Cont(r)act Earth

1 Shlomit Bauman and Abed Al Ja’abari’s Local, 9 ft. 9 in. (3 m) in diameter, wheel-thrown and slip-cast earthenware, oxidation fired, 2016. Photo: Anthony E. Stellaccio.

The Unknown Fields Division is an art studio entity describing itself in the following way: “a nomadic design research studio that ventures out on expeditions to the ends of the earth to bear witness to alternative worlds, alien landscapes, industrial ecologies, and precarious wilderness. These distant landscapes—the iconic and the ignored, the excavated, irradiated, and the pristine, are embedded in global systems that connect them in surprising and complicated ways to our everyday lives.” This is the truth to form in one of the most iconic images from the display of the studio’s work in the exhibition, “Cont(r)act Earth,” held at the Henan Museum in Zhengzhou as part of the First Central China International Ceramics Biennale ( In this image, a man (Liam Young), in a plastic rain jacket, rubber gloves, and a respirator, crouches to collect mud. The setting is inner Mongolia, near a lake-sized pool made to store waste runoff from a factory mining and refining the rare-earth minerals used to produce components for smart phones, laptops, and the cells of smart car batteries—technologies far more ubiquitous than the obscure origins displayed here might foreshadow. The mud bears toxic concentrations of heavy metals and emits radiation, and the artists used it to create four ceramic vessels dramatized by the illustrated odyssey of their creation, their content and concept, and the context of their display.

The multi-media artwork, titled Rare Earthenware, is a riveting entry into understanding the biennale, and emblematic of five distinguishable and interconnected themes: internationalism, activism, history, materiality, and invention. The international dimension of the biennale is, of course, obvious and it would not be worth elaborating except that it is a parameter of the show expertly woven into its content. Take for example the expansive installation created for this biennale by Alfred University’s Walter McConnell. Utilizing digital fabrication and 3-D scans of himself and of Hu figurines housed in Henan and at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, McConnell creates synthesized figurative images that also splice together global histories and geographies. The sculptures are dramatically lit, enclosed islands of unfired clay; the figures are struck in awkward poses, abandoned, isolated, and uncanny; and the questions they ask are open-ended.

2 Huang Ke’s Jade Bi, 26 ft. (8 m) in height, each bowl 5¾ in. (15 cm) in height, coal-fired ceramic, metal structure, 2016.

3 Jiang Yanze’s City & Shanshui, 13 ft. 6 in. (4 m) in length, honeycomb ceramic filters, 2016.

4 Jolan van der Weil’s Dragonstone, 18 in. (45 cm) in height, low-fired clay, metal, 2016. Courtesy of the Henan Museum.

McConnell’s Travellers is transient, a massive undertaking created onsite in Henan, in collaboration, and across cultures. Yet the work, like the biennale, is more than just logistically complicated, it is loaded with implications for the dialog of individuals and cultures taking place in the post-colonial and post-industrial, digital age of the 21st century. This is an explicit point in the curatorial work of Wendy Gers, who heaps much needed attention on the topic of globalization and intercultural commerce by focusing on the content of both the works and the lives of their makers. Out of this is borne the expatriated South African curator’s signature diversity, with the exhibition including artists from all corners of the world. Indeed, while the title, Cont(r)act Earth, dualistically signifies the emphasis on materiality (contact with the earth) and the activist orientation of the exhibition (contract with the earth), it may also be fairly interpreted as meaning to contract—to symbolically reduce size by increasing the presence of and interconnections between nations, cultures, and individuals.

Along with themes of globalism and technology, McConnell also engages with history in his work, but it is only one approach to an infinitely multifaceted topic among many taken in the biennale. As a case-in-point, multi-media artist Barthélémy Toguo is the true voice of colonial histories in the show. Born in Cameroon and living in France, Toguo frames his art with Western motifs, titles, and themes, which strikes one, as the curator points out, as largely inextricable from a post-colonial perspective. In a work exhibited as Judith Beheading Holofernes, the symbolic currency is in “the violent death of a destructive invading force,” a seemingly unmistakable metaphor for an African artist who paints beautifully, but also aggressively and ritualistically, on the finest French porcelain.1

From colonized to colonizer and from elegy to eulogy, Osamu Kojima, a Japanese sculptor working in residence in Taiwan, works with a tangible embodiment of local history and its legacy. Joining and stacking locally sourced, traditional tiles into a monumental sculpture, Kojima then ceremoniously over-fired his work with prophylactic measures meant to prevent collapse without denying it completely. The sculpture, Nostalgia, is an agglomeration of debris from a receding wave of history—it is the past in the present moment.

5 Walter McConnell’s Travelers, varying dimensions, moist clay, plastic enclosures, scanned and prototyped figurines, plywood, polystyrene, light bulbs, 2016. Courtesy of the Henan Museum.

6 Alexandra Engelfriet’s Tranchée (Trench), 164 ft. (50 m) in length, earthenware, fired from 2246°F (1230°C) to 1652°F (900°C), 2013. Photo: Guillaume Ramon.

