Robin James Sullivan’s work and life are so entwined that he is the work and the work is him. His current project And Everything and Nothing Has Changed is rooted in his hometown, Cornwall. It is inspired by monolithic sculptures destroyed or moved during the history of the china clay industry. This is his largest project to date, but in his own, ambitious words, ‘will be the smallest project [he] ever makes again’. After over a year of research, he has secured funding to carry it to fruition in 2021. Throughout the next year, he will be holding community workshops and field trips, producing a documentary, and engaging with local groups and universities to re-integrate his research back into the Cornish community. This intense research will culminate in a large, theatrical performance at White Gold International Ceramic Festival (Cornwall) with a giant Cornish China Clay Pot, resembling a monolithic sculpture, being fired centre stage, starring as the lead role.
Robin turns the widest of themes into something intimate. He unpicks his subject layer by layer over years of research. As if excavating the very land he is communicating with, he forms a deeper connection to it, weaving his work back into the history of a place, and bringing this history to our attention.
His projects often run simultaneously and can last anywhere between 6 months and 3 years. He has led several place-based projects in Cornwall and the South West. These have involved mapping the arrival of 628 plants to SX0753 Par Harbour and their consequent effect on local ecologies. Manila Clams in Black Burnished Ware was the result of two years of research into the accidental introduction of the Manila Clam to Poole Harbour. Another project Gabbro Vessels; Did Cornish Food Just Taste Better? involved collaborating with archaeologists to accurately recreate a cooking pot from 4500BC, disproving theories on its construction through meticulous research into clay sourcing, making and experimental firing techniques. He has also centred projects around stone circles, the origins of ‘British’ farming, Iron Age ceramic technologies and historic trade routes.
A consistent thread running through this work is collaboration; he has worked with scientists, archaeologists, chefs, food historians, urban planners, farmers, conservationists and marine biologists to name a few. This enables him to develop a holistic understanding of a subject. As part of his research for And Everything and Nothing Has Changed, he will be collaborating closely with Peter Herring - the leading archaeologist and specialist on the china clay areas history. In the New Year, they will be running a field trip together, and Peter will be the lead voice in a documentary produced by Robin on The Archaeology of the St Austell China Clay Area, titled after Peter’s groundbreaking study in the early 90s.
How the two met is also an interesting story, he says: ‘I first came to hear about Peter through his paper on the subject nearly 18 months ago, I then met his wife at a chance encounter at a Lecture on the ‘Feasts of Stone Henge’. She overheard me at a second-hand book table babbling about the paper I was looking for by Peter Herring, kindly introduced herself and passed along his email address. It’s these chance encounters and people’s willingness to help out, to share their knowledge and passions, to help to push my projects forward that I love so much.’
For the live firing event, Robin will be building a Petal Kiln that fans open after 3 days of continuous firing like a giant flower in bloom; this happens at the end of firing when the clay sculpture has turned from earth to ceramic at 1300 degrees. This kiln will be constructed with the help of university students from Falmouth and Camborne. Even the pot itself will be collaboratively built. There will be regular educational trips in the run-up to the festival, workshops and field trips with local people from the area to disseminate information and share opinions and experiences. In front of a live audience during the final event at White Gold Festival, the kiln firing will be accompanied by the sound of live musicians and a team of festival staff and volunteers will help to physically open the kiln to reveal the pot.
Each of these projects would not have been possible without this collaborations, from initial idea through to completion. Robin is passionate about people; something that starts as an idea and developed over years of in-depth research in solitude, he believes, is only truly realised when other humans are included. What he describes as ‘the collective power of community’ drives the work forward, and what better concept to illustrate this than monolithic sculptures constructed collaboratively, significantly ingrained in the community throughout millennia.
The roots of his work are tightly wrapped around the many layers of Cornwall, weaving through its geology, ecology, history and people. This has been the case since his return to Cornwall, post-BA, at which point he immediately joined the Marine Conservation Society, not so much for artistic purposes, but to reconnect with the ecology and landscape. The BA had been successful; his final piece, a high energy drag performance, was met with high praise from peers and tutors, going on to be shortlisted for the national Platform Award which won him a 2-month exhibition at Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth where he performed each week. To Robin, however, something important had got lost in the performance, ‘a purity and integrity’ as he says, which encouraged him to take a step back from art-making until it revealed itself organically. Despite this detachment from the university project outcome, there is an integrity that remains in his work today. He says ‘my work has changed unrecognisably from the outside between University and now. I was producing overtly intimate queer performance work for over 4 years, from cruising around Bournemouth and trying to understand what happens to our status as strangers in these encounters; to breaking down the self to truly understand the performed and the authentic. I was naked a lot, I was dressed up a lot… Now I make neolithic pottery, food-based durational works, large scale ceramic monuments and map hundreds of non-native plants and their story through the china clay landscape. It must seem mental to someone who knew my work 6 years ago to see it now. For me though, and anyone who takes the time to look a little deeper, you’ll see the continuation of strands of thought and context. The theoretical frameworks are still there, each body of work examines the self in relation to the space around it, it examines the authentic and the performed, his feelings of being Other, and more recent attempts to articulate the idea that queer space is space filled by queer experience, so that by conjecture, any space, even a waste tip in Cornwall, or a small fishing port can be a queer space‘.
As the artist makes the move to London, after six years of living back in the south coast of Cornwall with a studio by the sea in the heart of these landscapes, it is a time for reflection on this place, and a chance to view the project from a new external perspective. ‘It’s an interesting move, and one I was really worried about to be honest, as my practice is deeply rooted in the Cornish landscape, geology, history and culture, let alone my personal experience of it. But during my time at university away from Cornwall, my work was continuously linking back to my childhood there without me thinking about it.’
Time moves slowly in the landscape, as it does with our understanding of it. We might think we know for certain what a natural space looks like, but how do we begin to define what nature is, when even the flora plays its tricks on us. He explains ‘when one walks through the Clay Country, upon the slopes and hills that surround most of the centre of Cornwall you are walking through a curated landscape, a manmade one - although you may not realise this upon first glance. For every 1kg of pure China Clay mined, 6kgs of the earth goes to waste. A growing total of 1.8 billion tons of ground has been moved during this industry's life. Piled high across the Cornish landscape, these waste tips have been growing in size for over 250 years. Now dormant, withering in age, these waste tips have been recolonized by neighbouring Flora. Heather, Bracken, Sloe and Gorse now populate these areas like any ancient area of Bodmin, the Lizard or Dartmoor. However, as he goes on to say ‘these ancient landscapes aren't natural either, the “beguiling natural’’ countryside of fields, meadows and woodlands that make up a lot of Cornwall aren’t natural at all. They are all the result of thousands of years of curating the spaces around us, it’s just that time has softened the blow, its relinquished the angst of realisation that we have changed the earth beyond recognition, we see our agricultural land as natural, as part of the ‘‘countryside’’, but it’s not, it’s very much modern - at least in the timescale that I view things!’
This work isn’t going to reveal all of its secrets in one glance but this is because the artist isn’t dealing with condensable topics. Be it identity politics or the patiently evolving natural landscape, they require deceleration and consideration. Robin gives them the time they require, slowly unravelling them piece by piece, to gradually form a tangible thing. His work, as well as the landscape, is worth taking the time to explore. To end with the artist’s words, ‘it’s not something you can brush over. You have to, as I have, get to know the work, explore it and give it time, because I think if you do, you’ll find the beauty, excitement and complexity I do in the places and things I investigate.’