Friday, 2 September 2011


Return to the Earth: On Clay

Clay is the most ancient of materials, used for mankind’s earliest explorations of sculptural form. A clay figurine of a woman, found in the modern day Czech Republic, dates to 29000-25000 BCE, and the earliest vessels from 16,000 BCE were found in China. From the decorated vessel to figures for worship, clay was the root of sculpture. The earliest clay vessels were fired in the centre of bonfires, the clay mixed with sand or grit to allow room for water to escape without shattering. This method was replaced by the innovation of pit-kilns, which provided better insulation and control for firing. Today’s sophisticated kilns operate on the same basic principles derived from ancient methods, only without the same level of risk.

This elemental process of earth and fire creates something enduring and permanent; surely one of the most magical transitions an artist can implement.  This is reflected in creationist mythology as well as religion - for example, the Golem of Jewish folklore is a being shaped entirely from inanimate matter, and in Christianity, Adam is shaped by God’s hand out of clay. In Egyptian mythology, the ram-headed god Khnum fashioned people from clay, and the African god Khonvoum shaped black and white races from different colours of clay. Gods too were formed of this elemental material in Greek mythology, the earliest being the goddess Pandora. People, gods, worlds and universes are all created from this base material in mythology. We are born of earth.

Clay is symbolic of life; it is the source of all plant life, including the crops which sustain us. Death, for all plant and animal life, including humanity, returns us to it. It is a substance that takes thousands of years to form, a mulch of sand and stone with organic matter reduced down over centuries. In human hands and through firing it can take on a new and permanent form: permanent enough to form one of the most vital sources of evidence of the social organisation, tastes, habits and economy of past cultures for archaeologists, in the form of pottery shards. There is magic in this material, and in the works of art which have been created from it across the centuries.   

Clay the Life
Plaster the Death
Marble the Revolution

Ian Hamilton Finlay

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