Saturday, 30 October 2010

Here is the chaff

This is the second part of the work, the chaff or carvings out from the clay tablets. They were as much Juana's name as the cuneiform incisions I thought. I have wanted in this work to suggest something about the precious and irreplaceable. Here's what I came up with.


Well the firing's gone fine. The whole process is astounding. The kiln has a lit instrument panel on which you can see the heat building gradually through 600 degrees, followed by a short spike of 1200 degrees. And clay becomes stone. Even at that temperature, the sharp contours of the carved clay were preserved. I'm amazed with what I got away with. Last night and this morning have been the last minute fixings and packings-up which always take much longer than you think. I'm writing this post in town: the broadband's down. Now I'm going home to clear up the packing materials, the fragments of gold leaf, the clay dust, the sticky smears of gold size on the counter. Vacuuming, washing up, changing the water in the fish tank, and with that, I accept it's out of my hands, and I get back to something like what I call normal...

An image of the second part of the work follows...

Friday, 29 October 2010

Just heading to town to see what's happened in the kiln...

fingers crossed. In the meantime, here's the poem for Juana...


When I doodled
my own name

in dirt and sand and snow
I was also learning how

to map the cursive sierras and barrancas
of her name,

the swash J we share,
mem, mu, the sign for water,

the many aleph snarled
in its current like fish eggs,

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Resh, rho, the head,
he, the praying or calling figure,

shin or sigma. Only as we designed
and redesigned our first signatures

am I tutoring my hand in the quickstep
of her name, her names,

Juana Aguinaga Mares
Juana Iñiquez Mares

and the stylus to hop and prod and probe
in its plateau'd clay-flats like a wading bird.

With the acute awl of its bill
it's hiding her name in her name

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Here is the codicil,
the indelible petroglyph of her name,

here are its watersheds,
here is its chaff or till,

here are the untranslateable
canyons and the lunar basin

and range of the name
of her daughter's mother and her mother's

mi hijita

Juana Aguinaga Mares.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010


After gunmen murdered 14 teenagers at a birthday party in Cuidad Juarez on Friday, the Mexican president's response on twitter was cursory, suggesting that brutal violence in the state of Chihuahua is beginning to be seen as the normal order.

Tamsyn Challenger has asked 200 artists to create portraits of 400 women who have been murdered in Chihuahua in the last decade, 'confronting us with and safeguarding in our memory the dead and disappeared.' The exhibition is curated by Ellen Mara De Wachter.

Juana Aguinaga Mares was murdered in the Palo Chino neighborhood in 1997.

Tamsyn asked me to write a poem for the exhibition catalogue, to which Juana's name was integral. Amnesty International's Mexican team and the Rape Crisis centre in Cuidad Juarez were able to provide photographs of many of the murdered women, but none existed of Juana. I found it hard to imagine making something for Juana that was of any value. Except that she was a mother, everything I knew about her was inseparably connected to what I knew about her murder: the cause of her death, what she was wearing, where her body was found.

I wrote her name out in full. And again.

There was a tub of liquified porcelain on the kitchen counter. I poured some into the lid of a tobacco tin and set it on the radiator to dry. What fell from the tin the next day was a smooth tablet of clay, slightly rust-stained. I was able to erase the rust with nothing more abrasive than my fingerprint. I began to write Juana's name in the unfired clay. I wrote her name again and again until it was illegible.

It occurred to me that her name, written like this, was inseparable from the clay, as our DNA is inseparably written through us. Even when the tablet cracked, which it did, often, it cracked along the contours of her name. Since then, I've written her name hundreds of times, as you do when you're a child, learning to write your own name, as you design your signature for the first time. The poem for the catalogue is just an account of the work in porcelain, really. I'll post it in a day or so.

On Thursday I'm going to try firing the tablets. Fired porcelain is surprisingly strong, despite its translucency and apparent delicacy. Unfired, it's exceptionally fragile. The difficulty will be getting the tablets through the firing. They're thin and necessarily contain hundreds of weak points. They're also likely to warp, apparently. Updates on Friday as to how that's gone.

If the firing goes well, the tablets will be set in tobacco tins, lined with gold leaf. There's another tricky procedure, but I like the fact that the materials I am using to commemorate the name of Juana Aguinaga Mares are fragile and precious, difficult and dear.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Snow in October...

what kind of winter does that portend? Well, I'm liking staying in, anyway. I've been looking after some friends' creatures over the October break: ducks, hens, cats and a glorious ginger pig called Mildred. I let them out of their houses in the morning, back in at night to protect them from polecats, and in between, water, corn and vegetables and Whiskers and something that looks like cornflakes for the ducks, keeping an eye on the weather. A matins, compline and vespers. In between I'm working hard and better. I've succumbed again to the temptation to rewrite the first 80 000 words of the novel, finally settling it in the first person and the past tense. This is clearing out some of the clag: it's flowing better. And I'm making writing tablets of unfired porcelain, for a project by Tamsyn Challenger and Ellen Mara De Wachter called 400 Women. I'm writing one woman's name over and over in the unfired clay, retaining the shards and clay dust that I carve out. I'll post photographs soon and write a bit more about my thinking, but I'm wanting to go a bit further with the technique first...

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Guillet's Goby

Very excited that my pal Rachel Hope with Richard Shucksmith has found and photographed Europe's smallest fish here in Shetland.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Poetry Week on Radio Shetland

To celebrate National Poetry Day this Thursday, Radio Shetland's hosting local poets reading their own work on the theme of "Islands."

Listen again to Keith Simpson reading 'Miss South Shetland' and keep an ear out throughout the week for readings by Mark Ryan Smith, Rhoda Bulter and me...just before the 6 o'clock news. I'll post a link to Laureen Johnson's excellent reading of 'Islanders' from yesterday if I can but work out the iPlayer!

Limpet Fever

Here's the new generation of limpets. These are in unfired porcelain so they're still fragile and dusty and I have to watch out when I open the curtains each morning. I really like them at this stage: if I decide I don't like the shape of this one or that (I'm aspiring for a very particular shape: not too scalene, not too equilaterial, not too pointy, not too bulgy) I can crush them into a tupperware tub of water and melt them down to wet clay again. A sort of life cycle. At some point I'll bite the bullet and fire them.

Limpet fever. At least I'm not the only one...

Long Live the Limpet