Fragile? Clay in all its forms is celebrated in a new survey exhibition at The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Catherine Roche explores Fragile? and finds a breadth of practice and approach that demonstrate that our love affair with clay is as robust as ever. While domestic ceramic objects clink and chink their way through our everyday lives, there is a certain expectation of quiet reverence that surrounds a museum, or gallery exhibition, dedicated to ceramic practice: ‘take care; do not touch’ seems implicit when viewing such supposedly delicate artefacts. So, to describe Fragile? – the current large –scale ceramic exhibition hosted by The National Museum of Wales, Cardiff – as a ‘sensory experience’, seems initially surprising. The penetrating, rich tones of brass-band tunes are not the first thing you anticipate encountering in a museum display dedicated to clay in all its forms; neither is the crunching physicality experienced whilst walking across a sheet of bone china shards. Perhaps it is only fitting that an exhibition dedicated to a material so diverse in all its properties and potentials, defies such assumptions. Diversity underpins this show. A Bronze Age vessel, Staffordshire figurines and a Bernard Leach jar all comfortably coexist beside works that stretch the boundaries of a more traditional notion of ceramic practice. Drawn from the museum’s impressive collection and supplemented with institutional loans alongside new artists’ commissions, Fragile? offers a remarkable breadth of ceramic practice whilst maintaining a clear sense of purpose. This focus originates from a desire by the museum to place its ceramic collection within a current context. The new contemporary gallery spaces within the museum have afforded this possibility; large-scale pieces from the archive collection can finally be displayed effectively. Andrew Renton, Keeper of Art at the museum, explains: “We have been acquiring quite ambitious pieces that we wanted ultimately to be able to show properly. We are trying to reflect the ambitions that people working in ceramics have for the medium now. We are aiming at a multi-dimensional experience of ceramic practice today.” Such an inclusive approach could have led to an unwieldy survey of ceramic ‘greatest hits’. Fortunately, strong curatorial direction has resulted in a well-edited, thoughtprovoking thematic show. Exhibiting artist
Keith Harrison describes the exhibition as “a celebration of the medium’s versatility. It seems to be refreshingly without hierarchy”, he says. “It reflects how far the net has widened in terms of what a museum-based show might encompass, with temporary works part of the mix.” Co-exhibitor Clare Twomey adds, “I think the curatorial choices allow for a fresh view, and I don’t think it’s a re-evaluation by any means because the exhibition is incredibly inclusive in the most positive manner. With such high quality works across the board”, she says, “it’s a bit like joining a fresh set of conversations about clay”. Fragile? certainly stimulates dialogue. The title is important; it indicates an exploratory position, rather than a statement of fact, and creates a streamlined context for the show that places materiality at its core, whilst opening further conceptual propositions that subtly reverberate around this theme. Here, fragility can suggest two opposing states: the precariousness of the ceramic process and its materiality; and the longevity that ceramic artefacts maintain. But as Andrew Renton suggests, the permutations of interpretation can be far richer: “The starting point was the museum’s ceramic collection and how we make sense of it. The idea of fragility, the vulnerability of the objects, seemed to be a fertile area to explore”, he explains, “a way of examining preconceptions about the material itself, but also our own physical and emotional interaction with ceramics.” A modest Chinese stoneware bowl (AD 1000-1200) best encapsulates this expansive approach to the notion of fragility and the potentials therein. Delicate veins of gold lacquer accentuate the repair lines of its broken form using the Japanese technique of kintsugi, a process that acknowledges breakage and repair as inherent to the identity of an object. Here fragility is recognised, accepted, celebrated and contested; characteristics of ceramic-making made manifest throughout this exhibition in a multitude of ways. The exquisite tension of contrasting materiality examining these preconceptions of fragility is evident: the paper-thin delicacy of Ruth Duckworth’s modernist vessel
intensifies when juxtaposed against the raw physicality found in the sculptural forms of Claudi Casanovas or Hoshino Saturo; the monumental scale of Felicty Aylieff’s enamelled porcelain vase defies expectation of this revered material. More metaphorical readings abound. The vulnerability of human experience is shared in Claire Curneen’s poignant figurative sculptures, whilst Iraqi artist Halim al-Kalim’s porcelain notebooks, Soul Archive (1982-91), address wider issues of political instability in relation to personal strength. Neil Brownsword’s installation, Elegy (2009), provides a bittersweet note; a celebration of craft and labour, it also commemorates a lost British industrial heritage, highlighting the frailty of indigenous traditions in the face of global economies. The most direct demonstration of fragility can be experienced through one of the exhibition’s commissioned temporary artworks – Clare Twomey’s Consciousness/ Conscience (2001-15). Destruction is an inherent aspect of this floor-based installation. The piece employs hundreds of slip-cast, bone china boxes laid flat across a gallery threshold. Visitors must walk across this delicate ceramic band to proceed through the show; inevitably their footsteps instigate the demise of the artwork, leaving only crushed remains as evidence of their progress and participation. While Twomey’s installation addresses assumptions surrounding display as well as audience-artwork relationships, it also strikes a deeper chord. Our consciousness and conscience are awakened; the sensory satisfaction derived from a tactile walk across broken shards is inestimable. It is joyously childlike and acutely visceral at once; empowering in its inclusivity, yet tinged with guilty pleasure. Sensory experience underscores this exhibition; maybe it resides at the core of any human interaction with clay. The experiential capacity of ceramic artefacts is made explicit as bodily correlations emerge. Gesture, weight, density, gravity, texture, scale and balance inhabit the works dedicated to exploring the versatility and variety of ceramic bodies. In the upper gallery, ceramic surfaces are at the forefront, with the exterior
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