The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
On an exceedingly hot September afternoon in 2022, I found myself shepherded through carefully pre-arranged security, past the stately flags of Geneva’s United Nations, into the sun-filled parterre of the Palais des Nations. I was in Geneva, Switzerland, with 325 other delegates from 44 countries on the occasion of the International Academy of Ceramics’ 50th Congress. We had the great privilege of attending the official opening of “We come from the other side,” an exhibition curated by Norwegian Ingunn Svanas Almedal. Five seemingly disparate artists were featured, Katrine Køster Holst, Raisa Porsange, Máret Ánne Sara, Ahmed Umar, and Lin Wang. Clay, Norway, and otherness are the unifying elements of the show. Four of the artists work with clay as their primary media, Raisa Porsange worked in video and mixed media.
Phases and Complexity
I was immediately drawn to the visceral nature of Danish installation artist Katrine Køster Holst’s Field no. 12. This is essentially a 5×4½-foot platform of dried mud. The material is recycled clay and glazes on her PhD project, Minerals and Natural Phenomena— Artistic Expression through Rule-base Exploration (Oslo National Academy of the Arts, 2019). The deep fissures in the caked clay boldly tell a time-based story of the earth’s natural process of decay, and the random patterns that result from drought. The work is displayed inches above ankle height so that the viewer might imagine what it would be to stand in a larger field of clay.
Holst presented three geologically based works rooted in her encounter and confrontation with a major landslide that took place in Norway in 2009. The enormity, force, and violence of clay as an unpredictable threat to humankind shifted the artist’s creative path: “These images have been embedded in my mind, and when I work with clay today and see the material in the different phases, how it twists, cracks in deep fissures, or leaves crackling patterns, I see the landscape that may appear stable, but in reality is in constant flux and change.”
Cross-section, as its title suggests, showcases twelve 1×0.5-meter, precision-cut cross sections of a ceramic plate of earth. These works are also installed low to the ground and oblige the audience to bend down to experience the awe and complexity of the infrastructure produced by the sediment and strata.
Holst’s installation also includes works in and on paper. To the Surface of the Earth is a series of drawings that take as a starting point a specific spot of a cross section of a ceramic plate and incorporate chance, using the roll of a die to dictate its overlapping linear structures. Here, Holst reflects upon the geological concepts of stratigraphy irregularities that form on the earth’s crust. “The Clay and Other Essays,” a set of eleven booklets that comprise the narrative of Holst’s PhD project, were also available for browsing.
Ahmed Umar’s work is both personal and universal. It is an act of civil protest against the silencing and compromising of queer and unconventional lives in both of his homelands: Sudan and Saudi Arabia. Umar left Sudan as a political refugee in 2008. He now lives and practices in Norway. He uses a variety of mediums to study the intersection between cultural values, traditions, and religions. What Lasts! (Sarcophagus) is a strikingly bold piece steeped in symbolism and provides a minimalist counterpoint within the exhibition design. At two meters in length, the work is a human-scale ceramic coffin adorned with a figurative sculpture of the deceased, arms folded in its final resting pose. One part of the coffin lid has been removed to reveal an empty vessel. The etymology of the sarcophagus hearkens to the ancient Greek líthos sarkóphagos, literally meaning “flesh-eating stone.” The messages, in my interpretation as a viewer, are many, both subtle and clear: “death to queers,” “isolate the LGBTQ community in coffins, set them apart,” and “they are the other, not of this world, not deserving of this world.”
The artist himself speaks of this piece with respect to the historical kingdom of Kush, located in present-day Sudan, where the dead were honored with pyramids and buried with their possessions, “If I was to be killed as a homosexual under the law I learnt in school, my body would be thrown and left to rot in the desert and not be buried within the city limits of Mecca. I built the sarcophagus to ensure my body would have a beautiful and dignified house to end up in.” The curator poignantly describes Umar’s work as “radical expressions” that navigate identity politics, power structures, gender identity, and art.
