Notes about Singing Clay

The exhibition is now in full swing and I am reasonably happy with the way things are going. We had 87 people to the Private View and many people commented both on the loveliness of the gallery setting and the sympathetic choice of rough hewn blocks of wood on which I had displayed the work. We are also making sales!

Recently, I popped into the Fitzwilliam Museum to view the China’s White Gold exhibition and compare my approach with theirs. The first thing I noticed was the amount of wall text, explaining various techniques and processes as well as giving a lot of background on Jingdezhen. I chose deliberately not to go down this route with Singing Clay because I didn’t want there to be any distractions from the work itself. Although there is wall text in my exhibition, it intentionally does not directly relate to the work. The text was culled from the artist statements I got from each maker and has been placed at intervals around the space. I have not credited any of the artists. However, their statements, along with an image of their work, are available in full in the form of a digital online booklet and in printed form in the gallery. I have also added some curator’s notes, which are displayed discreetly on one wall. This, for me, illustrates one of the clearest differences between contemporary curation and museum curation. I suppose I am making my audience work harder in that I have not given them many signposts into understanding the intent of the exhibition. Rather, I am offering them an opportunity to immerse themselves in the sensuous and tactile qualities of the material and to get inside the potters’ heads, without being distracted  by a vast amount of information about process.

White Gold is a curate’s egg of a show – some of the work is breathtaking while some slides into hideous cliche. For me, the pieces which worked best were the ones where the artist had clearly absorbed and acknowledged the cultural and vernacular traditions of the past but had used their modern sensibility as a contemporary artist to create work that is of the ‘now’ but with a traceable lineage. The pieces that didn’t work were either the slavish copies of ancient traditions (which only served to highlight how much more talented and skilled the ancient potters were!), or the works where the artist had applied a ‘Year Zero’ mentality to their practice, refusing to acknowledge the past and trying rather too hard to be innovative and contemporary for the sake of it. However, it is not just Chinese potters who fall into this trap. I agree with Walter Keeler’s criticism of some Western ceramic practice:
I get very frustrated by people making Art with a capital A rather than something that is inherently good. … I find a lot of ceramic installations pretentious“.

Singing Clay at the Babylon Gallery is a relatively small experiment. But the idea could definitely be expanded and adapted to any collection of ceramics anywhere in the world. It would be equally appropriate as a temporary installation for the Stoke on Trent Biennial or a long term project at the Sainsbury Centre . It could become a touring exhibition which might travel to several different countries, illustrating the myriad approaches to working with clay. It could equally focus on the historical collections of various museums, inviting contemporary ceramicists to respond to the ceramics by devising fresh approaches to their arrangement and display. (Something of this approach has been tried successfully by Edmund de Vaal at the Museum of Wales).

Each exhibition would have a completely different look and feel but the unifying theme would be the ceramic artist’s visceral response to his material.

Winding Down 25/04/13
As Singing Clay nears its end it’s time to debrief:

Within the parameters set partly by myself for this show and partly by the requirements set by ADeC for showing visual art in the Babylon Gallery, it has been very successful.
Visitor numbers; 2,038 (as of Wednesday 24/04) including a party of school children and a visit by students from Greenwich College
Comments/feedback; Lots of positive comments about using the wooden blocks to display some of the work. People like the variety of work on display. Nice comments about the gallery itself as a welcoming venue. Only one negative that I am aware of – a gentleman was disappointed that there wasn’t more work for him to choose from and buy.
Family activity; By far one of our most popular – we ran out of clay twice! I noted how long people stayed to make a pot and it was at least 20 minutes, which is about twice as long as for most of our activities.
Sales; I don’t have the final figures yet but sales have been steady and I don’t think there is a single potter who hasn’t sold anything. I think we will cover our costs for this show.

What would I do differently next time?
With access to a bigger venue and some funding I would put on a very different exhibition. If sales were not an issue I would select fewer pieces from fewer, very high profile makers such as Edmund de Waal and Walter Keeler. I would certainly mix those who consider themselves potters with those who consider themselves artists – it would make for a very interesting (to ceramicists, at least!) show. I would like the freedom to curate a show which would appeal first and foremost to ceramicists, and take a more academic approach to the selection of work. I would like to curate a show which would generate furious letters in Ceramic Review!
A lot of it comes down to money – an adequate budget frees you from the constraint of having to appeal to the widest possible audience in order to make a show profitable. I would never want to curate a show which only appealed to a tiny minority, but I would like to test my own skills at selecting cutting edge work from both established and emerging makers and creating a show which blends traditional ‘potter-ly’ practice with fine art practice, making a seamless whole that neither elevates one at the expense of the other or strains to make a point that is laboured and hard to defend.





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