make the right spatial calculations to navigate our way forwards without a collision. I think this annoyance we have with ourselves, (like Mark's frustration with his rucksack strap on the door handle), is a constant battle, tease and often comedy moment for those watching on, and it happens to me on a daily basis.
Things I get caught up with.
1. When putting my knickers on in the morning and missing the leg hole. This can be a disaster if I loose my balance completely and end up falling over, bouncing off the surrounding furniture.
2. Trying to retrieve items from my handbag. A) Not being able to find them, then as I pull items out they drag other things with them which then jump out of my bag, such as a pen or more private embarrassing items! Which are then catapulted across the room in front of everyone. B) Items getting caught around other things as I lift them out my bag, e.g. my wallet getting entangled around the canvas bag handles which I always carry with me for impromptu grocery buying.
3. My hair getting trapped between my shoulder bag strap and my shoulder, and then pulling my hair free without removing the strap, leaving trapped hair lodged under the strap, wrenched from my scalp. (It is surprising the amount of times I have done this that I am not semi bold on the right hand side of my head.)
4. Zips getting caught up with surrounding garment fabric threads, and more painfully - skin and body hair - Ouch...
11th May, 2017
Where YOU are sitting: amongst books - SMELL
Smell is a fascinating thing, it can take you right back to a single moment in the past and unlock a memory in its purest form. I would say that smell, equal to sound but more than vision and touch has the ability to do this. Perhaps this is because sound and smell literally penetrate the body, seeping in through openings and portals through the outer layers to mingle amongst our organs, whereas when we look with our eyes we are essentially taking an image like a camera and translating the information, a process of recording and sophisticated editing between eyes and brain. The eyes when looking at a scene are registering only a selection of what is fully there in that moment before sending information to the grey matter (our brain), whereas sounds and smells hit us directly and without selection, entering our body unexpectedly to bombard the brain with information with little or almost no editing. It is easier to close our eyes or revert our gaze, refrain from touching things around us, than to close our noses or seal up our ears as we travel through our tactile, visual, smelly and noisy material environment. Smell and sound can recreate exact experiences we had when we heard or smelt something in our past - linking the gap between the present and the past with extraordinary clarity. Also, on a scientific level I found out recently that the area of the brain that responds to and processes smells, and the part that deals with memory are very close together.
I picked up a book the other day and on opening it and smelling the pages I was immediately catapulted back to the moment when I was a child reading a book from the 'Janet and John' series. If you were a child growing up in the UK in the 70's you will know what I am talking about! (I would like to mention at this point that I am referring to a particular book/page smell, not to be confused with a generic book smell that we can all locate in our set of favourite memory odours along with – freshly cut grass, roasted coffee beans and baking bread.) This smell is unique because of particular paper, glue and ink used combined with the age of the book and its history - where it has been placed in proximity to other objects and materials, picking up other smells. Similarly, if I was to describe the smell of cut grass in my mums garden in August last year, it would be different to the grass cut smell in September in my old house in Stoke Newington 6 years ago. The details are important.
This series of books was a learning tool for primary school children – one step closer to reading fluently! This particular 'Janet and John' book I did not particularly like because at the age of 7 I found it very difficult to read particularly out aloud as my nerves would literally paralyse me so I was unable to get the words out. I have awkward memories of being forced to read out aloud by my teacher at school and my mum at home from this particular book. The more these well intentioned facilitators tried to guide me with their constant interruptions of corrections the harder it became for me to do the task, the activity usually ending up with me in tears and then unable to read through my blurry wet vision. Ironically however, I also really liked this book but as an object, the blood orange coloured textured flexible canvas cover, and the pictures inside of Janet and John engaged in simple activities, such as filling a bucket of water, buying groceries ...... God knows why I found it interesting, when I think back to it now it was a very basic and unimaginative book. Perhaps it was the way the pictures were drawn and painted that attracted me, the use of simple mark making to outline the figures, objects and animals on the page with primary colours filling in the shapes, and the way the text skirted around the images, so that the words and sentences made shapes of their own on the paper.
