author: marilyn walters | photographer: richard weinstein
A defining link between the processes of making and the aesthetic power generated by these processes is immediately obvious and arresting in the body of work entitled Manifesto Animale by Walter Auer, exhibited at Mura Clay Gallery, Newtown in July, 2007. Of these processes, firing is of paramount importance. Through a rigorous firing method, discarded soft toys soaked in clay slips, are transformed into quite confronting symbols of vulnerability and pathos. Sealed within metal drums, lids weighted down to ensure no oxygen enters or smoke escapes, the pieces undergo a petrifying process similar to that produced in smoke firing. It can take four to five such firings, to temperatures ranging from 999 – 1060°C, for the artist to achieve the desired result. Terracotta terra sigillata, copper oxide and copper carbonate increase the physical strength of the works, but the surfaces achieved through this punishing firing sequence appear as fragile and as delicate as newspaper ash.
Walter Auer’s methods differ from traditional black firing in that traces of the original material remain in the form of ashes within the slip forms. In the first firing the material presence of the soft toy actually remains within the carbonized exterior of the form. After a second or third firing this material is transformed into ashes still contained within the shell of the form. For Walter, the transformation of the original soft material to these ashen traces reflects different stages of creation and changing states of being, just as the ethereal nature of smoke reflects the fragility, the fleeting nature and the uncertainty of life.
Trained in Faenza, Italy, and Turkey, Walter has also travelled and studied traditional methods in Japan and North America. Historical precedents and influences also include Etruscan and Greek smoke-fired black ware but his strongest influence comes from Africa, its people and landscape. His involvement with Africa has been intimate and ongoing, from teaching wheel skills in a Leper colony to working with communities in Ethiopia and Eritrea amid war, death and the daily struggle to survive. In such contexts, pottery is made as part of life, an everyday need, produced as required with whatever materials are available, but importantly, retaining through a vital sense of ceremony, the life-affirming rituals of creation. African pottery produced under these conditions is never far from its origins. The pieces retain the evidence of their making in their forms and surfaces.
Walter’s extraordinary experiences in Africa are curiously reflected in Manifesto Animale, particularly in the immediacy of these carbonised teddy bears, which gaze out at the viewer from their containing perspex display boxes.
The teddy bear, to Western sensibilities, is synonymous with childhood, with innocent wisdom and stoicism; the teddy is the constant companion, comforter, confessor, and alter-ego. Often, also, in this age of information technologies, the seemingly insignificant item, the well-loved toy, can become the most valued. But in these abandoned and blackened remnants of childhood, we see a disturbing shift of meaning and association towards something threatening. We return the gaze of these abused creatures as if we have been guilty of some unmentionable atrocity. Our very humanity is challenged.
Above: Two American Mystics, h.25cm, w.20cm, d.5cm
In this exhibition, teddies, along with other significant soft toys such as Sesame Street characters, reindeers and dolls are ascribed human roles or placed in confined and confrontational association with traces of human activity such as discarded underwear, cloth, paper doilies and pieces of string. In one perspex box a scorched teddy with bright, wondering, blue beaded eyes appears overwhelmed by a pair of giant human underpants.
Any humour conveyed by the underwear is dwarfed, however, by the fear and confusion implicit in the attitude of the teddy looking up at this huge garment. In another box, a reindeer, potent Western symbol of Christmas and its accompanying mythology, is here blackened and blindfolded and nursing a baby in a chilling parody of the Madonna and Child.
In a slightly less terrifying piece, two Sesame Street puppet figures appear to be conversing as they stroll along, under the blackly humorous title of Two American Mystics. Two more bears ambiguously stroll either away from the viewer or, facelessly towards them. In this work, the viewer and the reality represented by them are either being ignored or are in some way responsible for the loss of identity implied in the faceless forms of the animal characters.
The perspex display boxes are important in determining the rules of engagement with these pieces. They at once define the space in which the forms are contained and the boundaries of their reality. These small narratives of loss are thus separated from the larger reality and concentrated in their own anguished space. The viewer cannot touch these fragile objects despite the urge to do so, to somehow comfort and restore some indefinable essence.
Critic Robert Hughes once described an image by Max Ernst as having the charm and the menace of a booby-trapped toy.1 In many ways these works have the same kind of power that Hughes alluded to: the power to fascinate and at the same time, to arouse a blend of pathos and horror. Walter Auer has taken symbols of our innocence and faith and transformed them into charred fragile shells which might, at the slightest touch, disintegrate and collapse into ash. The transformation of one substance to another carries the transformation of ideas from one state of consciousness to another. As the nature of the object is changed from soft, reassuring, innocent, to charred, ossified, and carbonized, so we are reminded of our own damaged consciousness and our tenuous hold on life.
1.Robert Hughes, Shock of the New, London, BBC, 1980, p 222
Dr Marilyn Walters is an artist and writer working in Sydney and the UK