When one is asked to write about Ceramics, it implies that one writes about a material and not necessarily about sculpture or contemporary art. Just as it is difficult to pin down a precise description of contemporary art, it is nearly impossible to categorize Ceramics in any one way that will do justice to the vastness of the medium. In its diverse forms, Ceramics is simultaneously considered art and craft, high art and low art, contemporary and traditional, functional and non-functional, spiritual and highly scientific, a medium for beginners and experts, for young and old; these binaries continue to expand beyond and under each of the categories mentioned above. Very simply said, Ceramics is clay, and clay is a timeless material that engages with other natural elements – air, water and fire – like none other, to turn into ceramics. It may be a humble terracotta bowl broken after a single use or tiles used on the outer surface of a spacecraft produced with exceptionally sophisticated and scientific processes. The romanticism and mysticism of the medium was/is evoked by artists, storytellers, poets, philosophers and theologians.
Studio ceramics emerged from millenniums and centuries of ceramics and pottery traditions, practiced in almost every part of the world to fulfil the utilitarian and spiritual needs of humans. The genre became more visible around the end of the 19th century as more people gravitated towards the material. Paul Gaugin, who considered ceramics as a form of sculpture, rejected the traditional ceramic production of Sèvres and returned to a more primitive connection with the material. He made several vessel and sculptural forms between 1886-95 along with his paintings, woodcuts and engravings. Under the communist regime in Russia, an ordinary ceramic vessel provided ideal means for propaganda; painted with political slogans, explicit or subliminal messages and images, the vessels fulfilled their functional aims and at the same time conveyed regime’s ideals to the masses. With a different approach towards the medium, Italian futurists also used ceramics for propaganda purposes, however, they largely rejected the functionality of the medium and used clay as any other material for creating sculpture.
Stair informs us that “Herbert Read’s ideas of Mediaeval pottery as ‘plastic art in its most abstract form’ augmented Fry’s Formalist theories and facilitated the Modernist appreciation of pottery as a form of non-representational art during the 1920s and early 1930s.”[i] In the West, as artists were discovering Primitivism, there was a sense of spirituality attached to the creation of ceramics from a lump of clay to the finished piece, by an individual who was an artist, designer, craftsperson, inventor and technician, all in one – unlike assembly lines of industrial production processes. The ultimate spectacle of industrialization, the two world wars that brought enormous devastation, further spiralled the appeal of studio ceramics.
In Europe and the USA, studio ceramic aesthetic was greatly influenced by Soetsu Yanagi, Shoji Hamada and Bernard Leach, who promoted intersecting Eastern (particularly Japanese, Korean and Chinese) and Western philosophies. They saw pottery as a combination of art, philosophy, design, craft, and more importantly as a way of life, much like a traditional potter anywhere in the East practiced or still practices. Hamada and Leach, both potters, influenced by Yanagi’s philosophy of ‘The Unknown Craftsman’, as well as Ruskin and Morris’s social concerns and ideas on utility and craft, produced affordable functional ware for everyday use. Leach also produced what he called ‘Fine Art Ceramics’ for gallery exhibitions. The trio’s aesthetics and beliefs had a lasting impact on studio ceramics, and inspired generations of ceramists to come.
Post World War II – Artists discover Ceramics
In the post-World War II period, the desire to bring a sense of harmony to life, also drew some well-known Western artists of the time to Ceramics, two of them were Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. In North America, before Miró and Picasso’s artistic ventures in ceramics, in mid 1930s, Jackson Pollok, had also produced ceramics mainly painting chinaware to overcome a painter’s block and later as a therapy for depression and alcoholism. During the years of the Economic Depression, he realised it was easier to sell ceramics and continued to work in the medium for some time.
Captivated by the medium, in 1946, Picasso visited Atelier Madoura in a small coastal town of Vallauris, France, and started to experiment with the ceramic form, adding, subtracting and painting. The artist had come away unscathed by ravages of the war, with immense fame and wealth. Somewhat in the tradition of Leach and Hamada’s functional ware production, Picasso made utilitarian vessels and intended the work to be affordable, unlike his paintings. Over the next 25 years he produced both functional and sculptural ceramics. Though dubbed as a revolutionary who transformed ceramics, Picasso’s ceramics are considered overrated by many, including influential potters/ceramists of the time such as Leach. The art world also considered the work as an embarrassment, possibly for reasons different from the ceramic fraternity’s dismissal. However, for the majority, anything made by an artist of Picasso’s stature was a stroke of genius, specifically for younger generation of artists who may have considered the style and methods liberating from the constraints of ceramic aesthetic and processes, or the categorisation of ceramics as craft or applied art. Those artists may have also felt encouraged to play with materials and methods other than the accepted modes of production of high art.
Unlike Picasso, Miró was on the run to save his life and went into hiding during the World War II. His journey into ceramics was directly connected to his desire to move away from an intense period of painting and to explore the elemental qualities of clay as a way to re-engage with his artistic creativity. Miró worked with a friend Joseph Lorenz Artigas to paint ceramics and produced a large number of clay sculptures, some of them large scale. He also enjoyed collaborating with others to produce work as compared to the solo and cerebral occupation of painting. Readers of both Miró’s and Picasso’s ceramics argue that these artists did not dabble in clay on a side line, but the work, which had a deep connection to their painting and sculpture practice, was in fact the apotheosis of their art.[ii] The engagement with the medium came after years of art production and reflexivity, trying to find new directions, meaning and ‘sources of human feeling’[iii].
