In recent months, the surface of Art Formes has been bubbling. It has morphed from the primordial soup of the mind, to the figures of words scratched in notebooks and marched along computer screens, to the impressions of ink on delicate newsprint paper, and now to voices in a room. On the first of October in the glassy light of almost-summer, Art Formes emerged from the mud and became a speaking thing, introducing a series of live conversations: Encounters.
An assemblage of artists, writers and friends pooled into The Forge, Katherine Glenday’s chalk-white studio in Kalk Bay. Light lives there: hunching in the corners, catching the dust, or else striding through the centre of the room. In the garden, there is a swinging glass bird-feeder and a chorus of black-blue birds. And mouthing at the borders of everything is the sound of the sea. When it is time to speak, a circle forms around: an artist (Katherine Glenday) in conversation with Art Formes’ writers (Olivia Barrell and Sophie Cope).
‘Formes are inherently sonic, they are the vessels against which the world breaks. Without the clashing, rubbing, grazing of weaving, caressing din of form against form – the world is silent.’
It is auspicious, perhaps, that the first Encounter began with Glenday’s work: forms that invite sound. And after the conversation, artist Andile Dyalvane bowed over Glenday’s bowls filled with water, playing them with a mallet. The bowls ring with disparate tones, curling around each other, curiously soft as if they travelled a great distance to nestle into your cochlear. The relationship between form and sound is a circuit. Formes are inherently sonic, they are the vessels against which the world breaks. Without form – the clashing, rubbing, grazing of weaving, caressing din of form against form – the world is silent. The event of hearing itself requires intricately formed vessels: the delicate ossicles, the veil of the eardrum. Clay bears a particular soundscape: the wet thud of a human hand against the unfired body, the clinking of drying glaze, the roaring of the kiln, the clang as the form hits the floor and shatters.
In her essay about Glenday, Sophie Cope writes: “without being reduced to metaphor, the skins and material resonances of porcelain act as entry points into ‘the rest of the world”. In this way, Glenday’s work and the writer’s attendance to it, allows us to think of form as a tympanic membrane, at once a closure and an opening through which we hear the world. Our conversation on a clear, bright Saturday morning, and I think Art Formes more generally, ushers in membranous thinking – a questioning of the vessel, the body, the word, these instruments for transfering of meaning. The word “membrane” holds the memory of the Latin membrana meaning “skin” or “parchment” – it is at once form and text. Perhaps it is this membranous function which is the continuity between writing and speaking about form and the form itself.
‘I think our conversation, and Art Formes more generally, ushers in membranous thinking – a questioning of the vessel, the body, the word, these instruments for transfering of meaning.’
The original truth at the heart of any work is like a sound: elusive and invisible, perhaps misheard, subjective. Through the membrane, memories and metaphor can be read as the film that separates the dead past from a breathing present or as vessels for inscription, both connected to the deep recollections of the body and a sort of skin, an interface with the outside world. What follows are fragmented transcriptions of a conversation about sound, the heartbreak of broken things, and object-making:
Do you think you could begin to speak about the sense of sound in relation to your work and the porousness of the vessels holding both light and sound and how these things move through them, in addition to being the shapes themselves?
On your point of my work being autobiographical, I have a feeling that if one goes inwards, to really find your absolute inner voice, it is a lifetime’s job, to throw off everything that gets put on you — all your ancestral, familial and cultural stuff… we are a continuum of so much. So it took me a long time to even think about sound. It was somebody who is very important to me, who said ‘I heard your work before I saw it.’ That was probably in 2000 and that went all the way through to realising what a sound wave looks like and that you can make a sound wave. Artist Lyn Smuts was working on sound and visual depictions of sound [at the time] and we played a sort of violin and when you actually see the particles moving, because the sound wave is pushing them, and there’s the silence where there are no particles, and you see the material clumping, it’s a picture of there being a total continuum between sound and form. So then I started to work more consciously with it.
You talk about particles traveling and the sense of movement – if you think about clay as a medium, it has different states, even in its plasticity and it’s almost as if there are waves that you send through [the clay] before it hardens. All the artists here that work with clay are very much sending feeling or emotion as waves into the medium before that intention is then hardened by firing. How has the sculptural form then shifted over your career in response to what was driving it?
The one thing I do not think about or attend to is the sense of a sculptural form, I use a kind of simple template and not that shape or this shape. And that’s almost like the blank canvas thing — and there’s a universal versatility to an open form that humans use to put things into. If I look at my earlier work, I was always attaching things and building figures on — as an analogy of applying one’s own sort of pictorial thing/one’s specifics onto a vessel. And then when I started to really slip cast, what was so fantastic was everything was in motion… buckets and bits of colour … and as you throw it into the form, that’s a complete chance thing. So yeah, I suppose that also signaled starting to dance with what happened rather than applying all my thoughts.
And then there’s this process of letting go. Everyone talks of relinquishing it into the kiln, where something might happen to it…
Of all the materials, it does teach you to keep trying, a lot. I used to pack these very thin flats of paper-like things in the early 80’s … the porcelain was shrinking so much, it was dragging on the kiln shelf and they’d break and that part of my personality really came out but it tuned my impatience. And because I have worked so long with it, it’s so much more exciting to see what happens.
It’s interesting for artists working in this particular medium [clay], because there are so many points that you can’t control and so much heartbreak in the making, that it’s a very particular kind of creative practice. Very raw, I mean obviously Andile, you can attest to this?
