Tom Barnett

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Artist Tom Barnett is a bit of an enigma. Part ceramist, part sculptor, part performance artist, he specialises in staging dramatic sculptural, site-specific kiln firing events. ‘I see these firings as celebratory events that are positive agents for change’, he says and, for him, the ceramics that survive the firing are less important than the transitory spectacle or ritual of the firing itself.


You have a degree in fine art sculpture and an MA in ceramics; do you see yourself as a ceramicist or a sculptor?

I see myself as both sometimes, while at other times these words are constraining. Even the term ‘sculptor’ really is only valid for someone making ‘site non-specific’ objects. Defining what I do is hard if looking for categories and I find the safest, least pretentious is ‘artist’. However during my fine art degree I used a lot of clay as it was the best material for the ‘sculpture’ I wanted to make back then. I didn’t know anything about ‘the ceramics world’ but when I approached galleries with the work the more responsive curators would tell me I should approach craft galleries. This threw me a bit. I have been on the rebound from this bizarre brush-off ever since.

What part of the ceramic process do you enjoy the most?

As an artist who devises events in which clay sculptures are fired from the inside of kilns, the firing process is crucial to my work. I love the way kilns are brought to life by fire – they seem like empty vessels until the fire is introduced and then they are transformed into something special. After the firing event is over it seems like a beautiful life has ended. Some pieces survive the firings and remain as objects in their own right. These could be exhibited in a gallery and might look interesting placed in a white space for reflection however they were not created with this kind of space in mind. I think they would need documentation of the process of their coming into being to be presented with them such as photographs and videos and text.

In 1999 you did a six-month residency at a ceramics institute in Shigaraki, Japan. What did you gain from this experience?

I learnt a huge amount, it is a deeply fascinating culture. But I think the most inspiring thing was seeing Japanese potters firing traditional Japanese noborigama and anagama wood-kilns. These kilns take days to fire and require a lot of help. Many people would come and do shifts loading wood into the kiln, others would just bring food, others would just sit and socialise – and that’s the key thing. This was a social occasion that brought people together to celebrate and focus upon something amazing – a hot, smoking building in which one could see through the cracks a roaring intense heat glowing almost white-hot with life and energy.
Here there was ritual, there was science, tension, drama, and many wonderful people were drawn into its mystery. The pottery that came out of the kiln at the end of this long drama, for me, was of little interest. I was just compelled by the firing itself and how it became a fantastic location for peoples’ stories to unfold.

Why do you enjoy staging kiln-firing events so much?

They are a form of performance art and an opportunity to work together with a group of people, to question architecture’s relationship with society and location, to work within metaphorical or analogical narratives concerning fire, and quite often to celebrate something. I have worked with performance artists on projects that are really amazing, positive events in which deeper questions dwell and I am trying to work in a similar way. There’s not enough spectacle, mystery and wonder in our lives, and I hope this kind of event helps rectify this.

Does it worry you that so much of your work is transitory?

I worked with a performance artist, Michael Mayhew, in Manchester for a while and I found his one-off events quite spectacular and moving. It made me realise that making static artworks wasn’t enough for me and that I really wanted to do something else. I really like the way these kiln-firing events are over within hours – in a way it makes them more likely to become imprinted into people’s memories for a lifetime.

What do you get out of the workshops you lead in which people make things to be fired within your clay kilns at these firing events?

I really like working with other people. After I graduated I spent some time working in a studio and I found it quite a lonely process. I also found making static artworks for people to view in galleries wasn’t the kind of relationship I wanted with an audience. I wanted something more direct. So art workshops began to become part of my practice. Not central to it, but nevertheless an important approach to drawing an audience in; through actual creative experience. I find that during art-workshops, creativity with material such as clay is of course the central focus, but at the same time - in my perception - the artwork also becomes the actual interaction between people. This experience of working with a group of people within a specific timeframe is really interesting – very dynamic and thought-provoking. I see this group activity as a reflection of what is goes on inside the kiln: people gather, experience something together and then disperse changed in some small way. In a similar way their artworks are gathered inside the kiln, they undergo some kind of change and transformation and then disperse, as they are taken away again after.

What is the role of architecture in your work?

Many of the kilns I use are in the form of specific existing buildings. Firing them in a relevant space opens up an opportunity to question that building’s past, present and future within local and wider communities. For example the first piece I did was at Islington Mill, Salford in 2000. It was based on the shape of the original mill. This mill was in the process of being converted into artists’ studios and a gallery, a sign of the gentrification of Salford. This transformation of an industrial building into cultural space reflected a wider change within our society over the last 50 years from an industrial-based to a knowledge-based economy. The kiln-building event reflected this in some way. Traditionally a kiln was a vessel for firing production pottery. For me it has become a vessel for thought, reflection and questioning. A vessel for production becomes a space for reflection. This draws one on to examine other metaphorical connections that the firing of architectural space inspires. In the same way that a fire brings a kiln to life, so people bring the space of a building to life in the same way as metabolic energy maintains our body’s life. All these things - buildings, kilns and bodies - are merely vessels through which energy in various forms pass. Without this energy being maintained each once again becomes empty and decays. Therefore it is important to recognise and celebrate the transitory nature of life.

What are you planning for the firing you are holding at Basingstoke?

I’m not sure yet, but I would like to make something that is relevant for Basingstoke. I think the city’s key architectural icons are the post-war housing estates. This kind of architecture is so often perceived in a negative way - I would like to do something to celebrate them.