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The Phaidon Folio

Breaking the Mold: 9 Artists Making Earth Shattering Works in Ceramics


Breaking the Mold: 9 Artists Making Earth Shattering Works in Ceramics
Ai Wei Wei "Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn" (1995)

If you hear "ceramics" and all you can think of are clay pots, vases, and antique plates (and also maybe that steamy pottery scene from the 1990 movie Ghost), let these artists be your re-education (though honestly, some of these pieces are just as stimulating as that scene in Ghost). Taken from Phaidon's new compendium, Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art, these nine artists have tested and pushed the traditional bounds of the medium. From using the clay as a mode for performance to creating uncanny industrial replicas, these artists are living proof that contemporary ceramics is having a major moment.



aiSunflower Seeds (2010)

Ai Weiwei is widely known for an inclusive conceptual practice. His art explores a plethora of cultural concerns, often with a decidedly political and critical bent, a stance which has positioned him as contemporary China’s most prominent dissident artist. Questioning issues such as censorship and the control over citizens exerted by the government, he openly addresses the authoritarian assaults and the incarceration that he has personally suffered on account of his critique of government policies. 

A monumental testimony to the skill and years of handed-down knowledge embedded in traditional craft techniques was unfolded in the large-scale installation Sunflower Seeds (2010). Conceived for Tate Modern’s industrial Turbine Hall, the artist covered the floor with a layer of more than a hundred million porcelain replicas of sunflower seeds. Each seed was individually made and hand painted in the city of Jingdizhen, a centre for porcelain fabrication since the days of Imperial China. Ai Weiwei engaged more than 1,600 expert artisans in small craft shops to make the seeds, and the elaborate production process was documented in a video shown in an adjacent room at Tate Modern.

A common Chinese snack, as well as a symbol of the people in Maoist China, the intricately made sunflower seeds, which visitors were initially allowed to touch, invited reflections on the everyday habits of mass society. The seeds themselves were palpably delicate; monumentally piled together, each was a token of painstaking skill and attention to detail, resonating with notions of cultural value in a globalized world.  




the kissThe Kiss (2004)

William Cobbing’s performances and videos use clay in its basic form: wet, slippery and malleable. The Kiss (2004) was the first of these works to leave its mark on my memory. Here, the artist and his collaborator’s heads are covered in a mass of suffocating clay, as they mold it in a mode of self-exploration that quickly turns into a noisy, dirty, erotic embrace. The separation between the "heads" is lost as they merge into one object-being—hinting at the mythical history of clay and the sixteenth-century legend of the Golem—a nightmarish clay creature given life by a single word. The sound of strained breath, plus the obvious weight of the clay, creates an increasingly frantic, climactic (maybe orgasmic), slapstick feel.

Cobbing’s work to date has been primarily an exploration of the high ideals of intellect, language and human interactions. Yet the materiality of his chosen medium of clay reminds us that we cannot disregard, deny or escape the physical reality of the world in which we exist. We are still connected to the earth, and the clay beneath our feet, in the most fundamental way. 




Being Human Being (2014)

Performance is at the heart of Filipino-Danish artist Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen’s practice. In a 2014 interview, she describes how "I see myself as a living sculpture that talks." Her performances are either observed by a live audience or documented in video. The body—her own, or that of family members and friends—is significant in terms of its relationship to space, and it becomes a means through which to interrogate personal identity, constructs of gender, ethnicity, and culture. 

