A single line of writing embedded like a vein of quartzEdmund de Waal
There is a photograph of Rupert Spira writing on one of his new pots. Holding the bowl tilted towards him with his back arched over the vessel, his attitude seems strangely iconic. It looks a little like the potter's archetypal movement above and around the wheel in that complex of intuitive and focused gestures which constitutes throwing on a wheel. As I looked at the photograph, some other images haunted me but it was only recently that I was able to call two of them to mind. One was of Frank Stella kneeling in his studio in the late 1950s, painting a stripe of black paint onto a large canvas of repeated black and white lines, a model of determined minimalism. The other was of the twelfth-century illuminated-manuscript self-portrait of a monk-scribe at the Cistercian abbey of Llanthony in the Black Mountains of Wales. Drawn in the margins of a Book of Hours, it seemed to encapsulate the monk's self-identification with his work: back arched over and quill in hand, there was the same fierce focus on the task before him. These two images are useful in thinking about Rupert Spira's latest pots. For Spira is deeply embedded both in contemporary art and in traditions of working that go back a thousand years. His peers are Frank Stella, or indeed other pioneer minimalist painters like Agnes Martin or Robert Ryman, but they also include that anonymous medieval scribe on the Welsh Marches. A recent exhibition which juxtaposed Spira's work with that of Eduardo Chillida brought out this ability of his pots both to be completely of this time and to cross cultures and ages, to be genuinely timeless.
These are images of attentiveness, of concentration of body and mind on an activity. But they are also more than that: we have come to think that lines painted or words written have no connection with objecthood – that they float, that they are not bodily, that they are 'simply' visual. In these three images, by contrast, we see artists as makers, making the line on a canvas, making the word in a manuscript, inscribing the line into clay. They connect with the idea of the word as a thing, as having a shape and heft. This idea was central to medieval Christianity: everything, including words, possessed ‘haecceity’, an irreducible ‘thusness’. In a culture where the Word was incarnate, words had weight, they had form, they had presence. In the twentieth century too, words had this material gravitas for David Jones, poet, painter and maker of inscriptions. Jones felt this meant that artists, when they were sensitive to the use of materials, were immediately and inextricably connected to ‘the body, and the embodied; hence to history, to locality, to sense-perception, to the contactual, the known, the felt, the seen, the handled, the cared-for, the tended.’1 For a poet, a theologian, a calligrapher, a scribe or an artist, the texture of words and their exact and evocative use enmeshed them in a matrix of visual, aural and tactile responses. The image that David Jones repeatedly turned to was that of the Celtic bards: sear cerdd or 'carpenters of song', a term which evokes attentiveness to the physicality of the material – words as wood. How about words and clay? Can a poet be a potter of song?
Rupert Spira is now inscribing long texts into and onto his vessels. He has even cut an alphabet and is embossing poems onto the surface. On some pieces the writing is framed, as if on a page. On others, the writing fills the whole piece, a river of words flowing across the inside of a bowl without a break. For years Spira has been making pots of unimpeachable austerity and now there are words on these strong, uninflected, honed forms. Is there a context for such a labour?
The historic relationship between writing and pottery is impressively intricate, but many of these intersections do not impinge on his practice. In the English Staffordshire traditions, for example, there is writing to commemorate events of particular weight – births, coronations, deaths. There is writing that completes a visual image, like the slightly over-helpful inscription of Adam and Eve by an image of an apple tree with a man and woman. Then there are the short verses on Chinese blue-and-white jars of the Yuan dynasty (1260–1368) made for temple use, imploring protection for families, good renown and success in business.
These are exemplary uses of words on pots, but there are also traditions, less well known to contemporary Western studio potters, in which the word and the vessel are more intricately linked. Two particular traditions seem to offer insight into Rupert Spira's new work. One is the Kenzan tradition in Japan, where the painting, the pot and the calligraphy are part of an intricate relationship. This tradition centres on Ogata Kenzan (1663–1743), a maker and designer of tablewares and pots for the tea ceremony and a master of balancing the associations of colour, image and poem. He was, according to Richard Wilson, 'the first to produce ceramics whose artistic focus was handwritten script, and in doing so he vastly increased the range of associations that a pot might have.'2 By putting words onto pots in a culture that was highly attuned to the arts of both calligraphy and ceramics, he made his audience learn to read them, to connect the associations of a particular form with a particular poem or quotation. Kenzan was layering the meanings of his pots.
