I collect ceramic shards from my garden. They show up with surprising regularity, broken fragments emerging from the rich clay soil along with a beetroot or a clump of mallow. When I brush off the dirt I can conjure the vessel-bodies they came from, filling in the blanks of a china plate or a patterned tile, following the curve of a heavy brown-glazed flowerpot. Buried for years, perhaps decades, they rise to the surface, disturbed by plant roots, by the swelling and evaporation of water, by digging.
In 2020 I got really into plants; when the usual routines and milestones dissolved into a soupy blur I clung to the cycles of nature to prove that time had passed. And it did pass, slowly, steadily. The earth doth like a snake renew. It sheds its exhausted old skin, emerges a gleaming creature. Green shoots emerge, uncurl, sprout buds. I became very invested in our compost bin with its jewel-bright worms. I marvelled at the transformation of rancid food scraps and torn paper into dark rich sweet-smelling soil, which we dug back into the garden, beginning again.
Glenn Barkley describes the language of ceramics as a compost. It’s an ancient pile, as old as people, holding shapes, designs, glazes, cooking traditions, stories, the buried thumbprints of millennia. Fossicking through, he pulls out an amphora—a large round urn with two handles, scored with geometric shapes—made in Cyprus around 2700 years ago. A salt-glazed ‘Beardman’ jug from 17th century Germany, found on the wreck of the Batavia, off the Western Australian coast. A bust of Abraham Lincoln. A clay pipe. A Japanese glaze. A 1980s mass-produced ceramic platypus. A 1789 Wedgwood medallion depicting a classical Greek scene, made using clay dug by Arthur Phillips from present-day Sydney cove, within days of landing.
The compost of history is eaten by worms and excreted as contemporary culture. “Worms are like the self- extruders, in the same way that an artist might be,” Barkley said in a 2015 interview. “When you read and you look at history and look at objects, and you go to museums and you look at ceramics, all this passes through you into the work, in the same way as the worm passes molecules and wastes through its body.”
My notes from our conversation are a catalogue of extruded scraps: Fire, plague. Classicism. Internet language. Protest. Folk tradition. Op-shop aesthetic. The Founding Fathers. Surfaces textured and pitted, Barkley’s tiles and pots are adorned with fragments pulled from the pile. A beard, an ear, a pattern, a stamp; cast, pressed and moulded, glazed in brilliant colours that defy the false purity of classical white marble. These pots are monumental in size, huge urns heavy with accumulated histories transformed into something new.
Barkley’s pots also bear texts sifted from the humus of literature, from ‘The Lark Ascending’ to Judith Wright’s ‘Black Cockatoos’ to a Guns’N’Roses song (‘I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do’, the refrain of both addiction and capitalism). The exhibition’s title, and the texts on several pots, are drawn from the final chorus of Hellas, a narrative poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Written in 1822, the poem recounts the ongoing war between Greece and Turkey. At its end, a chorus of captive Greek women plead for the end of war and death: The world’s great age begins anew, they prophesy; we return to the beginning of the cycle and history repeats itself, an ouroboros, a perpetual worm.
Clay, Barkley says, is “inherently scatalogical, the same way that gardening is”. He tells me about his garden: four acres, which he manages to the point of being “sort of in control but not really.” He likes “blowsy flowers”, colourful untidy things like dahlias and camellias, like the pops of colour in his glazes. “We’ve had the biggest dahlias we’ve ever had, this year,” he says, “because of the rain. It’s been rainy—really hot—rainy—really hot. We’re going to have a bumper crop of citrus too. It’s been a really great year for the garden, after a really bad couple of years.”