JJ Peet

« When the magic happen », a conversation with JJ Peet and Laura Morsch-Kihn

The 25 of October 2015, was a sunny afternoon so JJ and I decided to use walking, in a Parisain park, to have our conversation. It turned out to be a good place to catch the feeling of his artistic practice: take a haphazard itinerary, make some detours, go in the opposite direction, deviate from the path…choose a slow pace over efficiency, capture the environment, be guided by imagination…

In this park is Paris’ oldest merry-go-round (1860), known for its white elephant. Rielke sang about it in his motion poem, “ Das Karoussel “. Here the fascination of the poet is focus on this great observation instrument that represents the merry-go-round an assembly of colors whirling around. What is born here by the grace of the merry-go-round is a modern perception of reality. There is something like that in the way that JJ capture reality trough is different instrument : viewer, record keeper, station, …..

JJ Peet and Rielke have many things in common as power to transfer the slightest thing affected by talisman, a way to correspond with something invisible, the hidden soul of matter.



Laura: JJ, how did you come into art?

JJ: That’s the first question you’re asking me (laughs)? I can tell you about when I was five years old. The teacher was playing Mozart and we had to paint to the music and everybody was painting in rhythmic motion and I listened to the music and I attacked the paper the way I wanted do to attack it. The teacher said that was wrong and I had to do it again so I drew just what I wanted, over and over, listening to the music. She said ‘you’re doing it wrong’. Ever since then I’ve been making art.

Laura: From drawing you came to ceramics?

JJ: Ceramic and drawing are very similar because both release information that doesn’t have any, like sort of blockers. You don’t have to use tools besides a pen or a paper, or hands and clay. It’s very simple and direct.



Laura: About ceramics, the way you work with them, they always show the trace of your body, …

JJ: Ceramics show the hand more than any other three dimensional material on the planet. I like to translate what my individual hands do to the clay. So, if I make something with ceramics my finger prints are on there, and it’s on there for 5,000 years. When I teach ceramics I push that thought to the student. Whatever you make, it will be there that long so you better make it good. Ceramic has so different ways you can work with it: pinching, slabs, coils, pressing it into molds. There are so many different opportunities that most materials don’t have, but when you do that the hand shows. For me that’s really important. If I want not to show that, I use aluminum, steel, and some other cold materials, because ceramic has the warmth of what we do to it.

Laura: With your Proxy Cup project, you really have this idea to give your energy to another person and it’s also a way to make an interaction?

JJ: A proxy cup is a functional vessel; something made to be used for drinking water, coffee, wine. The word proxy means for me that when you use this vessel from me, my being is integrated into the vessel. You’re actually drinking from me, or the maker. When I make a Proxy Cup most of the time I’m pinching it so I’m rhythmically making the object from the same ball of clay and I make it over and over again until is correct. That has to do with formalism: my transfer of that energy has gone into that ball of clay. Once it does that it becomes something that speaks about me. You’re drinking out of that.

The vessel is something that I’ve used since I was little. I came up with this idea to barter for each proxy cup. The barters become very individualistic: one to one. There are about 52 barters we have done now. People come to me with an idea and I shoot the idea down and I pull from them what else they have to offer. It’s mostly services like photographing my own work, cooking me breakfast, lunch and dinner, helping me to design a studio or a space.

It’s really this interaction between people and sometimes I don’t know who these people are and how they came to me so it’s usually an adventure that is taking place. When we make an agreement there is a contract which has to be signed, and you have to use this vessel. If it’s going on your shelf I will come back and break the vessel and take it away from you. It’s really functional and that’s why you can’t put a price on it.



Laura: Besides these functional objects another side of your pieces is linked with the dream and imagination. Can you explain these two different ways of knowing about the world and human experience?

JJ: There’s a functional part in what I do and it has always been there because it’s really interesting and really part of what that material does, whether it be toilets, knives, brakes on cars or drinking vessels. But the other thing that I do, I love to throw function out of the window and use science-fiction or sort of your eyes in your brain to make a moment out of it.

The things I made recently are called Stations and they are still a little bit functional in the way you come to this object that is big enough to stand on or sit on, interact with. They’re more like a way to transform into different parts of the universe. Physically or in your brain. But you’re transferring to that, you’re holding an eyeball which is seeing and collecting information, like a camera or a viewer and then a lot of the time you’re collecting information, whether that be fingers or teacups, something that’s kind of strange. You go and you’re collecting information and you’re bringing that back. This is a Station.