Calling for Change
The artist whose work most closely aligns with the exhibition essay is that of Máret Ánne Sara. Sara, like her fellow exhibiting artist, Raisa Porsange, is Sámi. At first glance, Sara’s piece seems tame, fragile, delicate, sublime. Its beauty prompted many IAC delegates to clamor for selfies with this porcelain tapestry mounted on a partial mannequin. On closer examination, the work reveals itself as a collage of strung-up miniature ceramic reindeer skulls. It is sinister in its presence. Sara spoke virtually at the closing of the IAC conference, and hers is a voice calling for change in a world that has turned a blind eye to the desecration of one of its most precious natural resources, the reindeer.
Sara likens the culling of the reindeer in Lapland, Finland, to the historical genocide of the bison on the badlands of Alberta, Canada. I had recently spent time at the UNESCO Heritage site in Southern Alberta that commemorates the slaughter of the buffalo—Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump—and the wounds of Sara’s message were fresh in my mind’s eye. The title of Sara’s work, Pile O’Sapmi Power Necklace, draws a direct link to the massive slaughter of buffalo by colonial settlers, and the Pile O’Bones, comprised of hundreds of buffalo skulls, in Regina, Alberta. Sara recreated a version of this in 2017 with 400 reindeer skulls. I subsequently took the opportunity to visit my first Venice Biennale, and was overcome by the power of her work in the Sami pavilion (previously known as the Nordic pavilion). Twisting ugliness into beauty, Sara created multiple hanging mobiles using hides, and a discarded calf fetus to showcase the struggle against the colonial killing system’s ongoing disrespect for indigenous processes. In her ceramic work, Sara plays with the notions of permanence and impermanence through both the media and the message.
Eclectic and Poetic
Lin Wang commutes between her homeland of China and Norway. If the exhibition hall foyer were a dinner table, Wang’s work, Still Life Gaze From the East, would be its centerpiece. This is an impressive and eclectic multi-pieced installation that seems to set the visual senses on overload. Wang incorporates global symbols and imagery in the work, (e.g. a swan, pearls, slip-cast grapes and garlic, a copper-glazed female pelvic bone). There is an emphasis on bleu de chine and the female body. With what I perceived as anthropomorphism, there is a large Chinese blue-and-white pot installed at the highest point at one end of the installation that reads as a human head to the prostrate torso and legs of a woman laid bare in white porcelain on the table. In the foreground, on the floor, is a bust of a Western woman, larger in scale than its possible correspondent body. The focal point of the work is the porcelain newborn being birthed from the white torso, adorned with Chinese blue de chine patterning.
Almedal cleverly made use of the crates used to ship the works as plinths to “set the table” for Still Life. When I spoke with Wang briefly at the reception, she explained her concept of “poetic misunderstandings” wherein she herself, a descendant of a Scandinavian grandfather, grew up in China with romantic stories of northern Europe. She juxtaposes these misconceptions with China’s far-reaching mercantile influence with porcelain that peaked in the 17th century, to express an ongoing disconnect between the reality and mythology of East/West ideologies. Poetic misunderstanding, a philosophy that has come to define Wang’s aesthetic, is aptly described by Almedal as an attempt to “define a universal cognitive process of studying dissimilarity.”
The title of the exhibition comes from the musical composition “I come from the other side” by renowned Sámi artist, Mari Boine. The Sámi culture cannot be distilled to a mere paragraph. Its people inhabit a vast and diverse land across Sweden, Norway, and Finland, they speak over ten languages and define themselves by multiple social groups. What these Indigenous peoples share in common is a sense of values and worldview that often flies in the face of Western capitalism. Their framework for emotions, arts, and research is defined by the alliterative trilogy Dovddut, Dáidda, and Dutkan, and seen within a holistic worldview as interconnected, not separate, as we might find in Western thinking. The essayist for the exhibition, celebrated scholar, Harald Gaski, leaves us with this sobering message vis-à-vis the West’s predominantly dismissive stigmatization of Indigenous Peoples and ways, “There may still be time, but we humans need to re-educate ourselves to be humble and sensitive, and relearn how to speak with the animals to be able to discern their message of concern or despair, and pay heed to the call for action in order to save our common planet.”
the author Heidi McKenzie is an artist, author, and curator living in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at www.heidimckenzie.ca.