Forget the Old Masters, It’s All About the Old Monsters
The weight of my body rises to meet me uneasily as the soft shape of a thing presses, then crumbles under my right sole. It crushes the way a biscuit might disintegrate underfoot, but somehow with a squeak, the clay turns to dust.
I turn around to inspect my misplacement and tread soft grey across the floor. It leaves a matte print of my pad, and as I crouch down, using my hands to gather it up, small particles scatter and settle in the spaces between the boards and compress against the sides of my palms. Little channels of powder.
I need to fix the hoover.
I take off my socks, rolling them up with the clay inside, and chuck them in the washing basket. I pad through to the kitchen to find and soak a cloth to wipe up what I can. A
dustpan and brush will only move the stuff around and get it in the air. A damp cloth works.
It is common knowledge that it is dangerous to breath in dust, especially from clay. Clay is pretty much just crushed rock, and while it might sit lightly as dust, the combined material amounts to the mass of solid stone. Water captures the wayward particles and prevents them from meeting the air, meeting the lungs.
I don’t know when I first became aware of this, I guess that’s just what happens when things are held in common. In the 1st century BCE, Lucretius wrote a poem which is really an essay, where he expands upon Epicurean atomism. To him, everything exudes something called a ‘film’ which then floats around in the air like a ghost, and we only become aware of them when they physically enter our bodies, through our openings (eyes, ears, nose, mouth) provoking sensation.1
Some knowings are just like that. They seem to hover in the space around us, as the world around us changes as we do with it, little by/and little. Accumulation. I was told my mother’s father died after a lifetime’s worth of flour settled in his lungs. He ran a bakery in a town in Ayrshire, and won awards for his bread. It’s never put me off baking.
Those most stubborn of human creations – plastic, pots and glass – are all made for holding.
I’ve been making these pots. Because. I’m interested in what I might put in them, or on them. We make vessels, and those then hold and keep until they are emptied. I have a lot of empty plant pots that have been abandoned after being outgrown, like seashells. While plants germinate, bloom and die, the plastic and ceramic that hold them hardly changes. Mould and beetles will metabolise the cellulose of the stem, leaves and roots, but ceramic endures as it’s molecular structure is closer to a fossil than a plant.
There are vessels which millennia later still hold the last grains, not-digested-yet, like the last meal in a bog man’s stomach.2 Some are stained with smoke or wine, carrying the residue of what was once useful, of could-be sustenance. There are vessels that hold the sounds we throw into them too. That already-gone moment of sound’s shape might yet echo when we put our ear to the rim.3
That tussle between accumulation and residue, Capital relies on hierarchies built in the past. Those living still work within the ideologies of the dead, with the material of the not-living, or no longer alive. So what does dead mean exactly?
I was reaching through the internet one day, as you do when you have the privilege of access. I found a plastic bag with small stones in it.
Loose Dinosaur Bones
250 grams (approx. 200 pieces)
Dinosaur bones? How long my arms must be to touch a creature long extinct.
£5.75 + £2.50 postage and packaging.
I bought them. The stones (bones?).
They arrived in a plastic bag the size of my hand. Far smaller than they looked in the picture. Many fine grains had gathered at the bottom, their own mass and the earth’s gravity reducing the fossils to dust. When I poke my finger into the bag it comes out reddish-brown. I can’t tell if it’s dirt or dinosaur.
There’s this double portrait that’s quite famous. It’s called The Ambassadors and it’s by Hans Holbein the Younger. There are these two men standing in front of a green curtain and between them is a shelving unit with a bunch of different objects on it and the objects are all very specifically endowed with SYMBOLISM. They are there to tell you more about these important men, how clever and pious and rich they are.
The men rest their elbows on the top shelf, between them a celestial globe, a shepherd’s dial, a quadrant and a sundial; instruments of science, representing the hierarchies of knowledge central to Renaissance Humanist belief with Reason at its height.
They rest on a carpet called a “Holbein” by art historians (how interesting to call an object by the name of the one who paints its likeness rather than the one who made it). It’s geometric design a reference to Tudor trade with Venice, Turkey and Persia. It alludes to Henry VIII’s extensive collection of rugs, placing the sitters closer to the King. (There’s that urge to collect and keep. Again. What long arms you must have to gather and hold. How many arms, how large a vessel, a basket, a palace?)
They are both bearded and wearing berets. One of them is wearing a very nice pink shirt with a short sleeved puffy jacket with fur around it. The other one is all in black. V chic.
Whoever wants to make black dye, he takes oak galls and pulverizes them and adds alum thereto and boils it in a skillful way with alum and in urine and dyes therewith4
If you’ve ever tried to dye an old garment black and had it come out grey, you know how lightly black clings to cloth. 500 years ago someone would have had to dye those robes over and over and over again to get that deep dark pious black.
Black clothing had infinite possibilities in combination with face, pose, background, and embellishments. If he were a learned doctor, such as Erasmus or More, and his professional gown was black anyway, so much the better; his personal qualities could be built all the better into the image of his function and even more prestige accrue to the wearing of black garments–especially if the artist were a genius like Holbein.5
The men stand on a tiled floor, a floor that also paves Westminster Abbey, with a design that represents the macrocosm of the Early Renaissance, laid 300 years before Holbein painted it’s likeness on oak. Across the floor in the painting there’s a big brown and black splurge which looks pretty out of place. It’s a human skull, but you can only tell if you are in a room with the painting and walk right up to it, looking across the frame from the side. That’s why I’ve heard of it, why it’s famous. To me, the anamorphic skull has lost its potency as a
representation of death, but the pleasure that I take from The Ambassadors is in the mortality it celebrates in the context that I view it in. An image on the screen, built of light, transversing space and time. A mortality that emerges through distortion: change rather than end. Things are neither born nor die, though they can turn away from each other and change states. Things haven’t changed so drastically that we cannot recognise The Ambassadors in the cultural and political figures around us now.
