Raw material, On Ester Beck's Work

By Shlomit Baumann

The texts accompanying Ester Beck's previous exhibition, UN- RUHE, devote significant detail to the various aspects of the relationship between the artist's action and the final object[1]. A renewed examination of her work allows us to reflect on these strategies through different readings. Over the years, Beck's body of work has revolved around itself, around the potter's wheel, around the body, the body's actions and the body's material. Hence, the obvious context seems to be Action Art[2], meaning gestures, movements and actions that leave a colorful and structural mark on the material. These actions, which form the foundation for a relationship between the body and the material, also embody the basis for a reconsideration of the origin of Beck's work: pottery. Beck now continues the trend she began in recent years, in which she disrupts the potter's work, extending the boundaries of operation and stretching the limits both of the material she shapes and of her artistic abilities.

Pottery is a traditional field based on the wisdom of hands and highly coordinated interaction between the hand, head, tools, machinery and material. This tradition is studied in a long and patient initiation process, in which the trainee learns how to control the material through painstaking practice. Gradually, the trainee internalizes the potter's work, which is based on formal manipulations of the material by applying pressure while rotating it. This action comes from the improvement of skills such as concentration, intuition, a profound understanding of the material and understanding the strength and rhythm that is right for each action. A discussion of the blurring of boundaries between the potter, who uses his hands and body as creative tools, and the creative subject, is at the forefront of the contemporary pottery discourse: From Peter Voulkos[3], who freed pottery from the yoke of usability, to Ryoji Koie[4], who tends to rely on the quality of traditional Japanese pottery while adding to it contemporary features.

Beck's work corresponds with such artists and Voulkos and Koie; it sheds prior knowledge and years of tradition that underlay the potter's action and deconstructs the relationship between the body, the device and the material. Beck reverses the very same gruelling initiation process required in order to absorb knowledge of the complex work of a potter, and it now takes place in antithetical dynamics: In recent years, Beck has undergone the process of "emitting" her knowledge, cleansing herself from it, and letting it go.

Thus, lacking all presumptions, Beck stands in front of a moist lump of clay weighing between 80-100 kilos. She first examines it: What relationship will develop between the two of them? How will she affect it? How will it respond to her? Will it fall apart? This huge lump of material is not lying in front of her by chance. Beck prepared it with the meticulousness of a craftswoman with the wisdom of hands and sweeping energy, melding gentle layers of white, gray and brown matter into the black ceramics. The choice of colour and type of material usually brings to mind a geographical location or cultural context. Beck's choice of black matter indicates the very shedding of these contexts and a new correspondence with imagined landscapes. Therefore, her decision to repel all premises begins at the early stages of choosing the type of material to work with. Preparing it as a giant pile, like a kind of three-dimensional canvas, allows Beck to investigate the meanings of the raw materials we use and the relations she, as an artist has with them. Only then does the process with and on the matter begin. Through an intimacy between the body and the substance, and virtually no other means but her hands and basic aids, Beck stretches the material, explores it and pushes it to its limits, creating an abstract poetic construct. While she half-wrestles half-merges with the material as she shapes the object, a dynamics of control and flow materializes, moving from collapse to expansion, from structure to motion.

In the book Lost Craft[5], the author describes various types of craft that have vanished from the world. She also describes the basic steps necessary to reinstate them. The book seeks to preserve practical bodies of knowledge that are expressed in different craft professions which do not serve us anymore[6]. The author's starting point is that the material practices abandoned in favour of new methods are an important body of knowledge that deserve documentation. Beck's method of work can be seen as part of the same romantic and fawning practice that preserves methods of action as a tribute to the sense of loss and a glorification of anti-technology, which characterizes the attitude toward the past. Indeed, the essence of Beck's starting point can be interpreted as an act of defiance against technology and innovation, or alternatively, defiance in face of the dominance of technological culture. But beyond that, it is a choice for direct human contact. Instead of choosing the many technological means available to us today, Beck chooses to reduce the use of technological tools and accessories to zero. Instead of mediating her work through technology, she chooses direct contact, the stretching of the body's limits, the ritual of the real relationship with matter, sweat and mud. It seems, then, that by choosing this method of work, Beck takes yet another step toward the shedding of assumptions: As someone who started out as a potter, she is separating from the obvious - the wheel, while honing her new relationship with the material, which began in her previous works, and which takes her toward a clear and precise place.

Beck's actions are rooted in the question regarding their location in consciousness: What are these objects? In what language can we understand them? The language of art? Design? Craft? It seems that regarding these content fields, Beck sheds the conventional assumptions in favour of deconstruction and the stretching of boundaries. Thus, Beck's works do not clearly belong to one of the fields of art/craft/design. Rather, they belong in the blurred but most interesting borders between these fields and they shift and change as they refer to the various fields of design, expressive sculptures and longstanding traditions.

It follows that a reading of Ester Beck's works displayed in the exhibition "Black and Beyond," indicates how they explore, in a broad, comprehensive and accurate manner, a wide range of assumptions. Starting from questions of definitions and the blurring of boundaries between the fields of art, design and craft; through to the shedding of strategies stemming from the tradition of pottery; to the ceding of technological options and reducing the scope of the artist's playing field to an arena of touch alone.

This body of work suggests a return to the basics and essence of creativity as a re-examination of every stage in the creation process. This inspection proves that the expansion of the boundaries can be created specifically through limited action, avoiding the possibility to operate without clear definitions. Beck's direct physical involvement in the creation of the object obscures the boundaries between "treated" and "organic" objects, while preserving the material's coarse nature. The enhancement of the process is reflected in the final result, which is reminiscent of the starting point from which she began: A pile of fresh untreated and "raw" matter, which becomes, thanks to Beck's action, an object made of "raw" textures, black, rough and bare, large, open and full of motion.

April 2014