Interbeing: where sound and ceramic unfold together

Interbeing is the culmination of several months of research, an exploration of collaborative ceramics and sound art in both the United Kingdom and China.

Artists and Curators Kay Aplin and Joseph Young have been working on projects together for several years now. Interbeing looks into the possibilities of making work connecting two very distinct cultures and artistic disciplines and marks the continuation of an investigation into collaborative sound art and ceramic practice that started with Landscape: Islands (2016) and Made in Korea (2017).

Annie Wan, Wrinkled Pages – Ceramic, 2020

Interbeing is the most ambitious project to date and for this multifaceted project, Aplin and Young invite artists from both countries to participate in a series of exhibitions, performances, residencies and, events across multiple venues. A cultural connection between two seemingly very different cultures, the project engenders international cooperation and fellowship, opening up new ways of viewing and listening – giving artists the chance to expand their practice through dialogue with their peers.

Interbeing is a Buddhist concept that comes from the Heart Sutra and, in the context of the Interbeing project. Before interviewing Aplin and Young to discover more about Interbeing, I was reflecting on the name of their project: Interbeing. According to the dictionary, Interbeing means to co-exist interdependently and it’s connected to Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh.

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. … You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to do inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is”.

‘The Heart of Understanding’ – Thich Nhat Hanh, 1998

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to listen to the curators’ inspiring journey and learn about all the work behind the project. Interbeing will start with the opening of the exhibition ‘Emptiness is Form’ at the Ceramic House in Brighton, England at the end of May 2021. I can’t wait to visit The Ceramic House and have the chance to see this selection of ceramics curated for the occasion. The abode itself is already a living gallery, with every corner inspiring both artistic and curious people.

The Ceramic House is the creation of architectural ceramicist Kay Aplin, a gallery, hosts artist’s residencies and is a center for ongoing research into ceramic and sound art collaborative practice with artist Joseph Young.

Ceramic House, Brighton – Interiors

Opened in May 2011 is on its tenth anniversary this year, The Ceramic House, is a real gem and unique in its genre, a showcase, and “it is, a source of inspiration every single day” – quoting Kay Aplin. “I already covered the house in part with tiles, the front of the house and other different places, when we started opening the house to the public in connection with Artists Open Houses during the Brighton Festival.” A very popular annual event, usually running in May. Kay Aplin was prompted by her neighbor – soon after they moved to Brighton. The main reason why I started the Ceramic House – shares Kay – is just because, when I moved to Brighton I heard about Open Houses, but it was my neighbor asking me if I had anything to sell, to show yet, in reality, I didn’t have anything to sell because I am a public artist and my work goes always in sites and mostly I didn’t have anything with me to show.” Kay studied public art and design at Chelsea College of Art, graduating in 1995, and one of the disciplines she learned there was architectural ceramics. “What I love about it is its malleability and the tactile qualities as well as the surface and color possibilities through the glazing process,” declares Aplin. And something that influenced my art journey is the spectacular National Tile Museum in Lisbon. I recommend to it everyone regardless of their relationship with ceramics and tiles,” observes Kay.

And that first year back in 2011, was when the first collaboration with Joseph Young started. “I was preparing a piece of work with visual art,” commenting Young “when I start recording the sound made by Kay while she was working in the studio (the smashing of clay, the glazing, even the sound from the kiln) … we do very different things but it was right then when I noticed some similarities when we start talking about collaborating, with what looks like completely different media. “Just like the raw material going into the kiln and going out on the other end as an object. I can see the similarity with the raw material from sound and the processing in the studio,” added Young. “I’ve always been drawn to music and sound. Listening to the world is an integral part of my artistic practice and recording the sounds of the natural world and the built environment is integral to everything I do.”

