Clare Twomey: 'Made Manifest'

Something I learned about Clare Twomey when I first met her in 2010 is that she used to be a bicycle courier. After graduating from the Ceramics & Glass MA at the Royal College of Art, London, in 1996, Twomey – like many recent graduates – needed to earn some extra money, so she cycled across the capital day in, day out couriering messages. While this may seem a trivial place to start in an article about the artist, it provides an illuminating insight into Twomey’s approach. She is the message-carrier, and often between disparate communities: students and more established makers, museum staff and the public, private collectors and curators. She is what Canadian journalist Malcolm Gladwell would describe as a ‘connector’; or, the ‘social glue’ that brings people together. Twomey’s work exists in the dialogue betweenpeople.

Twomey has installed a strangely ethereal steel frame stacked with 10,000 slip-cast bowls in the Mezzanine Gallery of the newly established Centre of Ceramic Art (CoCA) at York Art Gallery. Manifest: 10,000 Hours is Twomey’s ode to the prevailing idea that 10,000 hours of dedicated practice is sufficient to becoming a skilled maker, which resonates loudly among York’s hallowed collections of studio ceramics; it is a conscious attempt to bridge the theoretical divide between the skills of the maker and those of the novice. For Manifest: 10,000 Hours, Twomey enlisted the help of teams of volunteers to slip-cast 10,000 bowls in a series of public workshops, with the artist demonstrating and supervising the entire making process. ‘I’m really excited about this notion of skill,’ explains Twomey, ‘and especially shared skill. This draws on something Daniel Charny said, curator of Power of Makingexhibition at the V&A Museum, which is that skill is not something that is written down; it’s handed on. And this idea of passing on the baton is so important.’ 

Manifest: 10,000 Hours not only exists in the materialisation of three months’ continuous and collective labour – in stack-upon-stack of slip-cast bowls – but also in the embodied knowledge of its participants, and the relational link between the novice and the skilled maker in the context of CoCA’s collections. Twomey describes how the work reflects this ethos: ‘York was always a collective work: It needed to be presented as a whole made up of a group of separate objects. The strong frame allows the work to be held, it allows the spaces to flow – enabling each set of bowls to be seen individually, as well as part of a group. The sturdy nature of the frame highlights the vulnerability of the stacks of bowls. There is harmony, I hope, in the working of these two elements.’ Expanding on the dialogue between Manifest: 10,000 Hours and the surrounding displays at CoCA, she continues: ‘Inside the cabinets either side of Manifest: 10,000 Hours we have Hans Coper and Lucie Rie and all these wonderful studio ceramicists, who have tirelessly tried to make brilliant, beautiful things. And it’s a hard journey. And that’s really what I want to say with Manifest: 10,000 Hours: that when you look at all these bowls piled up, you realise that the work in the cabinets didn’t come easily. This stuff is hard won – physically, mentally, and emotionally.’

It was the biblical story ‘The Tower of Babel’ that, in fact, provided the inspiration for Twomey: in particular, the notion of a collective endeavour to accomplish a specific task. ‘For me,’ states Twomey, ‘it was about understanding what Babel looked like, the hopes and aspirations of people, and the idea that you could stand at the bottom and know the work that had gone into it.’ Yet, confesses Twomey, the religious ties to Babel were too strong to reconcile in the title of the work, hence Manifest: 10,000 Hours. ‘It is much closer to the point of this, which is: “Look what you can do. Look what we can do.” This is what it takes to become a skilled maker.’

While Twomey’s installation provides commentary on the backstory of studio ceramics in its invocation of industry and the resolve of the maker, her particular skill is in the coordination, and harmonising, of the diverse interests of York Art Gallery’s so-called ‘stakeholders’. This includes the curators, architects, contractors, and security staff working towards the redevelopment; as well as her many participants; and, ultimately, the consortium of eminent studio ceramists (and their collectors) represented in CoCA’s Mezzanine Gallery. In order to do this, Twomey needed to continually respond to the commissioning process as it unfolded, and to modify, or even at times set aside her own artistic vision. This called for careful attention, patience, but above all, negotiation. I can’t help but visualise Twomey as Gladwell’s glue: connecting disparate elements into a coherent, workable whole. Manifest: 10,000 Hours is an ambitious, yet considerate work that responds to the needs of all those invested in it.

In fact, several of Twomey’s previous works are based on the same premise. In a project titled Exchange at London’s Foundling Museum (2013), Twomey was able to translate the difficult history of the Foundling Hospital, which was a home for abandoned children, into a stimulating dialogue. In a subtle re-enactment of the process of exchange, Twomey invited the public to choose from hundreds of bone-china cups laid out on their saucers, each of which was emblazoned underneath with a ‘good deed’ selected by the artist; from ‘Read aloud to someone’ to ‘Buy a homeless person a coffee’. The deed could either be accepted in exchange for the cup, or the cup re-placed and the possibility for exchange turned down. The installation invoked feelings of satisfaction, anxiety, and disappointment, all of which are valid in the context of orphanage.

