Through the first half of 2018, the Gardiner Museum in Toronto – an eminent institution devoted to ceramics – mounted The Riverbed, a gallery installation by New York City-based artist Yoko Ono.
The primary component of the exhibition was the titular work, an installation of stones from a riverbed that Ono had installed to form a winding, sinuous curve of rock. They were large stones, generally bigger than the hand, that visitors were free to pick up, handle, and spend some time contemplating. Some had text written across their surfaces by Ono herself (one of which became newsworthy when it was apparently pilfered by a gallery visitor).
That installation comprised half of the exhibition. The other half was made up of two components, basically divided between lines of twine gallery-goers were encouraged to use to link up different areas of the gallery (Line Piece) and an area of shelves, and tables and chairs where we were encouraged to fix (intentionally) broken pottery.
Mend Piece, it is called. Set in the middle of the tables were piles of broken crockery – cups, plates, saucers – along with spools of twine, thread, and string, and rolls of different tapes. Ono’s recommendations were simple: “Mend with wisdom mend (sic) with love. It will mend the earth at the same time.”
So a friend and I spent close to two hours participating, “mending” broken crockery, taping and twining shards of once-usable ceramics into somethings that were most certainly aesthetically “other,” and then placing our creations on the shelves along with the contributions of previous visitors. Thusly it shall go until June, when the exhibition closes.
I’ve spent all this time talking about Yoko Ono’s participatory exhibition because there are artists who have engaged with and explored this aesthetic region – that of “mending,” of aesthetically repairing and thus recreating anew – in a deeply meaningful way. One of them would be Canadian artist Anne Ramsden (www.anneramsden.com).. Her background includes a BFA from the venerable Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax, and an MFA from Concordia University in Montréal. She’s now a professor at the Université du Quebec in the same city. (She also has a Wikipedia entry.)
Ramsden has exhibited work widely, and not just sculpture but photography and video as well, and her work is represented in major museum collections. But it’s a sculptural/installational piece of hers I want to focus on, one of Ramsden’s best-known works: Anastylosis: Inventory, a work that directly addresses the issue of entropy – the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, actually, often blithely summarized with the phrase “things fall apart” – in an aesthetically sharp way. It’s all about the mending.
The premise is relatively simple: Ramsden acquired nondescript, utile ceramics as might be commonly found in households of different economic levels, and then proceeded to break them, either smashing each artifact with a hammer, or dropping it. At this level of creative process, there is an echo of a work by Chinese artist Ai WeiWei, a photographic triptych entitled Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn documenting him, well, dropping a Han Dynasty urn, destroying an apparently valuable 2,000 year-old piece of ceramics. That’s the point where Ai’s work formally ends, but it’s where Ramsden’s is just getting started, for after destruction comes (re)construction: she embarks on a process of “negentropy,” effecting repairs to the destroyed ceramics, gluing them back together as wholes and setting the resultant re-creations upon shelving, there to be seen and considered anew.
There’s an extant tradition of significance that feeds into this: Japanese Kintsugi, the repair of broken pottery using lacquers mixed with powdered gold so that the breakage and consequent joinery is made aesthetically evident, and the reconstructed vessel often more beautiful than its previous unbroken iteration.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out that this aesthetic procedure is based on the fact that ceramics is pretty much a one-way street: fired clay cannot be brought back to its primary mud, and then refashioned and refired. The proverbial slate cannot be wiped clean. All that can be accomplished is the rejoining of fired shards into some semblance of the whole, and the fractures will typically be evident. Kintsugi honors that, and an artist like Ramsden embraces that in moving creatively forward.
The “unrupturing” of an artifact like a clay vessel is also an archaeological technique; it’s a part of museology, and that background too is fundamental to Ramsden work. The reglued shards of plates and bowls are, in Anastylosis: Inventory, artifacts exhibited on commercial metal shelves, and not plinths, as might be used for storage and not for display. The message is straightforwardly museological and curatorial; it openly points towards conservatorship, towards a dominant context of preservation, maintenance. This is the negative of entropy, of things falling apart. Ramsden’s, then, is sculpture of a kind of self-preservation, of the shattered past being brought forward into the present and future as something akin to a whole.
But past the references to archaeological preservation, past the museology, past, even, the allusions to a kind of connoisseurship, and we come to the much more contemporary aesthetic of the multiple. In Ramsden, it’s a multiplicity comprised of singularites. Anastylosis: Inventory comprises not shelves of ranked sameness, but shelves of dissimilarities, of vessels and containers that are not multiples of oneness, of the same thing. British ceramist Edmund De Waal has given us sculptural gallery installations comprising multiples of fired white porcelain vessels (the ceramic equivalent, in some ways, of the grid), a veritable sea of remarkable sameness foregrounding repetition. Ramsden, instead, gives us a multiplicity comprised of ones, of singularities and uniqueness. To be sure, this is commercial pottery with which she works (readymades, in a sense), but a product has become transformed through and by entropy. Things have (intentionally) fallen apart, and the consequences re-shaped into something new, something other. Anne Ramsden’s Anastylosi: Inventory is the sculpture of the shard, the broken, the fractured, the re-formed – of that which endures when the inevitable rupture of time and entropy is itself ruptured.
If only temporarily.
By Gil McElroy