Lau Yat Wai, Between Reality and Virtuality – Stoneware, 2020

What they do together is curatorial, ceramics,and sound together, creating a context for other artists, following a certain theme. “We select an artist on that basis and paired up and encouraged them to find a different way to work together. We provide opportunities and facilitate the conversation. We do work with already well-established artists, so in the end, it’s up to them- but with us, they can explore and work with an opposite discipline. Artists always say to us: ‘we never thought of working with someone with sound’ and they might need just a little help to start that conversation”, remarks Kay.

“The professional and personal mix in the way that we collaborate, living at The Ceramic House and organising cross-disciplinary projects. We never really stop working; we are always talking about current and plans, wherever we are in the world,” highlights Kay, we just ‘interconnect’ with each other while progressing with a project.

Valeria Nascimento – White Drift – Porcelain, 2019

The permanent collection at The Ceramic House is always growing and represents a cross-section of contemporary ceramics from around the world. The objects are displayed within the domestic context of the house. Many of these world-class objects of art are put into storage every time an exhibition takes place, however, some are permanently on display.

The Ceramic House is also a great place to be in that sense. “We have plenty of space and several rooms here in the house” – continues Kay – “artists can stay with us during their residency, and have access to use my ceramics studio.”

The title of the exhibition Emptiness is Form and is taken from the Heart Sutra and reflects myriad ways in which the exhibitors work with the material of clay. The ceramists selected for this show represent established artists working in China and also newer emerging artists from China and around the world. All the artists have an interest in exploring both traditional techniques fused with a contemporary design sensibility offering a compelling overview of the breadth and range of contemporary Chinese ceramic practice today.

By starting from a point of similarity rather than distance, the curators hope to foster and encourage a deeper understanding between artists from the two countries. Kay Aplin said: “In the connected global culture of the 21st Century, the concept of ‘interbeing’ has something to say not just about the implicit cultural connections that bring together artists from very different backgrounds, but also about the complexity of an individual artist’s practice. Especially now, in the post-Covid-19 era, the ways that we cooperate trans-nationally will be of particular importance.

The exhibition in Brighton will see 20 artists, all Chinese with a few of them living in the US, one in Italy – but all of them with Chinese heritage. From the Pondering Monk in stoneware with oxides by Jenny Chan to Annie Wan, Wrinkled ‘Ceramic’ Pages. Other emerging names like Phoebe Jiakun with her Quiet Contentment no. 2, a vessel with a high-temperature ceramic painting, or the colorful Pineapple in ceramic with hair and powder-coated glaze by Ling Chun or the piece of work in stoneware by Lau Yat Wai titled Between Reality and Virtuality. Or The Specimens of my plant by Kang Qing, a ceramic with multiple firings.

An artistic space where to explore the national and geographical identity of two contrasting and compelling worlds. “China can often seem a complex and obscure culture from a distance. Working with our many brilliant collaborators in China has opened our eyes and ears to Chinese culture in a way that might never have happened had we not conceived of the Interbeing project,” Kay Aplin remarks. To accompany the ceramics on display, a selection of Chinese sound artists will live stream performances during the exhibition.

They have already postponed Interbeing and moved the dates around to respond to the pandemic restrictions. “In the end, we just need to find solutions” explains Kay.

“And we will adapt even more if any further guidelines are put in place, but being adaptable is easier for us as artists, in a way that it works, following that thread, it’s also a strength for artists, for us as curators, we can adapt and go ‘off piste’, taking routes that other people don’t take, and then just see where things take us.” Thinking outside the box and more adaptability brings also a creative reaction, the important element of curiosity. “Ultimately, being resourceful, it’s a way for us to survive” – explains Young.

And the whole project has been challenging during the lockdown and the couple had moments in which they needed to be persistent in the face of obstacles. “A loss of a major academic partner in the UK presented some very difficult challenges which we have had to overcome in the last few months. It has meant finding new partners to work with within a very short space of time so that we can continue with the project and achieve the same ambitions and aims as when we started. Also, not being able to travel to and from China has transformed the residency program into a virtual experience and so we have been trying to figure out how we can successfully make that happen and ensure that the cultural exchange is at the heart of Interbeing can still happen” – observes Kay.

