The three-year AHRC funded project at the University of Westminster, Ceramics in the Expanded Field, culminated with an international conference from 17 – 19 July and an accompanying exhibition in Ambika P3 gallery by the three lead researchers of the project: Christie Brown, Julian Stair and Clare Twomey. Over the course of the last three years the project has explored the new contexts for ceramic practice, whether through the participatory, reciprocal artwork of Clare Twomey (see Exchange at the Foundling Museum) or Christie Brown’s collaboration with the Sigmund Freud Museum, where her inquisitive figures were placed in and around Freud’s personal effects. What are the potential and limitations of the expanded field, when clay moves beyond the plinth and studio in to different artistic, pedagogical, museological and performative contexts.
The conference opened with a keynote by the widely acclaimed Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. With the aid of a flip-board, and the lantern slide collection depicting the ‘minor arts’ of the University of Chicago’s collection – shards of Minoan, Greek and Roman pottery – Gates questioned whether the field needed to expand, and whether instead, ceramic practice needed to make sure it did not forget ignored parts of the field that already existed.
Gates gave a precis of his work in Chicago’s south side, critiqued the often staid, middle class contexts of ceramic practice, and toyed with the idea of ‘making fields plastic’. His call was for a socially orientated practice and the development of knowledge, not through conventional forms of instruction but through material itself, which he characterised as ‘knowledge gained through the back door’. These calls for action to prevent the ‘field’ from collapsing in on itself was skilfully presented through constant analogies back to familial contexts of agricultural production.
Gates’s keynote was earthy, a plea for community production, and chance to express his love of of bricks (‘I just love bricks’). His energies intensified after a slow start where Gates seemed to be gauging his audience. The best was saved for last: two mini exegeses, one on his adoption of a Japanese pseudonym to promote his work, and the other on money, showed Gates jumping about and engaging the audience. Energetic and dynamic, Gates is turning heads and directing attention towards economies of production, artistic and otherwise, and both his analysis and his fame will help keep the elastic that demarcates where the field of ceramics ends and begins well and truly stretched.