Clay is having a moment now. After ping-ponging between functional and art for much of its 27,000-year history — India has some of the oldest examples, from Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa, dating back to the third millennium BC — it is enjoying a global revival. There have been significant shows, like the British Ceramics Biennial and the ongoing Earth Memory at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace; and ceramics are fetching high prices (a Hans Coper vase fetched £381,000 at a UK auction this March).
While some ascribe this to a larger cross-section of talents engaging with the material — from interior decorators and furniture designers (the Haas Brothers’ whimsical Accretion line comes to mind) to artists and a younger crowd of ceramists — others feel it is a response to how technology is taking over our lives. “As more and more things become digital and virtual, human craving is to re-engage with materials,” says Peter Nagy, director of New Delhi’s Nature Morte gallery. “The art world has been so dominated by photography, video and other such forms that there was a natural inclination to look at more handmade objects. And it’s not only with ceramics, but with textiles, fibre art — forms that were seen as craft and not fine art.”
So it is no wonder that India is joining the movement. The first edition of the Indian Ceramics Triennale, with the theme Breaking Ground, will open on August 31 in Jaipur. The artist-led initiative is a joint effort by the Jawahar Kala Kendra and the Contemporary Clay Foundation — under the guidance of Nagy, Ray Meeker (co-founder, Golden Bridge Pottery, Pondicherry) and Pooja Sood (director general, JKK). With over 35 Indian and 12 international artist projects, and 10 collaborations, it hopes to “increase visibility and allow ceramics to be appreciated as an art form” in its own right. Much like the Kochi Biennale, which has given both Indian art and local commerce a boost.
One of the big names participating is Jacques Kaufmann. The Frenchman is flying down from his Geneva studio to start work on a large firehouse installation at the venue this Tuesday. A group of Indian and Chinese ceramic students will synergise their creativity to build the clay structure with a glazed inside. “Some years ago, I’d read a book by an Iranian writer that spoke of firehouses. Then I met Ray Meeker, with whom I’ve much in common, and found that we’d read the same book. Ray had, in fact, created a firehouse in Auroville (which he later stopped after running into technical problems). I’ve been studying the technical aspects, and hope we can solve any problems and create the art project,” says the residing president of the International Academy of Ceramics in France, which has over 80 countries represented. Five Indians, including Meeker, Adil Writer and Ruchira Ghose, were recently added to the society.
Kaufmann and the other artists represent a revered group of ceramists who have seen the medium grow beyond the bounds of studio pottery and functional wear. Internationally, the resurgence has seen it being embraced by contemporary artists to express radical ideas. Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, an installation that pays tribute to women in arts, literature and science, is considered an epic feminist artwork.
Keith Brymer Jones creates the stimulating Word Range — with hand embossed words that celebrate language and his Welsh heritage. “The boundaries and hierarchies are breaking down, and with it the blanket distinction of how we define art,” says ceramist Madhavi Subramanian, citing the works of Chinese and American artists Ai Weiwei and Jeff Koons, where the emphasis is not as much on the material as on the concept.
The Indian voice
Why has India not made a mark internationally, though ceramic has always been considered an artisanal craft here? Kaufmann ascribes some of the blame to the caste system. “Those who work with clay are considered lowly and hence society often doesn’t value their work,” he shares. “I met this amazing craftsperson in Tamil Nadu, who is creating these stunning Ayyanar Horses, but neither he nor his work is valued the way it should be.” After he met ‘lowly’ brickmakers in Maihar, Madhya Pradesh, he says he was inspired to build a testament. “Together we built a brick temple (in Maihar) with Buddha faces on the outer half of the wall, and with an amazing sound chamber inside where one can sing, chant or meditate,” he says.
Another reason potters are having it tough is because, as Nagy puts it, Indian artists themselves do not have a voice abroad right now. “There was a big boom from around 2004 to 2012, but that has stopped. Now, especially in Europe, it is all about Africa.” However, instead of looking without, he feels we should look within. “Ceramic artists in India feel frustrated that it doesn’t break into a wider art context. That is one of the main reasons for putting the Triennale together; to let the definition of ceramic art be extremely open.”
