All Art is Ceramics Now (and That’s a Good Thing)

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Urara Tsuchiya, Angel Pocket at Union Pacific

In her new column for Elephant, Critic About Town, Zarina Muhammad (one-half of the White Pube) attempts to ‘make sense of it all’ as she reads current exhibitions against the wider mood of the culture at large. This week, Zarina is paying close attention to the ceramics of it all…

London has got an excess of culture — I don’t know if you’ve noticed. There’s so much going on, you could go see exhibitions all day every day and still not get through everything. You wouldn’t even touch the sides, let alone have time to make sense of it all. So much creative surplus, so little time. I’m an art critic in London, and I normally write about things for The White Pube, a website I run with my collaborator (Gabrielle de la Puente — who also has a column for Elephant about the culture you can enjoy at home). 

But for this brand new column, I’m not interested in sounding clever or cool, not interested in hot takes, clickbait, sceney-gossip, etc. I’m not going to tell you what to go see or what to think about it all. I’m just going to chew over the things I’ve seen and try to make sense of it all with a bit of time and distance. I’ll also take some liberties (because why not) and try to read exhibitions against the wider mood of The Culture At Large. Imagine this is my diary, my critic’s notebook or field journal — imagine I am just a girl trying to make sense of the city and its enormous, unending cultural output. Because that’s what this actually is. 

I have a deep-tissue yearning for a new hobby. Something craft-based, materially real, solitary. I am sick of typing words into my laptop all day every day. I want to do something more interesting, I want novelty, the spectacular. I want something demanding so my mind doesn’t have the space to wander back to words and work. Something physical and precise, frustrating and satisfying, painstaking, incremental. So every Saturday morning I go to a ceramics class, I enter a fugue state where I’m busy just making things for three wordless hours. It’s frustrating, satisfying, precise etc. I also get the feeling I’m not naturally good at it, which I find very humbling in a thrilling way. I sit at the wheel and the clay flies off in my hand, or collapses in on itself. There are so many ways a pot can go wrong, and I am road-testing them all one by one (to my own frustration). But when I close my eyes and concentrate, I dream of a future where I know what I’m doing, I have fabrication skills, I can make this material behave itself and do what I want it to do. It’s a magical dream that I haven’t manifested yet, but I live in hope. 

I can’t tell if ceramics really are everywhere or if I’m only spotting them because of my new hobby. But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. Artists are experiencing a fascination with ceramics, and — I get it. Deep tissue get it. And all these artists are much better at it than me — of course — they can do sleight of hand! Transformational magic! **Art!**

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Sam Bakewell, dream-backed at Corvi-Mora
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Sam Bakewell, dream-backed at Corvi-Mora

Down in Kennington, Corvi-Mora was showing Sam Bakewell — fifteen ceramic slabs spaced out along the wall, all the size of hardback books. The press release called them ‘abstract process-led works’, relating them back to painting and a more material way of exploring the two-dimensional realm of ~the image~. Painting but also: MATERIALS, STUFF, SUBSTANCES! In some, Bakewell had pressed burnt up button blobs of a different kind of clay into the rectangular canvas. Or taken finger-width swipes out, so little indent shapes hung off the edge. There were marks that looked like scrapes and cracks like chipped shards had been shot in at high speed or like a palette knife had laid a blanket of clay paint across a clay canvas. In some, there were scrappy mounds of clay that looked like dollops of paint, all different ice cream colours squeezed out and piled up onto each other. Then others were mounds like very elegent quenelles, rounded out between tablespoons and scooped into a refined pile that was very small plates adjacent. 

I’m making it sound complicated, but the press release just said it was all made of CERAMIC. FULL STOP. Cryptic. Playful mystery magic taking place within the firm limit of a rectangle. I don’t know how the artist made these but I was fascinated by the unknown process. Part of me wanted to preserve the image magic, and another part of me wanted to see a time-lapse video of them all coming together. Because it could’ve been clay, it could’ve been solid or liquid, moulded or painted or accidentally arranged, forged out of some esoteric mystery material I’ve never even heard of before. And the not-knowing fascinated me. 

