Descent from the bustle of London into the vast subterranean space of Westminster University’s Ambika P3 Gallery (www.p3exhibitions.com)—dark and cavernous despite the spotlights that, like miner’s lamps, cast figures in glaring white and sent their spectral shadows up the walls—felt like an intrusion: an imposition on sepulchral stillness. If the effect was of the breaching of a tomb, however, all hints of the morbid and the melancholy were overwhelmed immediately by the wonder provoked by the scene. Conjuring the haunting presence of Han-dynasty tomb guardians or Egyptian shabitis (funerary figurines), throngs of diminutive white ceramic figurines milled silently in the darkened space as if gathering in hushed veneration or waiting expectantly for some undisclosed event that might prove centuries in the making. Exploiting the theatrical potential of yawning space, dramatic lighting, and the copious dispersion of multiples, the exhibition “Ceramics in the Expanded Field” proved an object lesson in the emotive benefits of ceramic sculpture’s descent from the pedestal.
Featuring work by Christie Brown, Clare Twomey, and Julian Stair, the show formed part of an extensive program of exhibitions, publications, and presentations on contemporary ceramics and museum practices pertaining to process, materials, and display that began in 2012 under the aegis of the Ceramics Research Group of the University of Westminster, where Brown is a professor of ceramics and Twomey and Stair are research fellows. Opening concurrently with an international symposium of the same title, the exhibition played a defining role, since a primary characteristic of the expanded field for ceramics in the context of display is that its boundaries have tended to be determined by what actually occurs in practice rather than what might be proposed in theory. At the same time, the exhibition was more than a tendentious demonstration of possibilities. Sensitively orchestrated to preserve the personal traits of each artist’s vision while aligning the works into a coherent successional experience, the exhibition recalled the processional plans of ancient tomb iconography and raised a semblance of the anticipatory atmosphere that no doubt envelops archaeologists on the threshold of discovery.
The exhibition’s antechamber, as it were, was implicitly a site of pilgrimage where Christie Brown’s poignant Ambika’s Dream drew scores of beneficent doll-like figurines together into a silent crowd. On the wall before these gatherers a large black-on-white line-drawing depiction of a zoological park called to mind the kind of tomb imagery that in pharaonic Egypt offered glimpses of an imagined paradise for the departed soul. A site-inspired installation, Brown’s work reflected on the gallery’s history and its commemoration of a young girl, Ambika Paul, who succumbed to leukemia as a child in the late 60s. Enamored of the London Zoo, the child was invoked by the installation not only through the drawing of her favorite destination but also through the sea of figures drawn to that place: the beneficiaries of a million-pound philanthropic gift by the Rt. Hon. Lord Paul of Marylebone, Amika’s father, that kept the zoo from closing in 1992. Brown’s work seemed in this respect a reflection less on loss than on the commemorative potential of certain sites: the power of places to sustain memory.
Deeper in the gallery in a second chamber, voluminous and cathedral–like because of its semblance of a nave arcade, another, larger gathering occurred. Flanked by massive concrete piers and overlooked by a dark and moody clerestory, more than 2000 spotlighted white porcelain figurines with the appearance of 18th-century Höchst Commedia dell’Arte characters formed a spectacle of strangely arrested motion, like a host of petite phantoms frozen in mid-swirl on a ballroom floor. Dwarfed by the shadowy vastness of the Piranesian interior, the figurines held their own in the viewer’s field of vision not only by force of sheer numbers but also through the attraction of unique vignettes set within the sea of multiples: something like the glimpses of human foibles offered up by the peasant crowds in a Brueghel painting. Clare Twomey’s installation Piece by Piece, a preview of an intervention destined for the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, acquired, in the context of Ambika P3’s adumbral atmosphere, a mysterious ritualistic feeling enhanced by the presence of a single black-clad female demiurge who, with methodical deliberation under the illumination of a spotlight, silently cast more figurines to augment the throng.
If Twomey’s installation conjured genesis and a kind of a Garden of Earthly Delights replete with narratives spanning the gamut from sensual indulgence to suffering, Julian Stair’s Quietus, situated one flight above on a landing at the far recesses of the gallery, completed the cycle of life implications with allusions to internment. Sternly eschatological—though strangely more conducive to reflection than trepidation—Stair’s rendition of an empty sarcophagus implied transcendence as much as the finality of decay. Presiding in vigilant silence over the scene, several colossal ceramic vessels of earthen hues seemed both potential urns for containment of the deceased and grave witnesses to the rites of passage into eternity. Though heightened to universality by abstraction, the installation still faintly conjured antiquity, and in that evocation stressed the connections of the human present to the distant past not only through the endless repetition of death but also through the persistence of rituals that death has provoked.
The place of ceramics in these rituals over the millennia might not have been foremost on the minds of viewers as they passed quietly through the somber spaces of Ambika P3, but surely the fact that ceramic objects have always inhabited the expansive plane to which the installation as an art medium orients itself was one of the key assertions made by the exhibition. The suggestions of terra-cotta tomb guardians, cinerary urns, and ceramic sarcophagi were, after all, not simply arranged for emotive effect but also invoked with instructive intent—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say with mnemonic intent, since the exhibition did not teach so much as remind the viewer that across history the environment of ceramic vessels and figurines has far less often been that of the pedestal than of the boundless space of human experience in the world.
the author Glen R. Brown is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.