A lot of the work is very image-based so it might look like a camera or a viewer or a knife or something but it represents bigger issues that are going on the planet and a lot of the sculptures that I make are thinking about that and I tend to take a global look at the planet. I pretend I’m back in a spaceship and look at the planet as just a ball and not trying to pinpoint certain groups of people but just as human. Looking at that and saying like: how can I react to beheadings on the planet or people creating wars for a reason, or the destruction of the planet. Why do we do that? And these objects are sort of meant to question our own society.



Laura: Besides this little camera you make from ceramics, an object made for collecting information in a mental way, you also have a big practice in photography, video and you also transform your own camera. What is the difference between the mental images and real images? How do you manage this?

JJ: That’s the hardest thing to manage for me because one part of my brain is questioning being in the moment and throwing the camera out the window and just looking with my eyeballs, taking information that I put in my brain and that comes out through objects, sculptures, paintings, and drawing. I’m filtering my own images in my brain. And there is this other way where I’m like loving equipment and carrying things to capture moments in time. Sometimes I forget or I lose what I capture with my eyeballs so I want actually to capture it with an image machine, which is a camera or a viewer. I constantly battle that back and forth so there was this moment where I decided to not take pictures or video anymore and I started to make these ceramic cameras with a little hole that I would use like a binocular to look and pinpoint a moment and time that’s happening and goes in my brain. But I still love photography and I grew up with a photographer brother and I love the older images of photography, the heavy hitters in the documentary photography world because those images are so powerful and give information to society as a whole because it’s universal language of images. This certain moments in my life where I strive to capture images as strong as I can and use those sometimes comes in the form of capturing images in a movement or in video or time-based capturing and then what I love about that is putting those images next to each other and making a montage or sort of rhymes of images. It’s for that reason I’m sort of attracted to these moments.



Laura: Do you think the rhythms of the fanzines you make as another form to put together images?

JJ: I call my fanzines Book report× because it’s in a book form and it’s a report of something. It can be a manifesto of ceramics or an episode of a new program going on in our world. But actually what’s really happening was that I was collecting all these time-based video and Super 8, 16mm films. I was doing this and at a certain point I was just making a gigantic archive that was not saying anything so I decided to pull back and instead of collecting all these time-based materials I just collect one single image or photograph and try to do what I do when I’m editing, try to do that with an image and a text or image and drawing. Use that almost as editing. Those Book Reports take me so long because it’s like a slow motion of editing two things together like a page in the left and a page in the right. When those two pages meet it has to be perfect like the right way. It’s a slower path of making time-based material in a way.

Laura: Are those books in a certain way a form to combine ceramics and photography ?

JJ: The first few are actually when I was using the ceramic cameras as just a viewer, a little hole I was looking through, there I drew what I was seeing or feeling so the images of the ceramic camera were translated to the Book Report in a drawn form or even in written form: poetry, text, space materials.

Laura: Finally, ceramics is a record-keeper like a camera?

JJ: Yes. The weird way they come together in my world, there are links between the viewer and ceramics, there are a lot intersections between photography and the ceramic object because they show where they came from at that moment in time you were at.



Laura: Your art practice has a strong identity with its own tools, archive system, alphabet and language, … When we enter your work we feel that we enter your own world with its own codes.

JJ: Yeah I think I filter this world and then make my own world from that. Some things that I do tend to build and repeat so the languages start to build upon themselves, so it’s a sort of self-sustaining universe I guess. It’s my universe. It’s taken a long time to get there, it’s a slow process but it’s really separate, my view from society, view and trust that the images that I’m doing make sense to me and try to make sense to the viewer, to you.

Laura: Your aesthetic is kind of rough, brut, sometimes radical and really imaginatively poetic at the same time.

JJ: A lot of what I do, sometimes it’s really rough, sometimes it’s really straightforward and there is a moment where it’s really soft and sensual. But ceramic for me is a way of showing like the greater side of me, the way to attack something, showing emotion and feeling and it can be rough but I know when I do something in clay and I vitrify, it’s like this record, this capture, so when I punch it you see that I punch it. My aesthetic it’s forty-two years of working, talking and being. I don’t really think about my own aesthetic, it’s the way it is.

