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The Warm Physicality of Rough Music

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“It’s just mud; it’s only mud.”

The intrusion of the digital into art, and of art into the digital realm, is neither a problem nor news. Internet art is a hat old enough now to grant the term ‘Post-Internet’ legitimacy.

The relative speed with which both the internet and the accompanying technology – much of which exists almost exclusively to support it – have taken up occupation in our lives has left a kind of deficit; how do we reconcile our sudden (and quite extraordinary) reliance on tools against the knowledge that they were, within living memory, science fiction?

Plus, how do we make sense of the space of the internet which, until recently, was the site of utopian visions of democracy, community and solidarity but is now an effective tool of control and surveillance? Issues like this are both profoundly complicated and profoundly relevant. It’s no wonder, then, that a sizeable contingent of contemporary art is dedicated to their interrogation.

As ‘Internet Art’, which uses the internet and its initially novel modes of communication as medium and message, segues into ‘Post-Internet’ art – which sees the cessation of internet as novelty and engages with it as a fact of life (and which comes with its own increasingly well developed visual and sensory language, think Parker Ito and PC Music), another set of materials, concepts and ways of making have simultaneously developed.

The past few years have seen a [re]surge[nce] in ceramics as sculptural medium. Pioneered most famously by Grayson Perry (whose use of pottery was more punk than anything else) clay has firmly elbowed its way out of the marginalised realm of the craft and into the established art institution.

Concurrently, artists like (but by no means limited to) Andy Holden, Bedwyr Williams and Jeremy Deller have used their practices to investigate and, in Deller’s case, memorialise facets of the recent past or present that exist beyond the relevant – but also cold – digital realm.

"Rough Music stands out as an almost archetypal showcase of contemporary ceramics, and the set of concerns it has come to represent"

This field of research, or set of concerns, could in some senses fall under a kind of ‘folk’ umbrella. However, with the exception of Deller, who has in the past explicitly engaged with folk art, I suspect that the artists I’m attempting to identify would resent this labeling, or at least find it problematic. The folkiness in these types of practice stems from an idea of contemporary tradition; of contemporary developments in culture or social interaction that have themselves developed in a uniquely British way, and whose origins can, perhaps, be traced back to traditions, rituals or social habits of the past.

In the same way Post-Internet art can be characterised by certain aesthetic tropes – digitally rendered images, modes of making divorced from direct human interference, a preoccupation with highly synthetic materiality – so this field of enquiry comes with a visual language of its own; this other practice, with its more directly human concerns, can be characterised by a more tactile material engagement, a more ‘handmade’ aesthetic through which the presence of the artist, and the artist’s intentions, can be more viscerally or emotionally felt.

This visual language expresses a less cerebral engagement with its audience that its digital counterpart. While context remains important, and critical discourses remain present, the works also lend themselves to a kind of fundamental reading, of emotional response and human warmth that is very often absent in the cold, intangible and intellectual post-internet discourse. Ceramic presents itself as natural medium for artists looking to engage with things on this more human level.

Opening at the Cass Sculpture Foundation in Sussex at the end of August, Rough Music stands out as an almost archetypal showcase of contemporary ceramics, and the set of concerns it has come to represent.

The show takes its name and starting point from an old English folk tradition, one which sounds funnier and less threatening on paper than it almost certainly was in real life. The custom was, in essence, a ritual humiliation; the visitation of a mob to the house of a person perceived to have failed to uphold the standards expected by a community. A racket was made, jeers were jeered, effigies were touted, tormented and burned, etc. A kind of punishment of revelry, gleeful for the participants and deeply unpleasant for the offender. The show’s press release describes the practice as a kind of “vernacular form of vigilante satire,” although it could be argued that more contemporary parallels can be found in
the mob mentality of Twitter outrages and houndings (the subject of a new-ish book by Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed).

The show has been co-curated by artists Alex Hoda (whose quote starts this piece) and Robert Rush. With the notion of Rough Music functioning as a kind of conceptual hook, the more salient feature of the show is the permanent installation of a wood-fired kiln, a kind of functioning sculpture, by the artists in the grounds of the sculpture foundation.

The kiln was inspired by the artists’ travels in Japan, where a firmly artisanal and traditional ceramics industry continues to occupy an important place in local communities, and shared kilns provide a practical and social gathering point. Hoda tells me over Skype, “You get groups of ceramicists – artists and ceramicists – producing work, and then they all put it into the one kiln and they fire the whole thing together. It’s much more of a kind of community-based project. They’ve got this thing, this machine, which they all use, and it brings them together as artists.”

The sustained value of these kilns, afforded by the commitment of these Japanese artisans to their craft, and by the wider communities which presumably support their continued viability through consumption and promotion of the commodities produced therein, manifests something Hoda and Rush feel is lacking in the contemporary British art scene. “There used to be such a big industry in this country of producing ceramics, and it just got decimated in the eighties, with the influx of Chinese porcelain. Robbie and I frequently went to the V&A and you just have to wander around the ceramics department; there are incredible pieces in there. I think a lot of that heritage is being lost.”

While the mediums and specific concerns of ceramicists such as Jesse Wine and Aaron Angell, Turner Prize-winner Laure Prouvost and Bedwyr Williams, may vary, a common thread runs through them: an elevated level of emotional engagement, an awareness of the past and a sense of humour. “All the artists we chose are very, very considered people,” says Hoda. “But through that consideration comes a lot of real, raw emotion”

Though it would be wrong to argue that either Post-Internet art or art of the type that Rough Music represents define themselves in opposition to the other, there’s no doubt that some aspect of the rise of ceramic manifests a desire by artists and audience to see art as a mode of real human expression, as opposed to a solely intellectual exercise.

There is, as Hoda says, “An interest in bringing something tactile into the gallery.” In the instance of Rough Music the tactility is reinforced by the artists’ shared physical experience of the production of the work; a sculptural practice that would normally be conducted in isolation is here made, if not collaborative, at least collective through the firing process. “There’s a kind of bonding between people that drives the work forward, as a group. I never really experienced that before; a shared experience to make work.”

The irony of an artistic engagement with folk traditions comes from the paradox that has led to the same traditions’ marginalisation; in a world with such readily available tools of connectivity, the importance of traditional events as social opportunity, and as a means of sustaining cohesion in a community, has dwindled. Conversely, the success of the internet as a tool of international communication facilitates collaboration across continents, between international communities of artists.

Consequently, the artist dealing with more fundamental human ideas and needs – of expression and ritual – finds themselves operating in a kind of isolation folk traditions were developed to preclude. Perhaps ironically, the artist whose concern is colder and less human, engaged instead with the implications of the internet and modes of production totally removed from actual physical human engagement, finds themselves highly networked, through shared google docs, social media and image boards.

In Rough Music, Hoda and Rush have maybe found a way to authentically establish a kind of contemporary tradition, in a shared production of individuals’ work, and through this help promote, in a contemporary and non-fetishistic way, some of the benefits of cultural practices that would otherwise find themselves outdated.

Rough Music runs at Cass Sculpture Foundation, Chichester, until 8 November

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