A few weeks back, the Visual Arts students and a few staff members made their annual visit to West Dean College’s neighbours at CASS Sculpture Foundation. As well as having time to tour the grounds and see the latest display of large-scale sculptures by artists such as Eduardo Paolozzi, James Capper, Tony Cragg and Tania Kovats, we were also given access to the CASS archive. Having the chance to look through the stored collection of large-scale drawings and works on paper, together with maquettes relating to previous commissions, is always a particular privilege and an experience that feeds directly into the practices developing back in the Studios at West Dean. At the same time, we were given a brief tour around the temporary exhibition in the Main Gallery, combining with separately commissioned works by UK artist, Alex Hoda.
Curated by Hoda and Robert Rush, Rough Music is an exhibition that brings together new ceramic works by ten artists based in the UK, including Aaron Angell, Mark Essen, Paulina Michnowska, Laure Prouvost, Giles Round, Jackson Sprague, Adam Sutherland, Bedwyr Williams, and Jesse Wine. The works were created using a recently installed open-source sculpture in the form of an outdoor fast-fire wood kiln, built as a collaborative effort led by Hoda and Rush with additional help and advice from Mike and Carol Francis (of Francis Ceramics, Pembrokeshire), as well as West Dean’s own ceramics expert Ali Sandeman. The kiln is designed to be a permanent resource for artists and ceramicists, as well as acting as an artwork in itself: ‘an “open source sculpture”.
The theme of Rough Music refers to an English folk practice common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in which people who had transgressed in their domestic lives were publicly ridiculed by ‘performing’ mobs gathered outside their homes. Such crowds often employed effigies as well as song and dance, creating a crude theatrical satire that occupied a volatile borderline between public and private worlds, exposing an unstable order of dependence between subsets of a given community, as well as themes of domesticity and absurdity. The pieces developed for the new kiln involved a broad range of ideas and techniques, including impressive examples of experimental glazing processes afforded by the new facilities specific capabilities.
A few days after our visit, the exhibition was drawn to a close with an evening event, including another firing. Robert Rush was joined by Paulina Michnowska and Mark Essen to talk through the development of the project, as well as speaking directly to individual works in the exhibition. The discussion ranged around various themes associated with the work and the gathered artists’ various practices, including technical insights into, for example, the variations in different firings could (or couldn’t) be controlled, how that afforded artists leeway, coinciding with inquiries as to how much the theme of ‘Rough Music’ had fallen away as the project developed. Mention was made of different historical examples of ceramic ware involving both utility and whimsy, including medieval ‘puzzle jugs’, made up of complex and impractical systems of holes and spouts, which nonetheless had an impact of the tradition of pottery making in England and beyond.
The interest in low-status works also extended to discussions of a concurrent exhibition at Edle Assanti galery in London, in which a series of “wasters” fired at CASS were displayed. These “wasters” are objects that have failed in the process of being fired, and so are usually considered to be waste products. Yet the term has come to mean, more generally, any ceramic object that is used to occupy free space in the kiln in order to better maintain an even temperature. This is a primary use-value that allows a freer, perhaps more frivolous interpretation in relation to the additional appearance or function of the object – an association the curators were keen to build on. There were also fascinating references to the work-a-day processes of industrial kilns and workers using any available gaps in the ovens, and indeed the daily routine of churning out tableware, to insert their own unrestricted ideas and objects – a practice of finding freedom within constraints.
At the end of the evening, after the talks and the light had faded, the kiln began to belch out black smoke, and a real sense of drama pervaded the clearing in the woods.