Recently I smelt a book, one that I picked up in a library (I can't remember which book it was now, but it definitely was not a children's book – it was a small paperback of some sort). I was immediately transported back to those childhood book moments wrapped up in all my mixed emotions, and an immense feeling of nostalgia and longing to be aged 7 again. I don't have the book anymore - the 'Janet and John' book - It might be in the attic of my parents house and I suppose I could try and find it, but I'm sure it will not smell the same anymore, and I'm pretty sure if I handled it, it would not be that interesting an object, so better as a memory - even thought the memory is a mixture of good and bad feelings! I'm also not in the library anymore, but sitting in my studio writing about this experience, but I still can hold onto the strong memory of that particular booky page smell that linked me to my long ago booky page smell encounter - an example of where memories can trigger other memories. Maybe if I was in a bookshop right now or in a library like you are, smelling a book; having written this piece of text; I might simultaneously have memories of the 'Janet and John' book and the book in the library. I can't describe the smell or recreate it, but I know the experience and feeling of that smell, as clearly as I am looking at the iPad screen I am writing on right now. But, I can only have the genuine experience if I am actually holding a book and smelling it - a memory of an experience and an actual 'in the moment' experience are different things. Also, I think it is easier to conjure up an image of a memory in your head than it is to conjure up a smell memory.
Can you remember a smell that has left a strong impression on you, and have you found it again? Maybe it was a material you handled as a child, food you ate at home or school, a room you lived in or visited. Maybe there is a memory trigger for you in this library right now.
Sited in Dalston CLR James Library, London.
4th April, 2017
Where YOU are sitting - around the big Appestat table.
Humans move and we watch them from our own moving position. We rarely physically experience another person’s body movements through actual human contact, apart from those closest to us - hugging, holding, leaning into and lying up against. Or do we? I am interested in the once removed physical interactions we have through touch, when we are recipient to another persons movements via some kind of interface - object, material.... These interfaces (stuff that two or more people are in physical contact with at the same time) - tables, chairs, flooring can exaggerate and heighten or diffuser and softener our direct experiences of others physical movements.
The other day I was in my favourite café sat at their large table, the kind you might find in a kitchen in an old farmhouse, where families gather for meals and conversation. I believe the idea of the café owner Anneka is to make the environment feel homely having a number of people sat around the same table, so that we might be encouraged to communicate with one another – not something that is promoted in your average café - where small segregated tables and uncomfortable chairs inhibit interaction with other café dwellers. I enjoy this 'all round the table' arrangement as you often end up sitting close to others and yet you can still retain your own personal space, a closeness that is comforting but not imposing or confrontational. The table is a bit wobbly, so depending on whom else is sat around it, the table moves in response to each occupant’s body movements. It is usually when two or more people sit down together that the table becomes animated and vibrates the most, as a result of their interactive movements while they talk to each other. When I feel these vibrations and tremors from where I am sat, I indirectly become part of their conversation, sandwiched between the two talking bodies, as the movement is right with me in my arms connected via the table and my iPad as I write. The table's shifting activity is unique to the individual generating them, and mirrors the conversation they are having, the emotional delivery of their words, the gestures that go with their sentences which are expressed through the actions of their upper body that is connected to the table - hands and arms colliding with the wooden structure, synchronised to the staccato of projected words.
On this particular day I recall vividly this experience, as the table was vibrating more than usual. A woman at the other end of the table was getting incredibly animated, and was expressing herself physically as well as verbally. I was also able to listen to parts of the conversation and became aware that the vibration I was receiving through my wooden transmitter was more exaggerated than the words being spoken. What I mean is that the table was being shuddered, shacked and banged more dramatically than what I understood of the words being spoken, it was as if this individual found it more affective to communicate through their body actions and gestures than with words and sentences. Perhaps they were compensating for their limited and restrained capacity of verbal language, and the body with fewer inhibitions was stepping in to express what they really felt!
The thing is, after getting over the initial annoyance of my computer bouncing around as it leant against the tabletop edge, I started to 'go with' the table’s movement..... really trying to connect to this persons language through this particular material engagement (table - wood behavior). It was as if I was actually touching this total stranger, and connecting with them personally. It made me think about whether I, who was sat at the other end of the table, understood the conversations better than the person they were talking to, that I understood the intentionality behind the words being spoken. The direct recipient of the conversation was listening to what that person was saying and may or may not have acknowledged the moving table, whereas I was feeling and listening to the table's movements, (human body clashing with wood) foremost with the verbal conversation as secondary to my experience.
What is interesting about this is whether our bodily movements express more honestly and perhaps more directly than our use of language when we communicate with one another. Maybe the body is less likely to want or be able to restrain and disguise how we feel, whereas our use of constructed words and sentences we are more in control of. Or is our bodily actions a direct expression of what we are saying and therefore it is futile to separate body and language?
