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Communally-made high-fired architecture: Jon Davies writes on Ximena Elgueda and Steven Ward's large-scale ceramic installations.



EVEN IN JAPAN, where the medium has a history stretching back millennia, it is not common to find ceramic works in outdoor public spaces. Fire and clay are integral parts of daily life here, but are often viewed pragmatically as essential elements rather than as vehicles for artistic expression, and the breakable nature of the material does not lend itself to exposure to weather and crowds. Collaborating on non-commissioned projects, Ximena Elgueda and Steven Ward, ceramists who learnt their trade in their adopted country, are at the forefront of the development and introduction of large-scale public ceramic installations.

Arriving in Japan from Venezuela and the US, respectively, Elgueda and Ward were brought together by a shared desire to expand their artistic horizons. Working in the same studio, they overcame language and cultural differences, as well as initial feelings of ownership of their pieces, through an organic process that saw each become involved in the other's work. Synergy developed as they acknowledged that their diverse backgrounds and viewpoints could be positive complementary forces. Clay constituted their common language, becoming a means of communication and a vehicle for a tangible dialogue in the creative realm.

Now their collaboration has extended to a young family and a combined 25 years' living and working in central Japan. They are active members of a vibrant community of potters and ceramists in the ceramic hub of Tokoname, recognised as one of Japan's six ancient kilns, and the city has been their home since Elgueda worked on a public commission that required a large kiln. In 1999 both Elgueda and Ward received Tokoname Honours of Cultural Merit awards, and in 2005-2006 they were chief editors of a comprehensive Cultural Guide to the city.

Despite their obvious respect for the area's heritage and for their peers, the couple has branched out in unexpected ways. The birth of their first child and disillusionment with the commercial art world led them to re-evaluate their relationship with clay. Visits to their home countries proved serendipitous as a series of events enabled them to clarify a vision for their future work. First, in January 2000, they experienced the stone amphitheater at Parque de La Llovisna in Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, and in the following month they encountered a hollowed out old growth tree in Phoenix Lake, Marin County, California.


Linking these two places, Elgueda and Ward began musing on what a ceramic space would feel like, and concluded that they would seek new personal and social challenges by dedicating themselves to the production of public art. Creating physical ceramic spaces, they felt, would enable them to move beyond the boundaries inherent in functional and sculptural work and open up their chosen form to a wider audience.

This move would also reflect Ward's belief that "clay is a tactile material that can be made to look like anything from leather to glass, but it is rare to see clay look like earth, and it seems a waste to hide it away in a gallery rather than see it in a space that can be experienced by all".

Elgueda and Ward's early forays into the public art sphere were encouraging. In early 2000, they proposed the Mountain Plaza project to a local organic rice farmer who gave them permission to create a monumental 60 tonne ceramic acoustic wall on a rural site south of Tokoname. When complete, audiences will sit on a forested hill and look down at performances on the ceramic stage and wall with rice fields stretching away into the distance. As preparation for the construction of this 3.5 x 10 x 6 m monolith, the artists built, dried and fired a five tonne model version (2 x 2 x 1.5 m) in just a month. Elgueda and Ward donated this piece, named Plaza de Sora after their son, to the city, envisaging it as a space for children to enjoy for play and discovery. Initially, fellow ceramists were sceptical of their plans to create such a substantial piece of work in such a short period of time but, following a successful ten-day firing with six tonnes of recycled wood they were won over.


In 2004, having survived countless natural adversities, including three typhoons during its construction, Plaza de Sora was damaged by vandals. It was still repairable, but members of a local yacht club "cleaned up" by destroying the piece, and the local authorities did not inform its creators of what had occurred. Although demoralised both by the vandalism and by the official disregard, Elgueda and Ward transformed the negative experience of seeing their work broken when they realised the key to creating successful public art lay in educating the community to its value and involving members of the public in its construction. Initially the city hall offered the artists financial compensation, but they refused and instead requested a plot of land on which to build a ceramic piece that the Tokoname community could appreciate. Following a lengthy period of discussion, and many meetings with local officials, Elgueda and Ward were granted permission to construct a new work in a prefectural park, and have worked on this alongside the ongoing development of the Mountain Plaza.

