All art is subversive.
Picasso knew all about subversion and employed subversive tactics when he first began working in ceramics in 1947. He worked at the Madoura pottery in Vallauris decorating and producing over 2,000 ceramic objects including utilitarian and sculptural objects. While much of the work referenced historical, classical ceramics his approach subverted those idioms. He decorated plates and urns but also kiln furniture and bricks.
For Picasso the choice of ceramics as part of his art practise was a subversive one. Although many twentieth century artists produced some ceramic works, none at that stage had embraced the medium with such vigour. Clay was a material that fit uneasily with the mores of Modernism in the visual arts; it was largely the stuff of kitsch, maquettes and mass-production.
Ceramics is always rubbing up against or intersecting the visual arts and design. Clay (ceramic) subversion seems to come from outside of ceramics practise rather than within. Notable subversive works such as Duchamp’s urinal, Lucio Fontana’s pierced forms, and more recently the urns of Grayson Perry are clearly positioned outside of crafts practise. Even pivotal clay works such as Peter Voulkous ‘Rocking Pot’ were clearly informed by movements in the visual arts. Subversive works within ceramics practise have tended to be subtle (see Garth Clark’s essay on Betty Woodman: Storm in a teacup in Shards) or have been produced by iconoclasts: think George Ohr. In the 1970’s in Adelaide there was a bunch of ‘ratbags’ subverting the ideologies of studio ceramics, producing work that referenced china cabinet ceramics rather than the prevailing wabi-sabi ethos. Interestingly most of these artists moved away from clay apart from Bruce Nuske and Christopher Headley.
The theme (or at least title) of the Australian Ceramics Triennial is Subversive Clay. Whilst the true meaning of that title may be ambiguous its implication is fairly obvious, referring to works or activity that challenge current assumptions about ceramic (clay) practise. A subversive clay wouldn’t be clay at all or would at least not act in the desired clay manner during making or firing. The closest clay related subversive activity I can think of in current practise is that of wood firers. The very act of digging, making with and firing (in wood ash at frightening temperatures) a clay body that hasn’t gone through the filtering and adjusting of commercial bodies is tantamount to subversion in challenging the prevailing commodified approach to much studio ceramic production.
The choice of wood firing is a kind of act of subversion. It could be seen as a political act akin to the counter culture of the 1960’s and 70’s, the current occupy movement and the various ‘slow’ activities growing by the day. If the choice to step outside of established models of social order can be seen as an act of subversion there may be a case that the choice to practise ceramics is inadvertently socially- subversive. A livelihood which may entail spending weeks making and developing work, perhaps decorating, experimenting with glazes and then putting to the trial of extreme heat with a strong potential for disaster is one that is out of step with cultural social norms which would suggest either subversion or a kind of madness.