2014 Taiwan Ceramics Biennale

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Pickled green plum is a traditional Taiwanese digestive. Midway through the conference in the opening week of the 2014 Taiwan Ceramics Biennale (TCB), the delegates were invited to try their hand at the first stage of preparing this pickle. The freshly harvested plums are vigorously rolled on coarse salt to crush the skin and then cracked open with a mallet before being repeatedly soaked and drained in sugar water over a period of a few days. Picture a group of ceramic artists and academics huddled over their baskets of plums, crushing green plum skins, and whacking away at the fruit with child-like glee to help produce a low-pH digestive that has a foreign but quite pleasant taste.

The pickling exercise was a fun event, but in retrospect gains some other meaning. There comes a moment after being exposed to the visual and cerebral overload in the biennale’s exhibition “Terra Nova: Critical Currents/Contemporary Ceramics” (curated by Wendy Gers), when you have to step back and do some digestive thinking.

Exploring and Expanding Digital Fabrication

Yes, there were pots, vessels, installations, and sculptural works. No, it was not a pastiche of materials, talent, and skill. In a quite clever way, the biennale (hosted by the New Taipei City Yingge Ceramics Museum) posited 3-D printing and CNC-milling as highly creative building techniques. If this fast forwards us to the future of ceramics, it is also the prompt to hit the rewind key to review the validity and vitality of current ceramics practices and expressions. Ceramic objects created via 3-D printing are as experiential as those made by hand, and allow for the making of new sensory and tactile meanings via novel technology. But more so, it liberates our thinking about and via the tangible (handmade) ceramic object, about how the ceramic artist engages with critical realities, and whether ceramics is the exclusive material domain of the ceramic artist.

The TCB embodies something that artist Lauren Sandler wrote some years ago in her ceramic manifesto, published in The Summer/Fall 2009 issue of Studio Potter magazine“[ceramics] has the ability to dismantle persistent hierarchies and separations, transcend boundaries, and move toward an art form of convergence and collaboration.” The ceramic studios of the future will no doubt include those that are digitally-wired up and driven by technological whiz kids who have some appreciation for ceramic materials but do not necessarily follow ceramics aesthetics.

New technologies place clay in the (digital) hands of anyone with some measure of computer savvy and a measure of creative ability. It even permits the consumer to intervene in the process of making by adding or subtracting to form and surface and print as many copies as desired. The result might not be ceramic art—but it would at the very least still be ceramic. There’s no need to reel away in horror at the thought that ceramic art is being usurped because that is not what awaits in the future. When challenged at the TCB with the question “but where is the ceramic artist’s hand?” one of the designers using 3-D printing techniques, Dries Verbruggen of Unfold, responded, “We are making the digital a hands-on experience. We are bridging two languages.” To which Francois Brument of Studio In-Flexions added: “The digital experience is intrinsic to the ceramic object.” These newcomers are re-awakening the debate about whether ceramic artists have grown insular in their clever thinking and in the making of high-art that speaks in an exclusive language to the privileged few.

Experience Embodied

The TCB could easily have turned into a ceramics science expo but curator Gers anchored the biennale exhibition in the work of ceramic artists who are engaging with the real world and then going back to their wheels and workbenches to translate their experiences as ceramic events and not as clichés or inventions.

To define and then defy whatever we consider objectionable, we have to first interrogate what came before whether by linear progression, regression, or interruption. A number of the biennale artists made use of discovered ceramic artifacts that were included intact in their works as markers of historical reference, or copied and then altered to add contemporary meaning. The intent is not to justify or ridicule the excesses of the past but to enquire why it arose at the expense of others and the manner of their materialism and privilege. Though the ceramic figures of the Peruvian-born Kukuli Velarde at the biennale are modelled on pre-Columbian artifacts, their expressions of shock, horror, and bemusement at what Spanish colonialism wrought (and via its insidious legacy continues to impose) on Peru’s indigenous people, assume the status of a universal indictment of generic injustice. If, despite being an accomplished ceramic artist, Velarde herself was not a product of the “crashed, trashed, and ridiculed” indigenous culture of Peru, we could claim the right to question the validity of her work. As such she would be presenting commentary from the privileged position of being an observer (which itself risks being a kind of colonialism) rather than as the representative casualty of conflict, whose lived experience is embodied in ceramics. Velarde belongs to and speaks for a cause—the decolonizing of indigenous aesthetics and reclaiming of dignity—and hence her work has authenticity.

Social commentary can easily lapse into caricatured binaries: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, cheap and expensive, meaningful and meaningless, temporary and permanent, etc. It boils down to positives and negatives. The industrial casting molds featured in the work of the mainland-China ceramic artist Jiang Yanze explore the literal and figurative negatives of ceramic mass-production. The mold as negative form, assumes a positive value for itself and by itself. That value is not restricted to being the mere facilitator of practical and aesthetic forms, but rather includes the way it embeds the beauty of rationality inherent in industrial products and challenges the perceptions of what can be defined as either useless and useful.

