Between the Wheel and the Mobile Phone: Ceramics in a network age

Thanks to Jane Sawyer

‘Between the wheel and the mobile phone: ceramics in a network age: Keynote address’ Verge Ceramics Conference  (2006)

Congratulations to the organisers on what’s been a most stimulating conference thus far. I am grateful to Garth Clark for laying out the dilemma in contemporary ceramics so eloquently in his keynote address, and to Gwynn Hanssen Pigott for her animated potter’s tale, which reminded us of the richness that ceramics can bring when reduced to its simple forms. Thanks also to Janet de Boos concept of the distributed studio and its rhizomic metaphors.

I’d like to position this paper in relation to what’s come before. Like others, I’d like to explore the paths leading out from Fortress Ceramica. Not that the fortress is necessarily a bad institution, but for the moment it seems to have been bypassed by modern society.

The image of Fortress Ceramica suggests a particular position for ceramics today. It conjures up the scene of a roundtable with knights sitting in worried discussion as the Normans are just about to scale the ramparts. What will they do? Some decide to join the Normans, with the hope one day they can make it to the glorious court of Paris. But I imagine one stubborn knight, Sir Bernard, who prefers to go underground for a while, in the hope that the ideals represented by Fortress Ceramica might be restored.

My talk considers how ceramics as a field might fare out of its familiar craft setting and in some of the new developments in the art world. The question to be asked through this journey is how these new opportunities advance the field of ceramics, a field which has developed techniques and traditions that enable us to give expression through clay to the things that are important to us.

Following the theme of medieval romance, our journey will take us to a region called ‘the green world’, in reference to the forests like Arden and Sherwood when heroes disappear into a mysterious other world of camaraderie and magic. In the green world, heroes leave beyond the royal power struggles for the utopian world of common folk.

You are wandering down the forest path and what do you find?

Kinki’s handbag

Welcome to Kinki’s handbag. What do we see there? You might notice a wallet, a digital camera, some tissues, candy, the inevitable iPod, keys, chewing gum, pocket PC and sundry other items. It’s hard to imagine ceramics in this sea of disposable items and gadgets. But that’s not what is most remarkable. It’s particularly interesting that we have this image in the first place. Why would someone share an image of the private contents of their handbag? It was taken from a photo-sharing site, Flickr, where users often share an image of ‘What’s in my bag’.

There’s been quite a remarkable opening out of inner experience in recent times. Though reality television programs like Big Brother and the Internet explosion of blogs, we are erasing the boundaries of public and private.

The ‘network age’, as some call it, reflects an increasing interconnectness between people, particularly in the affluent west. We see it in the street, with the rise of café society and the hegemony of the latte. The talking head of current affairs has been replaced by the panel format. A glimpse at any train or bus will find commuters busy texting and talking on their mobile phones. I link therefore I am.

So how goes our noble knight of clay? Rather perplexed, one might say. Ceramics as we know it seems best appreciated from the paradigm of the individual. We need a means to appreciate the investment of time and labour that has gone into the development of skills, embodied in the hands of the potter. We saw this with Gwynn Hanssen Pigott’s life story, involving long hours spent in isolation honing her skills.

Long hours of solitary labour are required to test the limits of the clay, experiment with glazes. We are talking about the moment of connoisseurship, where the collector holds the vessel and appreciates its rare colour and form, and covets private ownership.

Next in the forest, Sir Bernard comes across quite a strange gathering of people – a group of merry men, no less.

Relational aesthetics

In visual arts, the paradigm that many have adopted to respond to the convergences of our time is relational aesthetics. Defined in the writings of Nicholas Bourriaud, relational aesthetics moves the focus in art from the lone object to the relations between people that the art is seen to enable. This art creates fluid communities, which assert democratic values in resistance to the consumerism that hijacks social relations for brand identification and market penetration. As Bourriaud defines it, ‘relational art [is] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space).’[1] Here is art for the age of the mobile phone.

Relational art hardly seems like art at all. For instance, for a work in a previous Sydney Biennale the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres filled a gallery with candies wrapped in gold cellophane. Visitors were free to help themselves to this bounty. The meaning of the work was not in the installation at all, but in the position as a viewer that we find ourselves in having to weigh up individual desire against the collective responsibility to preserve an art work for public enjoyment.