Plaza de Sora's replacement is currently nearing its firing phase. Instead of a wall, the Plaza de Sora and Alba incorporates two enormous chairs (2 x 2 x 2 m) that face each other in a park on the outskirts of the city. In common with the Plaza walls, the backs of the chairs feature the artists' trademark acoustic curve. The design of the installation is sensitive to its environment, and simultaneously seems to be a natural part of its surroundings. To enhance them Elgueda and Ward's description of this piece encapsulates their vision of public art as "a place to rest, a space to play, a piece to experience," a venue for interaction and social drama. And from a technical viewpoint Plaza de Sora and Alba also offers a valuable opportunity to fire two eight cu m kilns that will provide important data for the firing of the much larger Mountain Plaza piece.

Elgueda and Ward often refer to a Spanish proverb in order to remain focused and optimistic: No hay mal que por bien no venga (There is nothing bad from which something good does not come). This proactive, positive approach has proved essential in the long years the couple has been working on their most ambitious project, the Mountain Plaza. Since 2000, this pioneering work has consistently presented the artists with their greatest personal and professional challenges. As foreigners, there have inevitably been cultural barriers to the acceptance of them and their work, and as artists they have faced the twin obstacles of lack a of sponsorship and a lack of historical references in the creation of this large-scale piece.


Continually asking and answering their own questions, they have invested seven years of their time, energy and resources into Mountain Plaza. Although the logic of clay, water and air does not alter, by magnifying it on such a scale they are creating high-fired architecture; a ceramic structure that expands and contracts and will ultimately host performances. To bring their vision to reality has required resourcefulness, and they have found most of the necessary materials in the surrounding environment. Over the past five years more than 80 tonnes of tile clay, containing 40 per cent of grog, has been recycled from a local factory. Plus the 29,000 high-fire bricks for building the 60 cu m kiln have all been resurrected from various kilns that have closed due to economic pressure.

Most importantly, Elgueda and Ward have learnt from the destruction of Plaza de Sora and sparked a movement of volunteers wanting to sink their hands into a dream. More than 2000 people have been involved with Mountain Plaza at one time or another, each contributing valuable time, ideas, energy or physical resources. Working at the rural site every Sunday, the piece has become like a temple for the artists, and also an anchor in the upbringing of their young children who accompany them each weekend. By demonstrating such commitment to their vision they have gradually earned the trust of an initially sceptical local community, and a core group of about 10 volunteers now regularly assists them. There is mutual respect between the artists and their assistants, and Elgueda and Ward have been impressed that people are willing to expend so much effort for a project that they admit has an uncertain outcomethere is no data about how to fire a 60 tonne ceramic piece.


"We are continually impressed by the 'all for one, one for all' rice farming tradition of Japan," say Elgueda and Ward. "It has enabled us to pull a diverse group of people together once a week to carry out physical labour towards a goal that is not guaranteed. Without doubt, the unconditional determination of the volunteers has been the backbone of this project."

Mountain Plaza is currently drying while the kiln is built around it. Rice husks from local farmers will be used for the initial preheating, and then recycled wood from demolished houses will be used. Red pine, which has high oil content, and other available wood will then be used to fuel the fire to temperatures the artists hope will reach 1100[degrees]C (2012[degrees]F). An additional 10 handmade kerosene burners will assist the gradual heat rise through the critical temperatures and help maintain high temperatures for a thorough firing of the 70 cm thick clay walls.

Elgueda and Ward believe that the foundations of Japan's relationship with ceramics, based on thousands of years of understanding of clay, make it an ideal location for building a consciousness of ceramic public art that, if properly developed, can lead to a breakthrough in the ceramic world. As they point out, "clay runs thicker than blood," and having broken down so many barriers through their work they are now close to finding the answer to their ultimate question: Can Japanese society embrace a new vision of an ancient material?

Jon Davies is a freelance writer based in Tokyo, Japan. Steven Ward and Ximena Elgueda are ceramic artists residing in Japan. For more information on Elgueda and Ward, please visit their website: www.stevenandximena. com
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Title Annotation:Mountain Plaza
Author:Davies, Jon
Publication:Ceramics Technical
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:May 1, 2008
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