It is important to pay attention to how others physically move when we are talking and listening to them, as this can reveal more than what is being verbally communicated. I also wonder in a world where we rarely physically touch others - strangers (unless of course you are in the industry of touching - masseur, dentist, doctor etc.) that the mediated touch is something we should engage with more, the vibrating apparatus when two strangers are holding/touching at the same time - handrail on a bus, table in a cafe, arm rest on a train.... Also the importance of communicating in ‘real’ physical space, apposed to email, Snapchat, Facebook, phone…. To be able to read the physical and visual signals while we communicate with one another, those subtle body expressions that can reveal so much more than words alone. Humans are sociable animals and need human contact. I'm sure the reason why I like to sit around the large table in my favourite café (apart from the fact they make the best coffee) even when I don't speak to my neighbour, is that it fulfils a need 'to feel/touch' others, mediated touch, actual touch or just visual touch.
Sited in Appestat, Islington, London.
26th March 2017
A stack is a more or less orderly pile or heap. To make a stack is different to building a stack!? When you place things on top of other things to make a pile you have to consider what is below in order to build the stack up to increase its height.
In my fascination to find the difference in building a stack - one where I stacked things on top of each other vertically, placing each part on top of the part below to make a tall stack, and one where I made it horizontally and then stood it upright (vertically) to make a stack. When they are standing vertically they are both stacks, but one is a true stack and the other a fake stack. The word stack suggests an action to stack, which is why my horizontally constructed stack I am tentative to call a stack! Not only do these two stacks appear distinct they also behave uniquely and were incredibly different to make.
Building my stack. Using silicon-based plastic, I made with my hands a small block shape about the size of a standard matchbox. The material is malleable and a little sticky so once I had placed my first block on the floor I made my second block and added this on top of the first block applying a little pressure from above to stick them together. I carried on making similar size blocks and sticking each new one to the one below so my stack would grow up off the floor. The material I was using was fairly flexible, a bit like plasticine but a bit more bouncy so when I got to about 30cm high the stack wanted to bend and fall over. So once I had built a 30cm stack, I left it to dry over night and then continued to build the next section on top. As I built my stack I could see each block I added was accommodating the block/s below. What I mean by this is that my stack did not look orderly and neat, but bent left and right, as I was constantly adapting the stack to maintain its balance so it would stay standing up. Also, as I added each block I pressed down on it a little to stick it to the one below and by doing this I was also pressing down on the blocks below that one, which meant that the bottom blocks were getting more squashed and distorted as I built upwards. Once I got to about 75cm high I knew I was pushing my luck to make the stack any taller. It is amazing when you are stacking stuff that your hands and brain are constantly calculating how to keep the object straight and upright so not to fall over. My brain visually calculating width to height ratio probabilities, based on experience of stacking other stuff, the experience of making this stack and my previous knowledge of using this material, and my hands sensitively feeling for the point at which the material was no longer stable and would not stay straight enough to stay upright. I spent a long time sitting on the floor anticipating the stack to fall over, and many times it did catching it as it fell, and then placed it upright again pushing in from the sides with my hands the still supple plastic form to straighten it up again. There was a point when the material became tacky and hence more stable as it dried out, and I felt I could leave it and it would not fall over. It has been standing in my studio now for 3 weeks and has not fallen. Also I have picked it up and moved it around and it pretty much stays in its upright position wherever I place it, as long as the floor is relatively flat. I'm saying this, as my studio floor is not always!
Making (and faking) my stack - I did after building/stacking my stack.... I did this second stack to find out if it was easier to make a stack horizontally and then stand it up rather than making it vertically as in the first one. You could say this is not a stack but just appears as one! So what I did is take each of my individually hand made plastic shaped cubes and laid them one by one along a flat surface (table top), butting them up to each other to stick them in a long line. This method meant that I could make a very straight and ordered line of cubes in order to make a solid long shape. Once I got my row of cubes to the same length as the one that was standing up on my studio floor (my building stack) I left it to dry over a few days before attempting to stand it up. I knew it would not stand up at the first attempt as the base was probably not flat enough and at the right angle, so after a lot of cutting and shaving to make as good as I could I tried standing it up - it took many attempts of standing and watching which way it wanted to fall and then shaving a bit off the side of the base opposite to the direction of its falling direction. Well thinking that I had my base just right and flat it stood there on the floor next to my building stack (same height) for a minute or two, but then would fall over. Over a period of a day I stood it up again and again thinking that it would stay upright then after 2-10 minutes it fell over again and again and again...... I even tried cheating a bit by threading some wire up through the form to stop it flexing so much - causing it to fall, but that did not work either. Interesting that visually the made stack apposed to the building stack looked more stable and less likely to fall and yet it was the other away around.
