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Gabor Terebess

Tactile Rendering as Art

German version
Hungarian version (Mûvészet, XXII. évfolyam, 7. szám, 1981. július, 4-7. oldal)

"The darkness is silent within"
Sándor Petõfi

"cast into the mould of this horrible society"
Attila József

Clay and porcelain slip casting, an invention of eighteenth century Europe, is essentially mechanical reproduction. Like a photograph, it renders a negative, which in and of itself is devoid of meaning. It does not create form, but rather recreates it. Only the original subject - the negative of the negative - has meaning, yet it cannot itself be slip cast.

The usual process entails pouring a diluted clay mixture into a plaster mould cast from a previously created object. The porous plaster absorbs some of the moisture from the mass, and a hard clay wall is evenly deposited on the interior surface of the mould. When the wall reaches the desired thickness, the remaining excess clay is poured out. Thus, the finished casting embodies the hollow interior of the mould. Simultaneously, the casting itself also becomes hollow.

The original subject - the prototype - can be created from any material and by any technological means. Here the artist is not bound by any of the real or imagined shackles of the ceramic arts. Traditional methods can be employed i.e. throwing the object on a potter's wheel or slicing the clay as the stove maker does to create ceramic tiles, although it is simpler to use malleable clay, plaster or plasticene, making it possible to copy the shape of almost any ready-made object. It matters not whether the prototype is made of artificial or raw materials, whether it is created by nature or by man, whether it has a geometric or an organic shape; in slip casting it's all the same. Technically, a work of genius and the most banal of objects can both be slip cast with perfection.

Since the technique of slip casting is such an easily mastered profession, aesthetic value is implicitly sought in the prototype. Taking this into consideration, it makes no difference whether the object is then slip cast or not. The plastic quality of a porcelain figure is scarcely modified during the manufacturing process. Moreover, even a mere pot thrown on the wheel, complete in itself, will be degraded to the level of a copy when it is slip cast. Apart from the use of the mechanised potter's wheel, slip casting has proven to be the most viable means of mass-producing hand-made ceramic objects.

Nostalgic for hand-made objects and ignorant of the techniques of production, we tend to pay (or set) a high price for a hand-painted (yet mass-produced) set of porcelain dinnerware or a kitschy, slip cast tankard imprinted with the stamp of a folk artist, treating them as if they were objects of art. We also have a tendency to far overrate modern designs that can not be traced back to hand-made originals, if they are made of ceramic, but we would not dream of doing so in the case of a plastic jug.

Generally condemned to the mass-production of commercial chinaware, knickknacks and toilet bowls, the process of slip casting does not grow in anyone's estimation if it used to reproduce more artistic, hand-crafted objects or industrial designs, even if these are put on the market in limited editions, as is sometimes the case with medals and graphics (e.g. the ceramic works of the Rosenthal studio). On the other hand, if we regard slip casting as a new opportunity for artistic expression and not merely as a business venture, then making a prototype to be reproduced is rather like the photographer painting or drawing the subject to be photographed. While photography already managed to outgrow this infantile madness in the age of the daguerreotype, slip casting has for centuries continued the practice of producing mechanical copies, objects which would be considered forgeries from the viewpoint of art experts. Rather than attempting to elevate slip casting to the level of traditional fine-arts, we should allow new perspectives embodied in the process of casting to prevail.

But have we ever bothered to investigate the possibilities of this unique type of three-dimensional rendering? Have the passive, mimetic qualities of this indirect modelling, which sweep away all "trueness to the material", ever been recognised? Or its automatism? Do we not still judge slip casting by the standards of hand-crafts, as photographs are judged by the standards of painting? Do we know anything yet about slip cast ceramics as a form of art?

Let us emphasise once again that slip casting is mechanical reproduction. It is unable not to copy. It is always the tangible re-creation of a concrete object. The fantasy of the creator can only be realised in the selection process, not in the actual formation. The form and the facture are not shaped or modelled by the sculptor, nor are they conveyed by the artist, but rather by the object itself.

The identity of the slip cast reproduction is tied to the object reproduced. The distance between the original object and its recreation is always the same: none. The two must inevitably make contact. Slip casting is tactile rendering, an art of details and intimacies, its limits circumscribed by tangibility. That which is intangible (for instance, a landscape) is also inaccessible. Is the "exposure-time" only one minute, or an eternity? Contact is timeless. It can not depict motion; at the most it may capture a moment of motion frozen in time. Nothing demonstrates better than slip casting that form is simply a phase of motion.

Unlike a hand-crafted piece of ceramics, the sensual tactility of a slip cast object preserves no traces of the artists hands; it remains untouched. It is just as new for the artist as for the beholder. Both must discover it for themselves.