In casting and then deconstructing the traditional Taiwanese ceramic window with its grid of open panes, Elenor Wilson of the US addresses the simple binary of us and them and how we define and understand differences. The window is presented intact in its historic, traditional form on one side of a wall, and deconstructed as a jumble of jutting planes on the other side. Viewed from either side, it is simultaneously a barrier to protect what is inside and a window onto the other side. The window frame is the only constant: the facilitator of thinking about how and why we see one another as other, about looking into rather than onto but acknowledging that the grid of panes are as much opportunities as constraints of understanding.

Convergence of Disciplines

We are now not only thinking about the art of ceramics, but also about the art of thinking through ceramics. Convergence of disciplines, like digital technology, can expand ceramic expression but if it is done for the sake of being new and novel, it lacks true validity and risks being overtaken by the next new thing in mankind’s headlong rush for something more and better. Instead of leapfrogging into a digital ceramics future, Hitomi Igarashi (Japan) stepped back into the past to converge traditional origami and contemporary materials and forms. In her work, the essence of origami, as a traditional Japanese art of paper folding that is steeped in history and tradition, is not translated into ceramics but is kept as an integral component of medium and method. An intricate, multifaceted origami structure is mapped in papier mâché to serve as a mold for porcelain slip that is applied paper thin. Freed from their paper molds, the works are immediately recognizable as origami and as architectural ceramic vessels. Igarashi merges and transmits two seemingly disparate traditions through synergy of materials and forms.

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The materials and processes aside, the convergence of concepts can leave both the ceramic artist and collector-consumer confused and the ceramics in a limbo of being neither this nor that. That very state of simultaneously being, wanting to be, and not yet being, is something that Po-ching Fang of Taiwan explores. He addresses these multiple states by approaching his work as an applied object. Without sacrificing the essence of form, which intends and facilitates purpose, this term allows room for the work to be functional art. Po-ching’s works approach sculptural forms but remain familiarly functional and yet one might hesitate to use them often. This hesitation, caused by the fact that the work is between the categories of functional object and sculptural object leaves the ceramic artist—not through any shortcomings of his own but because of entrenched art-craft hierarchies—searching for an identity as craftsperson, artist, or designer who mediates both those ceramic disciplines. This kind of work echoes the interdisciplinary focus found throughout the visual arts.

The relationship between ceramics and topics important in other fields outside of the arts, like environmental or ecological studies, was also examined during the TCB. In 2009, Peter Hughes, Curator of Decorative Arts at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, wrote a paper that was presented at the “Making Futures” conference at the Plymouth College of Art and Design in the UK. In it, he describes the relevance of craft to the environmental movement:

“Within the diversity of practices and beliefs that come under the rubric of arts and crafts there is an implicit unifying theme. This is an alternative form of individuation or ‘selfhood’ . . . [that] can be characterized as, in a broad philosophical sense, ecological because it emphasizes relational identity and interdependency over a sharp distinction between subjects, or indeed between subjects and objects.” This concept of relational identity linked works in Terra Nova together, and is key to the work of Kim Ju-ree of South Korea. She constructs reduced-scale buildings, which, upon completion are not fired, but are exposed to water to decay until the structures return to being clay. It could be considered a calculated exercise in nihilism, creating a work of ceramic art that has no permanency and will not in the end be what it was at the beginning. But what is lost—disappearing landscapes and buildings—gains greater significance because it bears witness to metaphorical negative processes. The architectural structure is not the ceramic art exhibit— the processes of progressive destruction and loss which decays the art, is in fact the focus.

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There was another sublime experience at the TCB and it had everything to do with ceramics crossing disciplines. The Australian art and craft historian and writer Kevin Murray brought a few of designer Sian Pascale’s Indian-style teacups made from river mud to the biennale conference. Low-fired cups (called kulhar or pi ke puht in India) are traditionally used to serve spiced chai tea on the go and when the tea has been drunk, the cups are thrown down to dissolve back into the soil. The cups, originally made by Pascale, and now in production in India, are aimed at reviving the tradition which had been recently eroded by the use of plastic. Her versions of the cups are embedded with flower and vegetable seeds which will be released from the smashed clay to germinate. Outside of India, rather than participate in this ritual of regeneration, buyers of Pascale’s cups collect and keep them. There is a corollary to be found in contemporary ceramic art: we clamor for meaning with the proviso that our values (collecting to remember and for aesthetic enjoyment) can be layered over anything else, despite the fact that the rest of the world might well be indifferent to what we think is good and valid.

the author Ronnie Watt is an author and artist living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 

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