The V&A is one of the most awe-inspiring museums in the country. Full to the brim with exquisite and curious objects, all of the galleries captivate the imagination and demonstrate the extent to which humankind can push boundaries and fashion objects of beauty and desire. Of particular importance to me and my research interests, the ceramics galleries showcase some of the finest specimens of contemporary clay art.
Studying contemporary ceramic craft in my opinion offers us a ‘way in.’ Once we begin to understand the role of ceramic craft and its infinite potential within our own society, we can start to think of how this might have been for past people and social groups.
Two ceramics installations in particular had profound effects on me for very different reasons. The first of these was the Signs and Wonders collection by the renowned Edmund de Waal. Placed in a red circular girder in the V&A’s uppermost cupola are 425 white glazed ceramic pieces which range from tall vases to small plates. The focus here is on the collection as a whole rather than an individual piece and to this effect the installation works well. However, I couldn’t help wondering if placing it as far away from the public as possible was sending out a strong message; that the artisan wants to create physical and metaphorical distance between his creations and the public. Yet this also, perhaps inadvertently, served to create emotional distance. The fact that I could get nowhere near the objects let alone touch them invoked feelings of disengagement. I am left wondering if the artist has something to hide. The pots are neither extraordinary nor accessible. The question that bugs me is: do some contemporary artists hide behind gimmicks as a means to distract the viewer from the materials at hand; the vessels? Is skill no longer the requirement for great art? Does a pot need to demonstrate skill and perfection to be seen as beautiful?
The second exhibition which invoked a strong emotional response was that by Ai WeiWei: Dropping the Urn (Ceramic Works, 5000 BC – AD 2010). In this work, the artist transforms (real) Neolithic and Han dynasty ceramic vessels through a variety of different methods including paint, grinding and smashing. A short film installed in the gallery documents the moment at which WeiWei stares nonchalantly at the camera before dropping and smashing a 2000 year old ceramic vessel. The first emotion I registered was pure horror. As an archaeologist, the defacing and intentional destruction of such artefacts is inconceivable and blasphemous. Yet there is no denying that this collection it is a powerful and clever statement about the loss of material history to globalization and modernization (see picture above). Additionally these objects demonstrate how materials can change through space and time depending on their social and cultural context. When thinking in these terms, WeiWei’s exhibition embodies many of the themes that archaeologists are working on today. It seems therefore that contemporary craft may offer us a chance to bridge the conceptual gap between archaeologist and artisans of the past.