Everyman’s Dream at Sir John Soane’s Museum (2013) responded to the architect’s house and idiosyncratic collections preserved and maintained for ‘amateurs and students’ at 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London. Here, in the context of Soane’s bequest to the field of architecture, Twomey invited a thousand men to articulate their own understanding of legacy, each of which was inscribed in gold script on the inside rim of a bone-china bowl. ‘A lot of people had an idea about what their legacy might be,’ states Twomey, ‘but then they had to question that, particularly as their names would be published.’ The installation – which was also exhibited as part of Legacy: Two Works on Hope and Memory at COLLECT2014 – was, in some ways, an incoherent collection (much like Soane’s) of anecdotes, aphorisms, and statements, which unwittingly captured the complexity of ambition. In both of these projects, Twomey facilitates the conversations that continue beyond the gallery walls; she ‘links us up with the world’. 

While many of Twomey’s works are widely known, there is one that is often overlooked, despite its skillful configuration of recurrent themes in her work. Present Traces, which was exhibited as part of The Magic of Clay (2011), a group exhibition at Gl Holtegaard, Denmark, saw the artist construct a series of concentric circles, using china acquired from the local area, on a section of lawn at the front of the eighteenth-century site – in a move akin to ‘land art’. ‘In 2003, Gl Holtegaard set about restoring their Baroque Garden, which had all but disappeared, and they had found a beautiful, old fragment of German porcelain that had once formed part of its ornamental pathways,’ explains Twomey. ‘They treasured that porcelain fragment, as it told a different history of this historic site; so, that was the story I wanted to tell.’ To do this, Twomey set about collecting an assortment of second-hand ceramics: some sourced from local charity shops, others from places where people were ‘junking things’. 

The idea was to assemble the ceramic waste from this area north of Copenhagen, which could then become part of the constructed history of Gl Holtegaard. This time, the artist enlisted the help of Gl Holtegaard’s gardener to arrange the ceramic ware concentrically around a circular lawn, in a formation that, unconsciously, resembles a fingerprint. The artist then proceeded to smash the ware one-by-one, using an earth tamper; each piece surrendered to the tamper’s weight creating a series of eloquent and orderly remains. ‘This broken collection is representative of the here and now’ states Twomey. ‘Among the fragments are pieces from Rosenthal, IKEA – things made all over the world – which now form part of the ground, so we’re creating a new layer of history; we have created a complex site for the future.’ 

Present Traces serves to demonstrate the main themes that underpin Twomey’s work. There are fragments that speak of usage, inheritance, memory and waste, similar to the immense pile of ceramic shards and broken ware rescued from the Johnson Tiles factory in Stoke-on-Trent and exhibited at MIMA(Monument, 2009); the fragility of the unfired china-clay flowers sown at the Eden Project site (Blossom, 2007) that are destined to return to the earth. We are confronted with questions of the historical self that never leave us (Exchange, 2013; Everyman’s Dream, 2013). The wilful destruction re-presented in Present Traces also sits uncomfortably with our conscience, much like the desire to take a Jasper Blue bird from the V&A’s Cast Courts (Trophy, 2006) or the decision to crush the unfired bone-china tiles beneath our feet as we move across the gallery space – a visible reminder of the human affect (Consciousness/Conscience, 2001-2004). And we encounter the passing of time, albeit rather slowly, that materialises in hundreds of unfired figurines dancing across the floor at Toronto’s Gardiner Museum (Piece by Piece, 2015); or rows of unfired bowls that continually fold and collapse on being filled with water (Is It Madness. Is It Beauty, 2010). All of Twomey’s works are invariably imbued with the same sense of reflexivity, or the idea that we should take account of our actions; and all of them are ‘unfinalizable’ in the Bakhtinian sense that dialogue is opened up, rather than conclusive.

But perhaps it’s the notion of the circle that allows Present Traces to speak so eloquently: a circle has neither beginning nor end, and recalls the cyclical aspect of existence. When, finally, I ask her about any sense of responsibility she might feel for all these broken fragments, Twomey replies: ‘But we’re all part of a process, aren’t we? I really believe that we exist in thismoment; and that’s the only thing we can be, part of our time.’

Twomey is well-aware of her role in all this: as artist, curator, dialogist, and intermediary, whose particular skill is in giving form to the personal, and collective, narratives that she sets in motion. And it is exactly this sensitivity to the human condition that reconciles her approach with that of Gladwell’s ‘connector,’ with bringing people together, and that has earned her central position in CoCA’s Mezzanine Gallery, in the midst of the many conversations, exchanges, and alliances that constitute British studio ceramics.

Main image: Clare Twomey, Manifest: 10,000 hours, January 2016 until 2017, Centre of Ceramic Art, York Art Gallery (photo: Peter Heaton, courtesy of Clare Twomey)

Aurora Corio