Ling Chun, Pineapple – Ceramics, 2018

It’s also interesting to see – regardless of the actual global situation – how they usually work together and plan on how to put their projects together, now that they have been working on several projects – “Sometimes we pick a theme, sometimes we pick a country. We worked with Korean artists for the Korean project. I was curating the ceramic – recounts Kay – and Joseph was working on the sounds when a music producer saw the work and connected with us via social media, it was spring 2019 when we started this project and we also received funding from the Arts Council for a trip and we met all our potential partners and we knew who we wanted to meet, added Joseph Young. “Things happened when we meet people, and that events are turning into things. Like the way, we started working with Chinese artists. Kay Aplin was at Collectthe London-based International Art Fair, with her work, and it was right there, where the encounter with a Hong Kong artist happened – in the gallery. “We start talking” – stated Kay with a sweet and satisfied smile – “and because I was going to give a speech on China, we just conversed, and later on we became partners and things evolved.”

Interbeing, after the UK launch, will continue with other residencies and exhibitions both in the UK and China: from a residency for two Hong Kong ceramic artists paired with two UK sound artists, at the Powell-Cotton Museum to new exhibitions ‘Interdependent Origins’, displayed in the historic setting of Quex House at Quex Park, Margate, UK and Neither Increasing Nor Decreasing – an exhibition for establishing Chinese ceramic artist that is answering to Buddhism and virtually hosted online in collaboration with The Ceramic House. “In ideal world artifacts and artworks will be side by side, but is not possible – so we decided to have it online, and we are still working on the details with Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, UK,” tells Kay.

October the 3rd will be when the production of Listening Hands, featuring sounds recorded in China in an exploration of the Tai Chi movement technique will premier at the London Chinese Community Centre.

And then in the Autumn, it’s time to travel to China. In fact in October and November, the project continues when five UK artists will start a residency of six weeks, at the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, renowned for its traditional porcelain making processes and China’s only institute of higher learning dedicated to the ceramic arts. The UK-based artists working with porcelain Andrew Livingstone, David Cushway, Valeria Nascimento, Fenella Elms, and Kay Aplin – will be collaborating with five Chinese sound artists – Zhang Xian, Hui Ye, Sun Wei, Sin Ned, and Sheng Jie.

Fenella Elms – Small Mobius – Porcelain on recycled African ebony, 2015

“One thing leads to another”, remarks Joseph. “We start researching Interbeing and then our web of connections led us step by step to open up new opportunities and new ideas and artists were added to the project. We had to change a few things from the original plans, due to Covid, but we now have a clear idea of the best way to move forward and we have prepared (as much as we can prepare ourselves) the best way to respond to the challenging times and reassure ourselves first and the people involved that Interbeing is going ahead and will give the chance for people to explore and experience several aspects of the ceramic and sound installation world.”

Kay Aplin – Fire & Water Honewort Roundel – Soda wood fired and Oxidised porcelain, 2019

Kay Aplin’s new ceramic installation inspired by symbolic Chinese flora: Peonies are digitally installed on an imaginary tour to the favorite walls of artists in China. The peony is the official emblem of China and has great value in Eastern culture. An eternal symbol of royalty, honor, and wealth, it is present in many religious festivals and traditions. To conclude the whole project, will be the UK publication of Kay’s book Silk Roads and Floral Routes, scheduled around spring 2022. Nothing has been left out in this artistic and inspirational endeavor.

“The idea of ‘interbeing’ has helped us to develop an understanding of how divergent artists’ practices are already connected through a complex web of interdependency. We are not searching for common ground through a process of cultural exchange, but assuming its pre-existence and through this project, we want to fully explore this interconnectedness, and to deepen our knowledge of a culture vastly different from our own,” concludes Kay.

You can read more on Interbeing and The Ceramic House on their website and dedicated Interbeing minisite, where you will find information, updates, and videos throughout the whole project.

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