Ephemeral Ceramics: An interview with performance artist Taylor Stamm

by Angela Frakes

Taylor Stamm, an art student specializing in ceramics at Kalamazoo College, completed her Senior Individualized Project (SIP) in Studio Art this winter. She will be graduating this June with a Bachelors of Arts in Studio Art, having received Honors on her SIP, called “A Muddy Mastery.” Her solo show was in the Light Fine Arts Building Gallery from April 1st until April 8th. Stamm worked with earthenware clay throughout the whole process, exploring performance art as well as themes of gender and sexuality. Her final exhibition consisted of three separate performances.

Taylor Stamm, Plinth of clay from Performing Sexed Interactions (Performance #1). April 3, 2012

In the gallery for the first performance, she had a low bed-sized platform with a thick layer of wet clay, covered with a large sheet of canvas. [1] She walked silently and slowly on top of the canvas, creating countless indentations and marks in the clay; the negative space of her feet, hands, and body. These actions were accompanied by recorded sounds of wet clay being thrown onto the plinth. She ended by removing the canvas and hanging it on the wall behind the platform, revealing the shapes created in the clay with her body.

For her second performance she walked into the room and stood to the left of a waist-high podium holding a hollow block of clay with slip inside. She slowly removed a piece of canvas covering it and stuck the length of her forearm into the hole at the top of the block, sliding it in and out repeatedly. This created sloppy noises with the slip sloshing around in the cavity, moving in and out with her hand. It was a very sensual, slow piece where she was penetrating a solid, unmoving object. At the end she wiped her hands on a piece of loose canvas nailed to the wall behind the block of clay.

Taylor Stamm, Still from Untitled (Performance #2). April 3, 2012

Her third performance featured two podiums along one wall, both holding a piece of clay with small pieces of canvas covering a part of each. She started at the right, standing in front of the clay and caressing the outside of it with her hands, removing the canvas and placing it on the front of the podium. Raising her head and pressing her lips into the surface of the clay, in sensual movements she extracted a long nail with her mouth. She then knelt down in front of the left podium and inserted the nail into the front of the piece. She then stood up and punched down into a cavity in the block of clay. This splattered slip along the walls and floor, and she inserted both hands into the cavity and smeared the excess slip across her mouth. She walked back to the right block of clay, crouching down in front of the canvas on the podium, pressed her mouth to it and slid her hands down the front, leaving traces of her body in wet clay on the canvas. She then crouched down with her head on the floor in front of it for a very silent few minutes.

Taylor Stamm, block of clay after Untitled (Performance #3). April 6th, 2012

I was able to sit down with Stamm to discuss a few elements of her performances and the rest of the work she has done this year, primarily with ceramics and earthenware clay. The themes of intimacy, non-permanence, and a very deep, personal connection to the material drive the project as a whole. Her final performances were a culmination of months of experimentation with the clay and, as process-driven pieces rather than objects and products (traditionally associated with ceramics), the performances allow the audience to gain a deeper understanding of humans’ innate connection to clay and the sensuality of the material that comes across with Stamm’s exposed private interactions with it.

Angela Frakes: Can you introduce your SIP portfolio; talk a little bit about what you did for your senior thesis?

Taylor Stamm: Well, I started out with a material, which was earthenware clay. I mixed most of it and knew I was going to do something with it, but wasn’t quite sure what. After meeting periodically with my advisor I decided that I would at least get into a process of basically working with this material in whatever way I kind of instinctually would respond and then would break it down, reclaim it, dry it out again, reuse it.

I got into this process and that developed into what was my final exhibition, which was a performative exhibition. I did three separate and different performance pieces all tying into the theme of women and sexuality. But it was more broad in the end. [It was more about] gender and sexuality and how that those frustrations and questions I have in real life tied to my experience with this material. That’s how it ended up. So there were video elements and photographs used as documentation towards the portfolio, but the actual art was the performances.

AF: So there’s that performance aspect and also the deep connection to the material. Can you talk about permanence in your work – for example, your choice to use wet clay instead of firing; also the temporary aspect of performance?

TS: Yeah I guess it feels a lot like a lack of permanence to me because a lot of the things I would think about when I would work with the material were fleeting thoughts, fleeting emotions. I found very early on a very cathartic and expressive outlet with the material and that’s what drew me to it initially. I didn’t have any great experience with wheel throwing or hand building. A lot of people who are in ceramics have that, and for me it was more of a connection on an emotional level. So earlier on I would make a lot of stuff in class – a lot of objects. But I was never really attached to them. I would just do something because I liked the motion or I liked the way that my body could interact with it. I wouldn’t have any desire to fire it and keep it or anything. Maybe part of that is not wanting to have to deal with glazing it and everything. But later I thought if this is persistent, it has a lot to do with my connection to this material and the way I’m interacting with it. So it was very ephemeral. Very non-permanent. I felt okay with that. At times I was self-conscious because a lot of people expect a sculptor or a ceramics artist to make objects. I do, but that didn’t feel like the strongest part of my artistic identity.

