Issue 229
Winter 2023/2024


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Feb 24, 2024

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A ceramic curse on war

Nick Jones leaves his perch on Hadrian's Wall and his thoughts on borders to visit a ceramic artist with a powerful message for peace

I'M SITTING on Hadrian's Wall, looking down on Sycamore Gap, my ArtWork press pass round my neck. It's cordoned off, there are lots of officials peering about and, towards the Roman Road, a blue flashy light winks.

Gaps, big or small, allow things through, but they also separate. Lots of people think, mistakenly, that the Wall is the border between England and Scotland, built to keep troublesome Scots at bay. I have both Scottish and Welsh genes, and like sitting on fences; you can see all sides.

King Sausage. (2023). From the series 'Hex On Thou Zee' or 'Tool, of the Devil' Assembled Slipcast earthenware paperclay, glaze, on-glaze decals, platinum lustre. Photo Paddy Hartley

Four thoughts. First, it was Hadrian's vanity project, his way of being remembered. Second, it never was a proper barrier, but porous, hence the deliberate inclusion of ways through, to allow for trade (porridge, whisky, kilts, bagpipes) to both Roman centurions and Sassenachs.

Third, around 425 million years ago, Scotland was part of North America, then Laurentia. What's now England was part of Eastern Avalonia, the other side of the Lapetus Ocean.

Fourth, long after these land-masses came together, in the early Middle Ages, the borders were part of the Kingdom of Rheged, straddling the wall, with inhabitants speaking Old Welsh, aka Cumbric.

Sad to say, borders still cause all sorts of bother, but are beloved of arms-manufacturers, like William First Baron Armstrong of Cragside, near Rothbury; and of rulers, politicians, bureaucrats and lawyers, who carve up countries and then stand back to watch the ensuing mayhem.

Like James I of England and VI of Scotland, who initiated the Plantation of Ulster in the early 17th century, and Arthur Balfour, whose eponymous 1917 Declaration preceded the creation of Israel.

Then there's Crimea, and Ukraine. Which brings me to the walled border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, famously but mistakenly mentioned as still at war with Russia, being omitted from the 1856 treaty concluding the Crimean War. All because, back in the 17th century the town, being "of the kingdom, but not in it", was separately mentioned in Royal Proclamations, Statutes and the Book of Common Prayer.

The End... To Be Continued (2021). Thrown ceramic, surgical steel From the Roche Commission exhibited in 'The Cost of Life'. Photo Paddy Hartley.

Amusing once, not so now, as demonstrated by recent work by the ceramic artist Paddy Hartley, whose studio lies just inside the protecting embrace of Berwick's great Elizabethan ramparts.

An artist of international repute, his work addresses issues relating to the history of medicine, conflict and remembrance. Commissions include residencies at the Victoria & Albert Museum and the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Recently he undertook a prestigious commission to commemorate the 125th Anniversary of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Hoffmann La-Roche.

Undertaken, appropriately, as Covid swept the planet, Paddy writes: "The notion at the forefront of my mind whilst developing the artwork and reiterated by my collaborators at Roche, was that wherever possible, healthcare and in particular the pharmaceutical industry should aim to add life to years, and not years to life. To improve the quality of life rather than to extend it".

It culminated in a touring solo exhibition and retrospective, 'The Cost of Life', addressing challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry and society, premiered in Basel in 2021 and then toured to Riga, Latvia. Paddy's time in Latvia, spring 2022, coincided with the Russian attack on Ukraine. Directly across the street from the Russian Embassy in Riga the Vi Pauls Stradi Museum of Medical History was adorned with a Putin Death Skull banner.

Emblematic of the bravery, boldness, dark humour and resilience of Ukrainians and Baltic nations both, it became a catalyst for his most recent body of work 'Hex on Thou Zee' or 'A Curse on your War'.

His reaction was horror and fear, but not helplessness. Instead he created totemic ceramic sculptures, grotesque mannikins, redolent of Bosch, Bacon, and, in our time, Peter Howson. Visceral, splanchnic even (no, I didn't either!), they include a series called 'Got to Be a Joker He Do What He Please', from The Beatles song 'Come Together', highlighting the dangers of mania which would be comic if not so tragic.

Ironic that just as the pandemic delivered a wake-up call to humanity that we're all in this together, calling for international cooperation, world rulers continue to initiate more destruction and loss of life, all with a carbon footprint that puts climate change denial in the shade.

With so many countries pursuing policies that represent an 'Up Yours!' to people and planet, it's humans that need to change, isn't it? As James Lovelock said, Gaia will look after herself, and, if we can't do the same, well, so be it!

More common sense would be a good place to start; followed by more connection, and less separation. Time to look at things differently, like the Irishman who defined a net as "a lot of holes tied together with string!".

For holes, read nations and, for strings, try borders.
www.paddyhartley.com



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