Among other artists who explored ceramics as a medium two names that emerge are Isamu Noguchi and Louise Nevelson (finally a woman in the midst, though she did not produce a large body of work in ceramics). Noguchi was an American sculptor who rediscovered clay after his visit to Japan to reconnect with his father in 1931. While rediscovering his roots, clay further connected him to the place – the land of his father and his identity. Like Gaugin, his ceramics were mainly produced in three intense periods, but he worked more productively after World War II – the bombing of Pearl Harbour and a voluntary seven months spent in an internment camp for Japanese Americans in Arizona. The productivity also resulted from an offer of an exhibition in Tokyo. Although Noguchi connected with the material in Japan, he also harboured conflicting ideas about clay as an easy material not suitable for sculpture, indicating his own fluid identity. During his last visit, Noguchi adopted a more radical and modernist approach towards the medium, disrupting the Japanese sensibilities of a revered material, his Western training and the lack of a permanent connection to the place granted him the artistic freedom to produce what he desired. Noguchi left his mark on the ceramic landscape in Japan as young ceramicists readily adopted his methods.
Golden Age of Capitalism and Contemporary Ceramics
Over the centuries, Ceramics has continued to evolve and yet holds the lure of its primitive qualities. The diversity of the medium is evident in the variety of ways it has been employed by its users – as a medium of an artist, designer and craftsperson. And it is precisely because of its diversity and the blurred boundaries that the art world largely remains indecisive about its acceptance. An artist focusing solely on Ceramics is hardly recognised today as a typical contemporary artist – the aesthetics, creativity, and the intellectual and philosophical content of the work is easily dismissed.[iv] Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Magdalene Odundo, Ruth Duckworth, Toshiko Takaezu, among many others, gave studio ceramics its identity for years to come but due to their affiliation with a single material, they remain missing from the mainstream discourses of art history and contemporary art. Today, some of the most monumental works in Ceramics, which are also visible to those outside the ceramic world, have been created by Japanese/American ceramist Jun Kaneko, British sculptor Antony Gormley, British ceramicist Grayson Perry, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, and British ceramicist-set designer duo Paul Cummins and Tom Piper.
Perry, Kaneko and Cummins are trained as potters/ceramicists. Perry and Kaneko’s work displays a deep engagement with and mastery of the medium, expected of a ceramicist. Perry creates classical vase and urn forms and covers the surfaces with layers of autobiographical drawings, quite successfully collapsing the existing boundaries of art and craft. Kaneko is known for his enormous Dangos, a Japanese dumpling, covered with geometric lines, shapes and patterns; the context, forms and surface designs connect him to his roots. Both Perry and Kaneko are multidisciplinary artist, however, they are recognised for their work in Ceramics. Gormley has used clay over a number of years to produce figures using brick shaped rectangles of clay. Due to his long engagement with the medium, his use of clay is highly intelligent as is evident in the ‘Field’ series created and exhibited a number of times between 1989-2003. Using the most primitive method, thousands of tiny figurines were created by hundreds of community members from across the world. The largest installation was created in the playground of a primary school in China with 380,000 figurines. These figurines filled up the gallery space and gazed up at the viewers.
In the same spirit, Ai Weiwei and relatively unknown artists Cummins-Piper created large scale installations in Ceramics employing mass production methods. Weiwei is a foremost contemporary artist who has created numerous installations using clay, including the ‘Sunflower Seeds’ made from 100 million seeds of Porcelain, a material synonymous with China. According to Weiwei, the installation intends to examine “the ‘Made in China’ phenomenon and the geo-politics of cultural and economic exchange today”.[v] The installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ was created for the Tower of London in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war. 888,246 red ceramic poppies mounted on a metal rod, each one representing a British or colonial soldier’s life lost in the war, were planted over months to fill the moats with a sea of red.
The last three works discussed in this section, project grandiosity of scale and profess noble intentions such as creating a sense of community and wellbeing, giving work to people, bringing newness to old traditional materials, methods and techniques, democratising art by bringing everyone’s work in the museum, putting art where it belongs, examining production, exchange, economics and geopolitics of the capitalist world, collective labour v/s mass production, raising money for charities, honouring the dead, so on and so forth. On examining these intentions, the works come across as contradictory, often mimicking the very issues that the artists intend to address. Weiwei and Cummins-Piper completely divorce themselves from the medium and allude to none of the emotional, spiritual, material connections that their predecessors made; the three works, including the ‘Field’ series, instead focus on repetition and numbers. Multiplication in ceramics is convenient but tackling political, social and economic issues through numbers and art is not; these works create pompous spectacles to capture the attention of a large number of people and to satisfy the artist’s ego; the works are a part of the problem and of the system in which they are produced and exhibited. Numerous questions come to mind: Is the labour, intention, creativity and gesture of a potter, who creates fields of multiples of a vessel or a form every day, in a repetitive, rhythmic fashion, any less an act of creating community with his fellow humans and his fraternity all over the world? Does it not create a means of sustenance and a sense of well-being? Is it not an act of homage to those who taught us how to create, starting from the first form or container made by man? Is it not collective labour that ensures that the utilitarian and spiritual needs of a large number of people are satisfied and that this ‘art’ ends up in a fellow human’s home instead of a white cube? And most importantly how is one low and what is it that is high?
[i] Stair, Julian (2002) Re-Inventing the Wheel, The Origins of Studio Pottery. In: The Persistence of Craft: The Applied Arts Today. A&C Black, London, pp. 49-60.
[ii] Nasher Museum, https://nasher.duke.edu
[iii] Joan Miro Biography, https://www.joan-miro.net/biography.jsp
[iv] With the exception of some ceramists such as Grayson Perry.
[v] Tate Modern, https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/unilever-series/unilever-series-ai-weiwei-sunflower-seeds