My conclusion - I stood for a long time holding gently both the tops of the stacks slightly swaying them a little to feel how they moved. The building stack felt very firm and there seemed to me little flexibility between each stuck block (that made up the stack), and yet the made stack there was a lot more flexibility between each block, so the reason why it tended to fall over some minutes after I stood it up was that if there was any slight movement between two next door stuck together blocks this would slowly put more strain on the block join below and so on and eventually bend enough to pull the whole stack down in the direction of the bend. What I learnt from this was that if you make something in the position/orientation in which it will be permanently placed then it is more likely to hold that position and be strong in that position, whereas if you make something oriented one way (e.g. horizontally) and then move it to be orientated another way (vertically), such as with my made stack then the form is less likely to work, as the material making up the stack has been asked to alter its original behavior from when it was made. When the stack was lying down on the table it made a very strong horizontal line doing as much as it needed to do to be that horizontal line I had placed it in, but when stood up it was not strong enough to hold itself up right and hence kept falling over. Whereas the built stack that was made vertically - bedding down in that position as it was built up block by block, section by section and dried 'in' its stable position. It was as if the material had found its natural place and there it remained stable, whereas the made stack was being forced into a new position and did not know how to behave anymore, the memory of the material from when it was made captured inside the form. Strange though - after a few days I was able to find a position where my made stack did not fall down, it was as if the material when given the time to adapt and settle into its new vertical position could now behave as a vertical object and not fall down as often! However it has not adapted totally - I'm still waiting for it never to fall over!
I have to say this really brings me back to the whole 'wall' thing - which I mentioned earlier that it is a very different thing to make a brick wall vertically and then attach that to the side of a building than making a wall brick by brick from the bottom upwards. (See 'Stuff and Architecture' Part 1) In fact making something flat then placing it upright (horizontal to vertical) is a totally different process and which creates very different result to making something vertical vertically.
13th March 2017
Sounds and Smells
When we touch objects we are also listening to them. The sound of an object/material can tell us a lot about their internal structure strength and stability. I used to work in stone, large-scale sculptures using all different types - limestone, granite, sandstone and marble. From choosing my stone blocks in the quarry to working with this hard stuff in my studio I was always listening to the material to acquire knowledge to help me work with it. Every strike of the mallet onto the head of the chisel gave me specific audio information, such as locating the weakness and strength in the material. In order to work affectively with stone you either use the weakness of the material to break the stone away, or avoid the weakness to maintain the mass and the shape. So listening to the stone was essential.
When you split stone (to divide into parts) you drill minimum 20mm diameter holes about 5 inches apart in a line where you want the stone to split, and then you apply plugs and feathers into the holes - two feathers per hole of which you then place a plug between. You then start tapping with a hammer each plug which forces the feathers to open up, applying pressure to the stone and eventually splitting it. As you tap each plug along the line of plugs and feathers the stone makes a ringing sound, created by the metal vibrating within the tight holes, then the sound becomes more hollow and deadened, as the metal no longer is contained within a tight hole, but one that is opening and breaking up, so you tap other pugs some more to get the sound to resonate the same in each. It is all a matter of getting the plug and feathers to work at the same pace, to achieve a clean break along the plugs. Eventually a crack will appear, which is the satisfying bit! And then you tap the plugs along your line to extend the crack in a controlled way. The plugs now sit deep between the feathers, the two feathers then loosen, some of the plugs and feathers falling through the stone and landing on the concrete floor below to produce another type of ringing sound. The stone should now be in two parts, and if according to plan split perfectly between the plug holes and not sheared off in an unpredictable direction, which can happen when working with this energized material.
