BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 111

The Button Project, curated by Jo Dahn

A fluorescent yellow sheet of A4 paper, with the caption HOLIDAY HEROES, has been taped onto the sign advertising the Ceramics Gallery’s current show. It is high-summer and the Arts Centre is knee-deep in conferences. Luridly coloured arrowed sheets spot every available door and window, sending lanyard-wearing delegates this way and that. The clamour of their voices, ricocheting off the walls and ceilings, is overwhelming. Wide open, the glass doors of the Ceramics Gallery invite in the hubbub but it seems to hover, hesitant at the threshold.

The Button Project, as with most of the exhibits staged here, is one of restful calm. Curated by Jo Dahn, it is what it says it is: a project about buttons. Responding to Dahn’s simple request to make a functioning fastener, with either two holes or a closed loop, makers sent her their buttons. No money was exchanged. This show is the collection so far, with some shelves left empty, ready to receive more.

The buttons are modestly displayed. There are no titles, no names (excepting a few that are affixed to artist’s button cards) and no descriptions of process or materials. Disregarding the addition of three unfinished Lucie Rie buttons, this is an egalitarian, non-hierarchical show where offerings from schoolchildren lie amongst those, as made clear by the skill involved, of more sophisticated ceramic practitioners.

Spilt like sweets from jars is every conceivable kind of button. There are round, oval, oblong and square ones, some minute, a couple of millimetres, while others are huge, weighty discs. Some are plain; others decorated with finely-wrought paintings of fish, flowers and butterflies. There is a custard-yellow fish-form with an ultramarine silk tassel for a tail, pig heads, a line of hedgehogs, butterflies, starfish, smiley faces and raindrops. There are two exquisite porcelain antlered deer heads, one in baby-pink, the other (by Amadu Ren, pictured) in blue. And five white glazed perfect little fingertips, placed in such a way that their reflection in a mirror creates the impression of a complete hand: a perfection of surrealist whimsy.

Suddenly the gallery is overwhelmed by the sound of the Evangelical Movement of Wales’ congregation breaking into song in the Great Hall above. The booming crescendo of ‘Praise Him, Praise Him’ rattles the glass shelves of the gallery cabinets. Then it stops, only to be replaced by an incessant, high-pitched keening. Across the corridor, the door to Studio 3, obscured by a temporary sign that reads TINY TOTS, has just opened and a wailing child is being handed out to its father. Sorry, says the playgroup leader, before locking the door behind her.

I return my attention to the exhibits, thinking about the significance of small things, hand-held things, hand-made things. Buttons are like pebbles in pockets, something to hold, to pass through our fingers, momentarily distracted from bigger things by their tiny exactness. Taken away from their function as fasteners, the buttons in this exhibition are made precious, given room to become jewels, treasures. I want to touch them, to feel their surfaces. I remember a button box, a biscuit tin filled with buttons that my grandmother used to give us to play with. I remember the weight of it, the clattering sound of it, and the sensation of pushing my hand into the mass of it.

Buttons of hard durable matter often outlast the garments they are sewn onto. They are found, long-buried in raked-up soil, not only concentrated microcosms of fashion, mode and culture but symbols of the choices we have made. Mothers of foundling children left buttons as tokens with their babes, the only remnant, the only trace, of their birth beginnings. Such small things outlive us.

There is a rumble as the congregation upstairs prepare to sing another hymn. Do you wanna walk outside? asks the father of the now whimpering child. Yeah, she says, yeah.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in Aberystwyth.

The Button Project is at the Ceramics Gallery, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, until Wednesday 28 September




       


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