‘Velvet’ 2006 by  Mårten Medbo; Photograph: Mårten Medbo, 2006

Possibilities and Losses at mima

Monument, detail, Clare Twomey

Monument, detail, Clare Twomey, 2009 (Photo: Dan Prince)

Reviewed by Teleri Lloyd-Jones

Four rooms, four works in, and about, clay: organised in partnership with the Crafts Council, this exhibition seeks to expand the dialogue of what contemporary ceramics can be, by bringing together work by Clare Twomey, Neil Brownsword, Linda Sormin and Keith Harrison

Twomey, who co-curates the show along with mima, presents Monument
a confrontational and implausibly high mound of broken domestic ceramics. Inspired by a discard pile that she documented at a tile factory, this piece references waste and death – but also rebirth, as the particular company grinds down its residue and brings it back into the start of production. Stretching far into the corners of the gallery, Monument is claustrophobic and sublime, its relationship to industry becoming explicit when you see past the whole and recognise particular shapes and patterns. (It’s dispiriting to spot a model of SuperLambBanana in the pile, the public sculpture that became emblematic of Liverpool’s cultural regeneration.)

In the next gallery is Neil Brownsword’s Salvage Series, the only work not specifically commissioned for the show, though exhibited in its entirety for the first time. Two films play concurrently, with ceramics arranged in front, a range of objects found in the ground at Brownsword’s home in Stoke, excess pieces from the industrial process as well as works by the artist. One video shows interviews with various workers in the ceramic industry, the camera often fetishising their hands as their speech floats indiscernibly above. The partnering film shows JCBs dismantling Stoke factory buildings,
its viewpoint from over a fence, part eyewitness and part voyeur. This too
is a conversation between creation and destruction, as with Monument
– but it’s also a highly emotive eulogy to and post-mortem for Brownsword’s home industry.

In contrast to the impeccable whiteness of the rest of the gallery, the following room is black: a decked pathway guides the viewer around Linda Sormin’s installation, hybrid constructions composed of ceramics – found and made – and mangled metalwork. Here too are aesthetic links with Brownsword, but Sormin tends to be more extreme and aggressive, with a performance element included at particular intervals throughout the exhibition: the curator takes a hammer to the ceramics and chips away at the installation. A film plays in the room of the opening night’s destructive intervention. Ceramic pieces are strewn all around, a scene of violence and ‘unmaking’.

Keith Harrison’s installation fills the fourth and final room, dazzling white again after Sormin’s dystopic darkness, and very ‘scientific’. A mass of clay strips is suspended from a frame on top of a four-storey plinth of breezeblocks. Wires connect the clay mass to an electrical console panel, apparently inspired by Michael Faraday’s experiments at the Royal Society. Over the duration of the exhibition, sections of the clay are fired. A sketch on the wall implies that the clay is arranged to represent the famous bust of Karl Marx at his grave in Highgate Cemetery, where Faraday is also buried. Those aware of Harrison’s work will know to expect some kind of firing performance – here, though, the interest is in cumulative process, in constant progression over several months; when completely fired, the piece is not ‘complete’, but rather redundant and useless.

As its name suggests, Possibilities and Losses offers alternatives for a medium regularly declared to be in crisis. What’s striking is the exploration of the unmade and the undone, both visual or metaphorical; the aesthetic experience of attraction towards and repulsion from the unfinished, the broken and its emotional power, whether a pile of smashed plates or a demolished factory. Everyone featured is a ceramic practitioner, not merely creating installations that happen to be in clay but, far more significantly, are exploring the material itself.