Smell also plays a part in this process. Once you open the stone you release the trapped air/gases that are within the mass. I love thinking about these captured ancient atmospheres collected when the stone was forming, thousand year old odours, caused by plants and animal life trapped within layers of compacted earth, thrown up from the earths core during a volcanic eruption, or built up on the sea-bed. When working in this incredibly 'old' material I often found myself getting up very close to the stone to smell the aroma of its hidden past. To think that at that moment of me cutting into the stone I was releasing gas that was created many years ago. It is a moment of wonder to be the person to witness this fleeting release of ancient smells into the present atmosphere.
The sounds generated by a material help us to gather knowledge about its properties. I often find myself tapping objects to understand them better. Such as a porcelain bowl - if you tap all over its entire surface you can hear how the sound changes. Where it is thin the sounds is very different to where the material is thicker. It is a clever way of gathering knowledge about a object when you cannot entirely visually explore it - such as not being able to see inside an object, so by tapping it you can ascertain where the walls of the objects are thin and where they are thicker, where it is hollow or solid, where it is damaged (a cracked porcelain object generates very particular sounds!) Thin stuff and thick stuff sound different, so to does short and long stuff. By tapping an object with your finger or with a tool (metal tools work best) you can reveal its inner structure, the fibers, molecules, crystals how they are working inside the material, whether they are strong or weak, soft or hard, fixed or changeable.
I have recently being researching the science and physics of materials to help me to understand better how materials behave. Two books I have come across that explore this territory in an accessible and yet incredibly intelligent way are: ‘Storm in a Teacup. The Physics of Everyday Life.’ By Helen Czerski and ‘Reality is Not What it Seems. The Journey to Quantum Gravity’ by Carlo Rovelli.
3rd February 2017
Inside and Outside
Our interaction with objects and material is mostly a surface experience. Walking on stone paving, not entering the stone and its internal gases, holding a metal fork, but not entering the molecule structures of irons and chemicals locked inside. However, we do enter fluids and malleable materials more easily, such as water, wet clay, and food - vegetables, fruit, meat, and cheese as we cut, grate and crush them. It is mostly the hard stuff we merely skate, glide, and stroke across the surface. And it is these hard surfaces we most rely on to construct our environmental infrastructure – buildings, roads, machines and vehicles etc, for the obvious reason that they are stable and strong.
So perhaps we should think, imagine what is behind these hard surfaces that surround us - to think about the materials we are touching – not just the outer coat but also the inner matter and workings.
You can tell a lot when touching a surface to ascertain what is inside. I had a funny experience recently in a supermarket in Sicily in Italy. My partner asked me to find an aubergine. He had looked thoroughly through the fresh fruit and vegetable section and could not find one, which was very odd considering Sicilians use a lot of aubergines in their cooking. I then went to look and could not see one either. Being a little bored as Mark waited to be served at the meat and cheese counter I lingered again in the vegetable area focusing on a pale round vegetable about the size of a small melon, it was white and pale green, with a slight hint of purple around the stalk, a vegetable I did not know, and yet when I picked it up, I immediately knew it was an aubergine. It looked nothing like the dark purple long bulbous shape vegetable I was familiar with, but it felt exactly like an aubergine. When you handle an aubergine it has a very particular tactility, like no other vegetable I have come across - firm but also spongy, a bit like a natural sponge that has gone hard when dried out, but still enough give to feel its springy quality, and wrapped in a skin of rubbery squeakiness, like a rubber ball. On handling it I could imagine what it looked like inside, from my previous aubergine cooking experiences.
It proved to me the necessity to handle stuff to really understand what I was encountering and that appearances can be extremely deceptive.
Often the outer surfaces of living things is different to the inside, a design mechanism to protect what is inside, like the skin of a tomatoes or the skin and hair of an animal, both protecting the flesh inside. These things have a different material on the outside to that of the inside, like our own bodies, the skin wrapped around, muscle, bone, and veins. Whereas other things the outside material can be the same as what is inside, such as a pebble on the beach or a carrot, but by being exposed to the air, earth and other elements has become slightly harder on the outside and more than often different in appearance. It all seems to come down to protection, where a living thing needs to be protected, it creates or acquires a tougher skin, where as a manmade object - inanimate object such as a sawn piece of wood or a building brick, does not have a skin to protect its inner stuffness. Maybe this is because it is strong and durable right to its core, but more likely it has no mechanism to build a protective skin. Of course we design and make all sorts of skins to protect objects we own – from phones and computers covers to clothes, and these in themselves have an inner and outer materiality.
Whether it is a brick or an aubergine, there will always be an outer experience and an inner one, that we may or may not access, unless we choose to interact with it, which might mean breaking or destroying it to do so…..
