CORRESPONDING WITH JEJU SCORIA: EXPLORING THE (RE)GENERATIVE QUALITIES OF STONE*
*This is an updated version of the original article which was first published as: McHugh, C. J. (2020). ‘Corresponding with Jeju Scoria’. In Kihwan Kwon & Hyosun Kim (Eds.), When, in what form, shall we meet again? (pp. 71-89). Jeju Scoria: City Art Community.
Dr Christopher McHugh
is a Lecturer in Ceramics and Global Engagement Lead at Belfast School of Art, Ulster University (UK). His practice-led ceramics research explores the relationship between artistic and archaeological methodologies, often focusing on particular archives, museum collections and communities. As part of this, he is interested in how an engagement with material and making can enhance wellbeing and encourage social inclusion. In 2016, he was Arts and Humanities Research Council Cultural Engagement Fellow at the University of Sunderland, UK, where he developed a ceramics and wellbeing project with military veterans.
The author was one of 13 artists invited to participate as an artist in residence programme organised by City Art Community and funded by the Jeju Culture and Art Foundation. The project was to be held on Jeju Island, South Korea, in August 2020, and the aim was for participants to research and respond creatively to Jeju scoria, a volcanic stone particular to this island. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the residency was cancelled. Instead, participants were sent a small quantity of scoria to work with in their respective countries.
In this paper, the author reflects on the challenges of conducting an artist residency remotely, arguing that while this mode of working poses challenges, particularly in terms of access to authentic contexts and stimulation, it also provides an opportunity to explore new models of interaction. Originally a site-specific project, restrictions on travel meant that this became a material-specific endeavour, conducted remotely by correspondence through emails and the postal service. The paper documents a series of material experiments undertaken to understand the material affordances of the scoria. This process of enquiry is construed as a further ‘correspondence’ between maker and material, where both are linked in a process of discovery. Rather than existing in stasis, the scoria is presented as ‘vibrant matter’ , a substance which invites us to consider the generative potential of materials and understand that both we and they are in a constant process of ‘becoming’ .
Keywords: becoming, ceramics, correspondence, Jeju, Korea, lockdown, scoria, pandemic, volcanic stone
I first heard of Jeju Island when I was teaching English in Osaka, Japan, in 1998. One of my students told me of how she and her husband had honeymooned there in the early 1980s. At that time, Jeju was a popular destination for Japanese travellers seeking short breaks in a relatively accessible, yet exotic, location. Although her reminiscences of sub-tropical beaches and volcanoes piqued my interest, I never managed to visit. Jeju receives around 15 million tourists in a normal year, many flying there from the Korean mainland and Asia. When I was invited to participate in an artistic residency focusing on Jeju’s volcanic scoria stone, I was excited to visit the island, explore the place and meet other artists and members of the community. Having undertaken other residencies, in the UK and Japan, I was familiar with the format and was keen to develop upon the approaches I had deployed during previous interactions.
These expectations were considerably modified due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. International travel has become highly restricted for the foreseeable future. Visa-waivers have been rescinded and countries are more inward-looking while the world awaits, and competes for, an injected panacea. The so-called ‘new normal’, has meant that the residency was conducted by correspondence. While this mode of working poses challenges, particularly in terms of access to authentic contexts and sensorial stimulation, it also provides an opportunity to explore new models of interaction. Although receiving a ceramic jar of Jeju scoria in the post cannot replicate the embodied experience of being in the place, it offered a chance to consider this intriguing material in the wider context of making in the post-coronavirus Anthropocene. With England, and most other nations of the UK, in some form of lockdown at the time of the residency (November 2020), the material acted as a portal through which the imagination could travel, provoking a rethinking of what a ceramics residency might constitute and ultimately yield. The pandemic has been described as a time of recalibration, a chance to rethink our priorities. For me, working with this substance from a distant country facilitated a form of grounding, where my own agency as an artist became enmeshed in that of the scoria in something akin to what ecologist of stone Jeffrey Cohen [4, p. 252] describes as a ‘cross-ontological embrace’. Working with the stone enabled me to step aside from the frenetic pace of contemporary life for a moment and ‘touch a world possessed of long futurity and deep past, a spatial expanse that stretches from the subterranean to the cosmic verge’ [ibid, p. 33].
