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May 28, 2014 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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Slip Cast

“Sometimes to create, one must first destroy.” – David, ‘Prometheus.’

“The world is seldom what it seems; to man, who dimly sees, realities appear as dreams, and dreams realities.” – Samuel Johnson.

‘Slip Cast,’ at the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt, is an enticing and seductive introduction to the illusory world of contemporary ceramics in Aotearoa. An exhibition that goes beyond “the classic brown pot,” The Dowse’s latest offering thematically explores the functions of an ancient medium in the lives of current practitioners. These are ceramics, but not as we know them. Dividing “the white cube” into the four sections: “Organic,” “Formalism,” “Personal Narratives” and “Histories;” ‘Slip Cast’ operates as four separate – simultaneously presented exhibitions – that analyse the different roles played by ceramics in the local contemporary art scene. Belonging to the canon of medium inspired exhibitions, ‘Slip Cast’ follows the trajectory of ceramics from their clay origins, born in the womb of the earth; through to their manipulation by artists intent on deconstructing the modernist narratives surrounding their functional utility. Artworks, throughout this exhibition, act as signifiers pointing visitors to the major themes of creative destruction and illusion that are prevalent throughout the show. In essence: ‘Slip Cast’ is an ironic juxtaposition between the anarchic questioning of Greenbergian ideals and the representation of this in the most modernist of spaces – the white cube.

A staple of the contemporary art space is the thematic exhibition. Driven by the institution and curator’s didacticism, these spaces inform us on how to look at a body of work. In ‘The Art Museum, More or Less,’ Australian Art Historian Ian Burn writes that: “In the art museum, space is assigned to particular artists, art forms, movements, national traditions. Decisions are made to exclude, segregate, disenfranchise, marginalise, affiliate, homogenise, with certain kinds of art virtually guaranteed occupation.” The thematic exhibition embodies the politics of “inclusion” and “exclusion” prevalent in the gallery spaces of today. Artworks included in these exhibitions are ones that speak to the themes being offered by the collection and those which support the argument(s) of the curator who is intent on teaching us something. It is also indicative of the educational mission of these institutions, policies that these “museums and galleries are being urged to promote.” The first major institution to be organised on an entirely thematically basis was The Tate Modern in London. Opening in 2000, this art museum, like MoMA, lauded itself as a temple to modernism by exhibiting works from 1900 onwards and forms part of the British Tate group of art museums. The Tate’s permanent collection is organized around “thematic installations devoted to the four traditional genre categories: landscape, figure, still life and history painting,” through which various narratives about the history of modern and contemporary art can be told. By organizing itself thematically, an institution like The Tate Modern is not bound by the monolithic interpretation of the international canon imposed by a chronological structuring, and thus, has the potential to tell us something new about the history of art.

This, however, is not a democratising moment in the history of the production of the meaning of art. While a museum, like The Tate Modern, attempts to offer a different analysis of modern and contemporary art through a thematic exploration of their collection; it still holds the hegemonic power over its visitors as the disseminators of this new art history. Showcasing a body of work which according to reviewer Eleanor Hearten is “surprisingly canonical,” The Tate Modern’s institutional bias is clearly demonstrated through the presentation of this new art historical narrative – their own. Thus whether a collection is organized chronologically or thematically, the art museum cannot escape its own ideological position as they offer viewers a self-serving interpretation of art history.

It is within this context – the history of the thematic exhibition and its exemplification in the policies of The Tate Modern – that one can begin to understand the type of methodology underpinning an exhibition like The Dowse Art Museum’s ‘Slip Cast.’ Curator Emma Budgen uses the exhibition as a means to destroy the traditional conceptions of the medium, and from their shattered remains, rebuild a series of coeval narratives that explore the function and purpose of ceramics and clay-based artworks in contemporary art. Budgen sets the tone for viewers in her introductory notes to the exhibition when she writes that: “Ceramics are back, but not the classic brown pot. New generations of artists are using clay with a new freedom, incorporating other materials heedless of the traditional art/craft divide. Slip Cast celebrates ceramics in New Zealand today, showcasing current practitioners from around the country who use clay in their work.” In this introductory paragraph it becomes evident that Slip Cast, as an exhibition, is offering its viewers an anarchic and postmodern view of the role of ceramics in today’s art world. Intent on breaking free of the tropes of the potter and the negative implications of ceramics as a craft, the exhibition’s mission seeks to update the discourses that surround these works. Discourses that focus on the versatility and amorphousness of the medium, deconstruct the hierarchical structure of art, and bring ceramics into the twenty first century.