In her 2014 exhibition Being Human Being 1 at Copenhagen’s Kunsthal Nikolaj, over the space of seven days she invited family and colleagues to immerse themselves in a landscape of clay that had been transferred into the gallery. Lucy was produced on the first day (its title referring to Ethiopia’s fossil of early Homo erectus—upright man), where the artist herself lay in ritualistic fashion surrounded by flickering candles, her skin caked in a layer of thick slurry, slowly drying and cracking. The public was invited to light the candles and mold small offerings using the clay. The surrounding bed was resultantly kneaded and sculpted, with traces of fingermarks still discernible, tiny stacks of clay or curved cups, and a thin arch curved over Cuenca Rasmussen’s feet. Over subsequent days, her mother, siblings and daughter made body prints on canvas of their hands, feet and faces; red and brown clays coating flesh and then being pressed into the cloth. These reams of fabric were draped around the space, equating to a time-based portrait of the familial bodies that had engaged with this environment. 




dimattioBlack Confection (2015)

The American artist Francesca DiMattio’s often monumental sculptures—some require a forklift truck to move them—graft historical and contemporary elements together. Fragments of Wedgwood, Chinoiserie, Ming dynasty ceramics, and Delft pottery are recombined in Frankenstein creations.

DiMattio’s use of ceramic, with its inherent fragility, deftly counters any accusation of monumentality. I’m reminded of the Japanese tradition of kintsugi where potters would gild cracked pots with gold leaf to call attention to the imperfect and transient nature of objects. DiMattio’s sculptures similarly feel like they’ve already lived an entire life. The work Black Confection (2015) articulates many of her concerns. Incorporating stoneware and porcelain, the delicate floral patterns of a broken vase are countered by the lava-like clay that seems to be keeping it all together. Flowers proliferate and pink and blue bunting-like patterns have been added by the artist onto the black surface. Of course, flowers can signify both celebration and commiseration, and alongside the artist’s unrelenting energy there remains a hint of pathos. DiMattio’s work holds these oppositional senses together – creation and destruction, elegance and roughness – to bring a sense of vigor to ceramics. 




Homage to a Pollock (2015)

Wrapping paper, chocolate, stearin wax, steel, porcelain, nylon, plastic, wood, soap, bread, egg, glass, rubber, and even Google—Rose Eken’s works could be seen as an inventory of all the materials which lend themselves to a contemporary sculptural practice. However, in her work they are all transformed into clay. Rose Eken relentlessly creates an ever-expanding world of everyday objects, remodelled in paper clay. Her work lives in the tension between the mass-produced objects of everyday urban life and the dense materiality of her medium. Her concern is with the tactile workings of the production process and the expressive breath of clay—from lumpy, heavy earth to the elegance of the finest porcelain. 

Eken models her subjects on a scale of 1:1, but during the firing process each object shrinks by around ten percent, a slight reduction in scale which the artist exploits in order to create a certain emotional tension. The change in scale is by no means dramatic enough to create the surreal estrangement found in the sculptures of Claes Oldenburg or the paintings of René Magritte, where a single apple might fill an entire room. The shrinkage in Eken’s work is so slight as to be felt rather than seen, and its effect can best be described as a heightened intimacy: an invitation to move closer to the sculptures, many of which are small enough to fit easily into your pocket.




trancheeTranchée (2013)

Alexandra Engelfriet’s site-specific clay sculptures express the hard labor of their creation. Her anti-monumental work Tranchée (2013) is a 164-foot long trench whose exposed interior walls are covered in thick clumps and furrows of fired clay. To make the work, Engelfriet lined a trench—which had been dug into the earth in Vent des Forêts, a sculpture park in Northeastern France—with clay brought in from off-site, and shaped it using her hands, feet, knees and elbows. Building an ad-hoc kiln around the trench, she then fired it over a number of days and nights, before dismantling the whole structure. The artist’s action saw hunks of clay flying through the air, slapping into the trench walls, her limbs ploughing and furrowing, her body sliding down the banks; afterwards, a fire blazed, leaving behind sloped walls of gnarled red-and-black ceramic. 

