The Ceramic Renaissance: clay and contemporary culture
Art & Photography
Clare Twomey’s installation ‘Is it Madness. Is it Beauty.’, commissioned for the Siobhan Davies Studios in 2010, was a performance piece that centred around the continual re-filling of a number of clay bowls with water. As the bowls were unfired, they gradually collapsed. Slowly folding in, the crumpled pottery questioned the elusive and indeterminate standards of perfection that artists both uphold and are held accountable to. In this porous, furrowed form, the bowls also became functionally useless, a protest against ceramic’s association with practicality.
This close connection with function has often been attributed to the reluctance to hold ceramics in the same esteem as other fine art forms. Continually expected to prove itself, pottery is scrupulously examined with the tired art/craft divide. In recent years, however, ceramics have resurged, firmly securing their place in galleries, institutions and even the public eye, as the popularity of pottery classes soar and initiatives such as the Loewe Craft Prize are created. This revival was consolidated in 2017 by Phaidon’s release of Vitamin C, a timely survey of the top one hundred ceramic artists, as chosen by leading curators and critics.
It feels obvious that the incessant digitalisation of our culture and daily life has motivated this shared craving to make, to squidge and shape the cool clay between our hands. Over-saturation of digital information, political upheaval and the rise of ‘post-truth’ all have left us seasick on a ground that shifts and ruptures beneath our feet. Emma Hart, a London-based artist, describes the haptic straightforwardness of plastic art as a medium that offers a tangible and comprehendible form of expression: ‘Clay allows me to put immediate feelings on its surface. I can stroke it, scratch it, punch it, kick it, bite it.’ Clay, an unapologetically material medium, can be understood as it is held and touched.
Equally, however, clay is a notoriously temperamental material. Created by alchemy as erratic as it is ancient, clay is unforgivingly mutable. Yet its fractures, bubbles and folds offer as powerful an expressive potential as their silky alternative. Ekaterina Bashenova-Yamasaki, in her collection of YEKATE vases available on our Life Store, embraces the multifarious nature of ceramics in her ‘deflated’ and ‘folded’ sculptures. Created from moulds of punctured balloons, the organic creases and rumples lend the clay the appearance of draped fabric. Her ‘Spilt Ink Plate’ similarly plays off something usually considered to be a mistake, stretching the possibilities of clay and our perception of it.
This re-interpretation of the precariousness of ceramics, harnessing its volatility as a creative force, is an illuminating move. Ceramics foster a willingness to adapt: a lesson that moves far beyond the art realm, perhaps providing an explanation as to why ceramics seem so in tune with the current moment.