Whilst in residence here at Plymouth Arts Centre, artist AJ Stockwell has been continuing her research into the fictional society of ‘White Rock’, a utopian society fixated on the production and preservation of porcelain. The founding principle of White Rock was motivated by a desire for material empathy – to develop a deep understanding of geologic time through the act of making.
Chronicling the folk customs of ‘White Rock’ and taking influence from the wreck of the Metta Catharina; the history of porcelain trade by sea; and traditional folk songs and sea shanties, AJ has been working on a ballad of lost objects that she hopes to share with you on 14 September here at PAC. For more details on the event take a look here.
We sat down with AJ for a short Q&A on her work and how Plymouth has influenced her research.
Tell us about your background as an artist and introduce us to your practice…
I’m Scottish by birth but have moved around a lot and I think this peripatetic way of being has affected how and why I make work. My practice is rooted in sculpture but incorporates different mediums, such as text and performance, dependant on what I’m working on. My research often begins with a conversation around a particular object or material; I’m fascinated by our human preoccupation with objects and how we engage with material/matter through consuming these objects.
What inspired your work for the Standpoint Futures partnership?
My current work is based on the discovery of a utopian society obsessed with porcelain, named ‘White Rock’. The work I was developing during my Standpoint Futures residency was a continuation of this research but was focused on one particular area that was pertinent at that time.
The legend of White Rock is of an unknown society who built their lives around the rhythms and rituals of producing porcelain and who seek a deep understanding of geologic time through these practices. It’s an on-going project that was inspired by one simple line in a ceramics technical manual – to build empathy with the clay – and my own concerns around human-material relationships.
What influenced your interest in the re-telling of stories and historical narratives?
I’m interested in the purpose of re-telling /re-enacting stories and events to make some kind of point or to keep something alive in current memory and how these can be fabricated to support these aims. The story of ‘White Rock’ takes reference from the history of the porcelain industry in the UK, an industry that sculpted an entire landscape and was sparked by a desire to make desirable objects. This industry started right here in Plymouth. A local man named William Cooksworthy, who had a keen knowledge of different minerals through his training in a London apothecary, discovered kaolin (china-clay) deposits in Cornwall, a material that was crucial to making porcelain.
What have been the highlights so far during the White Rock project?
The generosity of all the people I have met and spoken to over the past few weeks. There are so many conversations that I want to continue and work that I want to make that without the knowledge and time of others would be near impossible.
Also, what has been the biggest challenge?
Trying to remain focused and not overload what I’m trying to do while I’m here. It’s easy to assume that 4 weeks is a lot of time to make work, but once you start the time slips away quickly and its important to remember what the purpose of the residency was in the first place, in this case to expand and develop my practice not to make a new body of work.
Tell us about how you’re developing this project while in Plymouth.
I’ve been working on a ballad for lost objects so have been researching a lot of folk songs and stories about shipwrecks, alongside talking to local folk musicians. The ballad is a lament by the people of ‘White Rock’ for porcelain objects that have been lost to the sea, now returned to where their material forbears once erupted and became land.
I wanted to experiment with ways of listening and how being underwater could emphasise the context of the song, so I’ve been trying out some underwater headphones in the lido. They’re bone conducting rather than inner ear so I can experience listening underwater without being completely cut-off from the other sounds around me, like the sound of the water and my movement in it.
What have you enjoyed most about being in Plymouth so far?
Being close to the sea has been wonderful, especially in the wind and rain, and is one of the reasons I wanted to work here. It can shift very dramatically and gives you a tremendous sense of how treacherous the water can be.
What advice would you give to emerging artists who are looking to develop their practice?
To be ambitious and keep working no matter how frustrating it may get at times. Also, to borrow a phrase from my mother, ‘shy bairns get nowt’, in other words if you don’t ask you won’t get an answer. Even if this is simply a question like, ‘what will happen if I try this in another material’. So keep asking questions of others and of yourself, it’s how you develop as a person and can keep your practice going.
Join AJ for a shanty, a pasty and a pint at the culmination of her residency, here in Plymouth Arts Centre on 14 September. More details can be found on the event page by clicking here.
You can also learn more about AJ’s work on her website.