Cover image of the review
Gwyn Hanssen Pigott, Still Life with Yellow Bowls, Limoges porcelain, Souther Ice porcelain, Ipswitch, Queensland, 2002. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Clay Dynasty

12 Nov 2022
Powerhouse Museum: Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences (MAAS) 11 Oct - 5 Mar 2023

Forming the earth into objects has long been a part of human activity. The earliest clay-fired craft so far uncovered by archaeologists, Jomon pottery, was found in Japan and has been dated to 16000bp (before present). However, clay is not limited to its shaping, forming and firing into ceramics. In Australia, clay has been used for paintings and drawings by First Nations cultures to create some of the oldest rock art on Earth. Some of this rock art, such as those found on Wilinggin Country, date to 30000bp. Clay Dynasty, currently on view at the Powerhouse Museum, presents a much more recent history. The exhibition’s “dynasty”—an era of history that reflects a succession of the same line of descent—begins in the mid-1960s, and consists of practices where the clay is fired.

As I take the escalator down to the Museum’s lowest exhibition space, my eyes meet the closed eyes of four porcelain busts from Ah Xian’s China, China series (1999). While the China, China busts may not have been exhibition’s intended point of entry, it is difficult not to be drawn into their silent power. The figures face outwards at the viewer at the periphery of the gallery, their delicate porcelain tones standing in stark contrast to the earthy and brick-like hues which dominate the majority of the exhibition. The quartet of figures, each tattooed, sculpted or hollowed with different typography, inspires a sense of wonderment. As I contemplated these meditating forms, my gaze drifted beyond their silhouettes to spy several dozens of other objects. I was struck by the diversity and sheer mass of assemblages of ceramics presented before me—a total of fifty groupings of objects on display. Clay Dynasty sets out to showcase seventy commissions and acquisitions—over four hundred works by one hundred and sixty Australian artists, covering three generations of makers across a half-century. The over-abundance of objects in one space quickly presents a challenge: how do I navigate the volume of offerings before me?

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