Linda Swanson on Ceramics and the Expanded Field Conference, 17-19 July 2014

Linda Swanson is a ceramic artist based in Montreal and Assistant Professor in Studio Arts at Concordia University.

The artist Theaster Gates launched the conference Ceramics in Expanded Field: Behind the Scenes at the Museum by observing that ceramics has an “excess of metaphors” that could be accessed in new ways. He suggested that ceramics draw upon the untapped potential of its traditional expertise and knowledge while looking for unconventional opportunities in the field of practice confronting it today. His savvy use of irony coupled with a sincere appreciation for craft can be seen in his project entitled Soul Manufacturing Corporation, which was discussed several times during the conference. In this piece, Gates recreated a pottery workshop space in an art gallery in which three experienced potters trained a group of apprentices over a period of several weeks. This performance, involving the transmission of knowledge and skill, has the potential to speak for ceramics as a practice that involves devotion, skill and community in ways that the artefacts themselves may not be able to. Gates’ initial talk set the tone for the conference that explored how ceramic artists and curators could expand the field of ceramics to critically engage museums and their collections in non-traditional ways.

Clare Twomey, Piece by Piece (2014). Sylvian Deleu Photography. Commissioned for the Gardiner Museum Toronto.

The conference focused on recent projects that took museums as sites for an “expanded field” of ceramic practice and that worked with ceramic collections in different ways while addressing issues of site specificity, viewer interactivity and the changing roles of artists and curators. A concurrent exhibition in the University’s gallery, Ambika P3, offered the chance to view works by conference organizers Christie Brown, Julian Stair and Claire Twomey. Of particular note was the trial run of Twomey’s Piece by Piece (above) destined for the Gardiner Museum in Toronto this fall in which porcelain figurines were methodically hand-cast by an assistant in moulds taken from three original pieces in the Gardiner collection and distributed in the vast space of the gallery so that the continuous pace of production, accumulation and arrangement effectively reanimated the figurines. Projects such as Twomey’s not only connect with the current desire of museums to reinvigorate their collections, they develop from a deep knowledge of ceramic techniques and processes and offer the viewer a window onto the experience of the maker.

Another artist working with a particular consciousness of viewer experience was Phoebe Cummings, who spoke about her residency at the V&A Museum where she worked in a glass-walled studio within a museum gallery. Cummings took advantage of this unique position to turn the studio into an evolving exhibition space where she built up an enchanting environment from raw clay elements modelled on patterns from the historical work in the collection that was exhibited on gallery shelves adjacent to her studio. Viewers observed the work as it unfolded and could follow her practice as she posted poetic descriptions of the artistic process on a blog. In contrast to the collection, her work was not intended to last, a temporary embodiment of her dialogue with history and the public, briefly enjoyed then recycled into the next work. Cummings’ work and Anders Ruhwald’s sculptural interventions entitled Anatomy of a Home that reinterpreted the interpersonal relationships of architect Eliel Saarinen’s family in the museum of their home at Cranbrook Academy outside Detriot, are exemplary of how ceramics can expand its disciplinary scope within contemporary art through new strategies that draw out aspects of its materiality and process in response to situation.

The conference demonstrated how expansive the field of ceramics in fact already is, yet ended on the question “Why clay?” What does clay have to offer to contemporary art? Rachel Gotlieb, Chief Curator at the Gardiner Museum, an institution dedicated specifically to ceramics, described a recent exhibition in which she invited conceptual artist Ante Liu to produce a new body of work in clay. Liu, who had no previous experience with ceramics, was given some historical background and provided with production assistance from mouldmaking to firing. Gotlieb remarked that the resultant work cast from throw away styrofoam packaging took the form of totemic constructions that recalled both antique and modern figurative sculpture and that they appealed to the “taste making elite” more than any previous exhibition at the museum.

What does it mean when an artist from outside the field of ceramics, without the expertise and skill gained from experience working with clay, experiments with the medium, as many seem to be doing these days? What distinguishes work made from outside “the tradition” versus inside? What we ought to recognize is that these artists are taking advantage of opportunities that already exist in ceramics as a practice, broadly considered. When Marcel Duchamp chose a ceramic urinal for the Fountain, it was something quite new for art, but it is not generally seen as directly expanding the field of ceramic art. As Ezra Shales has pointed out, artisanal manufacturing responding to societal hygienic concerns in fact furnished Duchamp with his urinal “ready-made.”[1] This is where we can return to Gates’ idea about “excess metaphors”. Ceramics can be considered more than just a medium; it comprises an entire body of expertise, knowledge and concerns across the entire cultural landscape as, in fact, a “tradition.” Let’s welcome new work being done in clay by contemporary artists, and especially artists from ceramics like Gates, Twomey, Ruhwald and Cummings, that demonstrate the relevance of ceramics in contemporary art while allowing the tradition of ceramics to continue to navigate cultural space in new and complex ways.


[1] Ezra Shales, “Mass Production as an Academic Imaginary (or, if more must be said of Marcel ‘Evacuating Duchampian Conjecture in the Age of Recursive Scholarship’)” Journal of Modern Craft 6 (3) (November 2013).

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