That Continuous Thing: Artists and the Ceramics Studio, 1920 – Today (Tate Publishing, 2017)
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Wet clay is a messy material. It fills the creases between your fingers. It gets under your nails. Drying on the back of your hand it begins to look and feel like parched, cracked mud – a simple reminder of its earthy origins. Fire the clay to harden it. Dip in runny glaze and fire again. The extreme temperatures melt silica in the glaze, forming a glassy surface that picks out the hollows and contours of the now solid clay object. This process, more or less, has been acted out across the world for hundreds of years. It’s a process that connects the artist through direct touch to the earth at every stage; to the ‘warm-hearted fertile Magna Mater in whose bosom we all live’.
Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, ceramicists who had established a firm friendship in Japan, began what would become a long reappraisal of this connection between the potter and ‘the earth’s crust’ in Britain when they decamped in 1920 to St Ives, Cornwall. For Leach, pottery was the axis at which philosophy, art, design and craft met. In these early stages the studio pottery movement was defined largely in contrast to the ‘English factories’ that Leach described churning out ceramics on an industrial scale, and took inspiration from a similar undertaking in Japan known as Mingei (meaning folk-crafts). This is the basis for Tate’s recent publication, That Continuous Thing; accompanying an exhibition of the same name held at Tate St Ives.
Beginning with an excerpt from Bernard Leach’s most famous treatise, A Potter’s Book published in 1940, That Continuous Thing is a collection of essays and newly commissioned texts that track the shifting emphases to be found in ceramics studios (largely in Britain) since Leach opened his pottery. Edited by the curators of the exhibition, Sara Matson (Exhibition and Displays Curator, Tate St Ives) and Sam Thorne (Director, Nottingham Contemporary previously Artistic Director at Tate St Ives), the collection also includes texts by Edmund de Waal, Sōetsu Yanagi, Julian Stair, Alison Britton OBE, Glenn Adamson, Tanya Harrod and an interview with the artist Jesse Wine. The book also includes a newly commissioned essay by Aaron Angell, an artist who founded the Troy Town Art Pottery in 2014.
In That Continuous Thing, the essays can be divided into two categories: historical and contemporary. And yet this distinction, while factually accurate, would be disingenuous. While some of the texts appear to address design-historical subjects, such as Julian Stair’s essay on the abstract pottery of William Staite Murray, it’s really the interactions between the described historical and contemporary modes of production, and the possibilities these shifts have activated, that lie at the heart of this collection.
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Tanya Harrod’s excellent essay ‘Out of the Studio’ relocates the pottery debate around the place of the studio in ceramic production. Her point is that the complication of the traditional artistic relationship between creative place and activity (an artist working in a studio to create an art object to be displayed on a plinth) is often overlooked in histories of ceramic-making. The text serves as a redress to the multitude of object-centric / connoisseurial approaches that populate these histories, and that have excluded the events and process that are integral to the ceramics field. Instead, the changeable importance of the studio, what happens there, where the ceramic objects are made, how and where they are displayed and who views them become alternative ways of mapping the course of pottery-making over the past hundred years. What becomes obvious throughout Harrod’s essay is that an essential part of the ‘expanded field’ of ceramics is discovery. Discovery, or the rediscovery, of techniques, performative production, or a renewed way of looking at the ceramic object through display. Leaving the studio, or indeed returning to it, might provide such an opportunity to start over.
Beginning again happens in the ceramicist’s hands. This sense of the haptic importance of working with clay runs like a seam throughout That Continuous Thing. In his interview, Jesse Wine suggests that among contemporary artists the possibility of outsourcing work is driving a counter-movement of renewed interest in craft practices. These artists reject the machine-finish that is now so readily available to them (through outsourced labour) and instead embrace the hands-on process of object making – whether they are expert or not. By preference, they teach themselves – they learn from scratch. They begin again. An artist working at their own pace, with material in hand, activates this kind of artistic freedom that is rarely possible in today’s world. As Harrod notes, ‘that was, after all, the goal of the early studio potters of the twentieth century’. In place of the factory finish, Wine invokes a ‘kind of direct touch’ connecting the artist who produces their own work to the imperfect finish of a handmade object that is yet still distinct from the ‘boutique nostalgia industry’ of craft-aesthetic designer shops.
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Aaron Angell’s newly commissioned text goes a step further. For him, the ‘radical and psychedelic’ ceramic workshop he established in East London becomes a furnace of possibility, fusing the ‘quasi-alchemical world of heat and chemistry’ to the renewed importance of ‘combining poetic thought’ with ‘haptic discovery’. He resists the significance that is attached and is ‘often completely irrelevant’ to the ceramic art object: the romanticism that is endemic when thinking about clay as a material. The ‘being of the ceramic object’ becomes a stone around the ceramicists’ neck; an encoded meaning their work will inevitably fail to escape. From the outset, vessels were banned from the Troy Town pottery – distancing it from both the nostalgic world of craft and the functional one of design. Artists with no real experience of ceramics were the preferred residents. Clay as a means to an end. Everything to make the ‘ceramic-ness’ of the wares produced there ‘more fugitive’ – to begin again without the gradually accumulated associations of working in clay.
So, while many of us might be contented with a yearly dose of The Great Pottery Throw Down, That Continuous Thing makes the case to the uninitiated for the expansion of the ceramic field beyond what we think we know about pottery. A varied selection of essays ensure that this book goes beyond the oft-cited points of reference, reaching into the problems of practice and legacy that contemporary ceramicists and theorists grapple with in (and outside) of their studios today. Although ‘problematisation’ has become a well-worn trope in art discourse, That Continuous Thing brings together texts that encourage us to interrogate our assumptions about the place of ceramics, and craft more generally, in the frameworks of cultural production. For some of us, this might involve beginning again with the basics.
 Michael Cardew, Pioneer Pottery (London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1969), 2.
The book was kindly provided for review by Museum Bookstore. Museum Bookstore offers a huge range of exhibition catalogues, past and present. They also offer personalised shopping services for that particularly hard to find book or if you just need some inspiration for a special gift. You can purchase That Continuous Thing: Artists and the Ceramics Studio, 1920 – Today from Museum Bookstore here.