Words by Martin Holman
Artist Steven Claydon is astounded by the strangeness of the world; an outlook that takes shape, literally, in his work.
This multifaceted, omni-curious artist pulls ideas and possibilities out of the multiplicity of things that the world contains. “Art is a suspension of disbelief. Invited to see, we divest ourselves of our prejudice and begin to engage. Objects will be what you want them to be,” says Steven Claydon. The scope of his enquiry has limits and, as an artist, he concentrates his attention on objects. All have a name, assigned by mankind – a pot, a head, a plant, a screen, a length of wood – and frequently a tradition. Many can be traced to periods in human history spanning hundreds of years. Claydon puts these different types and eras together. The result is unusual and unfamiliar, like a cultural ‘middle of Lidl’ where categories mix into a fresh context. For the onlooker, known distinctions are blurred. Shorn of their labels, the objects become mute and porous in meaning. He likens the effect to chemistry where diverse elements bond to put a new compound, with new effects, into the world.
“What I’m trying to do,” he states disarmingly, “is to engender an original encounter.” To that end he might mix genuine, original artefacts with replicas, that is, not the ‘real thing’ but copies, casts or fakes, realised in different materials. His production is not sculpture in the strict sense; and his method is primarily shaped by questioning and research. The hybrid combinations that result help him work through his ideas about value, history and the nature of existing. They are like propositions and, since the start of the century, have been shown in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles, in galleries where he hopes the encounters he seeks will take place.
Not surprisingly, the museum is a fertile source for the preconceptions he seeks to transform. An installation by Claydon takes after modern museum display: the plinth or pedestal he designs is an integral part of the work. In museums, objects can undergo an invisible change, not in appearance, but in meaning and status. A humble vessel from the Bronze Age no longer carries grain or water as it once did but becomes a treasured historical document and a valuable commodity. That was not the vessel’s choice; human history assigned it this distinguished role.
For a short time, Claydon worked in the Natural History Museum in London. That museum employed graduates to guide the public to the storerooms and hidden places. He discovered that few people wanted to explore behind the scenes. But, already an artist, he wandered those corridors to see objects in the collection that were out of public sight and temporarily beyond the classifying of curators. He thought about the decisions that made commonplace objects so special. Did they exude that acquired stature when wrapped and stored? Or did they retrieve their essential ‘thingness’ in that setting and even change again?
The consequence of this investigation is that impact of these objects upon the viewer, upon the world, moves beyond the artist’s control. This may not be everyone’s idea of the purpose of art, or the deal that galleries usually offer when they give an artwork a home. The repercussions for the everyday observer are, therefore, exciting: watching objects create their own impression. Claydon renders a surprising freedom to every aspect of the encounter. Indeed, he actively avoids drawing any conclusions of his own. The viewer’s knowledge of his references is not necessarily important. In fact, not knowing is part of what makes the process of looking so interesting.
The ‘passage of materials’ he witnessed in the storerooms helps to explain his way of working. Old and new are often mixed on plinth-like supports and tables into a single assembled piece. The items he uses have often had previous lives in the service of humans, by whom their function is categorised. Containers are a particular draw for Claydon because they constitute the banal part of a transaction, such as the box that contains the Amazon delivery and that is broken up on arrival. Except that, through time, the vessels that packaged contents of value – grain, oil, wine – have survived long after their cargoes have vanished.
The vessel, although quickly discarded as useless, seems to have the survival instinct. Ceramic amphorae (a vase-like form with a pointed body used for storage from the earliest times) are still found in shards and fragments by archaeologists to become special relics. Claydon turns his attention to things like that, even updating the concept to the modern equivalent, mass-produced plastic drums that freight goods around the globe. Bought for little money and then dumped, are they the survivors from our civilisation, puzzled over by curators centuries from now and treasured in their museums? That idea stalks the artist’s use of these drums set up in incongruous, even grand locations.
Asking questions about everyday objects elicits healthily ambiguous results, as if the object holds the trump card. In ‘Playerless Games (Kamidana)’, a glass-topped, cuboid open structure no more than shin height supports a circular, broad-waisted earthenware pot containing dried flowers or wheat. A braided strand drops from the neck of the vessel to the glass top where a few blister packs of the type associated with pharmaceuticals lie scattered. Some of the thermoformed plastic pillows have been pushed through and emptied. A heavy dusting of an innocuous flaky powder frames the table’s perimeter but the matting underneath, that looks like a coir doormat, is still visible. Illuminating this display is the strong bulb in the overhead lamp, slung low by cables hanging from the ceiling.
The objects under the beam of light have a golden colour. Claydon likes colour as light that floods a gallery or a monochrome surface to cover a single piece. Here the tone is set by the copper ceramic glaze of the vase, carried into the mat and flakes, then lightened by the wheat and made luxurious by the pill packs. The onlooker’s eyes scour the evidence for clues and the temptation – or urge – is to spin a story around the parts that explains this concentrated, intense scenario. What does it mean?
