Conversations at the Musée National de Céramique

The Enduring Trajectory of Ceramics – How do we talk about clay?

Conversation at Pompidou Pavilion, Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres, Cité de la Céramique, Paris on 6 May 2016.

Participants: Alun Graves, Senior Curator, V&A Museum, London, UK; Glen R. Brown, Professor of Art History, Kansas State University, USA; Namita Gupta Wiggers, Independent writer, curator and educator, director of the Critical Craft Forum, USA; Christie Brown, Professor of Ceramics, University of Westminster, London, UK; Clare Twomey, Research Reader, University of Westminster, London, UK and Hyeyoung Cho, Independent Curator, adjunct professor, Hanyang University, Seoul, Korea.

Facilitator: Kim Bagley, Research Associate, University of Westminster, London UK.

All the seminar participants enjoyed the poetry of Hyeyoung Cho’s categories (see end). They are an example of the constant search by curators to use the most appropriate interpretation for exhibitions, installations and displays. During the discussion, participants suggested some of the many ways clay artworks can be understood within the ideological and critical landscape of manmade things. This sprung from the idea that perhaps clay is a constant and enduring material for making things regardless of the categories it is seen through. The art historian in the room, Glen Brown, reminds us that exposing work to different critical contexts is productive and positive rather than restrictive.

Christie: I just love this notion that ceramic endures. I feel very strongly about it. Even if I’m making single objects as I have been recently, that are not to do with museum collections, everything I do comes out of that long historical trajectory.

Clare: If we place that inside the museum as a context, then we can face that question against collections, about cultural intersections.

Christie: I’m still very conscious of the pull of this long established historical medium and everything that informs it, including its connection to archaeology, to anthropology, to architecture, to daily life, to tomb histories and so on. Whatever you do with a piece of clay, it’s attached to this twenty thousand year trajectory. 

Alun: I’m completely conscious of that, and in a way it’s double edged; it’s very powerful, but at the same time it’s perhaps constraining. There is something different about operating as a curator in that context, both because of the collections but also because of the expertise of the staff that surround you. They don’t necessarily ‘get’ what I do. But in terms of thinking about audiences or interpretation, then those kind of slants can be extremely interesting for certain types of work. But at the same time, maybe they’re inhibiting for other people or just not of interest?

I feel increasingly wary of ceramics being cast as one unified discipline or wanting always to see itself in that way and wanting to take the whole of it along.

Christie: Don’t get me wrong, I’m someone who has been keen to jump into fine art for the last twenty years.

Alun: But a lot of people who want to jump into fine art are trying to jump the whole of ceramics into fine art, and I know that’s a mistake.

Christie: It’s a lovely slippery place. 

Alun: There are obviously these wonderful points of intersection when you look at someone like Phoebe Cummings who’s got so much out of working with Kohler, and the conversations with them and knowledge sharing about making baths. However, making a bath and making an installation sculpture are different practices, although sometimes it seems controversial to even suggest that they are! Also, things don’t have to exist in silos; they can exist in different places, at different moments in time, or at the same moment in time. I just think that however powerful the idea of this twenty-seven thousand year history of fired objects, it is just one thing to overlay on any work that you might be looking at.

Glen: Or you can think of it the other way around: that the installation can happen in ceramics discourse or it can happen in a fine arts discourse. In itself it doesn’t have a meaning, even if it involves clay. It’s not one thing or the other until you start to contextualise it. If it’s something that’s happening at an NCECA exhibition, then it’s probably going to be viewed by people who call themselves the clay community. If it’s the same work, but it’s shown in another context, perhaps with other installations with no clay in them, then it’s possible to talk about it in another way.  But I think for those making the work, someone may choose to operate primarily within one discourse doing the same kind of thing that could be done in the other context. And I think there are more than the two contexts.

Alun: For sure, absolutely. 

Glen: In ceramics there are those different areas as well. They’re constantly changing too, but it’s possible for the work to move between them, like a readymade. Basically, it’s going to take on the characteristics of the context it’s happening in, and the same with the person making it. Or they aim toward primarily one of those discourses by getting some kind of training, choosing certain kinds of colleagues, or entering certain events and so forth – which I always thought was great because you have the opportunity to work in different cultures. You’re always going to be foreign in some of them. It’s interesting to get feedback on some of the things that you’d never thought of. So I see it as a great situation and not necessarily something that has to be overcome, but maybe that’s because I’m not a ceramicist!  

Namita: This makes me think about Arjun Appadurai. He proposes approaching the world through the notion of ‘scapes’. There are five of them: technoscapes, mediascapes, ethnoscapes, finanscapes and ideoscapes. The idea is if you take an object, like this ceramic cup, and you have these five scapes through which to understand it. With the technoscape it’s production, it’s industrial design, so you understand it operating in those economies. With ethnoscape, it’s very ubiquitous; it’s made for global use. There is a way to turn around anything, and that allows you to see all the different ways that systems might come together.

When we talk, we tend to make design, art and craft the ‘scapes’ and I don’t think those are the right categories; they are huge and aren’t broken down enough. So if ceramics and the history of clay is the scape we’re talking about, what would these different categories be? It links to what you’re saying about having the studio craft area, the fine art area and industrial production. I don’t know if those are the right terms either, but I wonder if there’s something in this and we could break the field up differently?

Alun: I think that’s really interesting, but my issue has often been that the object doesn’t exist within those areas, those areas are just a lens with which to see it through. The object is just the object. 

Glen: Almost like a readymade; if it’s not in context, it’s meaningless. 

Alun: But I think those things that you just talked about are ways to look at things that are constructive and useful, and will offer different avenues certainly for interpretation. 

Hyeyoung: This is like what I try to do. I look at the artist as an individual, then study the work from there, rather than trying to define it by the background of the artist, or their education or their kind of exhibitions. I want to break away from this overarching thing.

Clare: Tell us about the project that was presented in Korea for the 2015 Cheongju Biennale and the way that that project was received. Was there interest and enthusiasm from the Korean perspective?

Hyeyoung: Yes. I had long discussions with the artists and they didn’t want to be categorised by the terms we’ve just mentioned, so I dealt with the artists as individuals. The tools were separate, but then I divided the artists into sections: where they were using tradition as reinterpretation in the contemporary sense, then digitalisation which included artists using 3-dimensional printing and computer simulation, and then the last section was more of a ceramics in the expanded sense, more interdisciplinary. It was craft as more than contemporary art and it worked out really well.

Alun: What term did you use for that? 

Hyeyoung: Co-existence. The tools were ‘Hands +’, ‘Inheritance’ for tradition and ‘Expansion’ for digitalisation and ‘Co-existence’ for trans disciplinary works.