Mobile Structures: Dialogues Between Ceramics and Architecture in Canadian Art

By Robin Laurence
November 14th, 2007

At the Surrey Art Gallery until December 16

It’s not quite what you expect to hear when you enter an exhibition of ceramic sculpture. But walk into Linda Sormin’s mixed-media installation, part of Mobile Structures at the Surrey Art Gallery, and there it is, the distinct sound of clay pots being smashed. And smashed. And smashed.

Sormin’s work, titled Roaming Tales, is a room-sized thicket of ceramic forms and structures. Interspersed throughout the installation are kitsch items such as souvenir plates, figurines, and teapots. Also incorporated are ceramic tubes, metal canisters, and ornamental plastic fencing, with the entire assemblage mounted on rough wooden scaffolding.

The smashing sounds emanate from video monitors integrated into the work, which play tapes of the collaborative construction of an earlier version of Roaming Tales in Regina. Among the actions the videos record is that of an alienated Grade 7 student venting aggression by destroying ceramic objects. The cameras also document other students picking up the pieces and integrating them into the assemblage.

Wherever this work is installed, Sormin supplements and adjusts it to make it site-specific. The word Roaming in the title signifies movement from place to place, while Tales suggests human experience.

Mobile Structures, an exhibition of contemporary ceramic sculpture by nine Canadian artists, was organized by Regina’s MacKenzie Art Gallery. Subtitled Dialogues Between Ceramics and Architecture in Canadian Art, it weaves together the threads of more than a few ideas, some obvious, others obscure.

In the exhibition catalogue, curator Timothy Long writes that “architectural ideas travel via ceramics and”¦ceramic work provides architecture with mobile sets of references.” He cites the famed Blue Willow china pattern, adapted from an older Chinese design, with its stylized trees, birds, fisherfolk, and pagodalike buildings. Originating in England in the late 18th century, it for decades conveyed “notions about Chinese architecture and culture” to the western world. On another note altogether, Long laments that modernism banished ceramic forms and materials “from the architectural lexicon”. The show, he says, is “about the lost connection between historically linked artistic forms, architecture and ceramics”.

In Mobile Structures, Jeannie Mah makes explicit reference to the kind of interchanges cited here. Iznik Tiles and Portuguese Sidewalks juxtaposes three of her impossibly delicate porcelain vessels with colour photographs of 16th-century Ottoman Empire ceramic tiles and 18th-century Portuguese cobblestone designs. Through the arabesques and floral patterns, she alludes to the impact of trade and commerce upon ceramic design, architecture, and even horticulture. It’s a beautiful and satisfying work.

The most spectacular sculpture is Jeremy Hatch’s Tree House, executed in matte white porcelain. It consists of the titular construction, improvised out of rough and splintered “boards” and set in a life-size “cherry tree” with truncated limbs. The marvel here is that the entire porcelain work is cast from more than 30 moulds taken of an actual tree and planks. It’s a striking image of the fraught interface between the natural world and the built environment. And, oh yes, between ceramics and architecture.