Why so many shows with ceramics? ‘Rough Music’ is one of the many current exhibitions in London and beyond showcasing ceramics. The recent popularity of ceramics has been attributed to a resurgence of interest in the craft movement and folk culture. From thread to clay, many authors argue that our increasingly digitised age has created a nostalgia for the handmade. ‘Rough music’ blends together current interests in folk culture and craft, creating a double dose of romanticism for eras past. ‘Rough Music’, however, is not merely a homage to the handmade but draws out undertones of feminism and the subversion of domestic objects. In other words, it is an intervention into how we use objects and what to expect from them.
‘Rough Music’ is the product of an invitation to artists Alex Hoda and Robert Rush to guest curate an exhibition of contemporary artists working in ceramics. The theme and title of the exhibition is inspired by the English folk tradition of the same name. Rough music, common in the 18th century and 19th century, was a form of public reprimand for individuals who committed ‘misdemeanors’ such as domestic abuse. In order to shame perpetrators, the community would surround their home with rudimentary instruments, domestic objects and effigies to create a cacophony of noise. Rather than focus on the harsh realities of what ‘rough music’ would look or sound like today, the exhibition plays upon a whimsical idea of use-value. The ceramics on display follow the themes of domesticity and absurdity, challenging and often dismantling the typical use of everyday objects. Most pieces reference food and drink, specifically their consumption and storage.
An interesting tension between play, the body and violence complicates and questions the premise of the exhibition. Beginning with play, curators and artists Hoda and Rush’s contribution to the show is a puzzle jug, popularly used in the 18th and 19th century for drinking games. Containing holes on the sides and any number of spouts and hidden plumbing, they are designed to trick drinkers, resulting in alcohol spilling down the drinker’s shirts. The puzzle jugs, a playful take on drinking debauchery, question the use-value of the object. The object is a drinking vessel but an absurd one.
Crossing the gallery the exhibition shifts into more serious territory, beginning with Laure Provoust’s table top. The table is made up of ceramic tiles that reference different parts of the female anatomy. The breasts, lips and other nondescript bodily forms project from the surface and sometimes sink in, creating bowl-like shapes. The format of the table, the medium and the segmentation of the tiles remind the viewer of the legendary]place settings of ‘The Dinner Party’ (1974-9) by Judy Chicago, or Mona Hatoum’s spiked kitchenware. However, in Provoust’s case it is not a table set for the legends of feminist history. It is instead an intimate set up for a husband and wife. What distinguishes Provoust’s work from others is her fictional wife’s conversion of the sexualized tiles. Through their re-fabrication, she re-invests them with use-value allowing the male gaze to fall through the cracks.
Adjacent to Provoust’s table of dismembered parts is artist Paulina Michnowska’s ‘Self Portrait’. ‘Self Portrait’ is the artist’s decapitated head in clay - blood spilled on to the white table. The headless portrait was inspired by Michnowska’s trip to the Cathedral de Seville, Spain where she viewed a sculpture of the decapitated head of Saint John the Baptist. Michnowska’s decapitated head and Provoust’s dismembered female anatomy complete the transition from the playful and humorous to the violent and troublesome underbelly of the exhibition.
The tradition and terminology of rough music suggests something more sinister then the exhibition press release describes. The works mirror more accurately the complexity of the tradition, shifting from the playful drinking game to the dismembered body. It is of particular interest that the shift towards the body and violence is presented by the female artists of the exhibition. Perhaps, then, it is not the longing for intimacy and individualism in a digital age that is motivating the current trend in ceramics but the malleability of the medium - an intervention into definitions of practical use.