Words and Project by Gabriella Gormley
A 3 Part Ode to Lithium, My Ex is about lithium. I have taken lithium carbonate as a medication for 4 years, and this same lithium carbonate also exists as a glaze material, with a reputation for being a difficult and toxic substance to work with. It also occupies an increasingly prominent position as a global commodity. I wanted to interrogate this material as a reflection on my personal dependency on it and attempt to ask the question ‘What is the Effect of Lithium on the Body?’ with reference to my own body, the clay body, and the earth’s body too.
Lithium is the lightest known metal and offers something that not many other materials can rival. Made up of only three electrons, it can hold a charge without demanding much space. And it is this potential for an energy density that has gained lithium its title as a ‘green material’, seeing as it is a crucial component of the modern battery that we depend on for our electric future. Lithium might support a transition away from fossil fuels, but we should not be surprised to learn that it’s not as simple as the label. Despite the abundance of lithium in our seas, most of the world’s lithium comes from the Atacama Desert and particularly the salt flats located in the east of Chile. This desert is the driest desert on earth and the process by which lithium is extracted is extremely water dependent – with an alarming 2 million liters of water being required for every tonne of lithium produced. This means that lithium-dense groundwater from deep below the surface is pumped into evaporation ponds where the water eventually becomes vapor and moves away from the land, disrupting a balanced local ecosystem that has been dutifully respected by the indigenous people of the desert for years. Our heavy dependency on coal and oil is under scrutiny, and rightly so, but the answer can not and does not lie in one material solution. Lithium is the newest target under the guise of noble environmental aims.
Despite the largest demand for lithium coming from the push towards electrification, the dependency stretches back further. In 1949, lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder was rediscovered by John Cade, having been used prior to this in the late 1800s in Denmark, sparking a revival in the interest in this metal as a medicine. Mystery still surrounds the exact workings of lithium on the brain, however, its results are unquestionable, and as a user, I can vouch for this. Lithium, often administered in the form of the compound lithium citrate or lithium carbonate, is the only psychiatric treatment that is not synthesized in a lab. This connection to natural sources explains why lithium and its health benefits were known long before 1949, with spa towns such as Baden-Baden (Germany) and Lithia Springs (Georgia) being built up around natural springs that contained high percentages of the mineral.
I have been on a slow but steady learning expedition since I first started taking this unique natural mineral as a medication. But it is through the incorporation of this research into my creative practice, while studying Ceramics in Bornholm (Denmark), that the learning found a place to grow. Having consumed over 1.3 kg of the material, I still find it to be insatiably interesting. Lithium is a lot. The story of its discovery, use, and characteristics are far-reaching and central to our present and our future. But it is the notion of dependency that remains uncomfortable. I am still coming to terms with my dependence on lithium as a medicine, and managing that responsibly.
Lithium & Ceramics
Aside from lithium’s internal place in (some of) our lives playing the role of stabilizer, the identity it possesses in the ceramics and glass industry is quite the opposite. In the presence of high temperatures, upwards of 1000 degrees, lithium has an identity in the ceramic world as a wild flux ingredient. When dominant in glaze recipes, it has the tendency to crack the ceramic bodies it coats. Further to this, it creates a phenomenon called ‘flashing’ where the glaze and clay body meet, making the clay burn an orange color. In the A 3 Part Ode to Lithium, My Ex series, I experimented with this, mixing varying amounts into different clay bodies and also making lithium-heavy glazes – the results were wild and unpredictable. In some cases, the lithium-made iron-rich clays come out unexpectedly metallic and flaky.
A 3 Part Ode to Lithium, My Ex Series
These pieces represent the culmination of a personal investigation into lithium and the identities it possesses. The bent-over figures stand as a personification of three of lithium’s identities that I see to be most fundamental.
A 3 Part Ode to Lithium, My Ex (I) was the first of two pieces that were about 3 of the primary identities lithium possesses as a material; a stabilizer, a treasure, and as a wild flux material. These three identities are represented in the three distinct forms each coming together to make a form that stands in reference to my own body.
A 3 Part Ode to Lithium, My Ex (II) marks the culmination of this project. Firstly; as a medical stabilizer, how I came to know about it, represented in the PRIADEL pill forms that the figure balances on. Secondly, as a treasure, referencing lithium’s indispensable place in the conversation around energy, a carbon zero future, and the digital age, here represented in the form of the quartz crystal nestled in the ‘belly’ of the figure. And finally, an ode to lithium as the wild and unpredictable glaze material that it is, shown in the lithium-rich glaze covering the surface. In this context, it is varied, invites closer attention, and, in opposition to the medication, is noticeably unstable.
Words and Project by Gabriella Gormley | Images courtesy of the artist