Rupert Spira's Epistemology of MakingKenji Kaneko
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Rupert Spira's fascination with ceramics was initially stimulated by a retrospective exhibition of the work of Michael Cardew (1901–1983) which he saw in 1975, when he was fifteen years old. Cardew's pots were extraordinarily powerful, he recalls, very simple but full of energy. They had a raw vitality, an organic, almost primordial quality he had never encountered before. He was struck by their potency and capacity to communicate.
It was from about this time that Spira started making pots himself. He quickly noticed that although he was using relatively uncomplicated techniques to produce simple forms, his work never seemed to achieve the beauty of the pots that had first excited him. This led him to start visiting museums and studying their collections of historic ceramics – Song, Tang, Jomon, Shino, Oribe and anything else he could find. What was it that made these pots so good, he would ask himself, wherein lay their beauty? Contemplating the mystery of how it was possible to create such objects, he would return to his studio and start making again. This cyclical process of looking and making continues to this day.
From 1978 to 1980 Spira studied ceramics with Henry Hammond (1914–1989) at the West Surrey College of Art and Design. He then worked as an apprentice at Michael Cardew's Wenford Bridge Pottery from 1980 to 1982. Cardew died at the beginning of 1983, so Spira was lucky enough to know him for the better part of his final three years. During his time at Wenford Bridge Spira mastered the basics of ceramic technology, building on what he had learned at college. He also benefited from the exposure he received to Cardew's stringent criteria and his belief that ordinary functional objects have the capacity to be art. Spira remembers how Cardew spoke of teapots as poems in form, and how, through growing sensitivity to the capacity of shapes to communicate, he began to develop his own artistic philosophy.
For Spira, the communicative potential of forms is limitless. A genre he has perfected in recent years is that of jars and bowls inscribed with enigmatic texts. Most representative among these are his Poem Bowls, the surfaces of which are densely engraved with poems on the subject of consciousness, composed by Spira himself as well as by Kathleen Raine and Rumi. Leaving aside his tableware collections and a few other shapes, Spira has expressed himself primarily through the making of bowls. Some are more open and others are more closed, but bowls they have essentially always been. Spira has explored this basic shape for some twenty years and, as he has remarked, he anticipates doing so for as long again. If anything, he has said, his repertory will grow smaller rather than larger as time goes by.
Spira makes his Poem Bowls by throwing them on the wheel, covering them in white glaze and then applying a black slip, which, when dry, he scratches away so that the lettering shows through as white against black. The profiles of their expansive forms, which are supported on small foot-rings resembling those seen on Song celadons, are both clean and simple. Spira has commented on the subtlety and elusiveness of the way in which a poem inscribed on a bowl sets out to explore the nature of consciousness, and how this also applies to the process of deciphering the text. At first just a few words – 'expand, silence, reveal' – emerge like the corner pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. Then, one by one, further words appear, making up the edges of the puzzle – 'am, indicate, nothing, exist, experience, moon, uncertainty, abide'.
The poem gradually takes shape as, with each viewing, new words present themselves to the observer. Just as the content of the poem is elusive, however, so is its subject-matter. The observer, absorbed if not frustrated by the attempt to decipher the poem, is drawn into the depths of the bowl while being steeped in the meaning of the words engraved into its surface. As bowl and poem reveal themselves, the observer becomes slowly but profoundly aware of the common source from which they both spring.
Spira's early encounter with the work of Michael Cardew and his realisation that his own ceramics lacked beauty inspired him to develop a philosophy of making based on the communicative potential of form, an idea which suggested itself to him during his subsequent apprenticeship at Wenford Bridge. He began simply with the question, 'What is form, what is an object?' The apprehension of beauty was, he realised, a subjective experience. At the same time, he observed, beauty manifests itself through actual objects such as the ceramics he had encountered in museum collections. The question thus raised itself of what forms and objects really are. In addressing this problem, Spira was less interested in theory than in finding an answer predicated on his experience of the objective world. This led him to an exploration of the relationship between, on the one hand, external phenomena such as sights, sounds and textures and, on the other hand, the sense organs that perceive them. From this emerged the question of the working of consciousness, for, as Spira observed, although the objectivity of the world of objects seems indisputable, it cannot be experienced except through consciousness. He also noticed that the objects he was studying were subtly but always changing and that the only stable aspect of his experience was his consciousness of them.
Does beauty exist objectively or not? When this question is tackled from the standpoint of the historical German debate on classical aesthetics, the argument can take very different directions depending on whether or not one believes in the existence of objects independent of consciousness. The observation once made that 'people eat, after all' was an attempt at a graphic demonstration of the existence of objects independently of our consciousness of them. Be that as it may, one cannot deny that recognition of the objective world comes about as a result of our repeatedly engaging with it through our consciousness. Consciousness of form comes about through a similar process, which sees our awareness expand, deepen and grow in complexity through the absorption of new and varied forms. This consciousness evolves in the same way among both creative artists and their audiences, giving rise to an evolutionary dynamic which nurtures and develops our aesthetic sensitivity.
'Consciousness of form', the fruit of this mutual interaction between mind and object, is simultaneously the wellspring of creativity and the basis on which the results of that creativity are appreciated. While the objective world is endlessly shifting, consciousness remains stable. One might go further and suggest that the stability or solidity of an object is a characteristic of consciousness rather than of the object itself. When this consciousness is transposed from the contemplation of the external world to the creative effort of the studio, it determines the shapes Spira makes. It is this consciousness of form that lies at the interface between the mind and the objective world.