The disestablishment of the traditional art historical narratives of ceramics is embodied in the first of the exhibition’s four sections. Greeting viewers as they walk into the space, “Organic” presents its viewers with works that are “rambunctious and exuberant, at times pushing clay to its physical limits.” Incorporating other media such as paint and paper, the art explodes over the walls and floors of the gallery space as it represents the deconstruction and re-imagining of a medium for contemporaneous purposes. Works in this section also tend to focus on the malleability of clay in its raw state as a metaphor for the newfound fluidity of ceramics. Therefore it is no coincidence that Suji Park’s nebulous installation piece, Igigi (Park, 2014), takes centre stage in this mini exhibition. Using a variety of media from fired and unfired clay to builder’s foam, Igigi is a series of flowing sculptural forms representing various stages in the medium’s evolution from clay to ceramics. Born from the fragments of one of Park’s accidentally broken sculptures, the artist believes that using these remnants in the creation of a new piece imbues the former artwork with “new life, new narratives and new cultures.” Art critic, John Hurrell, argues that Park’s use of ceramics to establish the cyclical theme of creation, destruction and resurrection; is emblematic of the sculptor’s artistic practices when he writes that: “Her (Park’s) main preoccupations seem to be textural and surface qualities presented within the format of developing chaos.” It is unsurprising then that a work by the Auckland artist was sought out by the curator to be the pièce de résistance of this section. As an artist that actively engages in creating and recreating the discourses embodied in their art, Park is the perfect vessel through which the curator can articulate the new narratives and paths being forged by contemporary ceramics. The installing ofIgigi by Budgen is the curatorial master stroke of this exhibition.

In the adjoining room dedicated to the exhibition’s “Histories” subsection, there are also those works which speak to the themes developed by Park’s sculptural instillation. Exhibiting artists who “use clay to connect to existing stories and beliefs,” these works all illustrate how clay has, and can be used, to narrate the stories that unite us and to explore the history of the medium itself. Upon first walking into “Histories,” visitors are confronted by a sobering reminder of the death and destruction caused by the relatively recent Canterbury Earthquakes. In the work, Untitled (Lucas, 2011), potter Cheryl Lucas uses warped black jugs and mini clay replicas of traffic cones to represent a “’munted’ Christchurch cityscape,” still devastated by the effects of these natural disasters. This depressive landscape presented by Lucas, is in a dialectic exchange with the themes of creativity and destruction offered by Park’s work. While Cheryl Lucas’ disruptive ceramic installation is representative of the destructive phase in the creative cycle, it is also imbued with the hope of the Christchurch rebuild. A work reflective of the theme of creative destruction and the dissemination of new narratives, Untitled is the perfect segue from “Organic” into “Histories.”

“Histories” also serves to promote Slip Cast’s primary function as a thematic exploration of ceramics by using installations that outline the history of clay. Using clay to represent itself, Mel Ford’s hanging earthen installation, Time and Tide, is a semi-circular representation of the life cycle of clay. Along the continuum of Ford’s work: stones morph into clay fragments, which become fired into bricks, with the process repeated inreverse until the end of the lineal progression. These “washed up ceramic shards” are gathered by the artist on visits to local beaches and by repurposing the collected items into her artistic practise, Ford’s intention is to “create works that transcend time and place.” Using the medium to represent itself, Ford’s work also comments on the self-reflexive nature of exhibitions devoted to the thematic exploration of a medium.

In conversation with Time and Tide, Paerau Corneal and Louise Potiki-Bryant’s video installations representing the ancient origins of clay are played via dual screens on the adjacent wall. Kiri, depicting a dance by Potiki-Bryant exploring the metaphor of clay as the earth’s skin and Kiri Wai, a performance piece illustrating the gradual evolution of clay; these works reflect the artists’ interest “…in the material qualities of clay” and “…the integrity of clay in its natural form.” It is also fascinating to witness the representation of a natural medium, like clay, through the guise of the most of contemporary of media. Similar to other works in “Histories” like Erica van Zon’s recreation of everyday objects in ceramic form, Kiri and Kiri Wai help formulate another of Slip Cast’s pervasive themes: that nothing is ever as it seems. The use of non-traditional media in the formation of works dedicated to clay is also evidence of the creation of new narratives and innovate ways of thinking about ceramics that lay the theoretical foundations of this exhibition.

