DIGITAL CLAY – installation of thousands of unique hand-squeezed clay plugs as ‘bits’ forming larger analog/digital hybrid installation
Standing at the threshold of the project room, a visitor sees a vast monochromatic object filling the space. The view resolves to a sculpture made from many sculptures — the room is, in fact, filled with thousands and thousands and thousands of small clay forms massed together on the floor. Stepping closer, the visitor realizes each component piece has its own distinct rectilinear but biomorphic shape. Leaning in to scrutinize, they see that every form is as unique as a fingerprint — each 6” high sculpture has been individually created by a squeeze or a pinch embedding the details of a single person’s palm or finger, down to its whorls, into the clay. Proceeding along the installation, the visitor encounters a multitude of straight, bent, thin and rounded shapes, made from a variety of touches: gentle, strong, young, old…
The installation is about the digital age. First, the pun: fingers are digits, so the work is digitally constructed. The installation has been crowd-sourced like Wikipedia— the public’s co-operative effort has enabled its completion. The installation is pixellated — individual bits of visual information create the larger image. It’s also a type of selfie (a public display of your body, in this case your hand), and it touches on the idea of the harvesting of personal data — each person has unwittingly given an identifiable record (fingerprint) of their action. The installation is also public data — it is a census formed from a cross-section of people in Toronto as of 2016, and a database of how many people have come to the museum in the preceding months (Gardiner-goers will have been asked to squeeze a plug.)
The installation is about individuals and community. In the months preceding the show, people will be handed a 6” rectangular plug of clay with the instruction “Squeeze only once with your hand OR only once with two fingers”. People from a wide range of ages, genders, ethnic/economic/religious/sexual/backgrounds (etc.) will be approached to do this at a variety of communal places: kindergartens, elderly homes, religious centers, offices, schools, public spaces, and so on. Though made by diverse individuals, each with their own unique hands and distinct versions of ‘the squeeze’, the pieces comprising the installation will collectively present as cohesive (i.e. a single ‘community’), because they will all have the same non-descriptive color of unfired clay. Two more factors, also both very much part of the human condition, are built into the show: frailty (the bone-dry clay may bend, crack, or even break — any pieces that do will remain on exhibit), and unpredictability… how will each person interpret or ignore the “Squeeze once” request? Finally, the massed objects will look vaguely like an assembled crowd, or a even a city — however it’s interpreted, the artwork will be an updated, 3D version of “The Canadian mosaic”.
Here are a few ways the installation could be presented (preferred is #3):
ITERATION AS PUBLIC SCULPTURE
From a distance, you see a tall sculpture with a complex shape: a cityscape, a geological formation, a root system? As you move nearer it changes color due to its iridescent glaze. (Or: as you move nearer it changes shape, due to its reflective silver glaze mimicking movement by morphing the surroundings.) Closer in, you see the entire sculpture is a massing of many, many narrow stacked ceramic blocks, linear but inexact, with gaps and spaces along indented adjacent edges revealing inner depths. Standing right next to the work, you notice that each block was shaped by a single grasp of a different human hand, and, leaning in, you even observe individual palm creases and finger whorls. You circle the sculpture, seeing hundreds of unique handprint impressions, big, small, deep, shallow… you also notice a separate, smaller node of shaped-by-grasp blocks behind the work, inside the entrance to the museum. Going in the building, you discover more small arrangements of blocks on different floors — on a narrow plinth in a corner of the stairwell landing; a grouping hidden around a corner in the bistro; a small cluster embedded in the collections…
Ceramics are technology, and have been for tens of thousands of years. Firing clay was one of the first chemical reactions induced by man; 15th century glazes were early examples of the use of nanomaterials; engineered ceramics are used in the space and biotech industries, and so on. The Grasp sculpture brings clay into the ‘digital’ realm. Each individually-squeezed block is a single bit of data — literally, a finger or palm print, but also collectively a type of census of the city’s population in the early 21st century (all grasps made with the participation of a demographically-relevant cross section of people). Some more digital parallels: each block is like a pixel, a discreet component of a larger visual; many parts connected to form something bigger is analogous to the Web; the work is ‘crowdsourced’; it’s also ‘distributed’ (at many locations in the museum). And it’s ‘interactive’ — the other nodes of the sculpture are to be discovered while exploring the museum, like treasure or easter eggs in a video game. Finally, there will be an ‘augmented reality’ component — the sculpture will extend into the virtual realm, with an aura of overlaid information that will reveal when the screens of mobile devices are held up to the work, showing things like the names of graspers, the history of clay as technology, geotagged viewer comments, animated or fan remixed interpretations of the sculpture…
The sculpture is also about the physical, being human — digital also means “of or relating to fingers”, and this work is literally made by hundreds of people using their hands.* Viewers will viscerally relate to the work— we all have memories of squeezing clay or mud or dough. Depictions of hands in art go back at least 10,000 years (i.e. The Cave of Hands) but are also current — note Urs Fischer’s aluminum squeezes and David Altmejd’s plaster ‘grabs’. As well, the sculpture’s iridescent color shifts or morphing mirror reflections imply technology but also movement, and following that thought, the pieces of the sculpture distributed throughout the museum could be read as ‘migrating’ — as all the diverse parts come together collectively to make a greater whole, the sculpture becomes a physical embodiment, in three dimensions, of a mosaic.
* “Squeeze once, with one hand” are the instructions given to participants when handed a single 6 x 2 x 1” plug of clay at events organized at diverse gathering places (community centers etc) prior to creation. The thousands of plugs will be gathered and later massed as a sculpture.