Clay is also a sign of something beyond the artist’s body. It inevitably evokes an ancient lineage of human endeavor, from ancient pottery to adobe huts and space-age ceramics. Tranchée, for example, visually and materially evokes the trenches of World War II that still scar the region of France in which it is located—lending the work itself an aspect of mourning and memorialization. 




wreathWreath (2013)

Keith Harrison frames his work as a catalyst for live processes and areas of practice not commonly associated with ceramics. He says: "I am interested in what happens when you activate a material. This sense of switching on, or making a material live… has connotations back to music and performance in a broad sense. I always want to see what a material can do when you put it under duress." Like any experimental approach—in say physics and engineering, or cultural disciplines including music, dance or architecture—controls are loosened and elements staged in relation to each other precisely to amplify contingency, test limits and produce unexpected results.

Many of Harrison's experiments with clay involve its transmutation from a liquid or plastic state into a fixed solid form: "I often use another object as a host to hold the clay, whether it be a light bulb, a sound system, or an electrical heating element, and then explore how the host’s properties interact with the clay once you send an electrical current through it." His sculpture Wreath (2013) is a string of building site light bulbs coiled up and hung on a hook, resembling an industrial chandelier. Each bulb has been dipped in terracotta slip mixed with Prinknash Abbey "basilica" incense. When switched on, the bulbs fire the clay which cracks to reveal an incandescent glow, and the molten incense extrudes as a glaze, dripping onto a plastic shield which in turn starts to smolder, the smells of incense and melting plastic forming a sweet but putrid mix. This object can be presented in its "raw," "live" or "cooked" state, each proposing different potentials and relationships to risk and conservation.




pappUntitled (2011)

Anna-Bella Papp makes A4-size rectangular reliefs in pale unfired clay. Restrained in their raw materiality, simple form and modest scale, works such as Untitled (2011) and Untitled (2012) are more like models than sculptures. The way the artist displays them reinforces this: often laid flat, in orderly fashion, on transparent table tops, they seem never to have left her studio. The tension between finished and unfinished, made and in-the-making is at the heart of this work, which plays on all the natural strengths and vulnerabilities of Papp’s chosen medium.

Clay easily lends itself to experimentation. Papp’s delicate grey and beige slabs have the potential to be modelled and remodelled, sculpted or brought back to shapeless mass. The artist’s efforts, all of her labor, can be wiped off with a simple gesture, like a sketch in a notebook. During the making process, Papp skilfully treads a fine line between perfecting her compositions and erasing them. Her reliefs seem to be in a permanent state of precariousness, undermining the classical definition of sculpture as solid and everlasting. When hung on the wall, these small tablets blur the boundaries between media and states even more. They can read as paintings or carefully drafted drawings—indeed, some have carefully drawn linear patterns on their surface



bireArea Whole, 300 lbs (2014)

Looking at the work of the American artist Brie Ruais, the physicality of her relationship to clay is palpable. We can see the dynamism of her movements, her lived experience; how she likes to push the palm of her hand through this material spreading it outwards, or run her fingertips across it, channelling textured lines that pull the eye around, down or along her sculptures.

Ruais always works within self-imposed restrictions: "I begin with a list of limitations that determine the weight of the clay (often equal to my own bodyweight), the action, the time, and the basic shape, and then confront the material with my body in a highly physical process that involves kneeling, kicking, spreading, scraping, and skimming." The forms are then cut into tiles, glazed and fired. These tiles are pieced together (often forming a grid) to give a sense of a fragmented whole, one that has the potential of being both ordered and disrupted. Area Whole, 300 lbs (2014) comprises a wall-mounted grid within which a giant hole appears. Its title uses word play, underlining both the positive and negative space of this hole (the void is mounted on the wall while the matter itself is on the floor, representing the "whole" area and volume of the ‘hole’). Made using clay pigmented with color—from teal to midnight blue, lilac to bubble-gum pink—sweeping, gestural strokes document how Ruais swiftly shaped this material. Finished with a clear glaze to highlight the tonal vibrancy, the work is characterized by its will to break free, away from the grid, constraint and order, ready to reconnect with the earth in the ground.


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