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Presence and Absence: edited transcript of presentation

David Cushway


I am a graduate of the MA Ceramics programme here in Cardiff in 1994 and I’m interested in clay, what it does and what it’s been used for in that sense. So I’m basically just going to describe several pieces of work for you and following on from what Christie (Brown) was saying is to do with the universal through the personal, and my fascination is in many ways with the archaeological aspects of ceramic and the fact that we use tiny fragments of ceramic to define and trace cultures back through time. This is what I consider to be the first mature piece of work. This dates from 1996, two years after I left here. And this piece is entitled Room (fig.1). So what you’re actually seeing is each one of these, is a house brick. So that gives you an idea of the scale of the piece of work. That’s my studio floor, so what I’ve done is removed all furniture from the studio, so I’m just left with the floor and four walls, I’ve created a new floor with a wet clay brick, replaced the furniture back into the room and then left it down for six months, wet, and into the drying process, I then continued to work in there for six months. So that what you are actually viewing is a record of six months of time, within my studio and the practice therein, an archaeological record of my practice if you like.


So the nature of clay and what clay does becomes apparent – these are actually chair leg marks, along with footprints, there’s a broken light bulb that you can see there (fig.2). Once I had dried the piece over a period of three months the clay took on a different texture, it recorded in different ways. There you can see the door where I’ve been walking in and out, this black staining is actually mould (fig.3). I had a whole series of mushrooms and fungi growing, which was really quite fascinating. The colour of the clays that I use is quite important, I see red clay as a kind of second, a messy material that’s much more to do with life. The white of the clay I see much more to do with a spiritual, almost a deathlike, quality that I’ll come on to, so now there’s plaster in there, basically everything you shouldn’t do with clay essentially. There’s plaster all over the place and as I said, all I tried to do is set up a system, and then forget about what I was actually doing within that space. I didn’t deliberately set out to mark the surface. What I wanted, purely, was a record of activity.


Again this is actually mould, this is fungi growing on the fired brick. I’m very specific about the way this piece is shown; it’s only been shown twice in twelve years. The work is shown as a room within a room, this was from a show in Chapter (Arts Centre, Cardiff) more recently, so, I set up a system where I want the work viewed in a very specific way, it’s enclosed within four walls. It needs to be in a quiet space, it needs to be on a grey floor, and it’s about setting up a system where people can view that. I mean it’s a difficult piece of work. I don’t add any of this explanation that I’m giving you now, I don’t put that anywhere. You have to work at this piece of work and I’m happy for that to be there, you’ll see, you can see the doorway there, all the activity taking place within that you can actually register where tables and chairs are within that space. The doorway that you can see curved in there is deliberately lined up with the doorway. I am always the subject of my work.



Either through experience, I cast pieces of my body, or try to communicate experiences on a personal level, that working on a universal. I try to deal with fundamentals in that sense, about life and death and the bit in between which is relevant to all of us in a sense. So this piece of work is actually called Breath and I put this slide up just because it’s such a weird image (fig.4). It’s actually the underneath of my throat and it’s called Breath for Jordan. While I was here in ’94, to make a living I used to work across the road in a secure hostel, on nights and umm, there was a lot of women fleeing domestic violence there and single parent families and we had a cot death while I was there at that time and I was on duty. So I had to try and save the little boy’s life, unfortunately I didn’t do that, the baby died so I wanted to make a piece of work about that, as a tribute. So this piece of work is called Breath for Jordan (fig.5). So what I’ve actually done is, umm, because I couldn’t save the little boy’s life with my breath by CPR I decided I wanted to make a piece of work using my breath and so this is actually a clay bag that I’ve inflated using my breath. I talked about the colour briefly, about the red and about the white, umm, I see the red clay much more as an earthy material the white of the clay to me is much more ephemeral, it’s much more personal to do with the spiritual. I mean you’ll constantly hear the phase amorphous material when you refer to clay so it was about taking this amorphous material and breathing life into it, to create an object (fig.6). Again this from the solo show, again this as you register it is my height, whereas you can actually get up and place your mouth on this object, but it always registers at my height.


