BY SHARY BOYLE
My proposal for a public sculpture on the grounds of the Gardiner Museum celebrates our human connection to clay. Standing guard as a ceramic museum mascot, Vessel embodies history on legs.
In consideration of the universal role of ceramics in the human story, I believe a new work of public art at the Gardiner Museum should honour the primary symbol of the functional vessel. Pottery is the first synthetic material ever created by humans, and our strong relationship to its inherent functionality continues today. Although we now live in an age of industrialized production, the potter’s wheel and the mark of an individual’s hand cannot be divided from the material. Clay has also been rediscovered by a new generation of contemporary artists, and with them, a new audience and artistic relevance follows. Vessel embraces the contemporary, historical, and domestic possibilities of the medium.
Consisting of a 7-foot-tall smashed and restored vase, the painstakingly reassembled pieces reference the ancient pottery shards of archeological digs. Like Humpty Dumpty, its re-combined elements remind us of the extraordinary care taken to preserve a world-class collection of such inherent fragility. The materials and form evoke transformation and alchemy, reimagining damaged goods as accessible treasure. Vessel playfully dares us to confront our complicated relationship to vulnerability and value.
Standing on a cement base, the sculpture tilts provocatively towards the viewer and street, with a friendly nod towards the Gardiner front doors. As stage left of the Gardiner is anchored by Kaneko’s ‘head’, stage right might be balanced by a clay ‘body’.
In silhouette, Vessel suggests a voluptuous cartoon figure; a vertical yet curvy Yin to the squat, masculine Yang of Kaneko’s sculpture. Reminiscent of early Renaissance alchemical drawings, the vase (or flask) nods to the experimental chemistry of ceramics, as well as the surrealist distortions of perspective that could result from consuming its contents. Mounted on larger-than‐life childlike bronze legs, it’s uncertain whether the vessel is a costume or a character compound. The combination of polished bronze with white clay reimagines the 18th-century European decorative tradition of ormolu. A gold-leafed map of cracks between each ‘shard’ pays homage to the reinvigorated 16th-century Japanese tradition of Kintsugi. The sculpture shares the Kintsugi philosophy of compassionate sensitivity to imperfection.
Public sculpture must consider site and architecture, but most importantly, reflect the public it serves. Ceramics are found in every world culture—within traditions as ethnically diverse as the citizens of Toronto. Decorative ceramic styles and patterns pose a risk of symbolic exclusion, or cultural appropriation. By selecting the ubiquitous vintage 1960s North American tableware pattern "Canadian Wheat", I hope to create dynamic surface interest through a symbol almost anyone can recognize and feel a connection with. The relationship between ceramics and food is symbiotic, from ancient pots to a favourite mug. With rice, wheat is the world's most favored staple food. Wheat became a symbol of the Canadian prairies, as an immigrant grain well adapted to harsh environments that are too dry and too cold for the more tropically inclined rice and corn. The humble, domestic "Canadian Wheat" pattern is classic Canadiana, originally mass-produced for average-income households and recognizable to many a Value Village or eBay shopper. Vessel embodies a hybrid of cultural and ceramic references for the insider, and an iconic simplicity of form and welcoming accessibility to delight children and art novices alike.