While there are some unresolved ambiguities in this approach of Spira's, there is no denying the sensitivity he brings to his search for the underlying structure of form. Moved as he was by the power that imbued the work of Michael Cardew, he has come a long way in his quest to understand and express the mystery of the beauty that infuses the objective world.
Philosophising is one thing, but the actual making of forms is another. For Spira it is not acceptable merely to incorporate the stylistic features of objects that inspire him into his own work. That would be to copy or plagiarise. The essential creative challenge, a very great one that weighs on him heavily, lies in deciding what forms to create. Spira has spoken of how, when making a piece of work, the more deeply he involves himself, the less distinct the particular moment he is striving to encapsulate in that piece of work becomes, as formal substance and certainty are replaced by ephemerality and shapelessness. This declaration tells us much about the struggle Spira goes through as he attempts to give visual expression to his consciousness of form.
The shapes of his earlier works were closely based on nature, as were the colours and decorative schemes he used. Moved by the immediacy and intensity of his personal response to nature, he sought to express these feelings through his work. What he found, however, was that nearly everything he made was lacking in some essential way when compared with the natural world. Try as he might to revisit nature and to examine his approach to making, the results were never satisfactory. Despite these problems Spira persisted in this mode for a considerable length of time and as time went by he found his work becoming simpler, more restrained and less emotional than it had been. He began to apply slips and glazes more thinly and to render the fish with which he decorated his work less boldly. The lines of his incised decoration became finer and eventually disappeared altogether. Then, about ten years into his career, he abandoned colour and decoration in favour of plain white surfaces.
Although he had progressed a long way from where he had started, Spira was still dissatisfied with his shapes. The repetitive cycle of going out to observe the objective world and returning to work in the studio continued. In recent years his pots have become increasingly minimal and his preference for monochromes more marked, but neither consciousness of form nor its exploration are exclusive to the realm of shapes. Spira began by setting out to experience with his senses external phenomena such as sights, sounds and textures. Now he has turned his attention to words and language. Consciousness is engaged not just by external forms but also when words are uttered or letters are encountered on a page. Words are concrete entities, but the consciousness they engage is shrouded in an abstraction which is qualitatively different from that which obtains in the case of sense of form. As Spira himself has noted, when one observes the Poem Bowls, one is drawn into the depths of the bowl at the same time as being steeped in the meaning of the text inscribed on its surface. The awakening of the onlooker's interest takes place within the physical space of the vessel in such a way that these two kinds of abstraction merge, giving rise to a unique appreciation of form. It is this that Spira refers to when he speaks of a common source.
Spira's distinctive style is the result of many years of focused and dedicated effort. His Poem Bowls, elegant and clean of line, are among the most characteristic of his works. Spira has also employed the techniques he uses to make Poem Bowls in the production of bowls, similarly monochromatic in feeling, with incised linear decoration in a variety of configurations including vertical striations, curved lines and fine mesh patterning. Large jars standing a metre high are another genre in which he specialises.
The advent of British studio ceramics is usually placed in the 1920s. Makers of the first generation – William Staite-Murray, Bernard Leach, Michael Cardew and their contemporaries – were traditionalists. Those of the next generation, led by Lucie Rie and Hans Coper, were modernists. The 1970s saw the rise of New Ceramics, sometimes dubbed Post-Modernist, with the emergence of makers such as Ian Godfrey and Glenys Barton. The 1980s and 1990s belonged to the likes of Martin Smith, Ewen Henderson, Elizabeth Fritsch, Michael Flynn and Christie Brown. While Rupert Spira belongs to a yet younger generation of makers, his ceramics have a classical beauty that is reminiscent of the elegance and simplicity of line seen in the work of Lucie Rie. Rie and her generation reacted against the traditionalist work of Leach and his contemporaries. Their interests lay in clarity of form and the engagement through ceramics with the natural world, and they subscribed neither to Leach's precepts about functionality nor to Staite-Murray's championing of ceramics as a form of abstract sculpture or fine art. Their achievement lay in their forging of an approach based on a profound understanding of the nature of clay that sought to give recognition to ceramics as an independent artistic discipline.
Artists of subsequent generations, such as Henderson and Fritsch, have taken a more conceptual stance by producing, for example, vessel-shaped works that question the nature of the vessel. Spira's position, by contrast, is closer to that of the modernists. We have seen above how he has developed his own particular philosophy of making. By engaging consciousness of form in his search for a proper means of approaching his chosen medium, he has come close to a true understanding of the meaning of ceramics. This of great importance not just to the world of contemporary ceramics but to the world of contemporary crafts more generally. I look forward to Spira's future development with interest.
Kenji Kaneko is Chief Curator, Crafts Gallery, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo
Reference has been made to the following articles:
Daphne Astor, 'A Slippery Fish: Consciousness, creativity and the role of the artist' (interview with Rupert Spira), Modern Painters, vol. 14, no. 2 (Summer 2001), pp. 80-83
Phyllis Richardson, Contemporary Natural (photographs by Solvi dos Santos; Thames & Hudson, 2002)