Clay Gulgong 2016: a novice guide (part 3)
For some, each day began with 8am yoga on Red Hill. For me it generally began with a re-enactment of the birth scene in Alien as I struggled to escape the confines of our tiny (but reputedly three person) tent. Which was, in a sense, a type of yoga itself.
As the week progressed it was fascinating to see how differently different Masters approached their talks. Jack Troy recited poetry. Torbjorn Kvasbo provided an in-depth overview of the awards he’d won. A lot of people talk about the transformative effects of Japan – which emerged from the woodsmoke as the potter’s Mecca.
Perhaps a hangover from my days as a lawyer or perhaps due to the fact that rent money must be made, I found the talks given by Keith Brymer-Jones and Paul David discussing the commercial viability of artistic practice particularly engrossing.
Affectionately known simply as ‘the Brit’ by the time he took the stage, Keith’s talk was destined to be a romp – such is his showmanship. From donning a (custom made but deeply middle-aged) wig and heels to promote his pots to filming YouTube parodies in Chinese airports, Keith is a man not shy of causing a stir.
He used his hour-of-power to provide a run-down of his huge success in commercialising his skills to encompass production not only in multiple factories in China but also now in India. In increasing supply to meet increased demand (and thus keeping the price point fixed) Keith’s approach is the inverse of most artists who endeavour to ensure demand greatly outstrips supply (thus raising the price point and paying the rent).
Of course, there is more than one way to throw a pot and Paul Davis, after humorously recounting some of the challenges acclimatising to life as Hagi potter in Japan, shared his insight into the commercialisation dilemma. With partner Jacqueline Clayton, he has opted for the inverse of Keith’s mass-produced porcelain, choosing to produce high-end functional ware for high-end restaurants at, one imagines, a necessarily high-end price point
There may have been slight exasperation on Paul’s face when he related the trials of bringing to life the crockery dreams of some of the world’s most renowned chefs but there was also deep pride in the pieces they had produced. And fair play, the functional ware created for the recent NOMA pop-up in Sydney was stunningly simple and beautifully hued – a vermillion red plate designed to host a coconut dusted aerated rum cake with tamarind sauce was enough to make even the most reluctant of salvia glands overproduce.
Also exciting the crowds on a regular basis up on Red Hill with his displays of slab-built-slip-covered little fat-bellied teapots, Akira Satake’s presentation was equal measures of charm and awe. Demonstrating throughout the week adjacent to both Paul and Peter Calles, the audience watching these three may have come for the pottery but they definitely stayed for the hijinks. The blend of camaraderie and sass exchanged was a continual highlight and, when I was far too hungover to process anything important (beware the free wine) my two chosen activities were to lie on the grass and wait for the world to stop spinning and to watch them (from behind reflective lenses of course).
Without a pre-anointed favourite Master to haunt, I spent much of the week floating from one to the next. (I noticed that by mid-week many of the Masters had developed dedicated devotees who would stay stoically all day). Aside from increasing my step count, the benefit of this approach was that I ended up watching a lot of people whose work, had I merely Googled it, I might have discounted as misaligned to my aesthetic. Peter Callas, to whom I found myself circling back repeatedly throughout the week, was one such example. Peter is a disciple of the anagama kiln, which he uses to wood-fire his largely abstract expressionist pieces.
I am yet to discover a particular attraction to wood-fired ware (a sacrilegious statement given the abundance of wood-firers in attendance and indeed, the origin of the festival) but I loved watching Peter work (and, I cannot lie, I loved the lip he gave the other Masters). His sense of the clay and his astonishing confidence in boldly manipulating it were mesmerising; even when I couldn’t hold down food.
Which is pretty impressive really.
The award for most mysterious Master though would undoubtedly go to Rafa Perez who managed to hold captive delighted swarms in transfixed stupor as he demonstrated his techniques (such as washing green ware with a hose) in complete silence (which means I still have no real idea why, re: the washing). Rafa layers black earthenware and white porcelain to create complex monochromatic forms that often twist and bulge (and sometimes burst) to create new forms as the earthenware expands during firing.
As a first year ceramics student learning the ins-and-outs of what may be fired with what and what needs to be fired to what, it was fascinating to watch someone so successfully break those rules and indeed, create through that breaking.