Ubiquity and Quiddity: The Conflated Vases of Suzanne Wolfe

Ubiquity refers to the simultaneous presence of a thing in multiple spaces. Quiddity refers to the thingness of a thing, its essence. One finds both conflated surprisingly in the vase-within-vase ceramics of Suzanne Wolfe.

A Connection to History

Over the very long history of ceramics, paradigm shifts are not too common. The conceptual constancy of the field over millennia is in itself astounding and since its beginning the art of pottery making has barely changed. The very same forms and the very same concepts reappear, hardly changed over time. In themselves, the forms used by Wolfe in her vase-within-vase works are not original. They refer to known, familiar types, possibly even copying them faithfully. Whether they do so or not is of little importance here. What is important is their familiarity, as archetypes, one coming from the Asian repertoire of forms, the other from the European. What is astounding in these works is how these forms are used, integrated into one continuous space. This is a new model within the range of possibilities in the operative potential of pottery forms. This is work of stupendous originality, one that shatters any notion of familiarity. The forms themselves may be intentionally familiar, but their conflation proposes a new experience, what philosophy and critical theory calls an epistemological break, a completely new way to understand. If we were in the field of physics and science, the implications would be revolutionary. These new objects are quantic, providing us with two conflicting experiences simultaneously.

Wolfe states, “Their primary intent is to put on display (maybe even reify) the idea of the decorative by combining various framing devices, one pot being framed by the other by being inserted, form within form, one inside the other. Each slab of clay, alternatively constituting each vase, also acts as a frame, holding and separating each form from the other. This combination of a Western form with an Eastern form is intended to deliberately reference the debt of Western ceramics to its Asian counterparts.”

1 Rococo Qing, 17 in. (43 cm) in height, earthenware, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 03, overglaze, fired to cone 017, 2011.

2 Rococo Qing (detail).

It is interesting to note that historically, for Asian artists to be accepted in the fine arts (for example painting and sculpture), they had to produce works according to Western styles and methods while in ceramics, the reverse was, and still is, largely true. This conceptual, yet highly material exploration of the problem of having two distinct yet familiar forms occupy the very same space provides a potent commentary on ceramics’ relation to history in a contemporary context. If each vase in the ensemble could have been made at different times and in different places, their unification here could only have happened now. Nothing is new about these vases, they do not display any original personality or expressive intent, yet their recombination in such an unusual yet efficient format (conceptually and visually) is groundbreaking.

Assembling the Superimposed Structure

A bit on the vases’ making may be useful here. Each disk composing the superimposed structure is cut to size from a cast slab of clay. By casting the slab in a plaster mold from liquid clay, its thickness remains constant throughout and warping is reduced through the evenness of the material and the added strength of the stress-free mass. Once each circle (or element) of each vase has been cut to size following a template, a hole can then be cut in the very center, through which a metal bar can be inserted to subsequently assemble all elements together. These disks are stacked alternately for each of the two vases embedded together. This unusual building process would suffice to give these objects some form of relevancy. Yet this is not where their most potent aspect resides. Each element is glazed and fired independently and their surfaces are decorated individually as well, but in the logical continuity they would have if on a single object. A fair bit of planning is required for success to be achieved.

A number of perceptual experiences take place, not always the same within the various versions of the vases these containers contained. Some have the Asian form as the exterior element, holding within its implied volume the European shape. Some reverse the proposition and it is the European vase that holds the Asian shape. In most cases, the Asian pot is monochrome or holds little decoration while the European vessel tends toward excessive decoration in the Rococo style, with reserved, framed cartouches holding traditional seduction scenes with landscapes. Expected floral ornamentation and gold highlights complete the conceit. An interesting visual phenomenon happens around these narrative scenes. When they are on the interior form within the exterior form, encased inside the other pot, they become framed yet again by each disk holding them together and the brain can jump easily from one disk to the next and reconstruct the image with enough credibility, despite the gaps between each slice. When the reverse is true and the narrative scene finds itself on the exterior vessel, the gaps between each slab are not solid anymore but actual spatial void, and the brain cannot reconstruct the image satisfactorily. It becomes confused and we know the image only from past experiences and not from actual perception. It is instead the silhouette of the interior vase that serves as a frame for the image on the exterior vessel, yet since the two surfaces are not on the same plane, the brain struggles to fix the experience satisfactorily, thus its tremendous dynamism. We still know what we are looking at despite the fact that we cannot experience it clearly. This shift from the phenomenological (what we experience) to the epistemological (how we understand) is one of the most relevant aspects to establish meaning(s) for this work.

