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Master Chuang and craft

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

“In Chuang Tzu’s view, the man who has freed himself from conventional standards of judgement can no longer be made to suffer, for he refuses to recognise poverty as any less desirable than affluence, to recognise death as any less desirable than life. He does not in any literal sense withdraw and hide from the world — to do so would show that he still passed judgement upon the world. He remains within society, but refrains from acting out of the motives that lead ordinary men to struggle for wealth, fame, success, or safety. He maintains a state that Chuang Tzu refers to as wu-wei, or inaction, meaning by this term not a forced quietude, but a course of action that is not founded upon any purposeful motives of gain or striving. In such a state, all human actions become as spontaneous and mindless as those of the natural world. Man becomes one with Nature, or Heaven, as Chuang Tzu calls it, and merges himself with Tao, or the Way, the underlying unity that embraces man, Nature and all that is in the universe.

To describe this mindless, purposeless mode of life, Chuang Tzu turns most often to the analogy of the artist, or craftsman. The skilled woodcarver, the skilled butcher, the skilled swimmer, does not ponder or ratiocinate on the course of action he should take; his skill has become so much a part of him that he merely acts instinctivly and spontaneously and, without knowing why, achieves success. Again, Chuang Tzu employs the metaphor of a totally free and purposeless journey, using the word yu (to wander, or a wandering) to designate the way in which the enlightened man wanders through all of creation, enjoying its delights without ever becoming attached to any one part of it.

But, like all mystics, Chuang Tzu insists that language is in the end grievously inadequate to describe the true Way, or the wonderful freedom of the man who has realised his identity with it. Again and again, he cautions that he is giving only a “rough” or “reckless” description of these things, and what follows is usually a passage of highly poetic and paradoxical language that in fact conveys little more than the essential ineffability of such a state of being.”

Burton Watson (trans.) 1966 Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, New York: Columbia University Press Pp 6-7

It strikes me how closely this chimes with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of Flow.

Also, that the Royal College of Art is not the least likely place to come across purposeful motives of gain or striving, but, while Ceramics & Glass students are not exempt, they do seem to be the most popular with support staff.

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014

Object Oriented Ontology and tacit knowledge (or, Harman among the potters)

A proposal for a practice-based symposium

Inspired by Object Oriented Ontology, I’ve been working with the proposition that Ceramics might be a particularly useful discipline within which to explore relations between objects. Reflecting on Tim Morton’s proposal of rhetoric as a means of contacting the ‘strange stranger’, it occurred to me that making might be equally effective. All forms of craft making constitute an intimate engagement between body and material, but clay seems singular in its openness to interaction with other objects – hands, cloth mats, air, sponges, water, wooden rolling pins, temperature, steel knives, feathers, etc.
 
The idea to facilitate a dialogue between a potter and a philosopher came out of this thinking. Taking up Ian Bogost’s call to ‘carpentry’, I plan to have the potter make a coffee cup and then to teach the philosopher to do the same. One aim is to generate language that attempts the impossible – to express tacit, or embodied, knowledge – and to introduce the possibility of speculative investigation into the activity of making. How might we build on Heidegger’s reflection on jug making, for instance?
 
Potters, of course, have their own language of touch and use, but it seems to me that the common functional object might offer an under-explored and relatively uncluttered terrain. While trying to swerve the tired old art/craft dichotomy, such an object doesn’t seek to offer oblique access to other objects through imaginative deployment of metaphor, as art objects might do. It comes from a parallel world, being presented as itself, its meaning deriving from its materials, its function and, perhaps most of all, its facture. (The medium is the message, but the medium needs a mediator). I wonder if the embodied knowledge that is central to facture might be seen as a metaphor for withdrawal – it can’t be seen, it can’t be explained, it can’t be simplified. It is expressed in making and re-embodied in the made object. The making is a withdrawn element in the maker and the made.

Some thoughts on exhibiting

Monday, April 28th, 2014

The final show for RCA students graduating in 2014 will open on 17/18 June. I will be showing with this cohort (though won’t be submitting my PhD until the end of the first term of the following academic year). We will start the installation process in the first week of June, so there’s a little more than a month to go.

I’ve been trying to adopt a different approach to exhibiting for a few years now, with limited success. It is very difficult not to be invaded by the anxiety connected to completion and judgement. This worry seems to be common, if not universal, and makers tend to combat it by putting all their energy into making very well (and often in great quantity), at any cost. You can see it played out in the immense pressure on working space, materials and kiln space in the Ceramics & Glass department.

The intimate engagement with materials that is making is so involving that it can be difficult to see the space for the objects (though it should be said that the intense focus engendered by an exhibition can sometimes lead to startling advances). The other pole, where I am currently shivering, is that the exhibition must stand for a coherent and fully realised practice – that it should reflect an approach to production and display that sits within a well considered socio-political framework. This can lead to semi-paralysis.

Having allowed myself the time and space to be experimental, to be uncertain, I now find myself uncertain about the value of this approach. Over the years, as a Ceramics lecturer, I have often been taken by the bravery of Fine Art students, who, rather than stuffing a space with the best things they have made, present something – something that might seem quite slight – that represents a way of working, a way of thinking. Although I still see very strong exhibits from time to time, I’m generally less impressed these days. It sometimes seems more like style than substance, like the method of display has become what distinguishes art from non-art, as the methods of production don’t really change that much.

Returning to anxieties, they come from two directions. The first, perhaps inevitable and, hopefully, productive, stems from the fact that I don’t know exactly what I will be showing. I have a working plan, based on research methods that have developed out of my project, but I don’t want to close down possibilities – I want to keep things open and fresh, allow the process to dictate where things go. To think, perhaps, of the exhibition as a collection of poems, as opposed to a well-polished and plotted story.

The second is more worrying and relates to that socio-political context. I’m reading the Chuang Tzu, amongst other things, and, while its wisdom, ambiguity and humour are still fresh and inspiring, I’m nagged by a sense that we have well and truly entered a ‘new’ paradigm of global warming and environmental destruction. Our power to understand collectively and to take action at the individual level is limited, but I can’t help thinking that all our energies should be directed towards developing ways of producing and consuming that constitute solutions.

“Those whom heaven helps we call the sons of heaven. They do not learn this by learning. They do not work it by working. They do not reason it by using reason. To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do it will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven.”

— Chuang Tzu XXIII

This translation comes from Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven. She doesn’t say where she got it from.

Burton Watson, in the introduction to his translation of the seven ‘inner chapters’, three ‘outer chapters’ and one ‘miscellaneous chapter’, published as Basic Writings, writes, “I have rendered T’ien as “Heaven,” or “heavenly” in nearly all cases. Chuang Tzu uses the word to mean Nature, what pertains to the natural as opposed to the artificial, or as a synonym for the Way.”

And later, as a footnote on P32, “Heaven is not something distinct from earth and man, but a name applied to the natural and spontaneous functioning of the two.”

Chapter XXIII is the first of the ‘miscellaneous chapters’ (known as “Gengsang Chu”) and does not feature in Basic Writings.

Where do you see yourself in twenty-five years?

Thursday, April 24th, 2014

Wysing Arts Centre

Edited by Gareth Bell-Jones

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