Serena Korda uncovers
the missing link between witchcraft, skiffle and ceramics
How would you describe yourself?
I’m an artist. I make objects, performance and film and I often work with people at the core of my practice. Making is really important because it’s the process of making things that informs what happens in the performances and how they come about.
What informs your practice?
Ideas of ritual and how they manifest themselves within popular culture in the sense that, in this country at least, we search out ways of playing out a belief system – whether that be going to a rock concert instead of church or going to a DIY store to do up our houses or to improve ourselves in another kind of way. So the work has that theme running through it; searching for a sense in the everyday, finding ecstatic ritual or joy within a group context.
Is that why it makes sense to have a multimedia approach?
I’m constantly doing new and different things, whatever the idea is in my head that will take me to the medium that I need to use – so in this circumstance it’s ceramics. I’ve never made ceramics in my life before! But I ‘ve worked a lot with clay. I’ve worked with prosthetics and sculpted a lot of things in clay and the thing that’s left is a plaster mould that I use – but in this case I was really interested in the intuitive qualities of clay and also the fact that I’d discovered these Bellarmine jugs, that are the historical reference point for the work – so history is pretty important to what I do too.
How did you come across these Bellarmine jugs in the first place?
I was at this local museum in Suffolk – Suffolk being one of the many hotspots of the witch hunts in England. One of these jugs was in the cabinet and I instantly asked, ‘what is it that?’ They were mass-produced and exported from Germany and used as a household object for liquids for drinking. When the witch hunts started to occur in the 17th century, they were adopted as a form of voodoo, because they are shaped as an animated figure, with a face and body. If you had a fear that there was a witch casting evil over you, you would pee into the jug, add nails, pins and needles and then you’d stopper it up with a cork and wax and put it in the hearth of the house – and that would supposedly protect you.
How did you approach making your own?
I knew I wanted them to be an army. There are ideas of the warrior and notions of why we go to war but the witch thing has taken over! It’s an interesting relationship of these gender ideas but there’s also a relationship between good and evil. I guess there’s a fight going on between good and evil, and they are pierced, punctured and puking. They are very abject and quite grotesque folk objects…
Did you shape them all by hand?
No, they are press moulds mostly; three different sizes of a symmetrical form I made with two sheets of clay either side of the mould, and then you squidge them together with slip, open it apart and you’d have a pot. That would be the starting point and then I’d literally beat them up, punching and pushing them, having a fight with them really! And then having them sort of falling apart on me!
Can you tell us more about the objects and sound?
There’s the history of the jug and how it’s been used as a musical instrument, in a skiffle type way, people making their own rudimentary instruments and still happens today in different cultures.
I’ve used sound in a lot of my work, although I haven’t worked with a choir or music in such a direct way before, but I’ve worked with dance a lot. When you bring people together that don’t know each other – and around objects that I’ve made – it’s about that animation of objects and how things potentially have a life force of their own. The objects have a tone and quality of their own that feels good – there’s a real particularity to them. So hopefully that triggers certain things…
Shifting Sands: Hybrid Rituals & Symbols in Contemporary Culture is open until 12 July at Modern Art Oxford.
Photographs Serena Korda and Hannah Wilmhurst