Monday, March 20, 2017

Ceramics and Metaphor - Thoughts on a Recent Exhibition of Ceramic Works by Lin Jin-Zhong

When it comes to beauty, we all have our own personal tastes. Our predilection for certain configurations may be based on anything from experience and serious reflection to raw feeling and instinct. Some people are stringent and analytical, while others are more emotional. Those who favour the analytical approach will, when they look at ceramic artifacts, assess the design and function of each vessel. They tend to evaluate the beauty of the objects based on form and function and whether a balance has been struck between the two. Others of the same analytical bent, but who prefer to see these same objects as pure forms or abstract shapes devoid of meaning, judge their beauty according to criteria such as material, composition, rhythm, chromatics, and skill. Sometimes, however, the whole analytical apparatus can be disrupted in the most delightful manner. This happened to me at Lin Jin-Zhong’s recent exhibition in Taichung Cultural Centre.

Analytical disruptions usually happen when I am faced with powerful images, objects, or sounds too strange or complex to comprehend or categorize in typical fashion. Strong emotions are suddenly stirred that sidestep normal analysis, and metaphors burst forth. When method and preconceptions go out the window, metaphors seem to help me capture the confusing flux of disconnected ideas and free association, and they do so in meaningful words and narrative. This way the initial aesthetic shock is rendered in meaningful and somewhat poetic form until my analysis catches up with the sensory overload. Eventually even the most disruptive experience will become part of my analytical apparatus, but the integration of new or unusual concepts and configurations can take a long time.

At first glance, the exhibition space at Taichung Cultural Centre looked more or less like any other: Decent display cases with vessels presented in flattering light. However, after just a few minutes of sober examination, I felt Jin-Zhong’s works were resisting my gaze. I was mystified, as I am not usually at loss for words when it comes to aesthetic judgement. Indeed, I consider art to be my vocation, and although I often find the act of artistic creation difficult, I feel I am fluent in the language of art itself. Yet, there I was, trying, without much luck, to decipher the mysterious serenity of the Aurora vases.

Each vessel appeared to be shrouded in a glaze of subtle pastel nuances, shifting and moving across the surface, sometimes shiny, like mother-of-pearl, sometimes with an unfamiliar metallic, opaque sheen. Indeed, again and again the glaze seemed to defy the material itself. The noble simplicity of the shapes, combined with the enigmatic shifting surface, evoked in me the image of the mysterious Sphinx, the mythological creature with a human head and a lion’s body. To gain access to the Sphinx’s secret knowledge, the hero had to answer a riddle. A wrong answer meant certain death. Like the Sphinx, each of Jin-Zhong’s vessels was in possession of a secret. Like the cryptic smile and inscrutable, beautiful eyes of the Sphinx, the vessels would spellbind the viewer. With each attempt to read or make sense of the glaze, the vessel, together with its secret, seemed to move just beyond my grasp. Frustrating and exhilarating at the same time. There is a beauty there. That much is apparent. However, there is a secret embedded in this beauty, in this elusive truth of the shape of each of Jin-Zhong’s works. That is a rare and fascinating phenomenon.   

The next room was dominated by a series of impressive, large vessels, fired over and over, until they collapsed in various states of devastation. I have seen several ceramicists explore the aesthetic potential of failure, but they usually do so to make some banal or obscure postmodern, political point. The American, Steven Young Lee, springs to mind. However, it seems certain that Jin-Zhong has little patience for postmodern strategies. His glorious clay catastrophes work as powerful counterpoints to the serene perfection of the other vessels in the rest of the exhibition. One catastrophe appears to have burst open, as if the secret, of its own volition, had burst through the chest of the Sphinx. The others looked like they had been ripped open, and the secrets ripped out by greedy hands. Like crumbling ruins of past civilizations, they evoked in me, notions of nameless reverence, an almost sentimental longing. The effect was profoundly dramatic, almost theatrical.

Close to the exit, I noticed a group of smaller, elegant vessels where the impenetrable, fluctuating nuances of breathing glaze were opened up by touches of contrasting colour. At first, I thought the colourful glaze had been applied to each vessel with a single, decisive brushstroke. However, after closer inspection, what I first believed to be direct intervention by the artist’s hand turned out to be fortunate results of dripping ash and intricate chemical processes during firing. No matter their origin or purpose, these touches of colourful glaze somehow broke the persistent silence and finally seemed to allow for some intimation of the nature of the secret still guarded within each vessel. It was a very fitting end to a strong and inspiring exhibition. The secrets no longer felt beyond reach. It was as if I had scratched the surface of beauty and found signs of truth underneath. Truly uplifting. This is art. Indeed, this is how you make people come back for more.

I decided to retrace my steps and leave through the exhibition entrance, and as I walked past the display cases for a second time, the vessels seemed to assume a new character, namely that of a family, or rather a clan. An old, proud clan, exiled and no longer with the right to a coat of arms. Jin-Zhong is also a kind of exile, a proud artist and a craftsman, lost in his work and creation. Artist and creations, united in exile and adversity. Now, each vessel, or rather, each clan member, stood there, stoic, silent, and subdued, yet they all retained definite, individual characteristics and history as personal as a fingerprint. I thought it will not be easy to coax them into sharing their life stories, dreams, and secrets, but it will certainly be to be worth a try. Jin-Zhong placed before us a series of secrets in clay, glaze, and fire of, an impressive collection of profound creations of exquisite quality. I for one intend to wrangle with these secrets while I wait for his next project to be unveiled.

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