Does the world impose form on the moulded object, or does the mass of clay mould itself to fit the world? Whichever the case may be, both the self-importance of the artist and his so-called "sense of form", which everyone agrees he must have, thankfully disappear. Slip casting attributes significance to the object; it makes proximal, every-day objects seem alien, and brings extraordinary and distant objects within our reach. It does not differentiate between the beautiful and the ugly. It is not "fine" art; it accepts the existing object for what it is. Deviation is of no concern because the subject matter can be anything. Superior and inferior raw materials are all the same for everything is changed to uniformity - clayformity. There is no differentiation between major and minor details: slip casting is objective without thinking, exact without effort. It lacks human bias. As it is unable to deviate from the original, it can not be called realist. Nor can it be regarded as hyper-realist since the product of slip casting is never life-like enough. The impact of hyper-realism lies in the fact that it is more exact than a mechanical reproduction and can even be mistaken for the original. (Consider, for example, George Segal's slip cast plaster figures in comparison with Marilyn Levine's "leather" ceramic objects, which were not slip cast.)

Looking at a photograph, we generally do not focus on the actual photograph as such, but rather on its subject. Yet it is not possible to be so absorbed when we touch an object. Any material can be imitated in clay - it can look like anything at all, but as soon as we touch it, what we feel contradicts what we see. We can not be fooled by touch. I would never think that I were holding a rag if I were to pick up a slip cast ceramic copy of one. The slip cast object is tangible proof of the missing subject.

We have said that slip casting is always a replication of something else. But how different this replication is! It renders neither the appearance of the original subject, nor its substance, weight or structure. It only creates the proportionally reduced shape of the object due to the shrinkage of the clay, yet it transforms the object in the process. What was soft becomes hard, the perishable becomes durable, and the unbreakable becomes fragile. By repeating the surface texture, it provides tangible evidence of the original - but only on the surface. It does not interpret reality. It may faithfully render form, but it can not understand or depict inner content and wholeness. However, its sheer material "otherness" is also a kind of interpretation, hence our objects become "unrenderable" and irreplaceable, their hierarchy no longer valid.

While photographic paper turns yellow and brittle with time, ceramic is the indestructible memorialisation of objects, provided that it does not break. Like any memorial, it is lasting and alien in its isolation. On a human scale, it is immortal.

Up to this point we have merely attempted to outline the characteristics of slip casting. The next step is to examine what tactile and visual means we can use to inquire into the truth of the rendering itself. Like every form of documentation, slip casting tells lies. However minor these falsifications may be, if they compound, sooner or later the documentation itself can vanish. On the one hand, since every clay replication shrinks by one tenth in the process of drying and firing; each repeated casting will eventually reduce its size to nothing. On the other hand, its details will become increasingly vague, to the point of being unrecognisable. Carrying this recasting to its extreme will defeat its own purpose; that of rendering.

Next comes the question of materials. Which material must we remain faithful to? To the original? To the plaster cast? To the mass of clay? And in what state? Its liquid state? Its malleable one, or perhaps the hardened one? If we so desire, we can show all of these qualities at once. Imagine, for example, a plate with the surface texture of burlap, one half of it melting away in all directions; on it lies silverware made of porcelain, obediently following every hump on the surface. Also, parts of the object can be chipped off after it is fired...

"Sharpness" can easily be controlled, depending on the degree of smoothness or roughness in the granulation of the mould and the clay mass. When casting, parts of the still unfired clay can be "washed off" with a wet sponge, or "smeared" with paper, foil, or cloth. Any texture can be given to any object. For instance, female breasts could be cast in their naked state, covered by a pullover, or by wrinkled paper. They could be cast with hands clutching them, or with the eternal imprint of hands withdrawn. Thin-layered clay breasts can collapse if pressed too hard, or we could be made to believe that we can thread our fingers through a solid clay breast, like a knife through butter.

Its ability to reproduce makes slip casting particularly well-suited to repeating details, to playing with mass and sets, examining "oneness" and "manyness", organisation and randomness, completeness and openness.

Slip casting could be one of the most effective media of the surrealist style. It should be clear by now that the ceramic rendering of real objects can be manipulated in a number of different ways; different scales can intermingle unexpectedly and flow into one another by the most absurd of associations. Familiar things can be missing from their usual places, only to reappear in new and unique roles. Surprising cut-outs and coverings; views from below, behind and in reverse, distortions (the shiny glaze itself can distort the form); blurs of motion; incongruity between form and surface; the confrontation of positive and negative images; photographs appearing on concave and convex ceramic surfaces instead of flat paper - these are only a few of the expressive means available.

