Experiments in Speculative Violence

This text is taken from Crafts Magazine’s March/April 2013 Edition

David Clarke’s work is rooted in a deep love of silver but retains the precious ability to shock. Glenn Adamson; Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum London talks to the troublemaker.

‘Is this intended to be some sort of joke? All you seem to be able to do is take the work of other, much more highly skilled makers than yourself, and then mutilate it with obscure, unnecessary additions. What a waste of silver!’

‘This stuff just smacks of ego and “Look what I did!” I think it’s sad and droll at best.’

As the above two unsolicited comments about David Clarke’s work suggest, not everyone is a fan. The fact is, he doesn’t mind. Clarke accepts his role as an enfant terrible, and to him, extreme reactions are a sign that he is connecting with his public. On one occasion, an older couple who encountered his work in Stockholm were so outraged that they did his smashed-up aesthetic one better, literally knocking one of his pieces to the floor. His thoughts on the incident? ‘Fantastic. Yes, yes, yes. It ticks all the boxes.’

Out there in the big bad contemporary art world, shock value is a precious and an endangered commodity. Generations of provocateurs have pushed the boundaries so far that it’s hard to find any left. But in the narrower world of contemporary metalsmithing, it is still possible to be an avant-gardist, and Clarke certainly is one.

Of course, there is not much point raising a ruckus at a dinner party when there’s a full-on rave next door. Or is there? When I put the question to Clarke in just those terms, he readily conceded the point. He knows that his insurrections take place within a limited arena. But to put it another way, his work takes its meaning from what it disrupts, and while it might not be immediately apparent to a traditionalist, his love of silversmithing runs deep. ‘People think I’m just a miserable shit who wants to kick things around,’ he says (he swears like a trooper). ‘But for me this is about the future of the discipline.’

If you really wanted to, you could impose an Oedipal reading on Clarke’s sacrilegious energies – his father was a clergyman – but in fact, he stands squarely in a trajectory that has been coursing through European metalwork and jewellery for some time.

He studied with Michael Rowe and David Watkins at the Royal College of Art, graduating in 1997. By this time, the post-modernism of the previous decade was mainly a bitter memory, but his hand-made/readymade mash-ups clearly owe something to its characteristic methods of bricolage, subversion and critique. It’s interesting to compare his work to that of the post-modernist jeweller Bernhard Schobinger, who attacks his medium with a combination of punk antagonism and intense aestheticism. Clarke’s ongoing experiments in speculative violence are legible as a form of tough love. He cuts objects apart, corrodes and disfigures them, joins them together with rough lead into Frankenstein-style agglomerations. But he always kills with kindness.

A new work entitled Sweetheart, made collaboratively with jeweller Natalie Smith, is a perfect example. It began with what Clarke describes as an ‘old, unwanted, unloved, sterling silver bonbon dish.’ He posted it to Smith, giving little in the way of instruction, but knowing that she specialised in making jewellery out of sugar. As he’d hoped, she did to it what he had often done in the past with salt, using a chemical process thickly to cake the silver with crystals.

Clarke was delighted with the result, describing it as the ‘state of over-sickliness that I taste with too much silver’, but also a tenderness that is at least partly in earnest – it is after all a candied heart. Furthermore, as Clarke is quick to point out, while salt is corrosive, sugar is often used as a preservative. He and Smith had given the silver a protective carapace.

Another instance of this balance between aggression and affection is Dead on Arrival. I first encountered the work while visiting Clarke at the Gustavsberg Konsthall, near Stockholm. (He teaches in the city, at Konstfack, and has strong ties to the Scandinavian scene.) Together with curator Agneta Linton, he retrieved the object from storage and set it in front of me, a beautifully battered leather carrying case. Not without a sense of dramatic occasion, he opened the lid to reveal a sterling silver tea service – creamer, sugar bowl, and teapot – each with a gaping hole eaten into its side with molten lead, as if they were casualties of some terrible disaster. (Actually, when Clarke acquired them they were in a state of perfect preservation, with absolutely no marks of use: ‘probably never stood up, always in a state of rest.’)

He then told me his motivations for making the piece: his mother was being treated for cancer at the time. He’d made the work not in his studio, but his kitchen, ‘a place that had very strong associations with my mother and her making of tea and cake for all.’ Had the objects been sitting on a plinth or in an exhibition case, it might have been another story. But seeing them in this way, being told this story, was an experience rich in narrative implication. It was like walking into a film via the prop department – a film about ghosts, I suppose, as the objects’ material losses evoke an unspecified familial past, returning to haunt the present. So while Clarke talks tough, and sometimes in tones of bitter irony, there is in him a deep well of sensitivity, even sentimentality. I see him as navigating constantly between these two states of mind. He is productively ambivalent, restless, unwilling to settle on (or for) anything. Clarke’s sole commitment is to open-endedness – both literally, in the holes and apertures and unresolved seams that populate his objects, and figuratively, in the provocative situations he presents to the viewer.

His new body of work, collectively entitled Spare Parts, is his most extreme statement of this position to date. The second-hand found objects that have typified Clarke’s work are absent. Instead, he has formed the objects from raw sheet, in a reductive, industrial manner. They bear the marks of their making, the skin and bones of the process. And as far as he is concerned, they may or may not be finished. He has not even stipulated which way up they are meant to sit. (This presents a dilemma when the pieces are photographed or exhibited.) Conceptually speaking, some assembly is required.

The Spare Parts series is provisional, acerbic, and in the case of some objects, crassly suggestive. But there is serious purpose in them nonetheless. Clarke wants to provide viewers with a handle, not for use but rather for unfettered imagination. There is a tendency toward tightness and resolution in contemporary silver, which closes down possibilities rather than opening them up. Clarke is determined to try another way: ‘There’s always this pressure to get to the end of a sentence. I’m removing the punctuation.’

60|40, his well-known ongoing collaboration with bookbinder Tracey Rowledge and ceramic installation artist Clare Twomey, was entirely dedicated to this cause, and also a way of getting him outside of the narrow confines of his own discipline. The installations that the trio have done, mainly at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios in south London, have been wide-open affairs, purposefully elastic and indeterminate in their affect.

The same is true of his teaching, which is less and less often based here in the UK. It’s in this context, perhaps, that Clarke has done the most damage (in a good way), because he is determined to propagate a new generation of intelligent troublemakers. When he went to China on a recent occasion, he banished his translator from the studio for a while and taught entirely through non-verbal demonstration. It was a way of unsettling himself, working in an unmediated way with students whom he found to be inherently exciting: ‘They’re brave, they’re hungry, they’re motivated.’ When he told me the story in a pub last week, it struck me that it was one of the rare occasions in our conversations when he spoke in a tone of complete respect. Those young metalsmiths, half a world away from London, are completely unaware of the medium’s recent past, and therefore free of it. No wonder Clarke liked it there. It’s a place where anything seems possible, which is where he always wants to be.

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