RESEARCH

DIFFERENT WAYS OF CONNECTING TO CERAMICS

In order to create a connection between humans and ceramics, it is crucial to understand what kind of connections have already been established and how they could be leveraged, as well as what kind of research others have done relating to the topic of connection between humans and materials. In this chapter I will exhibit examples of connections, starting from very pragmatic and concrete ways of approaching the topic and moving on to more abstract concepts of connection. I end this chapter by exploring a case study of Iris van Herpen’s work. I examined the findings from a ceramics point of view to reflect the findings on to my own work.

VALUE OF CERAMICS

One way to approach the connection to the material is through the way we perceive its meaning 

and value. I would argue that ceramics carry certain value depending on the material and the make of the piece the material has become. For me it is easiest to divide the topic in to four most important indicators of value:

INNATE VALUE OF THE MATERIAL

Certain materials are more costly than others. For example porcelain as a material is more appreciated and more highly valued than basic stoneware (Varnia.fi). Porcelain is finer, smoother and pure white. It can be fired higher than stoneware, which results in a vitrification that one can never achieve with stoneware. The more vitrified the piece, the more it feels like glass, ergo the more it feels luxurious by the traditional standards. Porcelain being made mostly out of kaolin versus stoneware having ball clay as its main ingredient makes it automatically more expensive, kaolin being purer and hence more costly to produce. This also applies if the piece is glazed with expensive pigments or gilded at the end. For example red pigments and certain oxides can amp up the cost of making a piece and it goes without saying that coating a piece in gold will be quite costly.

LABOUR INDUCED VALUE

The more one puts effort and time in a piece the more it gains value. One great example of this is the previously mentioned practice of pit-firing. Laborious techniques in the firing stage and in the forming will inevitably raise the price of a piece. Another example could be an unique hand-carved piece with abundant decorations that will out-value a simple mass-produced piece.

Also the more the maker has refined their skills, the more the work usually costs. Different materials are more laborious or costly to work with. For example porcelain is more difficult to process when compared to stoneware, as it requires more skills. A fine porcelain piece also requires higher temperatures in the firing, which obviously consumes more energy and hence adds to the production costs.





SENTIMENTAL VALUE

“ I can’t entirely describe the combination of complete physical exhaustion and joyous triumph that enveloped me at the finish of the 2018 Great Lakes Region cross country championship when the team and I learned we had far exceeded expectations and qualified for the national meet. I do know that the race bib I wore that day is the closest I’ll ever come to that moment in time again—so I kept it. ” -Batt, Z.

As Batt describes, an object, in this case the bib, can hold feelings and memories in it by reminding us of the past feelings. We can embed memories into objects and with those memories we can embed feelings and details. 

Sentimentality is a completely subjective measure of value that is purely made up by the person viewing the piece. An example of this alongside the race bib could be a teacup that has been passed down generations and therefore holds great value because of the connection to the owner’s family and roots. An absolutely horrific and cheap porcelain animal can hold immense value to someone if it was for example gifted to them by a significant other.

As a ceramicist myself I tend to create a sentimental connection with some of my works. Not many of them, but especially the previously mentioned sphynxes. It was very interesting to see if I could deliberately embed sentimental value to a ceramic piece for someone else than myself.

CONDITIONALITY OF THE VALUE

The vitrification, gilding, pure white colour or hours and hours of work are only valuable when the piece is intact(Thepotterywheel.com). Especially porcelain must remain completely unharmed for it to maintain all of its potential value. The very second a porcelain or any other ceramic cup is broken you will hear the difference in the sound of the piece when struck, even if you don’t see the damage. Later on tea will seep in the cracks and stain the pure white complexion. This is of course splitting hairs in a broader sense, but in a more dramatic application a coffee cup doesn’t hold much value as a vessel if it’s split down the middle. 

The only value that isn’t affected by this conditionality is the sentimental value. Because the value doesn’t really relate to the ceramics itself, but the story of the ceramics it is not affected by imperfections on the piece.



