Silver Or Not Silver

Text from an interview with Isabelle Busnel from the blog Thinking Through Things

A cover and a feature article in CRAFT magazine in March 2013, an exhibition at SO gallery in Brick Lane, a participation to Design Days DUBAI with the Crafts Council, a solo exhibition to come…. David Clarke is a busy silversmith! But he kindly managed to spare a couple of hours to answer my questions.
David has usually been dubbed “the enfant terrible” of silversmithing, or a “provocateur” and even a “terrorist”… When asked if he enjoys being called such names, he denies strongly. “I cannot control what people say about me. I am tired of being described as an angry person who cuts up stuff. I don’t want to destroy the discipline rather to tackle it with a different attitude”.

Having followed David’s work for some years now, I think that there is actually much more than mere provocation in it. I was very keen to understand what really drives him…

First, a flashback is useful to understand David’s current work. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 1997, the young silversmith was incredibly successful. His degree show’s collection consisted in a series of stripped down fruit bowls that attracted the entire establishment. One piece went straight to the V&A and the Goldsmith’s Company commissioned another one. According to David, his success was mainly due to the fact that he was using a visual language that was radically different from what was going on at that time and that his works fitted perfectly the range of interior design products people loved in the 90’s: “it was satisfying all my financial requirement and desires” he remembers “but it didn’t satisfy my creativity. All I was doing was producing the same kind of work again and again. I became a machine”.

The revelation came during a workshop at Bishopsland: he was part of a group of silversmiths left in a field with sheets of silver but no tools except a hand guillotine and a torch. His first impulse was to try and recreate a studio but instead he let the magic operate and came back with a better understanding of what was important for him. This experience was very profound and he realised how his tools and his workspace were crucial, both physically and emotionally. Having been close to nature during this workshop, he decided to engage with the rawness of silver and started to use his scraps of the precious metal. He made a collection where the hammer marks, the firestain and the seams were visible. He drew on the metal, using felt tips and pens. “It was almost like showing work in progress”, he recalls and “ it was a real challenge for myself, for the galleries and for the audience”.

Keeping his momentum, he went a step further with the “Salt work” where the silver pieces were dipped in a salted solution that attacked the metal.

The idea was not to destroy the metal per se but to test the limits of silver and to challenge the tradition of silversmithing and its dos and don’ts. In his article about David in this month’s issue of CRAFT magazine, Glenn Adamson implies that it is less challenging being an avant-gardist in the narrow world of contemporary Metalsmithing than in the wild universe of contemporary Art, where so many boundaries have already been tested. However I am still convinced that pushing the limits of a discipline like David Clarke does requires a lot of audacity. When I asked him if his past successes gave him the legitimacy to challenge conventions like he did with the salt pieces, he reckoned that being established in the discipline helped him a lot, and that if he had done that as a student, the hill would have been much higher to climb.

Drawing on the metal, using salt on silver…what could have been the next “sacrilege”? I have deliberately chosen the word sacrilege as David describes the relationship people have with silver as almost sacred: we use white gloves to manipulate silver objects, we worship them in display cases, we barely touch them to avoid staining them, we polish them at nauseam. Lead was the answer: it is often described as the “cancer” of silver. When heated and melted, it literally eats silver. David’s first works with lead were a series of silver objects cut in different parts then “fixed” with lead parts.

Then came the work “Dead on arrival” where a silver tea service eaten by lead rests in a leather carrying case…

Those works have triggered some extreme reactions in the audience. Amongst them is this letter sent anonymously to David. I can’t resist publishing an extract: ”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! As if that wasn’t bad enough, upon closer inspection and with further research it’s become apparent that you actually contaminate your silver using lead? Do you even understand how wasteful this is? Silver is a precious, pure and beautiful material as it is. It is ‘makers’ like yourself who pollute the good name of many contemporary silversmiths coming up with interesting, functional designs as well as beautiful sculptural pieces”. 
What an unintentional tribute to David’s work! This letter can be seen in its integrality in the silversmith’s website and on David’s Facebook page it has reached 230 likes and 125 comments altogether. I even asked David if he didn’t write this letter himself as it was almost too good to be true! But it was for real, and he even added another story: a couple in their 60’s visiting the Swedish Gallery where he was exhibiting in August 2012 smashed one of his pieces on the ground and destroyed it claiming that it was “the ugliest work they had ever seen”…Two unpleasant happenings together as they had to pay for the broken piece…
David takes responsibility for the consequences of his attacks against the precious metal and even though he finds those two extreme behaviors very violent against his creativity, he enjoys the fact that his work triggers passionate reactions. He has since tried to contact both the writer and the couple, though without any success yet.
But David also enjoys the other end of the reactions spectrum: he has regular buyers, fans of his work and he loves asking them to send him pictures of the objects in their surroundings. He brings out this lovely story of a lady telling him that his “teapot had changed my husband’s breakfast and is the beginning of our days”… This story outlines some other very important aspects of David’s work: emotion and humour. Pushing the boundaries of the silversmith world can also be obtained through less radical gesture than destroying the metal. Titillating the seriousness, the rigor and the relative classicism of the silver world is paramount to David’s approach. “We try to make everything very profound nowadays but there is a space for playing and laughing”, he told me. “I like my work to have different levels of reading and I want it to be accessible and communicative”.