This is one of the last pieces of work that I made (fig.7). This is a piece of work called Teeth, which again is to do with personal experience. I don’t know how anyone else feels about the dentist, but I really have a problem with dentists, and to the point where I actually ended up in hospital once because I wasn’t getting it sorted out. So this, actually I had to have a gold crown fitted, so you then go and have your impressions done, and it’s kind of a terrifying experience as I see it. You know, I wanted to try and make a piece of work about that. But also thinking about this idea of the tooth and the fact that we can trace human evolution back to DNA. And there’s also a reference in the material that the object is actually bone china and gold lustre. Bone china was traditionally used as teeth, in the past for teeth and what I’ve done to reinforce this idea of the preciousness of the object, I asked for the impressions that the dentist had and, uh, I reduced it down twelve times through the mould making process so the actual teeth are about the size of my thumb. And again that registers at my height within the gallery (fig.8).

This is a piece of work called Sublimation, the video work depicts the motion of continual life cycle. This is actually a cast of my head, life size (fig.9). Made in bone dry porcelain and immersed in clay. And the piece is filmed, and you’re seeing this in real time. It takes approximately twelve minutes from beginning to end. This has been shown in several formats and I’ll talk while the video piece unfolds. Now the video work depicts the continual life cycle. The casting of my head is made from bone dry porcelain clay. The object changes from one state to another, however, it exists in a waterproof tank forming materials to continually remake the object again and again. The image when it is shown is on a constant loop. It’s this idea of a constant cycle, making and remaking (fig.10, fig.11, fig.12, fig.13).



I’m just going to read a small part of a quotation from Sublimation and also referencing the sublime within that. Sublimation in Freudian psychology is the diversion of psychic energy derived from sexual impulses into non-sexual activity, especially of creative dimension. The process or instance of sublimating, something sublimated: The sublime, the primordial aesthetic intellectual or spiritual guidance inspiring deep veneration for, or uplifting emotion because of its beauty or ability for immensity. The sublime, something that is sublime, the ultimate or perfect example of sublime. Again, this whole notion of loss underpins everything that I make, and you can trace that back to that experience that I had when I was here. It completely changed the nature of everything that I made after that point and subsequently this idea of loss continually underpins everything that I make. So this, this fascination of what Christie (Brown) talked about with transformation is, again, what I’m interested in this constant life cycle. This idea that earth is where we come from and it’s where we return to.


The original format of this is shown on a massive scale (fig.14). I’ve shown this in several formats and because the work changes depending on what format it’s shown. But I show it on a massive scale, it’s bigger than this, it’s this kind of, it’s the size of this wall. And it is about this idea of being enveloped, this overwhelming, awe inspiring image, referencing the sublime painters, the American sublime exhibition that was on in London several years ago and Caspar David, it is about this man against, involved in the landscape and there is this, this overwhelming feeling of the nature and that we can’t overturn our own death. So what I wanted to do was create some kind of delightful horror, to quote Scott Bukatman, it is this delight and terror in a sense. On a larger scale you actually are much more aware of the violence of the image. Which is why I wanted it to overwhelm the viewer. On a smaller scale, on a monitor, which is something of a risk at the moment, the head is actually righted, it becomes much more of a visually interesting thing (fig.15). You kind of get much more caught up in the actual beauty or what I feel is the beauty, the beauty of the dissolving of the object.


I’m just going to conclude while this plays. The reality of presence and absence within my work is a constant thing. The lack of the human or trace of it. If you think about the work I’ve shown, it’s drawn together by a forum. My body is presented as a condition, a human condition. Which is described as the collective subjective or the universal to the person, the dissolution of the physical, it is both there and it’s both not there. My work is not a representation of character but of the human, again of the universal. For instance because of the materialization of the space that is brought to life by the body inhabited in it for a period of time. The message is what I might describe as being brought to life. And as I’ve said previously everything that I make is underpinned by this sense of loss, this sense of trace, the absence of the human.

