China Clay, also known as Kaolin, is created through millions of years of granite decomposition underground. It was first mined in ancient China as a key ingredient in fine porcelain. Centuries later a search for the mineral ensued in the UK, with vast quantities of this ‘White Gold’ located in Cornwall. The material uses and desirability of Cornwall’s china clay are constantly shifting, as product trends go in and out of favour, moving from porcelain to rubber, paper, and paint back to porcelain again. The industry grew to a boom in the late 20th century, but has seen a sharp decrease in recent years. This has shaped the landscape but also the community that inhabits it.
One thing however has remained unchanged, in order to extract China clay from the ground, you need to dig. Dig down, dig out, move around, pile up and ship out. Extensive mining of the landscape produces extensive mountains of waste consisting of unwanted minerals piled high in what have become known as the Cornish Alps. Today the landscapes are littered with deserted buildings, engine houses and machinery built around the extraction of minerals, ghosts of geo-industrial past.
In January 2021, Robin James Sullivan and Maddie Rose Hills began speaking about china clay resulting in a conversation which has continued over three months. Sullivan has lived in Cornwall, a stone’s throw from the clay districts for most of his life. He is a research based artist whose latest project is a five month public programme exploring the area’s rich 6000 year history.
Hills is a visitor, learning about the history of these landscapes from the outside. She is an artist, curator and researcher, her current practice focuses on the study of materials and their contexts.
Communicating in an online document, Sullivan and Rose ‘volleyed’ thoughts about the industry. A multi time-scaled conversation between past and present selves, responding to questions and thoughts from the future.
To dig into the earth is to reunite the past with the present. Ancient layers of rock sediment from the bottom of the quarry sit at the top of waste tips, flipping time on its head – this material reality of the China clay quarries of Cornwall formed a model for our revisionist and a-chronological dialogues.
The written conversation presented here is punctuated by audio clips from a discussion between Hills and Mike Grigg, a former employee of the china clay company, who recounts memories of a life within the industry.