3 Maebyong NeoClassical, 17 in. (43 cm) in height, earthenware, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 03, overglaze, fired to cone 017, 2008.

4 Maebyong NeoClassical (detail).

Distinctions in the Forms

It may be important to make distinctions between the two vase forms used, beyond the obvious and not as interesting and relevant East/West references. The formal characteristics of classical Asian pottery forms, to make a broad yet valid generalization, imply a silhouette defined by a continuous, sweeping curved line. This creates the elegance and elevation so typical of the aesthetics. The European forms derived from equally classical Greek Attic pottery on the other hand (to make a similar yet as valid generalization) imply an accumulation of disparate shapes, with at times brusque shifts between them. The various parts—foot, belly, neck, lip, handle—tend to have individual identity and a degree of independence not found so readily in Asian pots. Such differences between the two cultural phenomena could be extended into the political realm, between collectivity versus individuality, but that is not the point of my argument here.

Another difference between the two types of pots, each so significantly influential, if in different ways, to the development of ceramics worldwide and to this day, can be found in the treatment of pictorial spaces. In Asian visual representations, the depicted elements are typically surrounded by undefined, empty space. The use of the adjective “empty” is not quite correct here since such open, undescribed space is not actually empty but feels instead integrated actively within the scene, as physical active presence, impossible to dissociate from its experience. In European representations, when an area of the image is void of information, it reads as effective emptiness, as absence. This is particularly noticeable on European wares imitating or even copying Asian models, when the shift in the perceptual experience of empty space is grossly different in the passage from the original to the copy or imitation, in early Meissen or Chelsea porcelain, for example. In works where the relative workings of presence and absence are so necessarily effective, it appears important to make these distinctions. I assume Suzanne Wolfe never uses these discrepancies and pictorial differences knowingly, but my comment may generate new works where such principles could be applied and add to the range of potency still on offer in these works.

Another suggestion for Wolfe would be to find two new forms, one Asian, one European, where instead of one being fully enclosed within the other, they would alternatively change place, at times contained within the form, at times sticking out. It may require the design of two specific shapes in order for the conceit to operate effectively, but by retaining the two principal structural principles of each type, such vases would nonetheless retain their respective association, while being unusual within the corpus of shapes available. Just a thought. I for one would enjoy such a dynamic result, in no mean part for the jumpy perceptual shifts it would operate, as mentioned above.

5 Shigaraki Berlin, 17 in. (43 cm) in height, earthenware, underglaze, glaze, fired to cone 03, overglaze, fired to cone 017, 1986.

Challenging Expectations

One understands pots as hollow, volumetric forms, with an empty interior surrounded by a thin shell. This morphology of pottery forms as containers is basically universal. Here, none of this system is at work. Each of the clay elements (the stacked disks) are solid and in no way hollow. The forms themselves are not apparently solid, continuous shells, but constituted instead of gaps, actual spatial voids between physical, material disks. This is true of at least half of the constituting elements of the exterior vessel, a significant proportion. The interior vessel is somewhat different since the gaps between each one of its constituting disks are filled in by more disks belonging to the exterior form. It then appears as more readily continuous and fully solid, from top to bottom. Intellectually we know it as full and solid but instinctively, our brains still understand it as a potential hollow, empty, volumetric form, from all the multiple experiences of these types of objects we have accumulated over time. These constant shifts and challenges to our expectations provide for a dynamic, activated experience of great potency.

The two vases present in each work are altogether in two distinct spaces at once. They have become ubiquitous. Simultaneously, they ask us to reconsider everything we know about such objects, their quiddity, their very essence as things and reassess not only our discriminatory experiences, but also our prejudicial evaluation of the workings of such objects within culture, which are inherently much more complex than we usually take them to be. These spectacular vases within vases offer us the means to expand our minds.

the author Paul Mathieu is a potter who teaches ceramics at the Emily Carr University of Art+Design in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His most recent book, The Art of the Future, a History and Theory of Ceramics, is available for free online with texts and images at www.paulmathieu.ca/theartofthefuture.

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