Michael Fujita: Units of Labor

1 Cloud, 24 in. (61 cm) in length, porcelain, wood, resin, 2011.

Scores of gumballs in masses of glistening cohesion or colorful building blocks fused together to form thick planks and faceted chunks: the visual impressions created by Michael Fujita’s sculptures emphasize accretion as a means of constructing forms. The units of which the sculptures are composed are similar enough to suggest mass production but different enough to reveal that each was made by hand. This fact is of primary importance to Fujita, who is less concerned about referring to candy, toys, or any other specific objects than about stressing both the time and the labor expended in the process of making things in clay. A patient craftsman who for his graduate exhibition at Alfred University in 2008 painstakingly produced a 32-square-foot cast-feldspar lawn one tiny blade at a time, Fujita has embraced time-consuming projects as a key aspect of his art. The opportunity to lose himself in the drift of thought occasioned by repetitive tasks is appealing, but, more importantly, he finds in rote labor a means of concretizing time—of “capturing that time and making it into a single visual moment.”

2 Cloud (detailed view), 24 in. (61 cm) in length, porcelain, wood, resin, 2011.

The summation of time in a grouping of units connects Fujita’s work as a sculptor back to his early experiences throwing on the wheel. For the potter, he observes, the relationship between time and labor is often experienced in material terms: a week is embodied by a certain quantity of identical mugs, bowls, or plates. Time from this perspective is defined not through a sequence of events or even an ordered array of unique objects that seem to describe a kind of journey—metaphorical milestones such as birth certificates, diplomas, marriage licenses, or retirement gifts—but rather through an accumulation of like objects that have been produced through like amounts of labor. Under the hands of a skilled craftsperson such objects are achieved through practice. Over time the craftsperson can remove most variables from the objects that he or she creates, with the result that the first and last produced in a given workday, month, or year are to all appearances interchangeable. Since the time and labor expended on them is identical as well, they serve effectively as units of measurement. For this kind of production the timekeeper is a tallyman.

It should be easy to see why this experience of the time-and-labor relationship has sometimes been invoked as a means of separating craft from art, the latter of which more often situates labor within time as a chronology: a sequence of unique objects (masterpieces) and a succession of phases (e.g., Picasso’s Rose Period) in which early and late are meaningful indicators. Craft, on the other hand, could be thought of as often working against chronology: of relying on practice—repetitive production—to achieve objects that are closely consistent with one another and therefore cannot be placed in a sequence of early to late. “What I was thinking about in the Conglomerations series,” Fujita explains, “was trying to make a skill of building these pinched, hollow forms. The ball forms were blatantly referencing practice in working with clay.”

The relationship of labor to production is made thematic by Fujita’s Conglomerations in various ways. Some of the sculptures are composed of miniature ceramic blocks that have been drilled to create the appearance of cored bricks. “They all started out as solid porcelain forms,” he explains. “I drilled them all when they were leather hard, not only to create those forms, but also to create the by-product: the shavings that I save and incorporate back into the larger forms. So the process involves making pieces, creating the by-products, and then combining them. I also add the scraps, seconds, and discards of my studio mates. So the sculptures are repositories of time and work.”

3,4 Rise/Run, 15 ft. (4.5 m) in length, porcelain, wood, carpet padding, resin, 2010. Photos: Alan Wiener.

 

Creating the Conglomerations from hundreds of parts—both products and by-products—requires use of an innovative technology to hold the sculptures together to achieve the desired form during firing. Building with soft firebrick coated in kiln wash and wax, Fujita creates a hollow structure inside the kiln then individually glazes each porcelain part—ball, brick, or shavings—and sets it into this ad-hoc mold. For small sculptures more conventional one-piece refractory molds of plaster and silica suffice. During the firing, the glaze binds the porcelain parts together into a single mass.

In some of the Conglomerations, most notably the 11-foot high Rise/Run, the masses composed of fused units become themselves units in a larger structure. In the case of Rise/Run, these units serve as steps in a staircase: a reference to a striking image that Fujita encountered soon after arriving in Philadelphia as a resident artist at The Clay Studio in 2010. “The piece was inspired by seeing the scar of an old staircase on the side of a building where there used to be another building attached to it,” he explains. “I wanted it to go from floor to ceiling in the gallery. There was no way to make that in one piece, so I started making the steps as sections made of multiples.”

