Clay Front 2017

Exhibition view at solo show Hoger Lager, Emergent

Work in progress i.c.w. In Flanders Fields Museum 

Earthenware, wood, natural stone - 10 plinths of varying heights (ranging from 30 cm to 165 cm), each with a footprint of 40 x 40 cm 

Each softwood plinth is inlaid with a natural stone carrying an engraved text. The 10 texts refer to specific battles.


I wonder whether those bodies were ever recovered. Perhaps the earth swallowed them up, in the days following, when the thaw set in. Perhaps only the freezing cold maintained an impression of their bodies, and when the iced crystals in the soil became liquid again their tissue seeped away around their skeletons that became stuck in the ground as the land dried out and formed a second body around their bones. Season after season the ploughshare must have spread their remains even farther, dispersed the 200 or so screws and bolts and props of which the human frame consists underground. I wished I could let their fragments run through my hands. That I could, as archaeologists do with the skeletons of monarchs or plague victims from old mass graves, spread them on a table, with everything in place, from cranium to fibula. And that they would not only let one read the history of their diseases, the osteoporosis, the tuberculosis, the bullet wound or the fatal sword stroke in their vertebrae, but that, as it were, their hiatuses would come to life and lead us to suspect a whole semantic system – as in our words, which I sometimes compare with false teeth, the echo of other words rattles through their syllables, in which other words awaken, and so on, so that whoever pronounces one word, if he listens hard, can hear the teeth of a whole language chattering in it. ('While the Gods were Sleeping' by Erwin Mortier, 2008)

During WOI, thousands of soldiers disappeared into the ground. In addition to the 11,871 graves and 54,986 names on the entrance gate to the British cemetery at Tyne Cot in Passchendaele, the walls also contain the names of the 35,000 soldiers whose bodies were never found. The idea that so many people, of all nationalities, still lie within the soil of the Ypres Salient is almost incomprehensible. ‘From dust we came, to dust we shall return’ can be understood both literally and poetically, but also in a cynical sense. At the same time, the gravity of the war contrasts sharply with the lightness and banality of existence.  

The clay used by Griet Dobbels was excavated from ten different sites along what was once the front line during the Great War. She then worked the earth into unique crockery: seemingly ordinary objects for everyday use, war or no war. The tableware also refers to the mothers, the women, who fought their own battles on the home front during the conflict. 

A central theme within Griet Dobbels’ oeuvre is the dialectic between grandeur and nullity, volatility and timelessness, beauty and horror. In Clay Frontshe takes the weight of the ground and works it into the lightness of an everyday utensil. The person who is literally present in the Flemish clay is transformed into a piece of tableware that conjures up the image of Royal Boch (Belgian earthenware factory in our collective memory. Ten dishes are placed on softwood plinths of different heights. Each plinth is inlaid with a natural stone that has been engraved with a text. The different texts refer to specific battles and identify the international divisions of soldiers who fought on that day and whose physical remains may still be present in the earth or clay.   

In its current version, Clay Frontcomprises 10 plinths. This is the beginning of a project that will expand and propagate: Griet Dobbels aims to discover where every division named on the stones originally came from and to send the relevant part of the installation (wooden plinth, engraved stone and crockery) back to the soldiers’ native lands. Over a century later, the soldiers are returning home. For each division, people and locations must be found that are linked to the events of the Great War. This creates a connection between here and there, between the Flemish clay and Wales, Australia, Canada, England, Africa, India, and many other lands. 

The installation of Clay Frontis the first step in a gradually evolving process.  The next stage is to send the plinths back to the cities or provinces from whence the men came. In the case of Stone 10, for example, it means sending the plinth to: Bavaria, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Great Britain.  This also means that, in this particular case, the original tableware will be created in seven unique copies.