I’m going to let that play on for a couple of minutes because I’m in time, but if anyone has any questions while it’s going on then hopefully . . .

Member of audience: Could you answer the Teeth piece, I’ve seen those two obviously working in theories, but I’m curious as to the significance of the twelve casts.

David: Yeh, for those who are not familiar, I actually made a previous work to that. I displayed a series of casts from large to small. From the original down to about half the size of my finger, and in a sense it’s to do with not wanting to tell stories really. I just thought that piece of work specifically, although I exhibited it, subsequently I thought about it and I just thought about it and I thought it was too obvious really. I didn’t want to show the whole process, I didn’t want to in a sense tell a story. I didn’t want do a straight mould making process. Because although the mould making process is important to a point, it wasn’t intrinsic in the work in that sense. It was just a means to an end.

Member of audience: So I mean you were just casting down?

David: no, that’s kind of half way in between, that’s about eight casts down, I did twelve. But what I wanted I just selected a scale that I thought worked best for the piece of work really, in that it becomes an object that is small and precious and gold and invariably gold is very small and very precious because of the nature of it. That tied in with this idea of the set of teeth almost becoming the size of a single tooth. And that the importance that archaeologists can attach to a single tooth because they can extract DNA from that, so it is this idea of these tiny, tiny things, these tiny fragments become very incredibly, really incredibly important in the greater scheme of things. If you think that you could trace DNA back through a single tooth and then that’s an incredible thought that you could actually trace cultures back through a single tooth, you know the identity of someone and their whole family tree back through DNA, through a single tooth. I think that idea completely fascinates me.

Virginia Macsymowicz, again from the States (audience member): simple question: have you ever run the tape in the other direction?

David: yes, my original idea was to do that. But, again it was, I did play it that way, again what I wanted to do was leave a space for someone to come, what I try to do with all of my work is leave a space for the onlooker, for the individual, to fill in around it. I just felt that at that time, that image, you see that image, you see that image of things being rebuilt an awful lot on television. You know, it’s not an unrecognizable image, the object of something broken, being reformed. So in a sense it was as simple as that, and I kind of think it works for what I was trying to communicate in that sense. And also what I wanted to do was reduce, I talked about the sublime, I wanted to reduce the figure to a landscape in that sense. Rather than the other way around. Having said that I would do a similar piece of work where I wanted to blow a cup up and have that reform. This idea of ceramic fragments coming together, it was quite interesting to hear the first speaker as if, I always feel that the museums are these kind of like enclosures with a swirling mass of atoms of ceramic and objects and they somehow kind of get put together in these buildings and they become like this thing that tries to define culture, and cultural aspirations. So I’m actually interested in fragments of ceramics coming together in that sense. So that’s another piece of work I think that I’ve been thinking about for quite a long while

Doug Jeck, University of Washington (speaker and member of audience): for the floor stuff that you made, I understand that was a system? All your work is stunning, but what kind of, do you put that down in your studio and you make other work on top of it? What were you doing? (Laughter from audience) What were you doing, what kind of work were you making whilst that thing was there? It all seems like that your role was to have that impact where the floor was but the opposite I was wondering, was that true, that working on a different kind of floor impacted on what it was you were doing?

David: That’s a good point. I was actually casting my feet for a piece of work that I didn’t, that I subsequently used years later for a show in Chapter which actually is the reverse to Christie’s. I was making a work called I Have Feet of Clay so I was actually casting my feet, and the piece of work does exist although I couldn’t show it in the time. It’s a, I’ve never been asked that question about whether it impacted on what I produced when I was in there and I never thought about it to be honest until you, someone’s asked me that. I don’t think, I’m a very disciplined person in a sense I mean a lot of people refuse to believe me when I say I did not do anything deliberately to that floor, but anyway, anyone who knows me half well will know that I can be a very disciplined person and I didn’t do that. So I don’t think that by me putting a clay floor down it would have influence on any work that I subsequently made within that space. Does that answer your question? Yeh?