There were a lot of things that weren’t permanent about it, and I had to think about ways to keep it kind of permanent. That’s when I had to rely on other people – friends that were photographers, friends who could take video and document my experience with the clay in the performances. That didn’t really happen until the last exhibition so it was quite nerve wracking. I didn’t really know what was going to happen from that.

AF: In the performances you didn’t know what to expect.

TS: Everything was in the moment. That’s the way I live my life. So there’s some merit in me deciding to do [these performances], but I felt so vulnerable. Especially with some topics so very personal… I spent a lot of time on my artist’s statement… which said that this material reflects my muddied understanding of my sexuality and the way I understand myself as a woman and my frustrations, the pleasures I find, how I can or cannot explain that, and how I see that in the world. [2] That is what I was trying to say, whether that came out or not.

AF: So within these performances, there’s the engagement with the material itself, which seems to be the primary motive; but also there’s the audience. Did you have to remove yourself from the fact that there was an audience there? What did you feel like you were engaging with or interacting with the most in your performance – in relation to the audience or the material – what you had to focus on, what you had to ignore?

TS: I actually had some reservations in what I ended up doing [for the performances] because this is a small campus and I was going to know the people that came. I made a definite effort to get into a zone where I was just in my own head. Even in the few moments before the performance began, I would disregard everyone around me and just walk through and go to my space and do what I was set to do. In the beginning I felt my actions moved quicker and towards the end I felt more comfortable with taking my time to really get into almost this transcending of the time. I would take moments to come within myself, engage with the material and what was in front of me. So that affected a lot of where I was looking or not looking. In a lot of [the performances] I was looking down. For example, the first one: I kept my head down for the most part and I think part of that too was trying to remove [viewers’] familiarity with me because I knew that a lot of people were acquainted with me. I didn’t want them to see it as “That’s Taylor up there.” I also didn’t want to break into laughter. I just had no idea what to expect. I [ended up getting] into a zone.

What really helped me vamp up for that first day was reading this book… called Mutilating the Body. [3] [One section] talked about artists like Vito Acconci and a lot of [other] performance artists. I was interested in sadomasochism in performance art. [4] There was one bit on how performance art is a way of creating a new reality and a new world. There was this other piece that said [performance art] is a way for a body to transcend itself and come into a sort of meditation where you might not know exactly what you’re going to do. It’s a blankness of mind, which I associate with meditation.

AF: That whole removal of the self and transcendence of this normal bodily experience, your normal emotional experience when you’re doing the performance, is really interesting. And the intimacy that ties into that, that’s a huge theme that ties into your work: sexuality, gender, and intimacy between your body and the material. Do you want to elaborate on where that comes from and how it manifests itself in the process and the product you’re creating?

TS: I knew that I wanted it to feel like people were watching or walking in on something quite intimate. That was partially because we don’t see real intimacy on television or in the movies, it’s so fake. There’s this one track of the way things work out, between a man and a woman, every time. It’s so much more complicated than that for every individual. I wanted my performance to be a kind of intimate act that wasn’t very discernible as a representation of a man and a woman. In parts, for example, my hand would be the penetrating factor into a cavity that I created with very wet material. But I’m a woman and my hand dipping in there is kind of a masculine act. Is that me taking on a masculine identity? Is that me being invasive? There are a lot of things that people can pull out of it.

I moved slowly. I wanted to emphasize the touch. The touch really harks to sensuality and intimacy. That’s what connects the two. With clay, touch is inherent. You’re touching the material; your hands are in it. And I think in a lot of ways I tried to highlight that in the performance. After the fact there was a range of reactions that people got: uncomfortable, moved. For me that was the best part. I really wanted to know how people reacted. I felt like right after each performance, a lot of people, myself included, had to process it. You can’t really unpack what just happened right away. It’s not what you would see every day. The whole thing felt very intimate, no matter what your role was, whether a viewer or [myself, the artist]. It was very intimate for me as well.

 

Notes:

[1] Taylor Stamm, Performing Sexed Interactions (Performance #1), Uploaded April 18, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f13za6DY_4g

[2] Taylor Stamm, “A Muddy Mastery” (Artist Statement), Performing Sexed Interactions, Uploaded April 18, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f13za6DY_4g

[3] Kim Hewitt, Mutilating the Body: Identity in Blood and Ink (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

[4] Another source for information on sadomasochism in performance art and art in general is this article: Janine Mileaf, “Between You and Me: Man Ray’s Object to be Destroyed,” Art Journal 63, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 4-23.

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