Some of his works are very cartoon-like and David likes when people laugh in front of them: “when you laugh, it changes your physical and mental state. It is very healthy”.  I can’t stop myself smiling when I look at the works.

The emotion in those spoons and pots comes from the bizarre associations, the oversized details, the comic deprivation of basic functions: they could almost be some characters in Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

This collection of amazing works leads me to the next theme that is essential to David’s work: function and non-function and the grounding of the artist in its discipline, the silversmithing. Often compared to fine artists like Cornelia Parker (who smashes silver objects and suspends them in the air), I asked David if he was not frustrated not to be featured at the Tate Modern as Cornelia does.

I have no need or ambition to be there”, he replies. “I once had an identity crisis and I called myself an artist but now I insist on being named a silversmith”. “I might be at an extreme edge of my discipline, but it is my grounding in silversmithing that makes my work relevant”.
I believe that challenging domestic objects, giving them a second chance or another identity, playing with the notions of function and dysfunction are at the core of the contemporary Applied Arts scene and David is currently one of the most creative and interesting artists to engage with those challenging topics.
His collaborative projects with other artists are an important part of his artistic approach as well: he is a member of 60/40, a trio made up of Tracey Rowledge, Clare Twomey and himself with the aim of injecting new vitality and content into craft. He is also part of “Intelligent Trouble”, a group of makers (Helen Carnac, Lin Cheung, David Gates, Katy Hackney, Shane Waltener and David Littler) whose manifesto is to ”explore the possibilities of working together and what new things could be done. Without jettisoning our own identities, opening our selves to the actions and provocations of others. Trying to find out a little about how each of us works and thinks, locating the overlaps in approaches’.
Another aspect of David’s personality, which is only briefly mentioned in the published literature about him, is his contribution to the training of the new generation of silversmiths. He teaches in many different countries and considers that it is part of his role to educate people. He usually gives creative lectures and tutorials (and refuses technical ones) where he challenges and encourages students to think outside the box and step out of their comfort zone. When I asked him what kind of teacher he was, he laughed and replied: “I am not saying, “today we are going to smash silver”. I don’t want to create miniatures of me. I see myself more like a coach who helps student to question the work they produce, the context in which they operate and the diversity of their thinking”.
Having recently taught in Sweden and in China, I asked him if he saw some cultural differences between students there and in the UK. “The students don’t really change, It is the structure of the department where they are taught that sets the framework of what is acceptable or not”. “The Chinese students work at an extraordinary level and their ambition is massive but at the end of the day they will all have produced the same ring following the instructions written on the blackboard”. My next question came logically: if those students have to follow precise instructions and conform to a single design, what can they take out of David’s teaching? “They were very happy and it is phenomenal to see the journey they went through. But you are right, I am concerned about what they will do with it”. He is soon going back to China and it is a matter he wants to discuss with the head of department before continuing teaching there.
David’s portrait would be incomplete without mentioning his two latest bodies of works both featured at SO Gallery in London: Fix, Fix, Fix currently until 24/03, and a Solo Exhibition in April.

Sweetheart is the piece exhibited at Fix, Fix, Fix and is a collaborative work with the sugar jewellery artist Natalie Smith.

I find this work very interesting for two reasons: first, it shows that the artist never indulges in facility and manages to remain unpredictable. An exhibition about artists fixing objects was the perfect space for David to show one of his teapots, dismembered and recreated with other parts of silver or lead. But he chose to display a work that plays metaphorically with the idea of fixing. This “bonbonniere” had been left unwanted when he bid it on Ebay, (like a broken heart) and he asked Natalie Smith to fix it, to sweeten it with sugar. It took her 6 months to grow sugar around it and the result is beautiful and poignant.
Secondly, it shows a rupture in the inexorable journey of silver destruction that David has followed recently: sugar protects the silver and makes it even more desirable. I asked David if one could see it as a way of “re-loving” the silver? “I don’t know where I am going with this piece. It is a one off, very different. And it was for me an opportunity to work with Natalie, who is an expert in sugar.”.

So, is it time yet to see David back to working silver in a friendlier manner? Having had the privilege of a private view of work-in-progress “Spare Parts”, his forthcoming exhibition, one can only doubt….

As a matter of fact with “Spare Parts”, it is the first time that silver is totally absent from David’s work… to be replaced by pewter: no dismembered or discarded objects, just sheets of metal. Pewter is very soft and gives him freedom and spontaneity. The work will bear the imprint of the hammering, the soldering, the filing. The pieces will be interchangeable, playful and will require a lot of commitment from the public. Interaction will be the main concept of the exhibition. David wants to provoke the audience: “people are not really seeing exhibitions at the moment. They are all about twitting, blogging, facebooking it instead of enjoying the present moment. With this work, they will have to assemble parts, to build objects … some bits have no home to go, others are interchangeable…I won’t have any control of what might happen. It is very experimental.” The exhibition opens on the 4th of April at SO Gallery.  It is worth popping in there and playing with the spare parts.
I hope that after reading this article, people will no longer see David as an “enfant terrible, a provocateur or a terrorist” but rather as a very unpredictable, prolific, talented and generous artist who brings a lot to the discipline without choosing the easy way or losing his integrity.
Silver or not silver?  As they say “there is only a thin line between love and hate”….

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