If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile; a hedge [lives for] three years, add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, enormous whales, the world: each one following triples the years of the one before.
The spherical globe here shows the archetypal macrocosm.
Until scientists agreed that the earth revolves around the sun, the primum mobile (or first moved) was understood to be everything that moves around the stationary globe: the sky, stars, planets, the sun and the moon.
An inscription claims that Abbey’s floor will last until the end of the primum mobile, the end of the universe.6 The date of the Apocalypse is calculated by the lifespans of animals tripled – 19,683 years after the inscription was laid, in 1298 CE. I have to say I find this a little unrealistic. After all, before the last restoration in 2010, it wasn’t looking so good. Grime had turned the rich coloured glass and marble muddy, after 500 years of footsteps and a further century under carpet. It takes a lot of effort to halt the onslaught of time, or rather, the onslaught of deterioration. Those monuments and figures that persist do so by the hands of people in the present.
Fossils are formed when organic matter like blood cells, collagen and fat break down. The inorganic parts of the bone remain, the parts built from minerals like calcium.
Over time, water fills the gaps and leaves behind iron and calcium carbonate. A slow process of minerals from the surrounding landscape filtering through organic matter with the aid of rain and rivers.
A gradual drip.
The components of the land gather in skeletal pockets. So these are not living any more, they are space filled by minerals, growing.
Most ceramics we encounter tend to be sealed with a glaze. When clay is fired, the chemical structure changes, intense heat allows the particles to fuse together, to vitrify. It is similar to the way that igneous rocks are formed under immense heat and pressure. They pour from the earth’s crust, bringing elements (iron, silicon etc) up to the surface with them.
Glazes do the same. They dance the same dance, spilling, filling the pores of the clay body, drawing out and pushing in to make those colours, the shine that we desire. An alchemist who understands the chemical repertoire of fire, clay and glaze can sing along to the tune, adding their own counter-melody. I, on the other hand, am a spectator. All I can do is watch and listen.
Raku means “enjoyment”, and it is a name that was given to the family who began developing this technique of firing ceramics in Japan 500 years ago, around the same time Holbein was painting The Ambassadors. Raku-the-name was given to the adopted son of Chōjirō, a tile maker who was asked to make tea bowls for Sen no Rikyu’s first Tea Ceremonies.7 Raku Kichizaemon (15 generations later) continues to use and develop Raku ware now.
In the Raku process the kiln is fired up quickly, causing the clay bodies to glow like burning coals and glaze to melt into a sheet of molten glass. If the pieces do not explode or crack with the shock of the temperature, they are taken out of the kiln while they are still glowing orange-red. When they are plunged straight into cold water or snow, or placed in a barrel full of sawdust, the glaze will crackle, smoke will alter the colour of the clay and the glaze. The drama of red hot to pure cold is an intense end to the transformation that turns dirt, stone and water into a piece of art. The aesthetic charms of Raku pottery are it’s cracks, it’s crackles and the dark smoke that licks across its surface. Each of these marks are a testament to the persistence of the material even under immense stress. The beauty in Raku is that of survival.
Chōjirō made a tea bowl called Nothing (Muichibutsu). I saw it once in a museum near Kyoto. The Juraku red clay looks like it might warp to the shape of the hands that hold it, or turn to dirt at the lips that touch it. I think it could have been glazed with dinosaur bone.
I looked at the fossil fragments, each a slightly different colour ranging from black to cream, light pink to terracotta. I imagined their small white speckles and cell-like ridges were evidence of their previous incarnation as the interior of a femur or a shard of scapula. I look up ‘how fossils are formed’.
I say it could have been glazed with dinosaur bone because that texture of earth and grit seems to me to have a kinship with the dust I found in the plastic bag. The dust that I’ve been painting onto vessels and firing. The reddish colour comes from iron. Iron makes up 5% of the earth’s crust and is pretty common in sedimentary rocks, and a lot of meteorites too. Most of the iron we carry around is in the haemoglobin in our blood, it helps carry oxygen through our bodies. It’s why our blood is red, like the sandstone that makes up the walls of our tenements. There’s a pretty diagram on Wikipedia. It looks like the plan for a garden. A mitochondrion pond surrounded by labile iron poppies, an endosome patio and ferritin pansies.
Fionn Duffy considers the relationship between body and clay
- Lucretius Carus, Titus, Alicia Elsbeth Stallings, and Richard Jenkyns (2015). The Nature of Things. London: Penguin Books.
- Glob, Peter Vilhelm (2010). The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved. London: Faber and Faber. First published in 1965.
- Godman, Rob. ‘The Enigma of Vitruvian Resonating Vases and the Relevance of the Concept for Today’. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 122, no. 5 (2007): 3054.
- Elizabethancostume.net. Dye Recipies From The Innsbruck Manuscript. Available here.
- Hollander, Anne (1993). Seeing through Clothes. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Dean and Chapter of Westminster. 2019. Cosmati Pavement. Westminster Abbey. Available here.
- Raku, Kichizaemon XV (2012). Chawanya. Kyoto: Tankōsha Publishing Company.
by Fionn Duffy