From site-specific to material-specific
Miwon Kwon [12, p. 2] has traced the development of site-specific art practices, focusing on the contested nature of the various relationships between the artist and the site or community in relation to broader socio-political concerns. She identifies a series of typical modeIs of site-specificity, including those which are ‘context-specific’, ‘audience-specific’, or ‘community-specific’. In these schemas, the visiting artist often assumes the role of interested outsider or agent provocateur. These artists-cum-tourists-cum-ethnographers (see Foster 1995 for critique) respond to a site and associated community in situ, usually making a new body of work which, in turn, is presented back to the community.
My previous research has often been of a site- or community-specific nature, sometimes involving interaction with communities of interest, or particular museum collections and geographical locales. Through my doctoral research in Sunderland, I became ‘embedded’ at the Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens to develop community engagement strategies around its ceramics collection . Further doctoral work on the George Brown Collection of ethnographic objects involved tracing its biography from its formation in the Pacific islands to its current home in Osaka, Japan . More recently, I have investigated the material culture and making practices associated with the post-war ceramic figurine industry in Seto, Japan, through a process of interviewing, recording sites and making new artworks .
I envisioned that I might adapt some of these approaches during my month-long immersion on Jeju Island, possibly identifying places and people with which to work, thereby inspiring new engagements mediated through the material of scoria. However, when it became clear that travel was not possible, the project gradually evolved into a material-specific, rather than site-specific, endeavour. My first metaphorical journey to Jeju came in July 2020 when I spent a morning on the phone to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to ascertain whether or not there were restrictions on the importation of scoria. Apparently working on a skeleton staff due to coronavirus restrictions, I was eventually referred to the Animal and Plant Health Agency. Although the adviser I spoke to had never heard of Jeju scoria being imported into the UK, he assured me that a permit was not required.
Scoria as souvenir
The scoria arrived from Jeju beautifully presented in a red clay jar, which in turn, was contained in a card tube packed within a cardboard box (Figure 1). The jar of scoria recalled an urn of human ashes or holy relics and the method of packing and presentation invited a reverential, ritualised approach to unboxing. Surrounded with typical products of Jeju, including tea and sweets, it occurred to me that the package amounted to a souvenir of Jeju, or perhaps more accurately, a gifted memento which signified my not having been able to visit the island and authentically experience the place and its people.
Figure 1. Jeju scoria in the jar in which it was sent.
Theorist Susan Stewart  has argued that souvenirs are necessary for us to apprehend events whose materiality cannot be revisited. Although the souvenir may initially act as a metonymic trace of an authentic experience, it soon becomes activated as a thing in its own right through the engendering of a narrative of origin:
‘We might say that this capacity of objects to serve as traces of authentic experience is, in fact, exemplified by the souvenir. […] We do not need to desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable. Rather we need and desire souvenirs that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative. […] It represents not the lived experience of its maker but the “secondhand” experience of its possessor/owner.’ [20, p. 135]
Whereas a souvenir is often something one brings home to remember or share an experience, the scoria acts more as a record of engagement with the project organisers; it is their souvenir of Jeju. As volcanic stone, the scoria forms both a souvenir and ‘archive’ [4, p. 66] of its own creation in the molten depths of Hallasan, the volcano from which Jeju is formed, and a metonymic trace, standing in for the direct experience of visiting the island.