Relational art might involve an artist cooking a dinner for a number of people. In 1993, the French artist Georgina Starr handed out sheets in a restaurant to customers dining alone, that spoke to them about the anxiety of solitary eating—anything to bring people together in unorthodox combinations.

Sir Bernard and Robin Hood seem unlikely companions. Relational aesthetics has a puritan disdain for art as a form of idol worshipping. Bourriaud rails against the ‘dead object crushed by contemplation.’ It may seem there is little prospect for an object-centric art in this movement, but there are new works which honour craft in ways that do not focus on the individually made object.

Let’s meet some of the merry men.

The Buddy System

In craft, an example of a work that fits within relational aesthetics is the Buddy System by Cook Island artist Ani O’Neill. Inspired by her Raratongan grandmother, O’Neill has devised a touring art work that recruits visitors to learn crochet and make a simple flower design. At the end of the installation, these flowers are sent to a person nominated by the maker. The work has been quite successful for O’Neill, featuring in many cultural festivals, including the first Auckland Triennial.

Textile art would seem a natural medium for gregarious uses as it lends itself to the social group. In Melbourne, we have witnessed the knitting revolution develop as younger people sought meaningful ways of coming together outside of the commodified spaces of entertainment.

Asian Field

How might be apply this paradigm to ceramics? A pertinent example may be found in a much publicised work on view at the current Sydney Biennale, Anthony Gormley’s Asian Field. Asian Field is part of a series of work produced by the British sculptor by recruiting people from communities to produce figurines with local clays. Previous works have come from Bristol, Mexico, Brazil and Sweden.

Asian Field was produced by 347 inhabitants of Xiangshan, aged between 7 to 70 years. Their brief was to produce clay figures that were the palm-sized, could stand upright, and have two holes for eyes. Originally planned to be a little over 100,000 figures, the total ended up being 192,000, made over a five day period.

The effect of standing before Asian Field is quite impressive. As one individual, you feel yourself subject of the gaze of nearly half a million eyes. There is an ambivalence of omnipotence and humility. There are also subtle variations in the clay evident across the installation, as the figures reflect the different qualities of clay distributed across the land.

For Gormley, the series has two motives. The first is to honour the primordial mission of sculpture, as witnessed in the first interventions into landscape which lifted horizontal rocks into vertical forms, reflecting the ascent of man from a four to a two legged beast. Thus Gormley transforms the resting nature of earth into the animated works of art. For his second interest, Gormley states ‘I want to democratise the space of art.’[2] Gormley gives over the privilege of making to the people, by no longer being the sole artist who creates the work, but by enabling others to express themselves. This reversal is parallel to the transformation of the gallery, from the crowd visiting the unique object to the multiple objects visiting the unique visitor: ‘you become the subject of art’s gaze rather than the other way round.’

By situating a work about democracy in a Chinese context, Gormley provokes a critical response. An Englishman comes into a Chinese town and recruits villagers to mould pieces of clay. The installation contains photographs of these individuals with their names and one of their pieces. Is there any way of distinguishing their figures from one made in Mexico or England?


Let’s think about Xiangshan for a minute. In Chinese history, Xiangshan is the revered home town of the nation’s father, Sun Yat Sen. Today, it is one of Guangdong’s ‘four little tigers’, specialising in hardware, appliances, casual wear and mahogany furniture industries. Many of us are probably wearing clothes made in Xiangshan, or use their devices in our kitchens. It’s part of the revolution in consumerism that has made inflation history and has given us all access to low-cost goods. Someone else often pays the price. In a famous case, workers in a Xiangshan factory were found working for as little as $22 a month making handbags for Wal-Mart. They were forced to hand over identity documents under pain of arrest, denied overtime pay and fined if spent too long in the bathroom.