It cannot be ignored that these competing postmodern narratives communicate with each other through the most modern and hierarchical of gallery spaces – The White Cube. Pioneered by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, The White Cube reflected the modernist ideology that art should speak for itself and be free from external influence. In his classic essay “Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space,” Brian O’Doherty argues that the purpose of the ideology underpinning these new spaces is as follows: “The outside world must not come in, so windows are usually sealed off. Walls are painted white. The ceiling becomes the source of light…The art is free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life.’ Similar to the ideals embodied in religious architecture, the gallery space now becomes a place of quiet reflection where visitors are encouraged to meditate on their own thoughts. Although initially a revolutionary reinvention of the art gallery, MoMA’s innovation has become the worldwide design model of the contemporary art space. Despite appearing to its viewers as an unbiased arena, Sheikh writes that “the gallery space is not a neutral container, but a historical construct.” The author continues by stating that the imposing nature of the pristine gallery space “…not only conditions, but also overpowers the artworks themselves in its shift from placing content within a context to making the context itself the content.” By shifting the power of the exhibition from the content to the context, the exhibited works partially lose their ability to communicate the ideas imbedded within them. Given that ‘Slip Cast’ seeks to disseminate a new narrative about clay’s genre-bending “…capacity to morph into sculpture,” it is ironic that these works should be exhibited within a context which silences art and perpetuates outdated Modernist ideals. Here the exhibition does itself a disservice by appealing to the hegemonic structuring of the international gallery space which reduces the effectiveness of the exhibited works in their role as constructors of new narratives about ceramics.

A way to have avoided this would have been to disrupt the walls with text or photographs, so that viewers are not blinded by the gallery’s piercingly bright white painted walls. Instead of writing the exhibition text on white placards and attaching them to the partitions, the text could have been printed on to the walls themselves in a terracotta colour representative of the exhibited medium. The letters in the thematic title “Organic” would have represented this section more effectively if they were printed dripping down the wall in this colour as a visual metaphor for the formless ceramics exhibited in this area. Displaying the text in this manner would highlight the “malleable, messy and downright gooey” nature of clay outlined in the exhibition’s introduction. Large-scale photographs could have also been used to make the walls recede into the background of this exhibition. Noticeably missing from ‘Slip Cast,’ photographic representations of the different stages of clay, and its use in the creative process, would have disrupted the dominant white space and furthered the thematic undercurrent of evolution that runs through the collection. As an exhibition that triumphs new ways of thinking about art, I would have liked to have seen ‘Slip Cast’ challenge the context within which it was exhibited more directly.

The Dowse Art Museum, like any gallery, is constricted by the limitation of its internal architecture. Despite this acknowledgement, however, there are still issues with how the exhibition has been constructed. For example Bruce Denhart’s expansive installation, Red Room, “an intuitive response to the artist’s experience of ‘falling madly in love with the woman who I would later marry, my love of architecture, and sheer wonderment of this place called Aotearoa’” appears to be exhibited in the wrong section. Instead of shifting “Personal Narratives” into the space of Denhert’s work and incorporating Red Room into this subsection, the current placement of this devotional installation is thematically out of place. As a cathartic response to love, consisting of dozens of well-formed ceramic roses, the installation does not embody any of the abstract ideas proposed by its current context andwould have been better suited within the environment of the “Personal Narratives” collection.

‘Slip Cast’ is an exciting and thought-provoking exhibition which aims to re-orient our thinking on the form and function ofceramics in contemporary New Zealand art. A challenging collection that incorporates a variety of media (as well as ceramics): ‘Slip Cast’ presents viewers with a fluid conception of ceramics which sees works “slipping between forms and genres” throughout the gallery space. A truly thematic exploration of the medium, clay is traced throughout the exhibition from its raw, malleable state; through to its refinement in static ceramic form. Guiding visitors through this journey, the four subsections are dedicated to clay’s various incarnations in contemporary form. The exhibition, however, is not a history of the artistic manipulation of clay; but a commentary on the versatility of the medium and its ability to form and reform the artistic practises of today. The domination of The White Cube and the placement of Denhert’s installation distract our attention away from the major themes, but not in such a way that these narratives are silenced. Clay, like, Contemporary art, is always in flux. Constantly changing and amorphous, the medium produces work which typifies the art of today – tangible, yet metaphysical; diverse; and above all else: indefinable.


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