Member of the audience: it raises this thing about, going back to the floor. I mean clearly it’s the outcome from your actions from that day, would you have considered exaggerating the expression by going back and actually Eugene mentioned that the casts actually work on the floor to make it more evident the kind of activity that had gone on. Because in some ways that might have been difficult to read.

David: yeh, it is a difficult work to read and I think that’s a fair criticism and I do get criticized

Member of the audience: it’s not a criticism

David: no, no, I completely understand any criticism from that point of view. It is a difficult work to read and all I can say is that I don’t want to illustrate something. I really don’t want a piece I said briefly I want to leave a space for someone. I want to leave a space to work, I expect people to work when they go in, when they look at my work. I always, subsequent pieces of work I do set up these systems and then tend not to take responsibility for them in some ways where I’ve made a lot of objects with unfired clay. I’ve cast the summit of Snowdon and it’s unfired clay, its within the glass vitrine and then in that sense the clay then takes over, it starts growing mould, it starts growing bacteria and I don’t have any control over that. I never, I never wanted to go back and work on that piece with work. Because to me it was always about the immediacy of clay as a material; what it would do and what it would pick up. The piece of work changes however minutely every time I take it out the boxes, bits chip off, bits fall off. Dust gets collected on it, so it’s much more the whole process of the work existing. Yeh, I guess what I’m saying is that I never felt that I wanted to go back and work on that and that I’m quite prepared to take the criticism for it being a difficult work.

Member of the audience: I have to say I don’t feel anyway inclined ( audience laughter). In some ways I knew the answer really because I knew that you want it to be very honest and direct in the way that it operated.

Another member of the audience: can I just ask why do you (inaudible from microphone buzz) the bunker, was that just a part of the parcel?

David: I didn’t remove them, I just fired them.

Member of the audience: oh, you just fired them?

David: yeh, anything that came about there I didn’t remove anything. It was during the drying process they died essentially, but you know you can see traces, all that black staining is mould and fungi. So I didn’t actually remove anything, that was just the plaster that was on the top. Which anyone who’s involved in ceramics knows is a major no no. If the bricks blew up then that was what happened. You can’t actually see, on the top of some of the objects, the bricks haven’t fired as high as some of the others. Well, I could have re-fired the objects but I didn’t want to do that. I mean it was again, about this immediacy, it was about this honesty, about this is what happened. This is the system I’ve set up. This is it.

Member of the audience: I’m just interested, David, to know a little bit about your working process in terms of, if you have spent six months in a studio making a piece of work and as you go, how is it working in a very specific place like Den Bosch (’s-Hertogenbosch, the home of the European Ceramics Works Centre in the Netherlands) for three intense months? Has that been a challenge, any difficulties? I’ve got three months and I must do this?

David: yeh, I never found it difficult, I just wish I could do it all the time. It was a fantastic experience, and none of the work that I made has been shown here purely and simply because it doesn’t necessarily fit with the nature of this conference. The work completely changed, I mean you go to a well renowned ceramic work centre for three months, I came away making an awful lot of ceramics which is quite rare for me really. I tend not to fire clay, I make films, I make large scale installations and I go to Den Bosch and they’ve got some of the biggest kilns outside of industry and I didn’t use any of them, I was still firing test kilns. But, it changed, what I found myself doing was making a lot of work that commented on ceramics and about the whole of the ceramics industry and clay again as a material.

Babette Martini and I am from the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff: you referred in your presentation to some quite specific qualities or feelings I would think, that you associate with ceramic material like white porcelain or white clay and I find it interesting that actually whether that is still your concern? Do you specifically choose this material or do you use other materials as well in the same way?

