Stephen Dixon’s latest work features three Nobel Peace Prize winners. He tells Teleri Lloyd-Jones about the importance of politics and his debt to Eduardo Paolozzi
When he was a young boy, around six or seven years old, Stephen Dixon would make entire football teams out of Plasticine for himself and his cousin to play with. Skip forward a few decades and Dixon has built a career with his hands – and now his most recent work, a trio of busts of Liu Xiaobo, Aung San Suu Kyi and Carl von Ossietzky, collectively called The Restoration Series, is taking pride of place in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Contemporary Ceramics Galleries.
The set of ceramic sculptures depict the three Nobel Peace Prize winners unable to collect their awards owing to incarceration (though Suu Kyi did go to Norway to collect hers in the summer of 2012, 21 years after it was awarded). For Dixon they are the result of four years of work that began at the V&A. As we sit and talk in the front room of his house in Manchester, the busts, made from sections in different clays and surfaces, stand on their boxes waiting to be delivered to the museum a few days later.
When the galleries opened in 2009, Dixon had the honour of being the first ceramist in residence, working among the 26,000 exhibits on show. He’d only had two weeks in the museum’s studio before the public were allowed into the galleries, so he needed to be ready with an engaging activity for the hoards of people expected through the doors that weekend. In rooms packed full of diverting inspiration, he kept his first public session simple, building a plaster and cardboard bust of Queen Victoria, called We Are Not Amused, inviting gallery-goers to select from a collection of ceramic shards and add to the bust – effectively making a large (if slightly grotesque) mosaic.
Through this rather temporary public engagement, the ceramist discovered the foundations for his new project. Starting with the bust, Dixon took a cue from his old tutor at the Royal College of Art, pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi. ‘When I started I was really trying to find something stable to cling to and start with,’ explains Dixon. ‘Going back to South Kensington was a bit like going back to the RCA, back in that stomping ground after 20 years.’
He met Paolozzi at his college interview: ‘I don’t think I’d have got in if he wasn’t around. I was a bit of a risk, because I didn’t come out of a ceramic BA.’ Instead Dixon had a Fine Art degree from Newcastle, and had spent a few years as a technician in a school, firing the kilns, doing glaze tests and making his own versions of Chinese tea bowls and mediaeval jugs.
From their first meeting to Dixon’s most recent work, Paolozzi has been a reoccurring influence. Indeed, the ceramist credits a particular project that the tutor set for his students as the moment when his own language of ceramics and politics began to come into focus. In 1985 Paolozzi had arranged for the students to make work for Lost Magic Kingdoms at the Museum of Mankind the following year. The young Dixon made pieces based on Pre-Columbian vessels, but incorporated commentary on US intervention in El Salvador: ‘That figurative way of working kicked in, and there was a political narrative at the same time.’
Paolozzi’s influence on Dixon has, in the past, manifested in the ceramist’s use of layered printed surfaces, but now he thought back to the pop artist’s bronzes, made by creating several plaster heads, carving them into sections, and then creating one composite from the different originals.
After studying heads in the V&A sculpture collection, looking at Identikits and running a few more public sessions, Dixon began creating his own composite busts. These were initially modelled in clay, then plaster casts were taken and carved up to create new moulds, as were Paolozzi’s. It’s a long and complicated process, but it was partly the point to wallow in the pleasure of making: ‘The luxury of doing the residency was to have three days in the studio a week, which I haven’t had for 10 years. It meant that I had time to be a bit more laborious. Not that these are intricate but they are more time consuming and careful.’
Those who know Dixon’s work may be wondering where his usual political narrative has got to, but as he explains, ‘I didn’t want to come with a political agenda – I wanted it to evolve out of the work.’ One of his last discoveries while still at the V&A were porcelain busts of Chairman Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Ayatollah Khomeini – ceramic mantelpiece versions of public monuments. They helped focus his mind on political propaganda and he decided to shine a light on Xiaobo, Suu Kyi and von Ossietzky.
Dixon is all too aware that he makes life difficult for himself. For the Nobel Peace Prize busts, he began with a solid clay model, mapping out how each distinct section would sit within the whole head. With plaster moulds taken from that model he could then create each ceramic section that, when finished, would be attached back into the whole with epoxy and tile glue. ‘The interesting thing about working with small fragments and units is that you still don’t know what it’s going to look like when it’s put together. A bit like when you open the kiln and there’s a surprise – it can excite you.’ Like a pre-planned mosaic, the work is both fragile, as when the shards of an ancient pot are precariously glued back together, as well as solid, constructed with the intent and regimen of a good brick wall.
The ‘restoration’ referred to in the title has both an aesthetic and political context. Dixon has used a scheme of three types of material. Although each bust is made from a mix of all three, there are particular affinities – the traditional Burmese terracotta for Suu Kyi, celadon glaze for Xiaobo and the clinical white of phrenology heads for Ossietzky.
The modelling is as calm and defined as the stylised, blank quality of the traditional monuments that inspired it. And while this may feel different to Dixon’s earlier and looser-seeming work, he explains that his method has always been a balance of knowing and not knowing where the piece is going: ‘I used to have really elaborate sketch books, and I’d plan it every time to the last details before I made anything – but then I lost interest in it because I’d worked out all the things before the making. It was now just a case of realising it – all the creativity was done already. Whereas if I can build in some freedom then that keeps me excited.’
Spontaneity can often be found playing on the surface in Dixon’s work. With the three busts, there is a mix of the generic prints – patterns or flowers – and specific ones: text and imagery relating to the particular person. With Suu Kyi for example, Dixon points to an image of a tattooed boy smoking a cigar: ‘It came from the British Empire Book for Boys, or something – I had these lovely old photographs (ethically terrible, of course) of Burma under British rule… British colonial culture was interested in that exotic point of difference.’ Moving up through levels of specificity, there’s text overlaid from her award document for the Nobel Prize, and elsewhere on her bust you’ll find extracts from letters of thanks she wrote her supporters.
The focus for this current body of work is to raise awareness of the trio (especially Liu Xiaobo, still imprisoned in China), commemorating their courage and conviction. Dixon’s earlier ceramics satirised the murkier depths of domestic politics, beginning in the 80s with Thatcher, then the Gulf War, followed by Tony Blair and the invasion of Iraq. More recently, after residencies in Australia and India, he has focused his eye further afield, on histories of colonialism and displacement.
While his work might be politically passionate, in the flesh Dixon is surprisingly mild-mannered:
‘I respond to things by putting them in the work. I’m not a political activist in life. It comes out in this, because this is what I do. I make clay things, and so my political views come out on the things I make.’ At university he knew members of the Socialist Workers Party. ‘I went to some of their parties and didn’t really like them. So I didn’t get very far,’ he says with a gentle smile.
Back to the trio of busts sitting in his front room, Dixon explains: ‘I want these pieces to represent the image of the political prisoner but noble, not cowed. Because they are, and were, strong people who stood up for a particular viewpoint and became political prisoners because of that.’ Dixon’s work has a sincerity that can be quietly compelling. And however his style may change, one can be sure that Stephen Dixon will always find a place for morality in his making.
The Restoration Series is on display in the V&A’s Contemporary Ceramics Galleries. Dixon shows at the British Ceramics Biennial, in Stoke-on-Trent, from 28 September – 1 November.