Sociologist Michael Bell [2, p. 813] has identified a form of haunting which refers to memories associated with specific topographical locales or objects. He argues that we ‘constitute a place in large measure by the ghosts we sense inhabit and possess it’. These ‘ghosts of place’ are defined as ‘the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there’ [ibid, p. 813] and confer a degree of ‘social aliveness to a place’, linking the past, present and future through ‘temporal transcendence’ [ibid, pp. 815-816]. The scoria, together with the jar in which it is contained, seemed to act as a portal through which to imagine Jeju. Touching the scoria, one can almost feel the presence of those who have dug it and tilled it to grow the tangerines Jeju is famous for. In this way, the scoria acts as a genius loci, or representative spirit, of the place. While much of the stone from which the world is formed is unimaginably ancient, ‘volcanoes spurt molten rock that flies, flows, hardens within a human timescale’ [4, p. 34]. In this way, too, the scoria as a product of volcanic activity acts as liminal interface through which anthropocentric concerns and temporality are linked to the Hadean deep past accreted over billions of years below the Earth’s surface.
Correspondence projects using earth and clay are not unprecedented. For example, Project Clay invited submissions of clay bodies from around the world, which were gathered together and fired in London to coincide with the 2012 Olympics [19, p. 124]. In such projects, clay acts as a catalyst for engagement and exchange, where distant sites are literally and metaphorically transported to a different location, the clay going from ‘being someone’s land to becoming a medium for creativity’ [ibid, p. 130]. In Project Clay, ‘Digging and relaying clay proved to be a connector and cultural barometer, a gauge of how people thought about clay’ [ibid, p. 130]. Clay is ubiquitous, accessible and easily worked. As such, it has potential to explore common natural and cultural contexts. As Rowntree and Hooson note, ‘Geology is much older than human history or geography and clay deposits are not constrained by national boundaries’ [ibid, p. 130]. Based in Belfast, my initial response to the Jeju scoria project was to explore geological commonalities. The Giant’s Causeway, an outcrop of basalt columns similar to those found in Jeju, is one of Northern Ireland’s most iconic tourist attractions, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features in the nation’s folklore (Figure 2). On receiving Jeju scoria, there was a sense of responsibility to make the best use of this geographically-specific material. After all, it was someone’s land.
Figure 2. The Giant's Causeway, Northern Ireland.
Making with scoria
Anthropologist Tim Ingold [11, p. 6] argues craftspeople ‘think through making’. This ‘art of inquiry’, he asserts, emerges ‘from the crucible of our practical and observational engagements with the beings and things around us’. Here, our relationship with materials is mutually constructive and we ‘think through them’ [ibid, p. 6] in ‘correspondences of material flows and sensory awareness’ [ibid, p. 98]. Materials are not simply ‘static entities’ waiting to be discovered, but exist in a constant state of ‘becoming something else’ [ibid, p. 31]. Here, making is ‘not the imposition of preconceived forms on raw material substance, but the drawing out or bringing forth of potential immanent in a world of becoming’ [ibid, p. 31]. Although adopting a divergent theoretical position, archaeologist Lambros Malafournis [13, p. 21] takes pottery as an example to also suggest that the action of making involves a ‘flow of the organic [human input] into the inorganic’ clay, where ‘The being of the potter is co-dependent and interweaved with the becoming of the pot’.
Indeed, it was not until I started to interact, or rather ‘correspond’, with the scoria that its creative possibilities became evident. On handling the coarse orangey-brown powder, my first instinct as a ceramicist was to mix it with water to see how plastic it was. I wanted to respect its integrity and not adulterate it with other clay bodies so that it could ‘speak for itself’ [19, p. 130]. As Ingold [11, p. 31] notes, materials pose ‘riddles’ which can only be solved through ‘observation and engagement’. It is up to us to ‘listen’ and allow them to tell their ‘own story’. Researching the material, I found that, much like many other clays and soils, it is largely composed of silica, alumina and iron oxide. However, after adding water, it was obvious that the material did not handle like any clay I had previously used. It possessed little plasticity and my attempts to make a thumb-pot – one of the most fundamental forms in pottery – were thwarted.
