For this last Friday film of the #CASatHome series, we speak to a museum curator about a particularly significant work in their collection. Olivia Heron, Assistant Curator at MIMA, has chosen a set of three works by the artist Chiara Camoni entitled Sisters, 2017.
It was donated by the Contemporary Art Society to MIMA in 2018 through the Jackson Tang Ceramic Award and was first exhibited at the museum in January 2019.
Chiara Camoni was born in Piacenza, Italy, in 1974. She lives in a village in the Tuscan hills, creating work within her home and garden. Her practice, encompassing drawing, sculpture, and installation, is about kinship. It considers the meanings we find, and create, through our relationships with each other and with the natural world. It draws on the symbols and rituals that shape human culture.
The materials Camoni chooses are elemental: clay, shells, bone, iron, and stone. Her works come to life with plant cuttings, water, human breath, lit candles. She evokes life cycles and transformations of matter in the physical world.
Her making practice centres on conversation and collaboration. Friends, family, neighbours and visitors join her at her kitchen table to work together: rolling, shaping, building, coiling clay. The process is habitual and meditative, like preparing food or tending a garden. Meanings and significances emerge through modest, repeated gestures conducted in company.
The works acquired for MIMA, Sister I, Sister III, and Sister IV are sculptures made of iron, clay, glazed clay and multi-coloured, lighted candles. As the candles burn, wax melts and drips down over the works and onto the floor. Each piece changes shape over time, and begins to merge with its environment, transforming the ground beneath with a residue of mingled colour. With each showing, new layers of wax drizzle down and accumulate, marking the passage of time.
Camoni’s practice is about meeting points between people, and between people and the physical world. Her works conjure a sense of continuum, blurring boundaries between making processes, ‘finished’ objects, and their ongoing life
Sisters, poised in formation, speak to each other and to the living bodies that move around them in the gallery. They assume human-like postures. One stands on spindly limbs. Another rests on the floor. Another, on a small pedestal, seems to raise its arms. They are imprinted with finger marks and hung with garlands, like prayer beads, evoking touch. The candles draw in oxygen, exude warmth and drip wax. Clay exists here in different states. Fired and anointed with glaze, fixed for now; or left raw, moisture leached out, but holding the potential to return to mud.
The rich associations held within these works connect to the Middlesbrough Collection, MIMA’s ethos, and to the town’s history in fascinating ways. The Middlesbrough Collection includes an incredible body of British studio pottery, largely inherited from the Cleveland Craft Centre (1982-2003). The Craft Centre built on the legacy of the Linthorpe Art Pottery in Middlesbrough (1879-1890), established by design pioneer Christopher Dresser and local brickworks owner John Harrison. They sought to combine industrial and design innovation, and boost employment by producing decorative ceramics from local clay.
Building on these layers of history, since opening in 2007, MIMA has explored connections between ceramics and contemporary art, with new acquisitions mapping out expanded practices in clay.
Sisters spoke to us for its materiality, but also its methodology. Camoni’s practice centres process, collaboration, and connection. Creating with clay is democratic. It is tactile, messy, and intuitive. Ceramics are part of our everyday social rituals; in the gallery, they connect art and life.
In recent years, MIMA has foregrounding social making as a means to build relationships and community. Through many public sessions and workshops, we have opened conversations and grown friendships with those around us.
Practically, before the works entered the collection we had to plan how we could display them safely. MIMA’s technical team conducted various tests to make sure we could show the works without compromising the gallery’s temperature and humidity controls or setting off the fire alarms. They also planned how we could safely invite publics to interact with the sculpture. This is where the magic began!
Sisters were on display at MIMA for a month, in the first weeks of 2019. The team invited different people from our community to light the candles each day. It was an opportunity to consider and recognise the many people who, in many ways, constitute who we are as an institution. It felt like a real occasion each time gatherings of people entered the low-lit space to encounter the works, then get up close to activate them.
Members of Creative Age, MIMA’s Dementia Friendly group, were one of the first groups to activate Sisters. Community partners, MIMA constituents, friends, groups, volunteers, and collaborators also carried the flame. This ritual was a way for us to show appreciation, trust and commitment to our publics, the owners of the collection. I hope it also invested Sisters with a plethora of personal meanings and associations.
When we showed Sisters in 2019, we wanted to celebrate social connections, and offer a shared moment of brightness in the winter dark, a hopeful motif that connects across cultures and traditions.
Today the work takes on new pertinence. We are travelling through a period of crisis. We are separated, but people are finding ways to come together, building new connections. Inequalities are exposed, but activists are fighting back with new strength. Lighting a candle has many meanings. Camoni’s evocative works conjure a range of possible associations and emotions, crossing from grief to vigil, memorial, ardour, and into hope and celebration. They are watchful and bright. They are about relationships, generosity, reciprocity, and transformation. Each time we show these works, I hope we can mark new and positive transformations in society.
Olivia Heron, June 2020