A ceramics production line in Tate Modern: Clare Twomey’s FACTORY

A ceramics factory where the public could create jugs, teapots and flowers opened at London’s Tate Modern on 28 September. Artist Clare Twomey’s installation, FACTORY: the seen and the unseen, offered visitors the chance to learn and take part in ceramics production over two weeks; we paid a visit to experience it for ourselves.

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Clare Twomey, FACTORY, 2017 Tate Exchange, Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate

Clare Twomey pours slip from a mould during FACTORY, 2017, in Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate

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The Tate Modern may once have been a power station, but the days of industry on London’s Bankside are long past. The names of the Tate’s Turbine Hall and Boiler House are the most palpable reminders of the gallery’s industrial heritage, now replaced with a parade of contemporary and modern art.

However, this autumn artist Clare Twomey brought industry back into the building – albeit one of a very different kind – as her installation FACTORY: the seen and the unseen offered visitors a first-hand experience of ceramics production.

For one week, visitors were invited to slip-cast jugs, teapots and mugs. Filling an entire level of the Tate’s new Blavatnik Building with a 30-metre workspace, the installation included eight tonnes of clay sitting ready for action, a wall of drying racks, and over 2000 fired objects. A plastic-covered trestle table ran the length of the room, waiting to be used.

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Worker at Dudson of Stoke-on-Trent. Copyright Clare Twomey Studio

 A worker on the production line at Dudson in Stoke-on-Trent. Photo copyright Clare Twomey Studio

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On entering, you are given a factory card and an apron, before ‘clocking in’. Visitors who don’t wish to take part can cut and weigh clay for others or mop the floors. You are told to take your place in a production line, in which each person plays a part – as in a real factory.

Slip is poured from measuring jugs into moulds, where it must sit for seven minutes to become firm. You then move along to your neighbour’s more solid piece, pour out excess slip, and then move along once more. The next step is to trim the mould, then prise the object out.

After having made your very own piece of tableware, it is placed on the shelves alongside hundreds of its fellows. All the tableware is plain white and unfired. Finally, you are invited to exchange your piece of pottery for somebody else’s anonymous item, chosen off the racks, for you to take home.

Detail from Dudson's factory in Stoke-on-Trent, during the creation of Clare Twomey's FACTORY. Photo copyright Clare Twomey Studio

Detail from Dudson’s factory in Stoke-on-Trent, during the development of Clare Twomey’s FACTORY. Photo copyright Clare Twomey Studio

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Interspersed between the jugs, mugs and teapots are small ceramic roses and daffodils. These were made by two craftspeople from the British Ceramics Biennial team: Philippa and Jean, now in their 80s, who both spent decades making flowers in Stoke-on-Trent’s factories. (You can read more about BCB17 here).

In FACTORY’s second week, the production line ceased. Instead of entering an active workshop, the visitor experienced a factory soundscape and a factory tour, in which one heard stories of the ways in which collective labour shapes communities such as Stoke’s.

The experience doesn’t end here, however: each piece has a barcode on its base, which is scanned and, through use of an app, allows the maker of each item to track its afterlife and to see where in the world their humble item ends up.

Clare Twomey, FACTORY, 2017 Tate Exchange, Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate

Clare Twomey, FACTORY, 2017 Tate Exchange, Tate Modern. Photo courtesy Tate

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The experience of working with clay, grubby-handed, while looking across the glittering rooftops of London, is somewhat surreal. However, it forms an interesting counterpoint to the increasingly mediated, digital nature of so much of our media – particular in a hub such as our capital. Taking the time to make a solid object with your hands while contemplating the nature of labour with others is a surprisingly valuable experience.

The beauty of FACTORY was its thoughtful community-minded focus, both in terms of visitor experience and the project’s development. Twomey spent six months developing her project with the industrial tableware manufacturers Dudson of Stoke, collaborating closely to develop a reasonably authentic yet contemplative experience of working in a ceramics factory, in all its aspects – from the seen to the unseen.

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You can read more about Clare Twomey in her profile in Ceramic Review issue 289 – out on 11 December. You can subscribe to the magazine or purchase single copies here. Twomey’s FACTORY: the seen and the unseen took place at Tate Modern, London (28 September – 6 October 2017). 

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