You need to have a very strong, very fit heart. Clay teaches you to keep making, to keep trying and that’s what it is. This is about life as a well as individually, anything that happens to you. If we have gone through what we’ve gone through, where you put your heart and soul and sweat in and everything else that spills into this process and then something doesn’t come up right… but from that there is a beautiful lesson in which we say ‘okay, lets try again.’
For me, it is a little bit like one is in service. Some people go to a monastery and other people go to their studio because you are in the pursuit of or in the exploration of something. You have to deal with all the stuff that happens, all of the time. You can choose to throw a major tantrum [laughter] or you just need to try and find a way to navigate it.
I think I’d worked on a piece for three weeks and when I saw the piece falling… As an individual, I did nothing. I just went ‘okay sure’ [laughter] Then I get this plastic container, pick up the pieces, crush them, pack them back, go back to my table and I [in unison with Katherine Glenday] start again. But five years before that, I would’ve walked out.
I met Andile when he was very young and then he came to learn how to do porcelain in my studio, and Andile worked for three weeks making these beautiful vessels and as he put the last piece on — all the shelves collapsed.
… But then we continued and everything else that came after that was amazing.
And I suppose what’s important about the conversation is there’s something very important about finding your voice, finding your legitimate space in the world where you are as important as a tree or the cloud. You are definitely not more important than that — which also takes a while to know, because you are forming yourself. But in the long run, I really feel that the arts are the biggest service to humanity, especially now. So if one has an ability to let the zeitgeist through, so that you can become the interface for these unnameable things, then you are in service to them.
Talking about clay specifically, as a medium for the unnameable thing, as a particular practice that you have to go to over and over, with the time, with the heartbreak, with the technicality that comes with experience, to find that unnameable thing, which is inside of you…
… And from the other side of it, trying to name the unknowable thing through writing about it. I think what’s relevant is that you never do . There is always a gap between what you’re saying and what’s going on. And that’s kind of the point. If I could name Katherine’s work and say ‘its actually really about this now’ and we understand, then I would kill it off.
I think a lot of art speak does just that.
Maybe ART FORMES efforts to bridge gaps… I understand it as inhabiting gaps and acknowledging that in our patterns of difference, something interesting emerges. And the things we don’t understand, we don’t explain them away and that’s what keeps it a conversation.
Well I think, if form encounters form, it breeds more forms. And I feel that ART FORMES is exactly this. With certain artists, where the words were too hard to find, namely interdisciplinary artists or artists operating in the sculptural realm, there was a lack of documentation happening for all of these artists, and this has been going on for quite a long time.
And the conversation… it is very wonderful to have everyone here, this is the real fruitfulness [of it] – I think creativity kind of sets everybody else’s creativity going.
With that, if anyone would like to ask Katherine a question? We have artists here working in the same medium but in such different ways…
I have a question about sound, in its wet form it sounds different to when it’s fired. How do you think about that? Are you trying to make a specific sound?
No, its what arrives. There was an exhibition in 2000 and people who work with all kinds of strange instruments picked up my pieces and started to play them and the sounds that they made… And then I started to work with musicians or ask them ‘what do you make of this’ and they would try to listen for pentatonic scales and all sorts of scales, applying a system to it. And they totally come out as they come out, you can’t control that. And then I started to play with people where after a while you kind of drop into it and it’s a rhythmic thing and it’s sort of an inbetween space. So I don’t really think about it when I’m throwing. I hope whoever plays those bowls can elicit some good sounds…
We’re talking now about how the object informs the sound but I think, with a lot of artists the sound informs the object. I went to visit Andile [Dyalvane] a few days ago and I could hear the music as I parked the car outside of the studio [laughter]. Andile has a beautiful process of coiling, but rhythmically, like dancing, literally coiling and moving and pinching and that in itself is the sound informing the object and is also very beautiful…
For me, it’s the sound and it’s the atmosphere. So often what happens is that there is so much happening, and you come to the studio and all of that is brought into the space. So what I’m trying to do is balance the energy of that space and sound brings me to that. And when you come to my studio, the objects that you see there are very important to my well being and to the actual making, they are the stimulus, the source — and that atmosphere is a space of creation which is very important.
I don’t like to use the word ritual because it has other associations. But I think it’s a sense that we are coming to do something now and you kind of drop into another space…
But doesn’t ritual set up, regardless of whatever ideology it’s coming from… it sets up meaning?
Yes, it is an intentional setting up of meaning, exactly that.
You were saying about ‘just making bowls’ and I was thinking about the Desert Fathers who would make these baskets and then they would burn them and then they were gone. So here we are, and you’re talking about arts playing this role in society and your making, and that maybe you could just make. What is the thing that is being bred from the making? Like instead of burning the baskets? Why is it that one is doing the making? To be seen? Is it because we’re in a community? Whereas the Desert Fathers were alone, essentially just seeking communion with something else. You know, we’re not doing that.
We do sometimes have smashing parties here. There is another part of me that can be ruthless. But sometimes I feel like I can’t break this because someone would love it. And I wish somebody would just take it because if they love it… you know.
Do you have an object that you‘ve lost that you remember?
There’s one that got broken last year on the way to an exhibition I was having and I still think about it. It was like the wind came through that one. Something happened there, I wish I could do that again.
We had a very beautiful conversation with Katherine a few months ago, which I thought we could finish on. She said, ‘my own process has been through the making, being able to see, not so much to show but to see myself. And because of that, people could access that in my work. It would make a reverberation, feel that emotion, which is the base kind of communication.’
Thank you for coming today, to what I hope will be a series of conversations with each session having a focus on a particular creative practice. The contribution from other artists also working with the same medium and writers, makes for a very beautiful space. I look forward to more of this going forward.
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