5 Home Slice–Preserve (Installation view), 16 ft. 3 in. (4.9 m) in length, cast feldspar, wood, carpet padding, 2008.

Rise/Run is typical of Fujita’s sculptures in that its primary components are glazed porcelain, but it incorporates other materials as well, specifically resin and carpet padding. While still in graduate school, Fujita had observed a studio mate lining shelves with a type of carpet padding composed of rebonded foam particles of different colors. Noting the visual similarity to his ceramic sculptures, he began integrating padding into his works. Resin entered his repertoire later as a consequence of acquiring the habit of drinking iced coffee in the summer soon after his arrival in Philadelphia. “I had one every day,” he recalls, “and I saved the cups. I poured resin into the cups a few ounces at a time and then rotated them for about three hours to create a cast of the interior of the cup with the lid on it. That was for a work called Daily Operation. I wasn’t making those coffee cups in clay, but the act of rotating them and building that layer on the inside was similar to throwing. I find that even when I’m using other materials I approach them from my ceramics background.”

6 Uprooted, 5 ft. 2 in. (1.5 m) in height, ceramic, wood, carpet padding, resin, 2010. Photo: Joseph Hu.

The influence of this background was especially evident in the way that Fujita selected colors for his works in resin. To observe the effects of varying amounts of dyes, he produced the equivalent of a series of test tiles: small wedge-shaped slabs of brightly colored, translucent resin that resembled triangular portions of gelatin. Finding these visually engaging in themselves, he created works such as Red Slice by placing some of the resin forms on triangular supports sawn from commercially produced white porcelain plates. For other works he threw porcelain cylinders in the shape of electrical insulators, inserted these in plastic iced-coffee cups that served as molds, and poured multiple layers of resin into the cups to surround the porcelain forms in glistening sheaths of primary colors. In other instances he expanded his experimentation to include encasing his Conglomerations in clear layers of resin. When poured around the masses of glazed balls or bricks within a rectangular mold, the resin gave his sculptures consistent planar surfaces in addition to providing greater strength of connection between the ceramic parts. “The balls fuse together fairly well with the glaze,” he observes, “but there’s not a lot of surface area for spheres to connect. The resin helped. It also interested me because it added a nice optical element to the pieces: a magnification and distortion around the edges.”

Such visual nuances obviously attract Fujita, who pays keen attention to aesthetic detail even as he stresses the importance of the labor-time relationship in his sculptures. His work is clearly art, just as his art is overtly work. Consequently, he is most in his element when creating aesthetically engaging compositions that unite countless small parts into one clustered mass or a single monumental form. One of the best examples of the latter is the 2012 sculpture Column, a cage-like, floor-to-ceiling structure of cylindrical, white terra-sigillata coated stoneware units separated by lathing and bound together by colorful plastic ties. Produced for an exhibition at The Philadelphia Art Alliance, the sculpture resembled an ionic column, sans capital, that stretched upward toward a floral-shaped, classical boss on the ceiling of the unique gallery. Exemplary of Fujita’s working method, Column was produced from hundreds of identical extruded clay parts, some curved, some straight, assembled to form the hollow drums of the shaft.

7–8 Column, 11 ft. (3.35 m) in height, ceramic, wood, plastic, 2012. Photos: Joseph Hu.

There is something decidedly workman like about Column: in fact, one could imagine calculating with relative precision the amount of time and labor expended on its construction by determining these quantities with respect to a single structural component and multiplying by the total number of elements in the whole. It is telling that such quantification does not detract from the viewer’s experience of the work but on the contrary enhances it in the way that multiplicity does in contemporary installations composed of numerous industrially produced plates or cups. The impressiveness of sheer numbers in Fujita’s work, however, acquires nuance through evidence of the time-and-labor investment and implications of commitment and even personal sacrifice. “I’m always thinking about how long it took to make the parts,” he says. “I try to offer a generous portion of myself in my work.”

the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an art history professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. 

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