Laura: It makes me feel that there is no limit between your art and your life?

JJ: No, there is no limit. It’s all one thing, and it’s mandatory that it is. There are very few moments where I don’t make art everyday and I feel like I failed that day if I didn’t do that.



At this moment we are looking at the small little insect house with some clay pots inside.

Laura: Working with clay is an old practice that starts with humans in prehistory….

JJ: My favorite rumor about how humanity learned to use ceramics and make it somehow vitrify is this: we were taking wet clay and pushing that into baskets that had been woven and the clay would dry and was sticking to the basket placed on the fire. That burnt the basket away and the clay got hard. When the heat comes in it can happen, if you bring it up to the right temperature.

Laura: In a way isn’t it funny to use such an old practice to project yourself in the future?

JJ: Yes because there is no limitation. You can bring something in your brain and you translate it into your hands and it’s down, it’s there. There is nothing, just your own ability. And that’s why it’s such a wonderful material; it’s why I have a manifesto, why I try to push students or other people. This material that you squeeze forms a record of your hand immediately. It’s magical.

Laura: Sometimes instead of selling or bartering your work do you leave little pieces of ceramics in nature?

JJ: Oh yeah, for sure. There is a lot of leaving bits of vitrified objects around the world because it’s like this trail of your hands; it’s a record of that. Usually when I go to a place I have a little clay in my pocket. I call them “ Yaps “ I did that in the train the other day. That trace of clay makes up the planet and it’s for that we know about our history.

Laura: Can you explain why, nowadays, there are so many artists working with ceramics in a society where technology is so widespread, where everything is trying to be digital and virtual and not physical?

JJ: I think at least for me I can throw the computer out the window. You can talk about this for days and days but I think it’s the stake, this redaction of all the tools we need to make a video or a website, a car to get that job done, instead of ceramics: we make the things, we put heat to it, then it’s done. It’s the most direct material we have.

Laura: To work with ceramics nowadays can be a position to say that we do not agree with this society?

JJ: Definitely, that’s a great statement you just made!



Laura: You have this crazy new project “Dutch Oven,” a little kiln that you can carry with you all over the world. With this project will ceramics become a way to travel?

JJ: Yes that’s the plan. It’s a kiln supposed to go in my luggage and be used in the street or all different places. I use local materials in it, the Proxy Cup goes in a little kiln and I use wood, trash or a combination of many things to bring that up to temperature and I vitrify the Proxy Cup. It will travel wherever I go, that’s the plan. This is the next level of the Proxy Cup, really making a sort of extreme. It will take at least seven hours to burn a cup so it will be a time for interaction with people.

Laura: Can we look at the project as a fire ritual, like in the way humanity used to be together a long time ago?

JJ: When you fire with a wood kiln, which I have done for many years, there is an investment of time and a reflection of what you put in: it’s reflected in the cup. Certain wood gives you a color tone, so it’s a record of what I was when I fired that. And the time involved in that really depends on the material put in there. One cup can be three to twelve hours. I can be alone in my studio and I also need to be with people and interact with them and you create like a fire circle and the conversation comes from there. It’s the same way when I’m bartering with somebody.

I believe that ceramic, unlike most materials, really reflects the human who made it. There is a sort of magical power in ceramic because it’s all made with two hands or your feet, whatever you’re using to make the object it’s a reflection of you and you put something into it so when other people come in it sort of expands that breadth of information.



Laura: How do you know the magic happens?

JJ: A lot of time with the ceramics it’s a constant balance because you can work on something, you can wrap on it and come back to it later and there is always this record of what you are.

The first Proxy Cup in the Dutch Oven I pinched thirteen times to get it right and I transferred those moments. And in the same way as my other sculpture, I move pieces around the studio over and over, until the magic happens. My studio has this way of lighting that reflects moments that are really magical moments and when it’s happening the object’s right and it’s complete. Until that happens I never come out of the studio. But ceramics is the way this happens, there are no other parts, it’s just this ball of clay turn into something. I’m in, my magic is in, and you get to use that and I think that’s really important.




Une réflexion sur “« When the magic happen », a conversation with JJ Peet and Laura Morsch-Kihn

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