Aarti Veer, Ingrid Murphy and others who will be showing their work at the Triennale, agree. Ceramic, to them, is an extremely versatile material, with the ability to encompass the whole gamut — from functional to sculpture, monumental to minuscule, indoor to outdoor, performance to installation, and architectural to industrial. “In this post-art/craft era, ceramics all over the world are beginning to get its due. Some art theorists argue that we might be in the post-contemporary era, with a greater need to focus on materiality and process,” reasons Subramanian.
Building on the concept
The debate on the art-craft binary is an ongoing one. Meeker, known for his large installations, is tongue-in-cheek when he says “ceramic is not art; it is a medium. Is paint art? Or painting for that matter?” Interestingly, in 13th and 14th century Europe, painting was considered a craft, while music, poetry and architecture were given the status of high art. But he exemplifies, quoting art critic Herbert Read, “Pottery is pure art; it is art freed from any imitative intention.” Meeker points out that it is a struggle to make a living as a ceramic artist. “Where does ceramic as a medium rank in the hierarchy of media? Pretty low I’m afraid, though a handful of ceramists have managed to earn respect at the highest level.”
Pottery is also a challenging medium. While galleries like Nature Morte and Threshold Art Gallery have shown artists like Vipul Kumar, Jyotsna Bhatt and Vinod Daroz, it is often hard for ceramists to break through typecasts. “With ceramic art, many of the issues are infrastructural; where do the potters practise? They need a big studio and a kiln to fire their work,” says Pooja Sood, of JKK. “Then there is the problem of audience perception, of what belongs to the art world and what doesn’t. I hope an event like the Triennale will put out such a variety of work that the art-craft debate is resolved and these boundaries will melt.”
According to architect-turned ceramist Adil Writer, the challenge is to cross over from a world of simplistic function into a world of concepts and metaphors. “The more the highbrow talk, the more you inch into an art market setting!” he jokes. After all, if Subodh Gupta’s shiny stainless steel vessels can become high art, there is no reason why an installation of ceramic platters cannot be, too. The Triennale is definitely the start to something new and exciting.
Indian Ceramics Triennale is from August 31 to November 18, at Jawahar Kala Kendra. It will also include a symposium, film screenings and workshops. Details: indianceramicstriennale.com
Artists weigh in
Having been taught as a studio potter at the Delhi Blue Pottery Studio, he discovered the expressive nature of the medium in the US. “The belief that ceramic artists have not got their due is misinformed. I think artists who work with clay often choose not to move out of their realm of being studio potters. We need to take that leap of faith,” says Kumar, who showed his massive installation of ceramic platters at the India Art Fair in 2015, which was then acquired by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. “We need to see more cross-pollination where ceramic artists mingle at every painting and sculpture exhibition, not just turn up for the potters’ festival or ceramic bazaar.”
A student of painting before she discovered clay, Vir agrees with Kumar but has her own take. “Often, I think, ceramic artists make it difficult for themselves, by focussing on technique more than the concept. While technique is a large part of ceramic art, when it becomes the only point of engagement, it gets problematic.” She also states that a vessel form in clay will almost certainly get categorised as ‘craft’. “The context somehow is ignored, simply because of the material.”
“In my eyes there is sculptural in all ‘vessels’. All my work has a functional implication. As I make works from purely sculptural decorative arts to egg cups, swimming pools and seven-story building façades, my personal line is blurred,” says the Britisher.
The Japanese artist believes skill is of utmost importance, whether creating a work of art or a functional pot. “My work reflects Japanese language, history and culture. With education, the cultural economy of ceramics will change. We as ceramists just need to stay true to what we believe in and continue our work,” says Hoshino, who began working on his art at the age of 25.
Vipul Kumar: He would rather focus on spreading awareness about the environment through his work. “I create really rough, unconventional forms because I am looking at contemporary reality,” says Kumar, who combines his knowledge as a stone carver (he worked with black marble) with his recent encounter with ceramics. Next month, he has a solo at Threshold Art Gallery, titled Earth Diaries.
Madhavi Subramanian: She is known for her large ceramic works that are mostly pinched and hardly ever wheel thrown. “Through my current body of work, I am interested in exploring the relationship of nature with urban culture,” says the artist who splits her time between Singapore and Mumbai.