In fact, it was unclear to me how to classify scoria. Was it stone, soil or clay? Songyi, the Korean word for it, meaning light stone, seemed strangely oxymoronic, although entirely appropriate, given the pumice-like quality of the material. As Ingold [11, p. 30] points out, there is no overriding definition of stone, only different types of stone, their description and classification historically contingent and their properties ‘continually emergent’. Embracing this fluidity afforded a certain latitude to how I approached the testing of the material, meaning I had no set ideas on what the outcome might be. It was in attempting to understand what it could ‘do’, rather than worrying about what it was, that I was able to ‘discern a life in the material’ [11, p. 30] and ‘collaborate more productively’ with it [ibid, p. 30, citing 3, p. 60].
After a series of material experiments where I tried to paint with and extrude scoria paste (Figures 3-11), I decided to adopt a technique reminiscent of pâte de verre, where molochite and plaster moulds were used to both form and fire scoria vessels (Figures 12-22). This form conferred inherent strength and stability to the scoria and the moulds prevented undue cracking, sagging and slumping in the kiln. Mixed only with water, the scoria dried too quickly in the mould and a small addition of underglaze medium kept the material wet enough to work with. Fired straight up to 1260°C in an electric kiln, the scoria vessels shrank by around 14%, but maintained their form. Re-firing to 1280°C, these pieces started to slump and became metallic and vitrified, the scoria almost returning to its volcanic origins. Firing directly up to 1280°C, the shrinkage was much higher at about 24%, but the pieces retained their form. These works have a primitive, archaeological appearance, where natural qualities and cultural references seem to merge.
Although this was an almost alchemical process [11, p. 29] which involved attempting to tame, or domesticate, this unruly and non-compliant material, it was also essential to embrace the particular material properties and qualities of the scoria. While these archetypal vessels may mark an attempt to ‘impose’ a normative order on the scoria, the process by which they were achieved necessitated a ‘correspondence’ between the material and myself to understand its various characteristics and possibilities. Had more scoria material been to hand, it would have been possible to be more ambitious in the scale and complexity of the forms attempted. Although against the ethos of the project, and therefore not attempted, it was also clear that the scoria had potential to be mixed with other clay bodies or to be used as an ingredient of glaze. The organisers of the scoria project had set a challenge and, as a ceramicist, I felt a desire to respond by making a tangible object. Practitioners in other fields, painting or performance, for instance, would no doubt have responded differently.
The built environment is composed of a palimpsest of stone and its biproducts, including brick, concrete, steel and glass. Scoria itself is often used as a filler for concrete. Humans have attempted to extend their will over stone since the first Acheulean hand axe was struck from a flint core. As the ‘lithic archive’ shows, art rendered in stone, as statuary or architecture, is often anthropomorphic in nature, showing ‘the power of human impress more than the virtues of stone itself’ [4, p. 13]. While stone may at first seem to confound intervention through its unyielding hardness, it also possesses a range of material affordances – ‘compositional and interruptive agencies’ – which act as a ‘summons to adventure’, inviting exploration and the act of making [4, p. 165]. Although my engagement with the scoria resulted in the transformation of this material into solidified, anthropogenic forms, this occurred through a process of correspondence. The initial aim may have been to produce ‘well-crafted and symbol-laden solidity’ in the form of pottery, but this gradually shifted to recognising the scoria as a ‘catalyst for relation’, a substance possessing a ‘generative substantiality’ through which the ‘story’ of our engagement might emerge [4, p. 33].
Scoria as a gathering
Theorist Jane Bennett’s [3, pp. 23-24] conceptualisation of assemblages is helpful when considering scoria both as a material and a cultural entity. She argues that complex processes are the combined result of the ‘confederate agency of many striving macro- and microactants’ which sometimes converge to form assemblages of ‘vibrant materials’. Here, assemblages are construed as ‘ad hoc groupings of diverse elements’, ‘living throbbing confederations’ with their own life span. Scoria, as a material with particular physical properties, is the result of ancient and ongoing geological processes. Its quality as a thing, however, is in how it becomes connected to human activity, in this case, bringing people together through a mutual creative endeavour. My engagement with it as an artist is also a synthesis of various agencies, including my will as a maker and its own material qualities and cultural significance.
