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Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise. ‘The prima materia’ 2018. Courtesy the artist

Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise is the culmination of a year-long residency Leontios Toumpouris has held at Telfer gallery. Research undertaken by the artist and his collaborators into the history and practice of alchemy underpins the project, threading together the artworks and accompanying texts which engage with the theatrics of alchemical mimicry and performance.

Fired clay pieces are strewn languidly about the space, fragile but suggestive. Despite this affected delicacy, interaction with the work is not only suggested as a possibility, but actively invited. In ‘The Panacea’, shot glasses sit in a leather holster reminiscent of a bicycle chain. Bentonite clay is poured into these to drink. The smooth grey substance is unnervingly industrial in shiny black plastic; taking a sip of this potentially immortalising elixir feels like initiation to an underground club. 

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Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise, installation view, 2018. Courtesy the artist

Halfway between passive and active, the works are relational and reciprocal, positioning the viewer as both audience member and actor in an undefined performance. Through ingestion—as each artwork contains a portion of Bentonite—the viewer shares something with the work. Does this cult-like communion introduce a hierarchical power dynamic, or is it an equaliser? The question is particularly relevant to the tool-like pieces of ‘The apparatus’, whose odd clay forms hang provocatively from metal hooks on rails protruding into the space. The hooks seem to objectify the clay, as if they were pieces of meat. 

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Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise. ‘The apparatus’ 2018. Courtesy the artist

Each presentation of the clay is like an evolutionary stage: the rounded boulders that sit communally on the floor are ‘The prima material.’ Marbled with recognisable shades of earthstone, earthenware and stoneware clays, these form a point of origin and bring the focus back to clay as material: presenting it more candidly than its transmogrified counterparts. Shapes are drawn from the squiggles formed through the clay’s compression and marbling. These are exposed by cuts in the spherical lumps, and are inscribed upon ‘The banderole’, a black plexi-glass scroll-like mirror that acts as a large-scale model of the ‘language’ embodied by the clay forms. 

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Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise ‘The apparatus’ 2018. Courtesy the artist

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram emphasises phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty’s concept of ‘the flesh of the world’ in relation to language. ‘We […] learn our native language not mentally but bodily’, he writes of the physicality of language. [1] Such embodiment is pertinent to Toumpouris’ work, where the true origin of the clay is left deliberately ambiguous. It seems to suggest that beyond the manipulation of a maker, the language could have evolved out of the clay, as if it were an autonomous substance.

This notion is taken further in a sound piece, ‘The narration’, in which the narrative voice is unidentified. At first the voice seems to be interchangeable with the clay, but it also evolves through and beyond it. It starts off describing the creatures as “they,” changing to “we” as the piece continues. This uncertainty is reminiscent of the science fiction novel, The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972) by Gene Wolfe, made up of three novellas which revolve around three planets: Earth, Sainte Anne and Sainte Croix. Sainte Anne was home to an indigenous culture of shape shifters, who may have been wiped out by human colonisation. However, there is reason to believe that the aboriginal shape shifters wiped out the humans, having morphed themselves into human form and overthrowing the takeover before it had a chance to begin. Similar play on identity, subversion of narrative and dominance exists in ‘The narration”. Wolfe’s creatures also gain and lose control over the narrative voice: “If you hire a shape-changer as a guide, there’s a definite possibility that he’s going to change into your shape at some point. Which is what happens.” [2]

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Suggestions and Encounters: Physical or Otherwise ‘The panacea’ 2018. Courtesy the artist

The installation pushes beyond the definition of alchemy as the transformation of one stubborn material into another, to include the concept of reciprocal malleability. Such flexibility is the fundamental property of clay, but is also symbolically present in the non-linear narrative and evolution of the work which moves between primitive and industrial, sensual and earthly, magic and mundane modes of being. This presents us with suggestive works that flirt with dominance and submission, as well as dialogue and forms of physical and verbal communication; the work does not identify strongly with any set role or character. This is indicative of the artist’s methodology as a whole, where even the publication is made up of ‘propositional’ texts which aim to act as ‘mediators’ to the work, rather than instructors. The result is a transformation of the gallery space into an arena where it seems normal to take a restorative sip of Bentonite clay and commune with the surrounding manifestations.

[1] Abram, D. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More Than Human World. 2017. New York: Vintage Books.  p. 75.

[2] Wolfe, G. Shadows of the New Sun: Wolfe on Writing, Writers on Wolfe. 2007. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. p. 89


The accompanying publication will launch at the CCA Clubroom, Sunday 18 February, 4pm.

Gwen Dupré is an artist and researcher based in Glasgow.