7 Jonathan Keep’s Ant Hill, 24 in. (60 cm) in height, unglazed 3D-printed stoneware, code. Courtesy of the Henan Museum.

Countering this expression, the biennale also welcomed the next wave, the progress of history, as evidenced in the use of new ceramic technologies. Several artists in the show work with these still up-and-coming tools, such as 3-D printing, but it is South African artist Jonathan Keep who stands out as the most prolific and inventive. The artist’s Ant Hills and Langton’s Ant are not only the most advanced technically, they are a synthesis of digital fabrication technology and natural processes, each one discovering the other in the work and the viewer discovering the relationship between the two through the work. Keep profoundly reminds us that the mathematics of nature is still a frontier toward which we, with all our technology and knowledge, are only slowly advancing.

Activism is rampant throughout the exhibition, appropriately, as it is, in its name and in its nature, environmentally themed. Indeed, Cont(r)act Earth, is born out of an urgency driving the curator, inspiring many of the artists, and serving as a mantle, however sincerely, for the Henan Museum and its political and economic backers in Zhengzhou, which is one of China’s most polluted cities. Chinese artist Jiang Yanze’s post-industrial cityscapes, made from industrial ceramic filters produced and discarded by the Gaochun Ceramics factory near her home in Nanjing, reflect this overarching contradiction of the biennale.

Yet activism has different manifestations in the biennale, some of these more interesting for being less explicit and less expected. One such work is the collaborative piece made by Israeli artist Shlomit Bauman and Palestinian potter Abed Al Ja’abari, which blends together traditional and modern forms made from a clay that is local for two artists in diametrically opposed political-geographies. Another work of activist art is the sculpture displayed prominently in the museum’s courtyard, directly in line with its grand entrance. Eight meters in diameter, Huang Ke’s towering, circular sculpture is comprised of 2500 raku-fired medicinal cauldrons, all made by a family of Chinese potters whose inexpensive traditional wares are increasingly devalued and obsolete. The work’s meaning is slightly obscured by conceptual meandering, but its power, its clear and potent exercise in offering and receiving, its deep humanity, and its cultural and socio-economic advocacy are unmistakable, even exhilarating.

8 Osamu Kojima’s Nostalgia 16-TWs04, 3 ft. 6 in. (1 m) in height, earthenware roof tiles, glazed, 2016.

9 Barthélémy Toguo’s Judith Cutting the Head of Holofernes (1 of 12 plates), 15¾ in. (40 cm) in diameter, fabricated porcelain, 2012. Copyright Gérard Jonca/Sèvres. Courtesy of the Henan Museum.

When speaking of materiality as a core theme of the biennale, it is once again with an acknowledgement of the theme’s obviousness and, at the same time, the nuance and complexity of it as eked out by the curator. Materiality and inventiveness are uniquely married together, for example, in the work of Dutch artist Jólan van der Wiel. Van der Wiel brought his creation of a magnetic clay-body to a collaboration with a porcelain factory in Henan, where the artist used discarded molds for iconic Jun ware vases (both modern and contemporary) and also Jun ware glaze. The resulting works, though based on precedents, are inventive in a way that pushes materiality into alchemy and binds the very force of the work and its substance to the earth.

If one wishes to think of materiality in stricter terms as a direct, bodily engagement, existential corporeality is served in abundance by Alexandra Engelfriet. This French/Dutch artist packed tons of clay into a reproduction of a WWI-era trench, and over the course of several days pounded it into shape with her body, writhing and pressing in throes of birth, death, and transformation. (Engelfriet built a wood-fired kiln over the site and the clay is now fired). A deep, moving, and gut-wrenching engagement with material, it was, ironically, only documentation of the event and the site that was on display in the biennale.

10 Alexandra Engelfriet creating Tranchée (Trench). Photo: Christophe Beurrier.

11 Toby Smith and Unknown Fields Division, collecting radioactive tailings material in Inner Mongolia (film still), 2015.

12 Toby Smith and Unknown Fields Division, creating a Ming vase form, toxic clay (film still).

13 Film still of Unknown Fields Division’s Rare Earthenware vases, to 19 in. (49 cm) in height, black stoneware and radioactive mine tailings, 2014–15. The finished vases are made from the exact amount of toxic waste produced in the manufacture of three different objects of technology (smart phone (380g), laptop (1220g), electric-car battery (2660g)).

As much as all of this art extends the initial analysis of the work by Unknown Fields Division, each work in the exhibition complements and elaborates on the themes and ideas in nearly every other. And in this vein, the Division’s mission statement and its work, Rare Earthenware, is not only emblematic of the show as a whole, but also of the curator, whose erudite and prophetic voice is as singular and sincere as it is expert.

Curation is a synchronized movement of (hopefully) visionary creativity and (sometimes) agonizing administration, and a curator brings these elements together in more or less successful marriages depending on their abilities. In an act of midwifery, curators bring about exhibitions by negotiating logistics, spaces, budgets, bureaucracies, personalities, concepts, and, in some cases, the challenges of representation, intercultural communication, censorship, and the toxicity of politics in its myriad personal, social, cultural, and governmental forms. These obstacles, however, failed to impede Gers’ work, which remains some of the most intelligent, progressive, and relevant curatorial work in the field of ceramic art.

the author Anthony Stellaccio is a freelance scholar and fine artist trained in ceramics and folklore. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics, the American Folklore Society, and is currently the international coordinator for Artaxis. His past appointments include the Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art and the Lithuanian Art Museum in Vilnius.


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