Solo Exhibition by Eugene Hön: ‘and the ship sails on’
A solo exhibition of ceramics, jewellery, drawings, artists books, projections.
Elegance Jewellers, Melrose Arch Johannesburg
There is something compelling and disturbing about beauty. Beautiful objects; ‘idols’ are made to be self-contained, self-referential, self-sufficient. They are valued for their own sake rather than for their function or utility. An object imbued with beauty detaches itself from its function and ultimately from its maker and in the process makes itself complete asserting its autonomy. For this reason, objects that possess beauty have an uncanny hold over human beings because they, like us seem autonomous. Idols, unlike fetishes and totems, as WJT Mitchell argues in his book What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, are objects so beautiful that they possess extraordinarily seductive powers, the ability to make demands on us humans. They entice their viewers, collectors, owners, lovers. Idols want more than just love and fidelity. Like the deities they often represent, idols crave worship and human sacrifice! One would guess, following Mitchell, that objects of extreme beauty appear to us humans as quintessentially self-aware which makes them powerfully seductive. It is no wonder then that throughout history exquisite objects have fascinated and seduced and ultimately posed a threat to the authority of the rich and powerful. What better symbol to encapsulate the power of the exquisitely beautiful image, the image as idol, the sublime capacities of terrible beauty than the archetypal Chinese Dragon? And what better art to embody the idea of beauty, idolatry, autonomy and self-containment than that of ceramic practice? Eugene Hön latest body of work is committed to and celebrates this idea of the power of beauty.
What strikes one in engaging with Hön’s work is his fascination with the creative process. This is especially evident in his sketchbooks where the artist’s marks, notations, visual references comingle into painstakingly rendered forms that are pregnant with symbolism and beauty. The process of drawing for Hön is analogous to a crucible for form making or better yet the work of the kiln. The exquisitely cross-hatched ball point sketches seem to evolve automatically (in the Surrealist sense) with each skein of mark-making carefully overlaid with the next to produce an enigmatic form. Paging through his books it is as if the symbols and forms congeal and manifest on page through the chemistry of heat, wind and water. Hön’s sketchbook forms remind one of the way in which currents the movement of water, wind, fire shape forms. The forms on these pages, although they are ‘designed’, appear to have manifested from natural processes reminiscent of Da Vinci’s seemingly effortless studies of water, knots, plants and clouds. And the ship sails on, a ceramic installation first presented at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture Collaborations/Articulationsexhibition in 2012, now reformulated as a projection provides a generous insight into the artist’s modus operandi. Hön is able to integrate all of elements of his practice: sketches, formal designs, ceramic practice and now motion into seamless, aesthetic wholes. Whether Hön is experimenting with the ceramic surface, designing jewellery, his work is a testament to fascination provoked by beautiful forms.
However, that being said, it may be argued as Peter Dormer has, in his introduction to The Culture of Craftthat crafts such ceramic practice, are modes of human endeavour that are largely neglected today because of industrialisation, mass production, modernity and more recently post modernity. Under the spectre of modernity, the ceramicist thus seems to signify a certain arcadian nostalgia and loss; a yearning for time when art was linked to authenticity, truth, beauty and virtue. For many, the crafted object epitomises John Ruskin and William Morris’s ‘old world’; a time when consumable objects were not the product of alienated labour or the machine, when there was a possibility that the beauty and embellishment monopolised by the aristocracy could find its purchase everywhere. Specifically, the ceramicist today emblematises through the complexity of their individual labour a time when the relationship between human and object was more direct, unaffected, immediate and sensuous. One thinks here, for example, of Jose Saramago’s humble, elderly potter character Cipriano Algor in The Cavewho, in the face of the proliferation of inexpensive plastic kitchenware gives up his practice, retires and and moves to the metropolis and ultimately alienates himself from his own existence. Similar to this is A.S. Byatt’s tempestuous character, the master ceramicist Benedict Fludd who, in The Children’s Book, is plagued by violent self-doubt because, as the novel implies, his identity as a ceramicist has been made redundant by the emergence of art Nouveau, the fashion industry, the industrialisation of culture, mass production at the turn of the 19th century. The title of the exhibition registers these difficulties with resonance. And the ship sails on, as a title, is at once an assertive and a resigned statement. On the one hand it laments the disappearance of craft and ceramics in an industrial society and on the other hand it assertively resists this.
Craft, rhythm and disruption
For Hön, ceramics must ‘sail on’. However, for him, it seems, in order to do this it must somehow simultaneously retain its commitment to humanity and history and evolve to address a new set of societal conditions where mass production, standardisation, high technology and cultural fragmentation are the norm. It is no surprise, given his optimism around an expanded practice of ceramics, that Hön evokes the symbol of the Dragon, an image that, in essence, represents the generative principle of life (creator of rain, fertility, the lengthening of warm days, rhythm), the pure product of imagination (bird, snake, pig, rainbow, water, deer, demon, crab, carp, ox); a symbol that is known to unite opposites- pattern and chaos, death and life, the old and the new, creation and destruction, anima and animus within itself. It is notable that in his ceramic installation And the ship sails onthe dragon is cast as a playful, trickster figure that enters into the static, duck decoy ceramic configuration and disrupts the uniformity of the ceramic installation with its playful and rhythmic embellishments. In a simple gesture, Hön dramatises the dragon as a figure that disrupts tradition, in this case the tradition of surface decoration in ceramic practice. Hön’s recent interest in animating the ceramic surface and employing ceramic thinking as a catalyst for other forms of form-making such as body adornment, photography, the artist’s book speaks powerfully to Hön’s commitment to the relevance of beauty and craft in contemporary society.