Gormley’s work was part of a campaign called Think UK, it was first exhibited in the Imperial Palace next to Tiananmen Square. He can be seen to be following a similar path to that other Western visitor, Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch aimed to introduce STAR TV into the Chinese market, which he considered the fastest growing into the world. As Murdoch said to the Asia Society:

Today, hundreds of millions of Chinese not only dare to dream but have confidence that their dreams will become reality.

Like Murdoch, Gormley is presenting China as a sea of individuals, each with their own unique aspirations. But alas, there is nothing in what they produce that connects with the traditions that inform Chinese history, from the ceramics of the Ming Dynasty to the communist ideologies of the post-imperial era. These are placeless Chinese, ready to enlist in the Hollywood dreams of Foxtel. This Robin Hood turns out to be a undercover agent of King John.

Asian Field raises broader concerns about an infantalisation of ceramics, where clay is seen as a form of spontaneous expression innocent of skill and virtuosity. A museum in Melbourne is developing a touring exhibition of ceramic horses made by children. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it would be a shame if audiences forgot the power of clay as a form of artistic expression.

Ai Weiwei

Let’s compare Asian Field to other ways in which the tradition of Chinese ceramics engages with the west. Also in the Sydney Biennale is the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. His signature piece is Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), which is photographic documentation of the artist doing just that. Ai Weiwei comments bluntly: ‘China is a factory of the world. So boring porcelain stay same 2,000 years: break.’ Naturally, our first response is to recoil with horror. Here is modernism at its most brutal—the destruction of tradition for sensational effect.

But in a way, there’s also something refreshing about this honesty. Ai Weiwei is being open about the unspoken neo-colonial agenda in work by Anthony Gormley. His recent work Ghost Valley Coming Down the Mountain (Museum für Moderne Kunst) featured 96 vases from the Yuan period reproduced from the original workshop. These filter ceramic tradition through a modernist lens, reducing the singular masterpiece into a grid of reproductions. This Asian Field has more to say to ceramics than Gormley’s installation.

Ah Xian

In Australia, we have some notable examples of dialogue with China. Of great success recently in Australian galleries is Ah Xian, a refugee from Tiananmen Square. Human Human is a life-sized figure finely ornamented by the traditional craftsmen at the Jingdong Cloisonné Factory in Hebei Province, east of Beijing. The principal motif is the lotus, the traditional sign of hope on the journey to enlightenment. While incorporating a very traditional form of Chinese ornament, Ah Xian has made quite a radical shift in substituting the body for the vessel. For Ah Xian, this places the human body at the source of life, rather than nature.

Ah Xian can be compared to Gormley as someone who brings a humanism to China. Though his is something that engages more with the traditions of Chinese ceramics.

Writing a Painting

Such a path is followed by Robin Best, in work for the exhibition curated by Vivonne Thwaites, Writing a Painting, which was presented at the University of South Australia School of Art gallery at this year’s Adelaide Festival. The exhibition featured works by Robin Best in collaboration with the Chinese ceramic painter Huang Xiuqian and the Ernabella artist Nyukala Baker. Best’s methodology is similar to Ah Xian’s, though she herself creates the forms that are then ornamented by specialist artists. Like these artists, she introduces a modernist aesthetic that abstracts traditional form. But hers is a more aesthetic interest in the formal beauty of spaces created by these shapes. In flattening the traditional vase, she has heightened the painterly quality of their work.

After meeting the false Robin Hood, there is still much to offer Sir Bernard and the Anglo-Oriental Company in possibilities of cultural exchange with China through the medium of clay.

While I’ve dwelt mostly on China, allow me to mention briefly a few other less familiar terrains in which ceramic practice might flourish.

There are some opportunities in relational aesthetics, but there may be more prospect for ceramics in cultural collaboration, in what might be understood alongside world music as part of the genre of world craft.


Ceramics as a means of bringing people together achieved its most literal expression in a recent series of events staged by Karen Casey, titled Let’s Shake. These reconciliation events involved indigenous and non-indigenous people shaking hands—the dental filling placed between the two hands slowly forms a solid impression. During the celebrations of NAIDOC last week,

While celebrating the humanism of clay, this event highlights the seeming opposition between specialised skill and shared meaning.

But perhaps we can tread a different path in looking at ceramics. Rather that look at its role in bringing strangers together, there is a strong theme in the way it serves to acknowledge existing relations.