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Urara Tsuchiya, Angel Pocket at Union Pacific
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Urara Tsuchiya, Angel Pocket at Union Pacific

Over East, Union Pacific had a show called *Angel Pocket* — a collection of ceramic works by Urara Tsuchiya. ‘Ceramic Works’ feels like very formal language to describe what was on show there, because they were actually massive baked and glazed polly pocket objects. Like heart-shaped hatboxes with sweet little scenes tucked away inside. One was a green porch with baby blue shutters on the upstairs windows, another was a wintery snow scene with an ice rink and green pine trees and a red snow sled. Frilly bedspreads and baby pink carpets, red-blue-pink-yellow jazzy mosaic patio paths leading up to sweet marbly statues in a perfect garden. My favourite was a whole polly pocket village, a lake with a bridge, little huts and outdoor picnic areas, deckchairs and sun loungers, the house all folded out with its rooms and furniture rendered in tiny perfection. It took every ounce of willpower in the very fibre of my being not to reach out and touch it all. 

The rest of the show was punctuated by very thin and delicate-looking ceramic underwear — lifesize, not miniature. Thongs and g-strings, lacy and red and with strings of pearls instead of ribbons. And a full cupped underwire bra with the straps all twisted. This weird intimate clash between girly toys and womanly underwear. Again, like with Sam Bakewell’s abstract ceramic magic, I was so bamboozled by how someone could make clay look like delicate, wispy fabric. It was rolled out so thin, it actually rippled and curled like lace would if it was scrumpled up on the floor. More material trickery! The oldest trick in the book. 

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Meitao Qu, to supplement the fragment at Public

Round the corner from Union Pacific, Public had a group show called *To supplement the fragment* — curated by Nicole Estilo Kaiser, thinking around Craig Owen’s writing about ‘the allegorical impulse’. It was press release-heavy, theoretical, and academic in a way that I didn’t want to engage with properly or meaningfully at the moment (even though that’s literally my job). Makes sense because Craig Owens was a writer, a researcher, a critic who was interested in postmodernism and who lectured at Yale. But I wanted something wordless, remember? So I mention this show knowing that I may have missed the point and purpose entirely. I’ll catch up on the reading another day — promise. But upstairs at Public, there was a sculpture called Floating Island by Meitao Qu.

On a see-through plinth, there was a green-tinged glass bowl shaped like a cresting wave. Inside it, a massive cruise ship-shaped cake was floating in a sea of yellow custard. It had icing shapes piped and studded along it in bedazzled lines, like the stuff on an iced gem, like perfect frosted barnacles. Right on top of the cruise ship, there was a plastic city with towering buildings — two of them were joined up, like the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. The buildings were framed by sticky translucent caramel wings, flat and jammed down between the buildings. It made me double-take, blink hard. Surely, it wouldn’t actually be made of real cake custard and caramel? I’d spent the day popping up in gallery after gallery, waiting for artists to pull the wool over my eyes with material magic tricks. I was completely unwilling to believe that anything was made of what it looked like it was made of. I didn’t check the press release until I was on the bus, catching up on the reading like I promised I would. It was a sashimi boat, the cakelike mirage was a mix of piped silicone and clay foam. I actually laughed out loud to myself. Third time lucky, the artists had got me again. 

Look at us, with our silly little email jobs. We tip-tap-type all day. On Word docs, Gmail, notion, slack, spreadsheets, WhatsApp. Isn’t it exhausting!? Aren’t you starting to hate it!? I am!! I want to see something that literally physically and materially exists, and I want to be WOWWED by the slippage between what it is and how it was made. It’s the childish desire for a magic trick to knock my socks off and suspend my disbelief. I want the artist to enjoy the thrill of the trick. Maybe the process is secret, like Sam Bakewell’s cryptic slabs that were actually paintings. Maybe it’s slight of hand, like Meitao Qu’s cake magic. Whimsical or delightful too. Maybe it’s just plain fun, nostalgia or aesthetic pleasure, like Urara Tsuchiya’s polly pocket universe. I just want to feel like the physical and material world is as unstable as the digital, able to shift constantly under my feet like a screen scrolling through a timeline or a feed.

Written by Zarina Muhammad of the White Pube.