6th January 2017
Stuff and Architecture.
The word Stuff is both a noun and a verb - the stuff that is material and matter, and the action of stuffing to fill and form objects. Are the objects that have been designed on a flat digital screen insensitive to the materials that are used to fill/stuff these digital ideas in becoming actual objects in real space? Enormous amounts of objects are designed on computer screens which in order to become actual objects in the world - take matter and stuff it inside the designs, often irrespective of what the form or the material can do or requires.
In digital software there are samples of materials shown as surface texture which can be digitally and virtually wrapped around designed objects and architecture on the screen to give the designer an idea of how the thing he/she is designing will appear once manufactured in a given material. Well, the appearance of a material or surface of a material does not say much about how the object/building in that chosen material will behave when it is built. So, the designer has to think about both the properties of the material chosen to use and whether they can function in a building and what it will look like. It seems to me some things/objects produced lean more towards the requirement and fulfillment of the experience of the screen than the requirement of the physical object to be used in real space. Let me explain - On visiting Zaha Hadid extension at the Serpentine Gallery in London when it first opened, while sitting in the restaurant eating my over expensive salad, the swooping organic architecture over and around me seemed to have one foot still firmly in the computer and digital space, and was not totally occupying the space I was in, this was evidenced in the clunky way the pillars met the ground, a gap appearing between pillar and floor breaking up the continuous flow and it was definitely not swooping..! A feature perhaps less relevant on the screen, but while I sat by this pillar staring at the floor I was so very disappointed by the lack of thought given to how this column met the ground, and considering how chairs and tables where pushed so close to the pillars, I’m sure others would come into contact with this connecting point and have similar thoughts. The digital form, the surface affect had overridden the material, the substance, and the matter – revealing a gap between design and production.
Have a good look at a new building and decide for yourself how much of it was designed in the 'real' and how much on the computer screen.
Many years ago buildings evolved and changed while they were being built, as the materials being used dictated how they would be applied, builders and architects working closely solving problems as they went along in working out the best way to proceed. There was a time when builder and architect were the same profession. You can see such decision making in old churches where an extra pillar or buttress was added creating a less symmetrical structure and revealing a trace of problem solving and a more organic approach - evidence of decisions being made as the building went up, accommodating new demands as they arose. Obviously the technology we have available today means we can predict future problems and through various advanced digital software can calculate the strength of structures and materials. However the relationship between architects/designers and builders could have gone too far the other way, to a point that builders have little or no investment in the buildings they are constructing, caring very little about the vision of the whole building and from my experience cutting corners with detail. I'm not talking about lack of standards, but a lack of uniformed vision and concern for the whole, connecting one material, object, architectural feature with another fluidly, with a vision that relates to the original design but goes beyond the screen to the real, evolving as it grows in actual space .
I often look at buildings going up in London - they seem to have landed like space ships, as if they could take off as quickly as they docked. They do not grow out of the ground, but are constructed and hover in space (which is interesting in itself!) Frames and structures go up and lastly sections of cladding added to the outside to create surfaces, that can 'look like' brick, solid stone, ceramics and so on, and yet this illusion is only sometimes millimeters thick rather than the actual building material thickness! - I’m sure a good strategy to build things quickly and more economically. You may say what is the difference; it looks the same - but look carefully. For example, a slab of clad replica brick constructed like a jigsaw in a factory away from the building site appears very different to a brick wall built 'with' actual bricks on site, from the bottom upwards by a bricklayer. The first is a form stuffed with bricks and the second is built brick. The brick in the second behaves like brick traditionally does, each brick responsive to the cement and brick layer below and on top, and as the builder constructs the wall this way he/she is making decisions in response to the material the brick is made of and materials in proximity, whereas the first set of bricks, made in a factory as large cladded sections was probably constructed horizontally, rather than vertically. These large slabs of brick formations are then attached and hung to the building facades, looking all the same, each a replica of the other panel of bricks, the cement between the bricks uncompressed by the lack of weight from the layer of bricks being placed on top.
So, if you look carefully at such buildings - there is a brick wall, but not one that sits on the ground but floats in the space defined by the digital environment rather than the physical one. One is probably no better than the other – just different. So, when you encounter contemporary urban architecture explore the brickwork and the way the material has been put together, as it will reveal a lot about the journey of design to realization, and the tools that have been used.