published Mon 15 October 2012
Can clay really be considered to be subversive? There was a time (which I remember) when subversion in clay simply meant using any commercial clay body, colourant or additive, let alone making any changes to an object post-firing. Any part of the process, which was deemed ‘un-claylike’, was seen as subversion. Subversion in current practice must be, well, subversive; that is almost hidden.
In this case ‘subversive’ refers to those works, artists or activities that challenge current assumptions about ceramics (clay) practice. The closest clay related subversive activity I can think of in current practice is that of wood firers. The very act of digging, making with and firing (in wood ash at frightening temperatures) a clay body that hasn’t gone through the filtering and adjusting of commercial bodies is tantamount to subversion in challenging the prevailing commodified approach to much studio ceramic production.
Ceramics has always had its share of subversive characters; think of Bernard Palissy throwing all of the kitchen furniture into the firebox to try and reach temperature or Josiah Wedgwood funding Darwin’s outlandish theories on evolution. Numerous practitioners from Lucio Fontana to Peter Voulkous to Hella Jongerius have brought a subversive approach to making and understanding of ceramics.
‘Adelaide is an ideal setting for a Stephen King novel, or horror film. You know why all those films and books are always set in sleepy conservative towns? Because sleepy, conservative towns are where things happen.’
– Salman Rushdie
Maybe Rushdie’s observation posits Adelaide as the perfect host for a ceramics conference titled Subversive Clay. For a relatively small town Adelaide has ben the site of much progressive if not exactly subversive social change. In the 1970’s our State Premier Don Dunstan cut a subversive figure strolling into Parliament in pink flannel shorts. In 1968 he made an election promise to set up craft workshops in Adelaide. Although he lost that election he made good of the promise when returned to government in 1970. In 1979 Dunstan on his retirement became the subject of a figurine/sculpture entitled Ma Don Na by ceramic enfant terrible Mark Thompson who maintained a stuio at JamFactory. Thompson was one of a number of subversives working with clay in Adelaide whose work eschewed the Leach-influenced aesthetics dominating ceramics at that time in Australia.
Adelaide is an ideal ceramics conference town, small and easy to navigate. Most of the conference activities and exhibitions are within a stroll or free tram ride from the conference site. The main partners in organising and presenting the conference, Craftsouth, Uni SA, AC Arts and JamFactory Contemporary Craft and Design, are all nestled in the arts precinct in the west of the city.
Subversive Clay brings together a group of international ceramicists whose work serves to challenge preconceptions about the ceramic object and its position in the domestic and public sphere. Their collective works traverse the gamut of current ceramic craft practice, from table to museum, from concept to cabinet. The keynote presenters, Akio Takamori, Anton Reijnders, Clare Twomey and Penny Byrne each bring divergent approaches to clay as a medium, each challenging our attitude to it (the medium and the making) in some way. It is an exciting (and mildly subversive) program which is guaranteed to challenge and inspire anyone with any interest in ceramics.
First published in Subversive Clay 2012 Australian Ceramics Triennale program.