Finding The Macro In The Micro – Alchemy At The blackShed
This is a show of photographs, ceramics and a poem. Each pot stands on its floating plinth with all the dignified composure of the truly ancient. Yet these exquisite soil-textured ceramics scuffed with the pigments of their origins are the work of contemporary artist Martin Brockman. Martin travels the UK and France searching forests, reclaimed lands, sea shores and even towns where he finds evidence (through street names like Tilekiln Lane) of former ceramics production. On-site he takes handfuls of clay, forms a pot in his hands (without even a table) and fires it in a wheelbarrow kiln in charcoal from woods nearby: a method just like that of the ice-age potters whose sherds have been found in Croatia.
One foot on the sod/one foot in the foam
PICTURE: Caro Gervay
‘I found under my feet/Mountains reduced to a speck of dust’ *
These tiny pots encapsulate a vast arc of time: each stands next to a clench of the clay from which it was made and contains, like a funerary urn, the charcoal dust of its birth. They recall the history of lost civilisations, lost landscapes. Martin is a renowned expert in outdoor kilns, well versed in the craft and chemistry of ceramics, in geology, in the land. He has worked for years as a teacher and in the serious/playful genre of community theatre. Many of the dramas recalled lost rituals celebrating the seasons, or rites of initiation, but were overcast by memories of Chernobyl and Sellafield. In one event people made clay bees that were fired during a performance and went home with a hot bee in their pockets.
‘A very few sentinels’*
He uses the clay without sifting out the shells or stones which cause cracks and break-outs in the firing. This creates the illusion of ancient ceramics long buried, an aesthetic of vulnerability and honours the clay for itself. Like the wabi-sabi of Bizen pottery, it calls attention to the beauty of form. It’s used too in bowls made from moulds from the Spode factory. Martin discovered an abandoned room at the factory dustily awash with detritus, ten year old cigarette stubs and piles of moulds. By combining his technique with shapes created at the height of Spode’s sophistication, he honours the ceramics industry and mourns its loss. The bowls take their place in his timeline; their ragged texture, the clean basket weave pattern on the outside, recall the first pots, the first decorative motifs.
‘Small events in time’ *
Each pot or bowl has a complex story involving the history of the community, the landscape and the happenstance which brought the artist and these elements together. Each is stamped with the name of the place it was made and the date. Each is a Morandi moment across the centuries, while the whole is infused with the invisible smoke of environmental disasters alluded to in Martin’s poem ‘Claylands’, in which the events cling to a leaf skeleton of words: oxidisation, carbon, mineral – like a recipe, a ‘recipe for disaster.’
There is a poetic imagination at work here, conscious, articulate and tender.
‘Venus of the Woods/Slowly died in front of us’ *
The hand-made silver gelatine prints are made at the Gate darkroom, a community darkroom based in Woolwich co-run by French-Vietnamese photographer Carô Gervay. Her photos have an ineffable delicacy of touch and weave a mute dance with the imagery of the poem and the pots: the fragility and the violence. Smoke rises from the kiln on deserted sands and in ancient glades; a white shaft of sun burns the last dying ash trees; a negative print looks like an image of a nuclear after-shock. In a photo called ‘Catching the leaves before they reach the undergrowth’, shadows of children lie on the forest floor like wood sprites or future ghosts. It arcs from the primordial to a future we are making slender attempts to avert. It mirrors the nature of clay: primordial mud, the alchemical prima materia from which life comes and to which it can all too easily return.
Three photos ‘Neither Sea nor land’, show Martin firing pots as the mounting tide laps his ankles. They are a parody of a seaside postcard, but hint at global warming and at Martin’s message: ‘Know where you stand’. Like Martin, Caro too uses the most basic equipment, at times a pin hole camera from whatever comes to hand: a cardboard box, a beer can.
Brick Lane Kiln. Hidden in Amber Cup/Blood/Red.
Fired under a red moon
PICTURE: Caro Gervay
For both artists the show is a caught moment within the flow of their practice. By using the simplest techniques they make their ideas and processes something which can be shared in the community, making connections, creating a process of reparation which is mirrored in the subtle interrelations of the exhibits.
The curating of the show by Kenton Lowe is impeccable. Limiting the number of exhibits, keeping text to a minimum, these were tough decisions, but they create a sacred space in which the pieces can speak for themselves.
Some of his frames are washed with clay which changes colour over time and the exhibits seem just to alight on his floating bark-fronted shelves. It’s a recognition of the seriousness of the project, its philosophy, humour, its lack of egotism, its delicacy.
There is passion and scrupulousness in every aspect of this show and it expresses those powerful invisibles which give life meaning, and give artefacts life and beauty. It is a not-for-profit show. I don’t need to explain just how significant that is.
* These are quotes from the poem ‘Claylands’ by Martin Brockman. The show is on till 20th July and you can find out more at: theblackshedgallery.org.uk
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