While Claydon does not hinder the desire to interpret, he does not assist it. In fact, he says provocatively that “I think narrative is a… slightly dodgy thing. Even in the most rigorous academic and legalistic way – it’s always emotive.” Mildly reproached, the viewer might then take in the voiceless installation more objectively, seeing in the pot, for instance, signs of its historic, Japanese heritage and sensing the geological history enclosed within the flakes. Meanwhile the pill pack, the sort thrown out from every household, shows signs of inauthenticity by harbouring precious metal. On that level, the objects overturn assumptions and challenge us to reveal more of themselves.
This artist is candid in his views about authorship. The public assumes every maker conceives a work from the start. Claydon considers himself as a channel or conduit through which flows awareness of the inherent qualities in existing objects or newly made. Those qualities might be as diffuse as their poetry and beauty, and they are revealed through the relationships; he says that he lets “something come out”.
Claydon’s own engagement with the world is augmented by synaesthesia, when one sensory impression is experienced through another sense. Thus, words can stimulate a colour in his perception; for others with the condition, smells could bring forward sounds. The gift is both troubling and enriching, and has a bearing on his own encounters with people and objects. Through his work, his audience does not become synaesthetic, too, but their responses can be as open and unpredictable.
There have been some key encounters in his own life, such as first working with clay as a child at a fair in Putney, south London. Ceramics remains part of his practice. Another event was seeing Bladerunner, the thematically complex science fiction film directed by Ridley Scott where a vision of the future and nostalgia for the past are expressed in the same breath. In fact, the film portrays a kind of future-past state, with one character, the humanoid replicant Roy, lamenting as he dies that his memories “will be lost in time, like tears in rain”.
Claydon grew up in London in a family with no connection with art. From an early age, however, the possibility of expressing ideas through making became more apparent to him. At the same time, he was increasingly active in experimental music, playing drones and bagpipes, and collecting old synthesisers as a teenager. At art school in the capital he joined a band, gigged and moved on to another group, called Relaxed Muscle, that was fronted by Jarvis Cocker. Involved in composing film scores, he appeared in cameo movie parts, one of which was Gideon Crumb, the bagpipe player in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
West Penwith became his base seven years ago, with his partner, the painter Lucy Stein, and their young family. He already knew Cornwall from family caravan holidays and as a student on college field trips. Special projects have followed, such as a commission from the Leach Pottery in St Ives. Like Bernard Leach himself, Claydon has formed professional relationships in Korea and Japan to reflect on contemporary cultural exchange between East Asia and Britain.
While at the pottery, he investigated the ceramic grenades created in the Second World War. Short of metal for munitions, the Japanese regime commanded craftsmen, trained in providing delicate utensils for the highly ritualised Zen tea ceremony, to produce clay cases for explosives. Claydon was struck by the contradiction in applying techniques associated with reconciliation (the tea ritual’s traditional purpose) to making instruments of destruction. Contradictions interest Claydon as do inversions of cultural customs. In Buddhism, the vessel is regarded as a body or a little human, a context incompatible with its use in war.
The passage of time between past, present and future permeates all Claydon’s work. It is apparent in ‘Transmitter’, the tall, totem-like artwork unveiled in November at Pool Academy, outside Camborne. Made in collaboration with Year 7 students, it combines elements in steel with casts in aluminium into a type of cultural antenna that the artist describes as a “relationship between what we know and what we don’t.”
A crown of individual panels sits on top of a vertical shaft replicating different materials. Casts of an ancient wood beam and old clay pipes channel the area’s post-industrial character into the work through shape, marks and materials. The panels contain pictograms and signs drawn by the students and sand cast in metal. They resemble ancient tablets, an idea that followed visits together to see medieval graffiti in local churches. Those inscriptions once conveyed secret messages but now appear impenetrable, encrypted by time. Likewise, with digital networks vital to life today, the artist adds that “’Transmitter’ is communicating things, but in an obscure way.”
“A key discovery the students made with Steven at Chysauster Ancient Village,” says Jonty Lees, the artist leading the Reverberate project at the school, “is that heritage isn’t something distant. It informs who we are today and what we do tomorrow.” Indeed, English Heritage provided funding alongside other supporters for this grassroots project in which young people “re-discover, re-imagine and re-create” their local heritage through creativity.
Claydon talks about artists as time-travellers. He says that fifteenth-century painting inspires him as much as today’s art; both have been the avant-garde of their time. Artists look back and forward simultaneously in their work, and at the same time express a hunch about the world around them and how future generations might see it. In Claydon’s output, objects are the transmitters, acquiring a new liveliness when modified by their changing environment. This artist exists to assist with connections; art routes the social network of display that releases that exciting freshness of being.
Steven Claydon is represented by Sadie Coles HQ, London, and Massimo De Carlo, Milan, Paris, London, Hong Kong. For more information about ‘Transmitter’ at Pool Academy and the Pool School Gallery, visit poolschoolgallery