And the ship sails on...

The Ceramic Surface: A Virtual Crossover

The current shift in the role of ceramics in art could result in a diaspora from the traditional home of clay that will leave Fortress Ceramica, our walled adobe city on the hill, semi-deserted, if not abandoned.1

 

<|Collaborations/Articulations|>provided me with an opportunity to approach a Lukasz Pater, an expert inmotion graphics in the Department of Multimedia, to collaborate in the development of a ceramic installation with a projected animation. His role was to animate my ballpoint pen drawings, presented as surface embellishment (decals), and transform the normally static ceramic installation into kinetic virtuality. It was critical that the final statement embrace the two discipline-specific techniques and methods in a coherent and integrated manner. My intention was to situate the work in ceramic history and tradition, whilst making a statement about the challenges facing contemporary ceramic artists. The closure of ceramic departments worldwide has catapulted the craft into a threatened zone that marginalises the handmade. I wanted to revisit decoration as central to ceramic practice by producing a work that used projection to activate the surface of my work.

As the barriers between art and design blur, it is important that ceramic artists, designers and craftspeople confront drastic shifts amidst great uncertainty regarding their contribution to visual culture. Ceramics has always been labeled as Decorative Art, and thus approaching decoration as projected animation onto a ceramic installation suggested new possibilities for this art form

The installation consisted of four highly stylised and symmetrical slip-cast ceramic decoy ducks based on modernist sculptural convention. I modeled and manufactured the pieces, and painted them with acrylic white paint to maximise the quality of the high definition projected animation. The size and number of ducks was a major factor, as was their position and composition on a constructed oval base. Pater and I had numerous onsite discussions to determine the scale of the installation as defined by the size and shapes of the forms, and the positive and negative spaces. Registration of the projected animation required a series of creative solutions and interventions on the part of the animator. The lens projected the animation at an angle from a projector attached to the ceiling above the ceramic installation. The animation consisted of a five-clawed Chinese dragon, inspired by an image on an imperial moon flask (Qianlong period). The dragon claws its way slowly and purposefully from beneath the animated ballpoint renderings simulating water. Finally it looms large, its claws sweeping over the decoy ducks, transforming their unadorned bodies one by one into brightly coloured peonies suggesting spring and a reinvented Arcadia. The dragon’s symbolic regenerative powers dramatically transformed the predominantly white ceramic installation into a multi-coloured and layered virtual experience.

This virtual transformation of a static installation offered a progressive statement about the potential for ceramic art to break traditional boundaries and conventions, and pave the way for a new creative direction across disciplines.

Paul Greenhalgh states that ceramists rarely gained recognition for their contribution to the avant-garde. He argues that  “Accepting continual crossovers and correspondences between ceramics and other media and the interdisciplinary nature of clay activity, there are core practices and usages within the ceramic heritage that give it meaning and guarantee its continued existence and prosperity.”2 Perhaps the avant-gardist rejection of ceramics is due to the fact that ceramics has always been understood in utilitarian, traditional and decorative terms. Clay is one of the most useful materials to enrich human life, and the <ceramic surface|>is the defining factor in the history and tradition of ceramics, the decorative connotations of which go against the grain of the functionalism, futurity and anti-bourgeois sentiment of avant-garde modernist values.

Traditionally the burnished surface of a clay vessel transformed the fired pot into a durable and reusable product. The introduction of glazed surfaces further extended its strength versatility. But it was the refinement of ceramic materials that secured its true value. Porcelain is desired and admired for its strength and durability, achieved by the creation of an integrated body-glaze layer. It is its sophisticated white, often translucent, surface, however, that has inspired the consumer and that, in the twenty-first-century, has come to be synonymous with a particular way of life.

The unadorned surface signals a radical shift in ceramics, first observed by Peter Dormer who predicted the demise of studio pottery, especially the Anglo-Oriental tradition: “market researchers employed by the table and giftware manufacturers have confirmed that the public wants consistency and desires a dependable, almost hygienic neatness in the quality of tableware.”3This,he points out, bodes ill for the studio crafts. More recently artists and designers have embraced the crafts, including ceramics, as a means to express themselves in ways not imagined by ceramics practitioners of the past. When Kati Tuominen Niittyia won the 5thInternational Ceramic Competition in 1998 in Mino, Japan, she did so by submitting an altered classical dinner plate titled, <|White Moon|>. This object, flattened to one side and morphing into a disc reminiscent of the shape of the full moon, embodies the radical shift in ceramic art. For centuries ceramics had been an artistic expression that integrated a clay form and its surface development options in a unified creative statement. Both were equally valued and explored in a diverse range of techniques and methods. It is as if the present consumer’s endorsement of uncluttered and undecorated dinnerware and the honouring of an altered classical white dinner plate by the Mino judges, has heralded a new era for ceramics, free from tradition and the boundaries it guarded so fiercely.

