Breath and the Brute: Exhaling Stone in Thailand
Potmaking, making real pots, is a good educational track for future sculptors. Former makers of real pots, assuming these are pots with breath, go on to make sculpture with similar life and erumpent form.
Chris Berti’s carved limestone sculpture shows such breath apparently descended from his potmaking. The sculptures have a taut skin. They look as if a prick in the skin would lead to a fountain of limestone squeezing out; the skin hangs on the volume. In these forms the tight skin creates the feeling of erumpency, a readiness to burst forth, also know as pregnant form.
I have been thinking of the obvious visual differences between the form of pottery and that of traditional European stone and bronze sculpture and the basis for this difference. The great stone sculptures shown in traditional Western art history survey courses have skin on muscle and bones, the muscle and bones being the structure upon which the skin is stretched. These sculptures never deny mass, you sense their weight, their density. If you were to squeeze them you would sense muscle, and bone. The muscle bone and sinew sensed through and reflected in the nuance of the skin reinforces our knowledge and understanding of the mass inside. In pottery-derived form the mass is denied or minimized, the skin seems stretched on volume, a moving kinetic volume of air, or perhaps another light fluid medium. Squeezing volumetric form, at least squeezing it in your minds eye causes a sense of increased or decreased pressure, of air movement, or in some closed forms a sense that the form will “pop”.
I am not convinced of the superiority of either paradigm, these paradigms of mass or volume, but I work in a University studio next door to a sculpture studio and notice the shift when I travel just a few feet. It is not the materials that change but the eye, conventions, and aesthetic. This is not to say that volumetric form is unknown in sculpture (or for that matter mass to the potter). In fact sculptors working with volume, in the potter’s paradigm, seem to gain recognition on its account. It is just that this kind of form is harder to get in concrete media than truly plastic media. Mass is what stone is about. Denying mass and stressing volume is apparently difficult to do but it can make work dynamic. When one paradigm informs another it makes both stronger.
Several years ago I had the good fortune of returning to Thailand. I had been thinking of Clary Illian’s book on potmaking. I visited the remains of a bronze foundry that had been relocated outside of Thonburi, a suburb of Bangkok. The old factory specialized in Bronze images of the Buddha. The sizes ranged from 6 inches to 9 feet tall. The sinuous limbs and lithe but full form of Thai Buddha images sculpted in wax on top of plaster cores have kept my mind returning to this foundry. These wax forms had no sign of the underlying bones and muscle, no structure. What they had was erumpency, the breath of inflation, a sense of the volume within. The skin was taught. Visiting the factory and revisiting the process gave me a clue to what I believe is the reason. I have ceased wondering if the sense of fullness in these forms is related to the importance of breath in Buddhist religion and meditation. I now believe that breath was imparted consciously by the sculptor.
Most traditional bronzes in the west start as a clay model often with a wire or wood armature, a mold is taken from the model and then it is cast creating a thin skin of wax inside the mold. The hollow interior is formed by pouring plaster investment inside the thin skin of wax. The outside is then also invested in plaster. In large scale Thai Buddhas the core (volume) is modeled out of investment first. This looks a lot like a Buddha, but the artist has to visualize the finished form. Detail is left off. Over this core, this image of the internal volume of the figure a skin of wax is applied. Then details such as the curls representing hair, fingers, and other thin details such as folds in the robe are added. The finished images, like well made pots have the sense of kinetic volume, and a dynamic volume like that talked about in Clary Illian’s book. The skin although just wax has a sense of elasticity. In ceramics this dynamism of surface comes from the process and materials but requires skill to enhance and conserve. This sense is easy to kill. In wax it seems to come solely from finesse. Lots of finesse.
Back when I was in school in Kansas City we used to grunt about pots. Our ideas were at the state where we did not have many words to describe them. Victor (Babu) with brilliant hand gestures would do minimalist dances describing the positive, negative, or lacking attributes of our pots. Victor would talk about pots, springing from within, as blossoming and would talk about pregnant luscious form. With the dance and gestures the words had great meaning. We went on a dictionary quest for more words for Victor’s use and found the word erumpent. He wasn’t much impressed. It may have been that I defined it as, “Ready to burst”. It may have been the lack of positive connotation. These words, blossoming, luscious, erumpent, pregnant, kinetic are all variations on a theme. They seem to reside inside the overarching term of what is now called breath. Even in pots, this term breath seems to speak of life-force. In a less spiritual language breath is the word to describe an active skin/volume relationship.
I am not a big fan of sentimentalism in discussion of art but when you talk about art you necessarily tell lies, what some of my Catholic friends might call lies of omission. The words trim off essential nonverbal meaning. I tend to think that a lot of what is said is vacuous, words with no insides, like pots without breath (Dancing while speaking, gesticulating, give words greater fluency). While in school I always had a suspicion about all the talk of the inside hand, feeling the form from within, sensing the volume. My suspicion was that it was poppycock, nonsense. I could not have been more wrong. I had begun to be converted sometime in the mid to late nineteen eighties. It could have been a small series of pitchers by Josh DeWeese while he was between undergraduate and graduate school. To really see it you have to look at bad pots, next to good ones. Photographs only carry traces of breath. I became convinced of the primacy of volume over form in potmaking while working on inflatable teapots for the Las Vegas NCECA. We put together some not well-made inflatable clear plastic teapots the size of travel trailers, and put an audience inside them while we subjected the audience to a tortured story about Alice’s life with Lewis Carroll. Looking at the skin while inside a teapot was a big education. I learned volumes.
I now talk about throwing from the inside, the volume, breath, erumpency, the inside form, with my students. I see the same look on their eyes, “what a bunch of sentimental art talk without substance”. I wish for them a visit inside a teapot, a good look at a Thai Buddha, and the clarity that comes from a good deep breath. Breath is there to see, once you look
Louis Katz Breath and the Brute: Exhaling Stone in Thailan
Volumne, axis, centrifigualforce as the replacement for bones and mass.