28 November - 21 December 2001


Fernando Casasempere

Fernando Casasempere and Margaret O'Rorke are not potters you would automatically link with each other. In some ways they are opposites: earth and fire versus air and light, solidity and weight-lessness, Caliban and Ariel.

But in talking to them and considering their work more similarities than differences emerge. Both have a gut feeling for pottery. They experiment and struggle to extend the possibilities of difficult material. They take risks. Both could also be working in different media - Fernando as a sculptor in bronze, Margaret in glass or plastics. Yet both are committed to clay. It is through clay that they expose their autobiographies and their relationships with the world. They are potters first and last.

Fernando's workshop in London's far-east is a surprise - like a well-ordered science lab, with carefully laid out samples; evidence of his meticulously experimental approach. Ranks of blue barrels line the room, each filled with 250 kilos of Chilean clay. Fernando works with, and is surrounded by, the earth of his native land. This is the fruit of an environmental project, funded by the Andes Foundation, which allowed Fernando to explore Chile for materials. He fixed upon the waste of copper mines, recycled industrial residues washed and mixed with clay, sand from the Atacama desert and shells from the middens along Chile's coastline. Fernando is helping to regenerate the industrial wastelands of Stratford using the waste products of Chile.

In Fernando Casasempere's previous exhibition at Galerie Besson some of the work had an almost alien strangeness: magma exuded through tectonic faults or ancient tools abandoned by astronauts from beyond Alpha Centauri. Yet you had only to pick up these objects to realize that they were human artefacts, made by squeezing fluid clay into sensuous tactile forms. They fitted the human hand perfectly.

The new work is more ambitious - larger, softer, monumental forms, made by Fernando literally wrestling with the clay, wrapping his arms or legs around the still malleable material; gently but firmly moulding it to constrain the impression of his body. In the words of AiméĚCésaire "merveilleusement couché le corps de mon pays dans le désespoir de mes bras' (the body of my country wonderfully lying in the despair of my arms).*

Some forms are reminiscent of Brancusi or Barbara Hepworth; they have the timelessness and durability of megaliths or water-worn stones. And they make visible the invisible spaces formed by the human body or, more specifically, Fernando's own body.

But these are not just unique forms .The surface treatment, dusted with crushed scallop shell, polished with agate, creates a tactile ceramic, sometimes reminiscent of iron, bronze, or granite, and suffused with marvellously subtle colours.

Margaret O'RorkeIn contrast Margaret O'Rorke's work seems to be from another planet. In fact some of my favourite O'Rorke pieces look like planets - glowing orbs, randomly pitted and striated; in a darkened room they are miraculously ethereal.

Margaret works in porcelain, but unlike many potters, chooses to stretch and cajole this difficult material to its limits. Her experience in Japan alongside that most joyfully eccentric slayer of convention, Ryoji Koie, has introduced a vitality and freedom into her approach to porcelain, a material often treated with over-restraint and cautious respect. Her use of artificial light enhances the translucence of Audrey Blackman's Porcelain Body which is her principal material - reminding us that the name 'porcelain' refers to the little pigs or cowrie shells, whose natural translucence ceramic alchemists strained so hard to imitate.

While Margaret's pottery has a modernist purity her forms often mirror nature - seed pods, leaves, ripples in the water or trilobites, inspired by her relation with the landscape. It is not surprising, therefore, that her latest 'reed pots' literally make use of plant material - reeds from the banks of the Thames. Around these she wraps the clay, like a teepee skin around its poles.

Silica is one of the most plentiful materials within plant tissue. It gives the cutting edge to a blade of grass. When the reeds burn in Margaret's firing process the silica remains - what archaeologists call phytoliths ('plant stones'), some of which, in the Amud Cave in Israel, provide the earliest evidence for human plant collecting 50,000 years ago. Margaret belongs to a long tradition of hunter-gatherers.

There is an uncertain randomness about both Margaret's and Fernando's pots. No matter how skilful they are, the process is not entirely within their control. This creates a tension in their work but not a problem. Like Koie they are content to leave the final result in the hands of the Kami - the nature gods of Shinto who contribute to the creative process and represent man's co-existence with nature, a nature whose elemental power lies in beauty, in storms, earthquakes and eruptions.

Here are two potters who produce work to feel and think about.

'O brave new world
That has such people in't'

David Miles
Chief archæologist
English Heritage

*AiméĚCésaire , Cahier d'un retour au pays natal. Bloodaxe Books.
Translated by Mireille Rosello and Anne Pritchard.