David Ray

In Melbourne, David Ray is one of a school of merry men, including his St Kilda studio brothers Stephen Benwell and Vipoo Sviralasa.

Coming from the far flung suburb of Ringwood, David has an interest in the emancipatory potential of clay. For his Open Bench residency at Craft Victoria, David created a ceramic BBQ. At the performance that culminated this, David invited audience to make pinch pots that finished the installation. While his work remained the centrepiece, the audience could experience for themselves the plasticity of the materials.

For the Commonwealth Games, David participated as host in an exhibition Common Goods. Common Goods was under the umbrella of the South Project, which looks to possible exchanges between artists from across the south. There are many untapped connections for Australian ceramicists with the traditions of our southern cousins in Africa and Latin America. This was just a taste of that.

His guest was the Sri Lankan artist Chandragupta Thenuwara. Thenuwara has invented his own genre of art—barrelism. Barrelism is the appropriation of the military paraphernalia of Colombo as art rather than sedimented violence. Thus Thenuwara explores camouflage as a form in itself and took advantage of this residency to start to develop a three dimensional camouflage. David responded to this militaristic theme with a ceramic gun position as though building of a city-scape. The pervasive military nature of Sri Lankan life as evidenced in Thenuwara’s barrels provided Ray with an opportunity to pull out the stops in Melbourne.

Poor Craft

Reflecting the knitting revolution in textiles, the recent genre of poor craft reflects an attempt to renew craft with the use of common materials. In ceramics, Nicole Lister has employed her skills in porcelain to ennoble the humble packaging that normally accompanies ceramics. Beyond the object, Honor Freeman places porcelain in the public domain in the production of fake power points. Poor craft is a definite guerrilla movement of the Fortress Ceramica, determined to maintain the ideals of object making in a world dominated by hyper-consumption.

The new labour movement

An alternative path is to focus on the way the object embodies the time spent in making it.

A work by Christian Capurro has some quite interesting relevance to ceramics. There are reports of a shortage of kaolin affecting porcelain production. One of the main uses of kaolin is the production of glossy magazines. Capurro is one of a new generation of artists that turn labour into art. His work Another Misspent Portrait of Etienne de Silhouette commissioned a number of people to erase a page each from the male fashion magazine Vogue Hommes. They were asked to record how many hours it took to rub out the page, and what their normal hourly rate was. The work was thus calculated at $11,349.18.

While this kind of perverse conceptualism seems far from the ideals of the craft movement, it does suggest other paths for ceramicists, who might make a feature of their labour. Rather than selling a pot, one might sell the equivalent labour…


Finally, a new realm of underground action has developed recently in the production of blogs, daily web diaries. Blogs not only enable individuals to upload images and writing about their day’s concerns, but importantly it is a means of connecting people together based on shared interests. The blog becomes an informal project that solicits a mobile audience. The Danish ceramicist Karinne Erikson reflects not only on her challenges in the studio but also her involvement in a choir and occasional purchases. She adopts a popular method of dividing the week up into colours, so Red Friday includes images of Galerie La Fayette and an English stove. Part of new network includes Queensland ceramicist Shannon Garson, who used a bird theme for one week and encouraged visitors to submit works accordingly. Ceramic blogs

Already there

To a degree, one could say that a theory like a field like ceramics already embodies many of the values in relational aesthetics. At an everyday level, ceramics is used as structure for the relationships between people, from the consistency of plates on which people dine to the range of quality in cups that represent the specialness of the occasion.

It may be tempting to stop at this point and say that’s enough. We don’t need to worry about this new theory.

However, we need to acknowledge that there has been a change, which is probably reflected in the greater fluidity of human relations, the absence of the ‘special guest’ whose presence demands opening up the porcelain cabinet. The formality and ritual of social life has declined.

We need to explore other paths.

In one element, the field of ceramics is likely to differ from other forms of conceptual visual art. Ceramics takes longer. There is more work involved.

[1] Nicholas Bourriaud Relational Aesthetics Paris: Les presses du réel, 2002 (orig. 1998), p. 14


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