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Beautiful Chaos: Strange Clay at Hayward Gallery

We are far from the ordinary here. Upon entering Strange Clay we are confronted by Jonathan Baldock’s Facecrime (2019): towering, multicoloured columns of distorted face and body parts; lips, hands and ears uncomfortably poking out like some nightmare scenario. Sagging orange balloons and pink rope protrude from these totems imprinted with emojis. Some column pieces have fallen and are stuffed with fluff, surrounded by more spilled emoticons, ranging from smiling to poop. This bizarre representation of modern communication prepares us for the ‘strange’ powers of ceramics on display at this Hayward Gallery exhibition, comprising 23 artists from around the world.

This playfulness can also be seen in Emma Hart’s windscreens that are ‘scattered across the gallery space like vehicles stuck in a traffic jam’. Each windscreen is double-sided, vibrant, and cartoonish, adorned with humorous details like drivers’ gripped fingers in Green Light (2018) or the little blue broken heart tucked into a crack of the shattered ‘glass’ in X (2018). Using clay as car windscreens aims to exemplify ‘chaos’ and the ‘awkwardness of everyday urban experience’.

Image Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

Regular/Fragile (2002-03) by Liu Jianhua presents the emotional power of ceramics, too. Almost a thousand objects are tenuously fixed to three walls, many of them seemingly falling to the floor like raindrops, threatening to join the large piles of objects below them. Teddy bears, apples, hand soaps, hammers, shoes of all sizes, guns, and mini guitars are just a few of the items we see. Jianhua created this in response to a series of plane crashes in China in 2001 in which a boy’s toys were left floating in the ocean. At the same time, the artist’s son was receiving treatment in hospital. Thus, the childish objects take on a new weight, and the skull suspended in the middle becomes haunting. With porcelain, Jianhua underlines the fragility of life, as opposed to the ‘distracting impact of consumerism’.

One of my favourite installations was Till Death Do Us Part (2022) by Lindsey Mendick: an entire house overtaken by ceramic creatures. In the kitchen, soldier slugs tackle scattered Heinz Beanz cans whilst a mouse admires his portrait on a plate. The staircase features huge moths attacking the curtains and wasps writing on the Yellow Pages, encircled by post-it notes that read comments such as, ‘I just feel so ducking alone’. In the living room, the back of the sofa has been ripped out to create a mice theatre, upon which they’re performing a Greek play, complete with a wooden cat Trojan horse. The attention to detail is mind-boggling. Named after the Madonna song (which plays from a ceramic speaker), Mendick uses this humorous mayhem to highlight the ‘complexity of domestic relations’. At least in my flat I hope there are no spiders in the drain pipes, sitting on toadstools and typing away at mini laptops.

Image Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

Another artist that challenges ceramic traditions is Grayson Perry, whose vases are highly eccentric. Women of Ideas (1990) collages 18th-century portraits of upper-class women onto drawings of violin-playing skeletons or strap-wearing burlesque bodies, surrounded by illustrations of miscellaneous modern objects: sex toys, shoes and hats, phones, a French press. His work explodes convention and challenges gender roles and sexuality in such a striking way.

Meanwhile, Leilah Babirye confronts the harmful gender traditions of Uganda, the country she fled in 2015. Since Uganda views queer and trans people as ‘abasiyazi, an inedible part of sugar cane which is scrapped as rubbish’, Babirye uses ‘scrap’ materials such as bike tyres and chains to create her art. In the three-metre tall Namasole Wannyana (2021), they act as dreadlocks atop a large ceramic face glazed cerulean and seemingly happy — a powerful act of reclamation and resilience.

Upstairs, a giant dead squid overflowing with ink takes up the entire floor in David Zink Yi’s Untitled (Architeuthis) (2010). To use the humble material of clay — burned and glazed to depict the resplendent, iridescent squid and its ink — heightens Zink Yi’s environmental message. Using these materials to prove how connected we are to nature creates an impressive but devastating experience looking upon the Architeuthis. Nature also plays a starring role in Far from here (2022), Klara Kristalova’s installation of 18 stoneware figures placed amongst mountains of shrubbery. Along with the earthy scents of the room, we are reminded of ‘woodland settings of fairy tales and myths’: we see a girl in a red hooded coat, men with horse and boar heads, a woman’s face emerging from a withered tree. It’s like a magical forest you can get lost in.

Director of Hayward Gallery Ralph Rugoff described this exhibition as ‘thrillingly tactile’, like the Brutalist gallery itself. Viewing these clay and ceramic pieces invites us to imagine how they feel, and this connection between our senses that the works inspire is, in Rugoff’s view, invaluable in our digital age. Not only might touching these works feel ‘strange’ but they also destabilise our notions of ceramics altogether by making the familiar, unfamiliar. As curator Dr Cliff Lauson said, instead of stacking plates and mugs on shelves, by giving ceramics space, they can push the boundaries of the natural form that clay begins with and turn it into something surreal, something that allows us to look at the world differently. Because like these artists that have embraced ‘the unpredictable nature of [clay’s] firing process’, we have to accept the ‘strangeness’ in our lives that may disrupt our paths and our plans, allowing us to find new routes, see new perspectives.

Image Courtesy of the Hayward Gallery

Strange Clay: Ceramics in Contemporary Art is on at Hayward Gallery until the 8th January 2023 and tickets are available here.


Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor


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