DISTANCE TO CERAMICS

Another way of approaching the material is the distance we keep to it physically. In the context of ceramics, from the most distant to the closest I could think of the industrial uses, everyday uses and decorative uses. Industrial uses cover for example abrasives and heat and wear resistant components to name a few. They are uses we don’t usually think about and we don’t really feel connected to them. Everyday uses -category includes tableware and architectural applications like tiling and a toilet seat. They are things we pay attention to on a daily basis and we might love our favourite coffee mug on a certain level, but rarely do we have a deep connection to them. Decorative ceramics, such as beautiful vases, decorative sculptures and ceramic jewellery are the closest to us. We often pick them with great consideration as they indicate something about ourselves. Especially jewellery from these examples tell the most about us as they are used to express ourselves.

I would argue that there is a relation between distance and connection. The closer the ceramics are to us, the more they carry meaning to us. The vase we want to see every day and the jewellery we attach to our body bear more meaning than the ceramic abrasives for precision cutting somewhere far far away. The direction of causality doesn’t necessarily happen in said order, though. Some things we bring close to us because they mean more and some things mean more to us because they happen to be close to us. This, however, wouldn’t really affect my case, for I approached the issue from the material point of view. The only thing I could really do is to bring the material as close as possible and hope for the connection to be there. If I’m lucky the human mind works in a Pavlov’s dog -kind of a way and when the ceramics are presented close to the wearer they automatically assume it means a lot to them, you know, out of habit.



SENSE OF TOUCH

Getting even closer and closer to humans, I thought of the sensation of touching the material. 

“ When you’re perceiving the world around you, your brain does a combination of processing the stimuli that make up the scene, but it also tries to fill information based on what you’ve learned in the past to help you interpret what you’re sensing. For example, let’s say you’re rummaging through a bag feeling around for your car keys. Your brain has learned what keys feel like, so it’s filling in information as you are feeling objects of different textures or shapes to guide your search. However, there are times when you feel something, like a sharp edge, that really jumps out and tells you that you’re on the right track and that you’ve maybe found your keys. “

– Chen, J.


According to a neurobiologist, Jerry Chen, the sense of touch is a combination of our pre-existing memories mixing in with the current stimulus. This might work to my advantage or backfire greatly if I were to include the sense of touch in my research. If the surface of the ceramics was unfamiliar enough it would create a confusion when the brain doesn’t suddenly recognise the material at all, but then again that confusion might be a distraction and make the whole experience more vague and harder to grasp. Also if the sensation of touching the ceramics happens to feel familiar, it would introduce something ordinary into the experience. I aimed to create an experience where the setting is as new as can be to the wearer. This way the wearer has to question things more and adjust to the situation carefully considering every decision, for nothing is familiar. 


Excluding the skin contact with the material leaves us with the sense of pressure. We feel the pressure when something is in contact with our skin and when something is resisting our movements. 



SOMAESTHETICS

In the context of studying the movement and associated sensations, somaesthetics could be considered a useful lens for approaching the connection to the material. Somaesthetics aims to create mindful connections to one’s own body and finding it for example through various exercises called Feldenkrais exercises. Feldenkrais exercises are very slow and meditative, “for example, breathing slowly all the way down into your legs, again through questions probing what you can feel in your legs as you breathe.”(Höök, K.). The aim of these exercises is to turn your attention inward and get in touch with the movements of our bodies. “Somaesthetic design focuses on making people more aware of their felt bodily experiences.” (Höök, K.). It is about utilising our bodies as an asset for our minds and it comes so very close to what I am researching that I had to dive into that world briefly.

“By closing our eyes and lying down on the floor, we immediately leave habitual practices behind. In addition, many of the Feldenkrais lessons are done with closed eyes in order to help us focus on our inner experience rather than shifting our attention to the outside world. “(Höök, K.)

At the end, somaesthetics is about utilising the bodily experience as a tool for the mind, aiming towards virtues such as honest thoughts and ideas that come from closer to one’s heart. It didn’t quite match what I was after, for my goal was to focus on the immediate sensations and the connection to the ceramics as it is in the moment and not necessarily as an experience that will later on reveal something about the wearer to themselves. 