Objects can be formed using any type of traditional ceramics: lead-glazed clay pottery, tin-glazed hard earthenware, salt-glazed stoneware, painted porcelain, raku-fired chamotte, or simple terra-cotta. Furthermore, the illusion of reality can also be created using low-fire paints. The form will always remain the same, but the colour and the surface texture will be different every time. However, objects deprived of their visual interest can often help us to better perceive their tactile, as of yet unrecognised qualities. Therefore, we could talk only about casting itself, which would become "anti-casting" if we were to cast a flat picture, a painting, or the surface of a photograph. The drawing, colour, light and shade, none of which can be cast, would all be missing.

Tactile perception is something most commonly experienced through use. If possible, it is advisable to preserve the original use of the object, provided there was one. If the object loses its original useful value, it should be provided with some kind of practical function. The new and the old functions of the object can also be confronted in such a way as to provoke two simultaneous responses in the user concerning the practical and the hypothetical use of the object.

Until now, our discussion has dealt primarily with plaster moulds, the use of which makes the casting process more difficult and indirect, and also more expensive if not used for producing a series. Anders Liljefors, the Swedish ceramist who died a tragic and untimely death at the Siklós Symposium in 1970, demonstrated in Hungary how moulds sunken in sand can be used instead of plaster. Despite the fact that the mould was made from a different material, the basic approach to casting was the same. But slip casting can also be done using ready-made sand moulds. Hundreds of such moulds can be found for example, in the scrap heaps of iron foundries. If these moulds were to be slip cast, the result would be damaged machine parts cast in ceramic. These objects would speak less about the cast iron itself (which can break, rust, or melt), but rather more about the vulnerability of sand as it crumbles away. Thus, we are not witness to the decomposition of the cast iron, but to that of the sand mould, which falls apart in a negative, sand-like way. The more it is damaged, the bigger the resulting ceramic object will be. The contrary is true of the iron object, which is worn away in the course of use. The material as well as the usefulness of machine parts decrease with wear, whereas a crumbling mould can create new forms, although its practical value stays the same. It will be no more and no less useful. In the places where the mould remains intact, the slip cast ceramic machine part will precisely preserve the facture of the fresh iron casting, its surface (which will continue to be worked by grinding and polishing) still rough from the sand. But where the mould was damaged, the cast object will become amorphous like some kind of tumour, the sickly substitution of mutilation, as if there were an organic protuberance in place of the missing geometrical machine part.

There hardly exists a more effective way to faithfully document the interior of such a found object. We literally "palpate" the sand debris, so to speak. A mere visual rendering would be, at best, only a partial representation. The crumbling hole of sand will only become accessible to our senses through the process of slip casting in ceramic, which at the same time "freezes" a moment in the decay of objects that have become superfluous, just as senselessly and irrationally.

In addition to sand, there are several other moisture absorbent materials which can be used in the process of direct slip casting. These include the majority of industrial insulating materials, but even ordinary corrugated cardboard will suffice. Moreover, the interior surface of any clay pot used as a mould can be lined with paper, cotton, cloth etc. in order to temporarily modify its form in a unique way. Such indirect formation is similar to creating a three dimensional graphic, although the "props" used will be destroyed after only one casting. And if there is no longer an original, we can not speak in terms of copies either. In spite of its limitations, slip casting is a suitable way of creating unique and spontaneous forms without human hands coming into direct contact with the wet clay.

Mention must also be made of the more primitive forms of casting such as impressions and press moulds. From China to Greece and from Persia to Peru, terra-cotta and wood (more recently plaster) press moulds have been used for centuries to mass-produce pots, statuettes and stove tiles by hand.

An impression is the negative image of an object pressed into a malleable material. It is always an encounter between two forms. But why is it so self-evident that one of the forms - the "base" - is almost always a more or less smoothed over, cut-out clay tablet? Custom dictates that the impression can not extend beyond the edges of this frame and can not sink so deeply into the tablet as to break through the other side. It would also be very strange indeed if the impression were to be made at an angle, or if various impressions were not placed alongside each other, but on top of one another. In this case, the first impression would serve as the foundation for the next one, which would in turn squash the former - similar to footprints on a snow-covered path - yet would itself be unable to emerge sharply from the background, having not been pressed into a fresh surface.

Naturally, the objects used in this process should be made of a stronger material than that of the malleable clay, which resists, but must be violated. Lucio Fontana "broke the surface" using various moving objects while Jan Svankmajer literally "squeezes" his own emotions into his angry gesture sculptures.

In the previous discussion we have questioned the aesthetic value of traditional slip cast ceramics and have outlined a possible alternative interpretation. It is not only the recording of sound and images that can be a new art-form, but slip casting, which preserves form and facture. It is not the art of preserving moments in the past, but that of tangible absence.