David: yep, it’s a question I often get asked. I’ve exhibited in Europe as a video artist with this piece of work and several other pieces of work, and I exhibit unfired clay and I exhibit fired clay. The question was asked earlier why do you, if the question is applied to me, why do I work in clay? In a sense I work in clay because I try and deal with fundamentals of the human condition and in that sense I use a fundamental material to communicate that, to work with that. Clay is just one of those weird materials I think you get hooked on it. And I do feel that there is a lot of history and archaeological response that I’m completely fascinated with and ceramics permeates all levels of our society and the only cultures that don’t use ceramics are the only cultures that don’t have it, that don’t use clay, sorry. So my fascination with ceramics in that sense lies there and it’s about why we’ve used it and how we’ve used it with the greatest technologies, the most cutting edge technologies at the moment and computers, we're still using it to drink out of, essentially this kind of shape hasn’t changed. It’s what I would call a primary object. A cup, or a bowl essentially is a primary object because it can’t change. It’s a perfectly functioning object and that’s what really fascinates me about ceramics, about clay as a material and I’m interested in the fired object, and all the archaeological associations and the fact that we still use completely fragile material, you know we still used it and all of us will have experienced ceramic in one form or another today. We’ve all eaten something, used a cup, gone to the toilet, experienced ceramic at some point today. That’s what fascinates me.

Time for one more question.

Member of the audience: I’m interested (my name is Mike), I’m interested in how we read ceramics and my question is also addressed to Christie because you mentioned earlier you know from yourself or from Christie whether your work relies upon a visual intelligence for its institution or an intellectual institution. Christie, particularly, her work seems to be concerned with examining psychoanalytical intelligence and influence. Is the work, when I say informed I mean as part of the make up, if that work informs on behalf of the receiver to such knowledge or can it stand on its own by its own understanding?

David: shall I go first? Yeh, I often get asked that question as well and I think it’s very valid and I would like, there will always be criticism of my work in that, no, no, (murmur from audience) it can be inaccessible and I understand that. Again, what I was going back to is, visually I tried to within Room I’m very specific about that piece of work and how it’s exhibited so it's about setting up systems where I want people to read the work without my leading them through the nose through the piece of work and that’s what I’m, when I’m talking about this space for the individual, umm, when I was over in Den Bosch the director said, possibly one way there may be a possible parallel with what I do and the difference between poetry and prose is that they both exist, they are both equally valid and yes, some people might be interested in poetry, I’m not saying my work is poetry but there the kind of parallels I might think about that I might try and draw is that, umm, I might lose some audience. I haven’t answered that very well I don’t think. All I can keep coming back to is I don’t want to illustrate a point really. I just don’t see the point in, my work isn’t about an illustration of a point. It’s not about telling a story, I want to leave a space. I don’t think I’ve answered that very well, sorry.

Christie: I don’t think a work can entirely stand on its own. I have all these interests that are my interests and things that informed the work. I work in a discipline that is under-historicized, under-theorized, in need of all this stuff, hence this conference is on. I think it’s very, very important on the other hand partly I’m an academic, I’m required to think about these things. I fill a gallery with work, I do not put notices on the work particularly, I get a lot of response from a lot of different people, things I’m interested in and read the work in a variety of different ways. And I seriously believe once you’ve made a work and put it in a gallery you give it up, you give it up to its reading in a variety of ways. The ambiguity of the (murmured question from audience) well I’d love it to have a different, you know, everybody projects different things onto different works and I’d love it to have, you don’t have that, once you show it, you don’t have such authority with the work. I mean I look at art works, often if they're very obscure it’s useful to read something about it but I’m really trying to open an extensive reaction to the work when I’ve long spent, one of the reasons I’d love to go to somewhere like Den Bosch and just leave behind all these feelings that I deal with, put them to the back of my mind and just deal with materials for a few months. You know totally intuitively sticking to clay. It’s always a balancing as an act as an artist between those two things but I do seriously hope that work comes from this without (murmur from audience) yes, I would hope it would definitely. I saw Ansel Kiefer last night at Tate Modern, which was a rare treat and he was just so, he spoke in such an intuitive way about, you’re right, a lot of stuff because you have to, rambling about.

Thank you

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Presence and Absence • Issue 8