Philosopher Martin Heidegger [10, pp. 167–74] has famously explored the ceramic vessel as both a material entity and a ‘gathering’ point. The jug he discussed is made from clay which ‘has been brought to a stand’ through firing. Its ‘thingness’, however, emerges not from its materiality, but from its potential to link humans to their cultural and environmental context. For Heidegger, the jug’s essence comes from its ability to take, hold, and, ultimately, pour out its contents as a ‘gift’ [10, p. 172]. Here, the jug’s functionality makes it a thing: ‘The vessel’s thingness does not lie at all in the material of which it consists, but in the void that holds’ [ibid, p. 169].
Similarly, in this project, the ceramic jar in which the scoria was packed serves as a void which holds a gift. The unfired scoria embodies ‘generative potential’ [11, p. 28] as a material to explore and with which to think. Stone is a ‘primordial invitation to extended cognition’ [4, p. 21]. Formed into a vessel and fired into a solid, this potential is ‘brought to a stand’, although these new elements of material culture may acquire generative potential, themselves going on to contain and pour ‘gifts’, engendering material or social engagement.
Artist Antony Gormley [8, p. 85] has discussed the relationship between clay and memory, suggesting that this material is one of the most suited to preserving moments of lived experience through its ability to capture direct indexical memory traces. When fired, these experiences are committed to memory through a ‘fossilisation or fixing of a moment’. He describes the process of firing clay as a ‘primal transformation of the unformed to the formed’. The concept of transubstantiation is useful when thinking about this kind of material and ontological change. Citing the examples of how Neolithic and Mesopotamian pottery decoration was influenced by that of woven basketry, archaeologist Chris Gosden [9, pp. 37-38] argues that transubstantiation occurs ‘when one substance changes to another, but taking the echo of the first material with it.’ This process often immutably alters the raw materials used. In making pots with the blood-red, iron oxide-rich scoria, once-molten volcanic material has been re-fired and re-shaped. This transubstantiation fixes and records my interaction with it in a tangible form.
Working with the scoria invites us to consider how this material may have been used in the past and how it may shape the future. There is evidence of hematite (red ochre) having been used by Neanderthals in antiquity  and clay and ceramics are inextricably linked to the development of civilisation. As Julia Rowntree and Duncan Hooson [19, p. 53] note, ‘Clay is the stuff of life’, involved in everything from medicine to eating and hygiene. Jeju scoria itself is ascribed life-giving properties and is used in agriculture and the beauty industry. Archaeologist Joshua Pollard [17, p. 48-59] argues that an engagement with the ‘transformative qualities of materials’ through ‘transformation, re-contextualization and recombination’ must have been as important as an appreciation of durability and permanence when new forms of material culture were developed in the past. Indeed, ‘breakage, decay and attrition’ may have come to express ‘new ontological states’, with, for instance, the recycling of broken pots as grog in clay bodies possibly reflecting familial lineage. The transformative act of re-firing volcanic material to create new pottery is reminiscent of this ancient repurposing.
Conclusion: Anthropocene insights
The term Anthropocene, first proposed by scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer , is an informal nomenclature which reflects an increasing acceptance that human activity since the industrial revolution has affected the planet so much that it has become manifested in geological stratigraphy. Jeffrey Cohen [4, p. 78] argues that we are also living through the Lithocene – an immense period which transcends geological epochs and human time. Through its material record – its ‘nonlinguistic inscription’ – stone embodies stories of creation, cataclysm and memorialisation [4, pp. 33-35].
Today, an unprecedented quantity of objects is made and discarded. A disengagement from material and place is a corollary of this ‘consumerist culture’ where an ‘ever increasing production of goods’ is combined with ‘an even shorter cycle of renewal and disposal’ [1, p. 333]. The shorter life span of objects and a disengagement from making them, contributes to a form of cultural amnesia. As Paul Connerton [5, p. 122] explains, ‘Today it is we who observe the birth and death of objects; whereas in all previous civilisations it was the object and the monument that survived the generations. […] The accelerated metabolism of objects generates the attenuation of memory’.
