CLAY MATTERS

CONTEMPORARY SOUTH AFRICAN CERAMICS, ANTARCTICA & DARWIN

katherine-glenday
Dr Samuel Bowser with [Glenday’s] porcelain vessel | McMurdo Research Centre, Antarctica | Photograph by Shawn Harper | 2008

WHAT IS CLAY?

Words by Sophie Cope

Humans have been mining and making things with clay for more than 30 thousand years. Long before formal agriculture, it seems that the worldwide use of clay — for pots, buildings, sculptures, ritual practices, pigments, medicine — is one of the most ancient human things. The material is particularly versatile and durable due to its tiny particle size (‘about the size of a virus’), the specific minerals in clay soil, and its great affinity for water. When wet, water molecules distribute themselves evenly throughout the clay, giving it a bendy plasticity — strong enough to hold a shape, soft enough to be squeezed between palms. When the water evaporates (in the heat of a kiln, or the sun), the clay transforms into a hard, brittle substance — vulnerable to weathering and shattering, but potentially strong enough to last for thousands of years.

‘This ancient hard-soft material is still everywhere. In addition to self-consciously ‘clay’ vessels and ceramic objects, it is so ubiquitous that we almost don’t see it.’

clay
Clay particles under microscope: large dickite plates in sandstone, Cretaceous, West of Shetland  |  Sample provided by Russell Gray  |  Photograph by Evelyne Delbos, James Hutton Institute

This ancient hard-soft material is still everywhere. In addition to self-consciously ‘clay’ vessels and ceramic objects, it is so ubiquitous that we almost don’t see it. At least a third of the world’s population is estimated to live or work in clay structures (raw earth or fired bricks). We eat and drink from clay vessels, it coats our paper, is used in all sorts of industrial contexts for its absorbent and adhesive properties, for thermal energy storage, the treatment of acne and eczema, ‘to extend the life of rubber tyres,’ to plug holes in leaky dam walls. 

And, as we see in the collaborative work of Katherine Glenday, Christina Bryer and Claire Beynon, it might also draw us into material and imaginative dialogue with single-cell organisms in Antarctica.

TO ARRIVE WHERE WE STARTED

Porcelain and foraminifera in Antarctica

Foraminifera, or forams, are evolutionarily ancient, highly adaptive single-cell organisms. They have been around for at least 650 million years (predating dinosaurs by many hundreds of millions) and most of them live at the bottom of the sea. Somehow glueing together various sediments from the seabed around them, forams are identifiable by the protective shells (or ‘tests’) that they construct around their single-celled bodies. Serving as an archive of seabed sediments, these ‘tests’ are also very beautiful and geometrically intricate, perhaps suggesting a mysteriously brainless kind of aesthetic sensibility.

Millions of years after they die, the bodies and shells of the forams turn into fossilised sediments on the sea floor. These sediments might then turn into chalk, which might eventually be mined to make porcelain. For South African ceramicists Katherine Glenday and Christina Bryer, it was.

‘Serving as an archive of seabed sediments, these ‘tests’ are also very beautiful and geometrically intricate, perhaps suggesting a mysteriously brainless kind of aesthetic sensibility.’

Christina Bryer’s Porcelain foram [in Antarctica]
Christina Bryer’s Porcelain foram [in Antarctica]  |  Photograph by Claire Beynon  |  2008

Christina Bryer’s Porcelain foram [in Antarctica]  |  Photograph by Claire Beynon  |  2008

In 2008, as part of a collaborative research trip to study the foraminifera of Antarctica, Katherine Glenday and Christina Bryer sent their own porcelain objects back to visit the forams in the ice. Glenday made vessels that could be sounded like gongs — with the invisible resonances of the sound perhaps evoking similar material resonances, for a moment bridging the millions of years between the living forams and their fossils in the porcelain. Bryer made a geometric homage to the ‘tests’ of the forams, evoking that which is both materially ancient and always new. 

These porcelain pieces were carried down to the motionless Antarctic seabed, where they remain. And we can imagine that eventually they will disintegrate, and that new forams will find them and glue them into new shells, and that the porcelain-making circle will complete itself. Perhaps, to arrive where we started. Or to re-see a material relationship that has always been there.

”The case of the three species of protozoan which apparently select differently sized grains of sand, etc., is almost the most wonderful fact I ever heard of. One cannot believe that they have mental power enough to do so, and how any structure or kind of viscidity can lead to this result passes all understanding.”

Charles Darwin (in a letter written to W. B. Carpenter in 1873, expressing wonder at the shell-building capacities of agglutinated foraminifera)

Katherine Glenday Antarctica
Katherine Glenday’s porcelain vessels [in Antarctica]  |  Photograph by Shawn Harper  |  2008
Christina Bryer’s Porcelain foram [in Antarctica]
Christina Bryer’s Porcelain foram [in Antarctica]  |  Photograph by Claire Beynon  |  2008

  References:

  1. Vandiver, P., Soffer, O., Klima, B. and Svoboda, J., 1989. The Origins of Ceramic Technology at Dolni Věstonice, Czechoslovakia. Science, 246(4933): 1002-1008.
  2. Rice, P. M., 1999. On the Origins of Pottery. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 6(1): 1–54.
  3. Guggenheim, S. n.d. Introduction to the properties of clay minerals, Department of Geological Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago [online]. 
  4. Guggenheim, S., 1995. Definition of Clay and Clay Mineral: Joint Report of the AIPEA Nomenclature and CMS Nomenclature Committees. Clays and Clay Minerals, 43(2): .255-256.
  5. Breuer, S., 2012. The Chemistry of Pottery (PDF). Education in Chemistry: 17–20.
  6. Marsh, A. & Kulshreshtha, Y., 2021. The state of earthen housing worldwide: how development affects attitudes and adoption. Building Research & Information: 1-17.
  7. Wesley, L., 2014. Clays and clay minerals. New York: Nova Publishers: 379-402.
  8. Burke Museum. n.d. What are forams? How are they studied?. [online] Available: https://www.burkemuseum.org/collections-and-research/geology-and-paleontology/invertebrate-and-micropaleontology/puget-sound-0
  9. Binczewska, A. et al., 2015. Foraminifers (Benthic). In: Harff J., Meschede M. et al., (eds) Encyclopedia of Marine Geosciences. Springer, Dordrecht.
  10. Pearson, P., 1998. The glorious fossil record. Nature,.
  11. Beynon, C., 2010. Nature’s Little Masons: Seven Meditations on Two Antarctic Seasons, Junctures: 13 [unseen].
  12. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 8869,” accessed on 13 January 2022: https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/?docId=letters/DCP-LETT-8869.xml
Foram microscope image
Majewski, W. &  Gaździcki, A., 2014  |  Agglutinated and unilocular calcareous foraminifera from Polonez Cove Formation

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