The challenge for me as a ceramic sculptor was to create a conventional ceramic installation that would be transformed by a colorful surface-orientated, projected animation. The final statement had to celebrate embellishment, as a response to the consumer’s desire for undecorated dinnerware and the Mino judges’ decision. With its painted white base and unembellished slip-cast sculptures, the installation was intended to allude to a blank canvas. In contrast, the projected animation had to be the transforming instrument, embedded in the ceramic craft tradition of surface decoration.

I had to find a suitable semiotic image for the animation that would be an instantly recognisable symbol that would address these creative options. The five-clawed dragon and surface decoration on the Imperial ceramic moon flask was a fitting image. The dragon, a symbol of China’s cultural heritage, represents the challenges confronting ceramics  and pays tribute to the handmade, especially in Asian cultures where crafts and ceramics continue to flourish. It also symbolises the impact of cheap Chinese imports on global markets, arguably the single most important influence on the demise of ceramics and the handmade worldwide.

The idea to project onto the ceramic installation came about when a previous work failed in terms of surface development. That work came about as a result of a discussion with a colleague about the possibility of an animated projection, and was exhibited at the exhibition, <|Ceramics Alumni UJ – The End of an Era (1966–2010)|>,in the FADA Gallery in 2010 that coincided with the closure of the ceramics department at UJ. Ninety-five slip-cast rats formed part of an installation in the shape of a carpet,, their tails suggesting the carpet tassels. The rats converged in a confrontational stance in the centre. An animation consisting of prayer rugs, kelims and carpets representing various cultures and religions was projected onto the installation to complete the ceramic statement.

For <|and the ship sails on|>, (the work shown on <|Collaborations/Articulations|>), I did not want the ceramic installation to act merely as a canvas for the projection. Rather, the entire work had to reinforce the rich tradition of ceramic discourse. It was vital that the animation embody aspects of the craft of ceramics in its use of symbols, colours, shapes and textures. The animation was first treated as a surface development exercise realised through preliminary pen drawings. Viewing the projected animation as surface pattern and the ceramic installation as merely a canvas for would have been a travesty, and hence the animation took centre stage, clinging to the ceramic installation of slip-cast decoy ducks in a new and exciting way –reinforcing the three-dimensionality of the final statement.

Fundamental to the success of the collaboration was Pater’s ability to capitalise on my drawings, and to reinforce the notion of the handmade, albeit virtual, decoration. All the clichés and notions of craft making – the “studio”, the “handmade” and even the word ‘craft’ itself – are abandoned in the final statement. The only evidence of these is in the “artist’s book” exhibited at the site of the installation, reaffirming my intention of thinking through craft without remaining entrapped in its demise.

On one level, <|and the ship sails on|> reiterates the significance of the crafts as a liberated tool in celebrating surface decoration both stylistically and conceptually. The work alludes to a revival of the ideals of the Pattern and Decoration movement, established in 1975. However, it is more than simply a response to minimalism. It refers to Michael Petry’s advocating of a return to a highly crafted aesthetic in contemporary art4and attempts to put a nail in the coffin of modernism’s mantra that decoration is a crime.

  1. Garth Clark, “Fortress Ceramica Answered Prayers” in <|Ceramics: Art and Perception|>70.102 (2007).
  1. Paul Greenhalgh, “Discourse and Decoration: The Struggle for Historical Space” in Garthe Clark (ed.), <|Ceramic Millennium|>. Nova Scotia: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design Press, 2006, 165.
  1. Peter Dormer, <|The Culture of Crafts|>. New York: Manchester University Press, 1997, 11.
  1. Michael Petry, <|The Art of Not Making|>. New York, Thames ¶ Hudson, 2007, 7.

<| Eugene Hon…|>