This echoes Martin Heidegger’s earlier observation that while modern technology has made communications easier, it has had an alienating effect, challenging our traditional sense of engagement with the material world:
‘All distances in time and space are shrinking. Man now reaches overnight, by plane, places which formerly took weeks and months of travel. He now receives instant information […] of events which he formerly learned about only years later, if at all. […] Yet the frantic abolition of all distance brings no nearness; for the nearness does not consist in shortness of distance.’ [10, p. 165]
As I write, the UK and much of Europe is in various forms of lockdown, and the world is struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, itself partially blamed on agricultural mass-production practices. Things we took for granted a year ago – the ability to freely travel internationally, nationally or even locally – seem a distant memory. There has been a renewed interest in grassroots making, whether it be growing vegetables, baking bread, posting online content, knitting or making pots. Confined to their local environs and many working from home, people are getting to know their neighbourhood or reacquainting themselves with childhood haunts. For a while, at least, the pace of life has slowed.
Working with Jeju scoria at a time of rupture like this is both a privilege and a lesson in grounding oneself with earth from another place – someone else’s land. It is a provocation to think about the ‘generative or regenerative potential’ [11, p. 28] of materials and accept that both we and they are in a constant process of ‘becoming’. In doing so, we may come some way to overcoming the false dichotomy between the material and human world [11, p. 27]. It questions our long-held understanding of the world as ‘a place fashioned for our habitation’ [4, p. 36] and foregrounds stone as an ‘active partner in the shaping of worlds’ [ibid, p. 14]. As such, it reminds us of our place in the universe, how small we are, but also of the power of a world community acting locally to effect global change. The objects made in this project are at once enduring archival records of human-thing correspondence and microcosmic recreations of the geological forces from which the scoria originated. I will retain some of the unused Jeju scoria in the jar in which it arrived. Sometimes, I will let it run through my fingers and remember that it came from a volcano on the other side of the world. The jar contains potential and is also a commitment to the future.
Figure 3. Grinding the scoria into a finer power with pestle and mortar.
Figure 4. Finer scoria powder was made into a paste for extrusion.
Figure 5. Scoria painted onto a bisque tile and fired in reduction to 1300°C.
Figure 6. Left: Scoria mixed with water and medium and then extruded. Right: After firing to 1260°C.
Figure 7. Scoria paste painted onto a textured plaster batt and fired in reduction to 1300°C.
Figure 8. Scoria paste on textured intaglio plaster batt fired to 1260°C.
Figure 9. Cardboard mould used to shape scoria.
Figure 10. After firing to 1260°C.
Figure 11. Hexagon-shaped piece made using a cardboard mould.
Figure 12. Scoria mixed with water and thick underglaze medium and shaped in a molochite and plaster mould.
Figure 13. Mark-making and hand-modelling.
Figure 14. After firing, showing shrinkage.
Figure 15. Finished piece showing hexagon design.
Figure 16. Detail of vessel in Figure 15.
Figure 17. This piece was initially fired to 1260°C and then re-fired to 1280°C, sagging as a result.
Figure 18. Detail of interior of vessel in Figure 17.
Figure 19. This vessel was fired to 1260°C. Areas which touched the plaster mould have a lighter red colour than the interior.
Figure 20. Detail of vessel in Figure 19.
Figure 21. This vessel was fired straight up to 1280°C. Shrinkage was about 24%.
Figure 22. Detail of vessel in Figure 21.
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Reference for citations
McHugh, C. (2021). Corresponding with Jeju Scoria: Exploring the (re)generative qualities of stone. Ecopoiesis: Eco-Human Theory and Practice, 2(2). [open access internet journal]. – URL: http://en.ecopoiesis.ru (d/m/y)