The other great tradition of writing on ceramics is Persian. Koranic quotations occur only on tiles, secular verses on both tiles and vessels. While some of these verses are by contemporary poets, others were written by the potters themselves. Art historians are a little disparaging of these lyrics by potters, but there is often something deeply affecting about them: they seem to capture the common belief that 'when the heart is right, the brush is right', their halting sincerities expressing the idea of a pot as a love-letter. Often in early Islamic ceramics – from the ninth to the late twelfth century – the horizontal line used as the base for all the letters of an inscription makes the deciphering of the calligraphy difficult, and this has led some scholars to call it simulated writing, or pseudo-calligraphy. However, more recent research on the inscriptions reveals that what appears to be simulated is in fact the repetition of one word, usually al-mulk, 'The Kingdom', an abbreviation of the phrase al-mulk lillah, 'The Kingdom of God'. As a historian has pointed out '. . . the inscriptions on pottery are not simulated, pseudo, meaningless, or just decorative . . . but they carry a definite meaning which if not benedictory, can be traced back to the Koran.'3 This is a fascinating insight: the writing is beautiful, but its essence only comes alive through recognising repetition. We are in complex territory here, for this is not repetition as a mystical act of self-immolation in process. It is a necessary – and finely judged – way of reaching an end, as in the laying of another small white mark on a Robert Ryman canvas, Pierre Boulez's 'serial concept of composition', the careful limning of another word in a manuscript, or Spira inscribing another word into the bowl. As the American art critic Mel Bochner wrote in a key essay on Minimalism: 'Serial order is a method, not a style'.4
So what does Spira's writing actually do? First, it slows us down. Accustomed to making sense of a vessel through touch – finding the balance of a piece in the hands, registering the relation of volume to weight, of walls to edge – we struggle to read them or work our way through this intricate maze of letters. We are not accustomed to not being able to read. This is more than simply an issue of legibility. Spira has made pots where it is impossible to read what he has written, where the words enter the realm of the palimpsest, where words are written down, erased and then written over. These pots carry a wonderful sense of language flowing around and over the vessel, of an endlessly replenishing spring of words. They relate, for me, to Persian pots with their meditative understanding of how repetition works.
Second, the writing helps create an unfamiliar space where the pot becomes the carrier of the text and the text the carrier of the pot. Words are supposed to float in two dimensions, but here the pot and the text have a strange pull between them. Is the pot commenting on the text? Spira pushes these ideas hard: this is not about words as decoration. As with Kenzan, there is the knowledge of how to layer meanings, how to play with the images that words bring forth and with the feelings that forms create. By embossing his poems he takes the connection between reading with the eye and reading with the hand to another level of sensitivity. Rupert Spira knows about the texture of words. This puts him amongst a wonderful, enlivening group of artists and poets from across the centuries. In his new pots with their words 'embedded like a vein of quartz', to use his own phrase, we can see and feel something special is happening.
Edmund de Waal is a leading British potter and writer on ceramics.
1 David Jones, Epoch and Artist: Selected Writings (edited by Harman Grisewood; London: Faber & Faber, 1959), p. 155
2. Richard L. Wilson, The Art of Ogata Kenzan: Persona and Production in Japanese Ceramics (New York: Weatherhill, 1991), p. 62
3. Helen Philon, 'Inscriptions on early Islamic ceramics ninth to late twelfth centuries', in Benaki Museum, Athens, Early Islamic Ceramics (Athens: Islamic Arts Publication, 1980), pp. 298–302; see also Oliver Watson, Persian Lustre Ware (London: Faber, 1985), pp. 150–6
4. Mel Bochner, 'The serial attitude' (1967), in James Meyer (ed.), Minimalism (London: Phaidon, 2000), pp. 227–9