Contemporary Craft: Bridging the Gap between Archaeologist and Artisan?

The V&A is one of the most awe-inspiring museums in the country. Full to the brim with exquisite and curious objects, all of the galleries captivate the imagination and demonstrate the extent to which humankind can push boundaries and fashion objects of beauty and desire. Of particular importance to me and my research interests, the ceramics galleries showcase some of the finest specimens of contemporary clay art.

Studying contemporary ceramic craft in my opinion offers us a ‘way in.’ Once we begin to understand the role of ceramic craft and its infinite potential within our own society, we can start to think of how this might have been for past people and social groups.

Signs and Wonders by Edmund de Waal

Two ceramics installations in particular had profound effects on me for very different reasons. The first of these was the Signs and Wonders collection by the renowned Edmund de Waal. Placed in a red circular girder in the V&A’s uppermost cupola are 425 white glazed ceramic pieces which range from tall vases to small plates. The focus here is on the collection as a whole rather than an individual piece and to this effect the installation works well. However, I couldn’t help wondering if placing it as far away from the public as possible was sending out a strong message; that the artisan wants to create physical and metaphorical distance between his creations and the public. Yet this also, perhaps inadvertently, served to create emotional distance. The fact that I could get nowhere near the objects let alone touch them invoked feelings of disengagement. I am left wondering if the artist has something to hide. The pots are neither extraordinary nor accessible. The question that bugs me is: do some contemporary artists hide behind gimmicks as a means to distract the viewer from the materials at hand; the vessels? Is skill no longer the requirement for great art? Does a pot need to demonstrate skill and perfection to be seen as beautiful?

Ai WeiWei's Neolithic Vessel decorated with Coca Cola Logo

The second exhibition which invoked a strong emotional response was that by Ai WeiWei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BC – AD 2010). In this work, the artist transforms (real) Neolithic and Han dynasty ceramic vessels through a variety of different methods including paint, grinding and smashing. A short film installed in the gallery documents the moment at which WeiWei stares nonchalantly at the camera before dropping and smashing a 2000 year old ceramic vessel. The first emotion I registered was pure horror. As an archaeologist, the defacing and intentional destruction of such artefacts is inconceivable and blasphemous. Yet there is no denying that this collection it is a powerful and clever statement about the loss of material history to globalization and modernization (see picture above). Additionally these objects demonstrate how materials can change through space and time depending on their social and cultural context. When thinking in these terms, WeiWei’s exhibition embodies many of the themes that archaeologists are working on today. It seems therefore that contemporary craft may offer us a chance to bridge the conceptual gap between archaeologist and artisans of the past.


Conceptualising Creativity: Methodological Issues

Clarity out of chaos....?

My return to England at the beginning of this week presented me with one inevitability; the need to analyse the data I have so far collected. Prior to this I was blissfully unaware of the pivotal role that elementary analysis will have on my whole understanding of my subject. The site of Surčin initially presented itself as a pilot study for the recording of the Belegiš urns. The preliminary data that I have now offers a chance for experimentation in the dissection of it. Analysis is proving even more challenging and mind-boggling than I anticipated.


I have already mentioned that each of the urns is different yet the same. The question now is how on earth can I draw this out of my data without my analysis turning into yet another structuralist study of stylistic variability?


The key I think is in the theory. Creativity is bound up with notions of conceptual spaces in the brain/body. It is my job therefore to pinpoint these conceptual spaces by extracting certain stylistic themes from my vessels. These are elements of the vessel that are repeated in their crafting, for example specific motifs or the presence of symmetry. These components I believe act as cognitive visual anchors or reference points for the potter to return to and/or deviate from. Currently, I’m still not entirely sure how this works and so for the foreseeable future will be scrutinising my photos/ drawings and written notes for each urn in the attempt to figure out how such visual anchors shift and what it is exactly that makes each urn different; it is not enough to just state that it is! For the moment I am ignoring the chronology of such stylistic elements; this will be incorporated at a later stage once I have my head around what it is that I’m doing.


I’ll let you know how I get on. In the meantime, any comments, suggestions or ice cold beverages would be much appreciated!

Research Trip to Zagreb: Day 1 – 3rd October 2011

Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia

This afternoon I arrived at the Archaeological Museum in Zagreb, Croatia, tired (no-one likes waking up at 4am) and hungry but full of anticipation. As my second visit to this beautiful city, the aim of this trip is pure and simple; data, data and yes, you guessed it, more data.


The Archaeological Museum here in Zagreb houses an assortment of different archaeological material, from prehistoric to post-medieval. The group of artefacts that I am here to analyse are Bronze Age funerary urns from the necropolis site of Surčin, situated in modern day Serbia. These mortuary vessels of Belegiš type date from Middle to Late Bronze Age and are quite distinctive in shape and decoration.


I began analysing the Surčin assemblage in May, the whole time thinking in terms of craftspeople, specialisation and how the concept of creativity fitted into this. What became apparent throughout the preliminary analysis was that these urns symbolised much more than craft and technology. They symbolised a way of life for the people who lived and died during the Bronze Age. Each urn was different and yet similar. In essence, each urn had a unique personality. So what does this tell us about Bronze Age attitudes to ethnicity, identity and personhood in this part of the world?


During the next week here in Zagreb, I will attempt to finish analysis on the Surčin assemblage, and will carefully document each of the remaining vessels in accordance to my methodology. What is so great about the assemblage held in this museum is that looking at these funerary vessels side by side really fires up the archaeological imagination. This allows for dynamic, thought provoking and above all, captivating interpretations….Watch this space!