by Glenn Adamson, 

Deputy Head of Research and Head of Graduate Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Nature Morte - Ceramics as Images. Exhibition Catalogue by artist group VERSUS. 2010

A porcelain swan perches on a high shelf, looking down as if it’s contemplating suicide. A white fetus curls up in a hanging frame, surrounded by sinister clay coils. 169 ceramic forms crush up against a wall, each one a delicate register of its own near-dissolution. A cluster of fruits, rendered in pastel colors and torn through with holes, hugs the base of a column.  And a pastoral landscape, complete with model trees and house, sits atop a mantelpiece; it is planted with a handmade sign reading ‘Ceramic World,’ which points off into the mysterious distance.

What do all these animate oddities have in common? They are all made by members of a group of young ceramists, called Versus. That name conveys, as surely as the art works themselves, a restless sense of opposition. One is reminded of the exchange from Marlon Brando’s film The Wild Bunch. Asked what he and his tough-guy friends are rebelling against, he replies, ‘what have you got?’ The Versus artists aren’t quite so angry, but they are certainly interested in confounding our expectations. Theirs is a project about table-turning, both literally and figuratively. One work by Ane Fabricius Christiansen seems to say it all: a garniture of carefully set china, with a pile of tennis balls ready for throwing laid out in front of it. The title is ‘Be My Guest.’ As hilarious as this work may be, there is a serious intent behind it. Like the Surrealist artist Man Ray, Christiansen and her colleagues view their art as an object to be destroyed, a necessary moment of obliteration that can give rise to a new direction. As another of the participating artists, Sissel Wathne, puts it, working in clay means ‘feeling detained and prevented – or more positively, like letting go, breaking out, and paving the way for the new.’ 

In many ways the artists in Versus are typical of their generation. They forsake both the functional pot and the singular, plinth-bound sculpture, modes of production that seem antithetical but equally derive their authority from a narrowing of possibilities. Instead, they make work that spills across the floor, leaps up the wall, or dangles precariously from the ceiling. They use the whole space. This is itself a metaphor for the expansive energies of the present moment, when interdisciplinary and ‘post-studio’ strategies have swept through craft departments in art schools worldwide. Those who train in ceramics today are more likely to be turned on by installation art or conceptual video than by kilns, wheels, and glazes. They end up asking themselves a difficult question: how can we bring clay, a material with deep historical roots, into a vivid dialogue with contemporary art?

 It would be easy, in answering this question, to leave the history of ceramics behind – to see it simply as a neutral sculptural medium. Plenty of artists have gone that way. But Versus are up to something more difficult and interesting than that. They have thought carefully about the position of ceramics within art, and they want to exploit (rather than repress) its problematic reputation. Hence the turn to still life. It’s simple but ingenious. After all, still life paintings from Chardin to Cézanne almost always have clay vessels in them. This is partly because pots are fun to paint, no doubt, but it is also true that they are perfect symbols.  Fragile, body-like, and decorative, the empty vessel emblematizes the vanitas mode usually adopted by still life painters. The idea is that the painting should serve as a reminder of our own mortality, and hence a caution against vanity and greed. Hence the burnt-down candles, the over-ripe fruit, and the skulls that populate so many of these pictures. What’s curious though is that the paintings themselves are inexhaustible, unchanging tributes to the beauty of material things. The pomegranate in a 17th-century Dutch still life may have been painted as a reminder of the ephemerality of desire, but it’s just as plump and red today as it was 400 years ago.

In this exhibition that contradiction is used to great effect; the quiet paradox of still life is transformed into a noisy set of narratives. Christiansen’s theatrical invitation to target practice, with its distant echo of the self-destructive performances of Marina Abramovic (who once sat alongside a table of weapons and other implements, instructing visitors to do whatever they liked to her), is the clearest statement of this strategy. But you see a hovering between life and death everywhere in the show. Camille Nielsen refers to the natural history museum diorama, populated by stuffed animals that give a convincing imitation of living and breathing, but are actually (when you stop to think about it) corpses on display. Lea-Mi Engholm stages a sort of death match of clay bodies, in which earthenware is mixed into a much higher-fire white porcelain body. When this composite is fired, the darker clay loses its integrity, causing the whole form to collapse into a suggestively marbled specimen. As she notes, this is a materialized metaphor for survival and demise, ‘a process which is about perishability.’ Mariko Wada is fascinated by the Garden of Eden, the site where mankind first engaged in sin and was cursed with mortality. Her ceramic forms lie half-collapsed on the floor like discarded apples, victims of their own fall from grace. And Wathne’s miniature vignettes cut ceramics literally down to size. In the past, she has made cute clay bears with their heads bashed in – a violence that is still present in her new work, though sublimated into the more frightening qualities of a fairy tale.

Perhaps it’s just coincidence that the title chosen for the project, Nature Morte, translates into English literally as ‘dead nature’ but idiomatically as ‘still life’. Vanitas paintings have always been poised between gloom and optimism, guilt and desire. The young artists of Versus have taken up the genre with huge energy, transplanting it from the 2D world of painting into the 3D world of clay. In the process, they demonstrate how still life’s exquisite contradictions can be read as a map, a way forward into the unknown. You can be sure of one thing: these artists are going to drag ceramics into the future, dead or alive.



© Mariko Wada 2019