Curiosity: Porcelain land-mine
Title: Landmine (Princess Diana)
Artist: Conrad Atkinson, N.D.D., A.T.D., RA’s (Hons.), Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, (born 1940, Cleator Moor, West Cumbria)
Measurements: 230mm high, 140mm diameter
Not all curiosities intended for my cabinet come from the storage area next to the Reading Room or are as pleasant to look at as last month’s Eragny Press book. This startling object is on display at the Ceramics Gallery that is part of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Ever since I had seen it for the first time, it had baffled me, and I decided that one day I would find out about its meaning. Well, the day has come now, and its history is quite an interesting one.
I could not find out how many of those land-mines were created in total, but, according to my information, it must have been at least 20. This specific one was bought by the Curator of Ceramics, Professor Moira Vincentelli, in 1998 and is part of the ‘Souvenirs’ series. She had met and interviewed the artist the same year at the Symposium Hot of the Press Two, arranged by pioneering ceramicist Paul Scott (GB) and Maria Geszler (H) at the Ceramic Studio in Kecskemét, Hungary. Professor Vincentelli had been invited to document the event. (If you’d like to read the interview, please click here.). Atkinson was also asked by The United States Campaign to Ban Land Mines to support their endeavour as their ‘official artist’ the same year.
The land-mine was made with the slip casting process; this means that the casting slip was poured into a mould, and, as the plaster absorbed the water, the clay dried out into the desired shape. It was then bisque fired. Bisque firing is the first firing at a fairly low temperature before an object is glazed. It can then be decorated and/or glazed and fired for a second time. It includes a metal pin and gold detailing. The images that were taken from newspapers were added via in-glaze transfer (often called on-glaze transfer).
Although the works are handmade from a beautiful material, porcelain, and bear images of, for example, Dürer’s Praying Hands, scenes from the movie Gone with the Wind or even cutesy pictures of puppies and kittens, the threat that they seem to emanate can’t be ignored. Their shape, modelled on the ‘real thing’, overrides almost completely their aesthetic qualities. Just as the School of Art’s land-mine is placed among decorative Swansea porcelain at the Arts Centre Ceramic Gallery, the other land-mines were also placed with other museum objects such as 18th century clocks, ancient sculptures or a stuffed deer in a naturalistic display. However, no matter where they’re included, they stick out like the proverbial sore thumb and evoke an atmosphere of destruction. Just as they take the museum or gallery visitor by surprise, their real counterparts would catch their victims without warning or chance of escape. On the land-mine’s top, the artist included a quote from Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind (1936): “The land they live on is like their mother.” Filling the ground with land-mines, turns the land/mother, who is supposed to nourish and support her children, into a treacherous and destructive enemy.
As far as I could discover, Tim Graham, who spent part of his photographer career producing photographs of the Royal Family, originally took the pictures of Princess Diana walking through a minefield in Kuito and visiting with land-mine victims at the International Red Cross’ prosthetic centre at Huambo, during her trip to Angola in January 1997. Another image apparently shows Diana as a three-year-old; unfortunately, I could not find the original source.
There are of course a lot of comments by Atkinson himself about the land-mine series. You can find links to more interviews and information about exhibition catalogues below.
Apologies for not choosing a curiosity with a more ‘cheerful’ story, but I felt that this work is really important and should have a special place in my cabinet.
Atkinson, Conrad and Hudek, Antony.”Excavating the Body Politic: An Interview with Conrad Atkinson.” Art Journal 62.2. (2003): 4-21. JSTOR. Web. 12 Dec. 2016.
Conrad Atkinson. Kendal: Abbot Art Gallery, 2000. Print.
Davies, Peter et al. Conrad Atkinson: Transient. Carlisle: Tullie House, 1996. Print.
Morley-Fletcher, Hugo cons. ed. Techniques of the World’s Great Masters of Pottery and Ceramics. Oxford: Phaidon, 1984, Print.
Neidhardt, Jane E. ed. Conrad Atkinson: Mining Culture in Technicolor. Atlanta: Atlanta College of Art Gallery, 1998. Print.
Peterson, Susan. The Craft and Art of Clay: A Complete Potter’s Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Laurence King, 1995. Print.
Trench, Lucy ed. Materials & Techniques in the Decorative Arts: An Illustrated Dictionary. London: John Murray, 2000. Print.