Tuesday 28 November 2023

British Ceramics Biennial - Social Substance by William Cobbing

British Ceramics Biennial - Social Substance by William Cobbing

at Airspace, Stoke-on-Trent.

This was great fun. A series of video, sculpture and performance, exploring a playful and ambiguous interaction between people immersed in mounds of formless clay. 

For the past 20 years Cobbing has created surreal performative pieces that show the protagonists engaging in repetitive, almost compulsive and absurd cycles of manipulating formless clay surfaces. His work gives a definitive blurring of the boundaries between the body and landscape.

The videos were by far the best and so much fun. Jotted all around the gallery in between the videos were small ceramic plaques which re-inforced the themes of the videos: clay, the lead performer, the centre of what was going on in the gallery; hands - hands that shape and manipulate the clay:  and eyes - vision, of both the artist who creates, but also, our eyes, the viewer. The whole exhibition was an interaction between these three elements, culminating in the last video.

Obsidian Tomb, 2023

Headspace, 2023

A video played on a loop here, and we could access it through the eyes of the sculpture.

Screensaver,  2023

In order to access this, to see this, you had to put your head in the hole

hands manipulating clay, and emerging through it

Social Substance Cycle, 2023

This was the climax of the exhibition, in a room all on its own, and it started slowly, with one performer, manipulating the clay that is covering their head, and then it developed on and on with more performers joining in.

The raw clay connects the performers, extending body boundaries and merging individual identities as they make and remake themselves. The figures are caught in an endless transitional moment, as if in limbo, repeating the same apparently aimless grasping and prodding the material. These earth-clad people are caught in a loop of transforming themselves.

The clay is a character in itself, being an equal player rather than a passive subject to the creative process. Conversely, the performers often adopt a languid or deadpan demeanour, allowing the material to assert its agency over them. The state of plasticity of the clay as a slimy material allows for this drama to unfold. It sticks to the performers' head and hands, disrupting the sense of body boundaries.

More hands joining in

and then suddenly, we have more heads

and now we see more of the performers

this was unexpected

more and more clay. Where will this end?

I think you might have guessed...

We had such fun watching this, and so much laughter... in the end we became quite silly.


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