Filled with Merran Esson’s pots, the Mura Clay Gallery looked like a chamber in some submerged place – like Atlantis, as my friend observed. The forms of the pots themselves, and the decorations incised into their surfaces – starfish, eels, jellyfish passing – evoked an undersea world. To say the least, this is a surprising association, since ceramic vessels are meant to contain liquids and to preserve them from spillage or evaporation in a dry environment.
Submerged, they lose their utilitarian function and become purely aesthetic. There is elemental as well as functional incongruity. Each of the four medieval elements was constituted by the conjunction of two of the four primary qualities: earth (cold and dry); water (cold and moist); air (hot and moist); fire (hot and dry). Ceramics are made from the passage of earth through fire, neutralising the quality of coldness and confirming that of dryness. Hence in ceramics, earth becomes resistant to water and capable of acting as a vessel for liquids. But here it is not simply that the pots are submerged. It is as though, by a kind of sea-change, they have transmuted into organic matter.
The bodies of the pots have the elastic, biomorphic nature of simple marine life-forms, like polyps or sea anemones. They seem to be in the process of breathing water in and out, and one can imagine their fringed mouths opening and closing. They stand on three legs – a witty touch – like the curled arms of octopuses. Such transmutation, of course, is also incongruous, although it refers to the ambivalent associations pots have had as far back as they are known. For on one hand, there is nothing more cultural than the art of ceramics; it is one of the first and most fundamental of technologies. The earth is shaped by the human hand into forms that serve the most vital of human needs – the collecting, storage, preparation and consumption of food and drink. The shape itself is artificial, symmetrical, balanced.
Esson’s earlier work emphasised its own artificiality. The forms were sometimes deceptively familiar and domestic – jugs for example – but they were set on outlandish, gangly stands and posed in a way that defies use. The shapes were angular and decoration was applied in the form of coloured inlays. In this she was clearly separating herself from the tradition of the Sino-Japanese potter’s craft, for which the pot os the organic whole and the glaze, with its tolerance of chance effects, frequently expresses a happy equilibrium between art and nature. Esson’s ceramics were explicitly inorganic and every decorative effect was precisely determined.
These new works represent, therefore, a distinct change of direction. Here she is embracing the natural symbolism of the pot and its immemorially ancient association with the female body and the womb. The relation of the pot to the sea, in this respect, is one of microcosm to macrocosm: for the sea, too, is a place of generation, the environment in which organic life first developed before venturing into the harsher world of earth and air (a world in which pots became necessary to store quantities of life-sustaining water). Looking at the new pots beside a few of the older ones, it is indeed a transmutation that we witness: an evolution in reverse, from consciously artificial, one might even say urban forms, back to the sea and an environment in which shapes can soften, become elastic and living, surrounded by gently humorous sea-creatures, like the eels that look up from the bottom of the sea. It is impossible not to sense some nostalgia in this development, but nostalgia is not always self-indulgent. If, as here, it looks outward rather than inward (and the context of contemporary ecological concerns is unmistakable), it can even be provocative.
Christopher Allen is a lecturer at The National Art School and lives in Sydney, Australia. Photography is by Paul Green. This article is reprinted from Ceramics: Art and Perception Issue No 14 1993. 120 Glenmore Rd, Paddington. NSW 2021. Australia. www.ceramicart.com.au © Christopher Allen, 1993. All rights reserved