One quote, however, caught my eye by being so strikingly similar to what I had earlier thought to myself. “An important part of the somaesthetic philosophy is the notion that in order to achieve a better understanding of your body, you have to actively interfere with your daily unconscious routines and create room for reflection.“ (Höök, K.). This resonated with my thought of excluding the sense of touch in the fear of it being too familiar and mundane. To maximise the chances of a whole new kind of reflection I needed to break the routines and how I chose to do that was to make everything unfamiliar about the ceramics.

A CASE STUDY OF IRIS VAN HERPEN

I refer to a study by Anneke Smelik: New materialism: A theoretical framework for fashion in the age of technological innovation. (Smelik), as it exhibits several similar topics I am researching in my thesis, such as unconventional materials, craftsmanship and the movement. In the study she dissects the work of Iris van Herpen, a visionary fashion designer who utilises the newest technology and materials to create unique and unforeseen couture creations. While the methods used and the aesthetic of the garments are hi-tech and futuristic, van Herpen emphasises that the majority of the work is done by hand, the traditional way. Van Herpen’s work shares multiple common points of interest with my thesis



CHALLENGING THE MATERIAL

In the study, a prevalent topic is the way van Herpen combines cutting edge technology with traditional ways of manufacturing garments. In other words she is subjecting the new technology and, in this context, unconventional materials to the issue of conventional wearability. She is looking at the materials through the lens of fashion and using the advanced techniques to manipulate them into performing exactly how she wants. There is a strong juxtaposition between the wearability of the materials she uses and the purpose of being wearable. As I hypothesised with my own theme of ceramics and wearability, it has already come true in the work of van Herpen: The juxtaposition is bound to yield interesting outcomes, for there is no easy way of doing it. In van Herpen’s case it has yielded extraordinarily interesting outcomes and visually astonishing results. The materials have revealed a new side of theirs through van Herpen’s work and it let me believe the same can be done with ceramics.

MOVEMENT OF THE MATERIAL

Another strong theme in the study is the motion of the body in relation to the movement of the garment and according to van Herpen herself, the new technology helps her realise the movement three-dimensionally. Van Herpen, originally being a dancer, has a great interest towards the motion of the body as well as the garment. Smelik draws a correlation between motion and emotion and notes that this very connection can be clearly seen in the van Herpen Fall/Winter 2016 collection. Van Herpen having worked so hard in order to create movement to the otherwise unwearable materials and through that having been able to bring out new aspects of the material, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued to try to do the same. To contrast that, I was also very interested in the material itself as it is. I was as fascinated by the perception of the material being truly itself, exhibiting unaltered characteristics, but in an odd environment as I was of the possibility of manipulating the material to fit the purpose. I had no choice but to be left intrigued by the question: What would happen to the bodily experience if the factor of movement was taken away? And to further extend the question: How would the perception of the material differ between the scenarios where the ceramics move with the body and where the ceramics restrain the movement of the body?


RELATING TO THE MATERIAL

Smelik quotes Warwick & Calavarro: “In its relationship with dress, the body is an eminently osmotic shell: when we adopt certain garments, we do not confine ourselves to knowing their qualities and attributes, since, through direct physical contact, we also assimilate them, we make them our flesh.”.This is a very relatable and mind-boggling quote, for I for sure have felt this way about clothing and yet never really thought of it or put it in words. Relating this to my thesis, I couldn’t tell which way it would go: Would the ceramics in a sense become a part of the wearer or would they be an external disconnected factor? Initially I thought that if the ceramics move with the model they would feel like an extension of the skin and the wearer becomes aware of the perimeter of the material the same way they are aware of their limbs and the tips of their fingers. However, if the ceramics didn’t follow the movement of the model, but restrained it, I thought the sensation would be closer to the feeling of carrying an object. You’d still be aware of the position of the object in relation to your body, but it would feel disconnected.

This railway station full of trains of thought brought me to the question about how can the material, in this case ceramics, be perceived in addition to the traditional ways? Can it become part of us? What is the value of it, innate, labour induced or sentimental? How deeply do we connect with ceramics? Do these two present causality to a direction or another? This is why I wanted to experiment with different ceramic materials and different techniques and on top of that make it wearable to get it as close to a human as possible.



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