Pottering around. In conversation with …. WeiKeong Tan

And Autumn arrived. Finally I just managed to curate and collect a new conversation for my blog. I am sharing now with you Wei’s story about his work, research and ceramic journey. Enjoy the reading!!

POTTERING AROUND. In conversation with …WeiKeong Tan

1 . How did you start your ceramic journey?

I started working with clay back in Singapore in 2010 doing weekend pottery classes. It was during a time when I was driven by a desire to learn a hands-on skill, away from the computer technology in design works. During the few years of the classes, I gained a strong interest in ceramics, which I subsequently enrolled into Gerrit Rietveld Academy Amsterdam, where I received a Bachelor Degree in Fine Arts (Ceramics) in 2016. In 2017, I arrived in Glasgow to continue my development with ceramics and my ideas in a collective studio environment. Three years on, I decided to move to Nailsworth in 2020 for a change of scenery and to refocus my development direction as a ceramic artist.

2. What is it that you like about clay as a material?

When I first started with clay, it was a way to unclutter my mind and to focus on forming a vessel on the banding wheel. On top of that, clay as a material, when unfired, allows me to re-evaluate and amend till satisfied. The emphasis on instant results was irrelevant when I was learning to work with clay, and that in itself was a good distraction away from my day time job.  

On another level, ceramic is a discipline that had stayed about the same through the centuries. History can be traced through ceramics from China’s long successions of dynasty, ancient Greek, Roman empire, African tribes etc; I was learning the history of culture through the way people used ceramics.

3. Handbuilding or on the wheel? Or both? And why?

I usually make my works using hand-building techniques and occasionally on the wheel. I feel using hand building techniques give more freedom and creativity to my works but it probably just me. There is no one method to making in clay and that’s what I like most.

Genetic Engineered Pots

4. Your favourite type of material?

Possibly stoneware for its versatility.

5. Functional ceramic or sculpture? Or both and why?

For me, everything has a function – a sculpture’s function is to relate a ‘truth’/ story, a plate’s is to hold food, a vessel’s is to hold water, etc. Throughout my education in design and in arts, my tutors have always challenged me why I made / designed this work. Aesthetics was never the primary reason for making a work, but its functionality towards user interface / ergonomic / culture / philosophy, etc. has to come first. I feel my works lean towards sculptural, though functional as well.
What I find important is also the need to feel some sort of ‘play’ in my works; the work must allow me to have a sense of delight or laughter when I finished, otherwise I have to go back to the drawing board and start again.

6. Working with clay is a slow process, do you work on several pieces at the same time? How do you structure your making?

There was a time when I take on multiple small projects at the same time with clay. If I am unsure about how a work might end up, then I might step back and work on something else before coming back again with a new perspective. For now, I am just concentrating on a main focal project. One work at a time. Sketches and writing down thoughts are also very important for the process.

7. Research is a great stage in any artistic and creative process. Where do you get your ideas? Inspirations? Your work has a very distinctive shape after the traditional geometrical and natural shape (round, oval, etc.). How do you decide the shapes and forms you create?

Art is a reflection of Culture in my opinion and we try to reveal some form of ‘truth’ through our works of art.

I am very much interested in how our relationship, as human, towards Nature. This relationship was brought on by recent alarms of ecology and climate crisis, and it covers a very broad range of topics. To make things easier, I make mind-maps to narrow down my focus and thoughts, finding the essence to the question. I constantly observe and read what is happening around me and then apply lots of “why” to the event / happening. The “why” does not need to have an answer to it, but usually leads to another “why” or “if / what”. These questionings create a process of knowing and un-knowing towards my learning. For example, when I think about whether Man (human beings) consider ourselves as part of Nature, but yet we do things that contradict this notion. Hence what is the ‘disconnection’ in this relationship?

In the project of Genetic Engineered Pots, I wanted to play around with the idea of evolution through science. To translate this idea through pottery, I needed a clear reference point from A to B, hence the making shapes of traditional pots, and then to evolve the pots into something new. Books and journal articles are a great source of inspiration for me for this project – studying current affairs, research papers, essays. I then pick up important points and incorporate it into the pots. I tend to look into other art disciplines for inspirations and not ceramics for I feel subconsciously end up copying the works in some form. Interviews on artists in art magazines are also a good source of inspiration.

8. You live in a small town in the middle of the Cotswolds, how does this landscape inform your work? And how do you relate this with your hometown? Where have you been brought up?

I grew up in the city state country of Singapore in South East Asia. Singapore is actually a very small country in terms of size and everywhere are high rise buildings.

I feel I am quite lucky to find Stroud – and its Valleys – as my new home. Though small, Stroud offers a lot and attracts very interesting people from all walks of life, which probably contributes to being progressive in arts, its commitments to tackling ecological and social issues. Having nature at my doorsteps allow me regroup my thoughts and focus easily, most importantly a slower pace in the countryside is good for my mental health. This openness in space is a stark contrast to Singapore, where I often felt trapped and helpless.

9. Do you have a routine, a typical day when you are making, creating?

No particular routine, I try to practise a “in the moment” method; I will only focus on the moment of activity and not be distracted by other matters, set little targets for the few hours ahead.

10. What has been your highlight over the last year/months?

The Genetic Engineered Pots project. For many years I have been trying to develop ideas that can connect people’s imagination between ceramics and my artistic research, and this project has been the most successful so far in all my attempts.   

11. What are you in the process of working on at the moment? 

Finding more interesting ways to evolve a pot, something out of the convention. I am reading up a lot about researchers’ analysis on Nature’s behaviours, picking out interesting characteristics that are ‘useful’ to enhance the functionality of the pot.

Genetic Engineered Pots Pangolin DNA

12. And what’s coming next? A new collection, exhibition or?

I am persevering to finish the year-long Genetic Engineered Pots experiment project that I set for myself and then will follow up with little complete series pots of all the ideas tried out during year 2021. 

13. Any tips for a new entry/student in the pottery world? Anything that you would love to have known before? Considering that each journey is unique and personal?

Perseverance. There are plenty of information and artists’ journey stories available on the internet and books. The only thing that is not obvious is Perseverance, to continually hone the skills and thoughts in the craft to make quality works. On top of this, one also have to dare to break out of one’s comfort zone, to challenge oneself to strive for better.

Genetic Engineered Pots Pangolin DNA

14. One – or as many as you like – artist that inspires you? Is there a style of painting and artist’s work that you admire in particular?

Olafur Eliasson – his works with the topic of Climate change has been very stimulating, especially the different layers within the work, how it relates to us as human and the environment that we might or might not see. He and his team’s research works are also very inspiring to my working process too.

15. A museum/gallery that should be a must-visit. Or a book to inspire you?

I’ll recommend many museums in Netherlands for their wonderful collections. The likes of Rijksmuseum, Stedelijk museum Amsterdam, De Pont, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam, etc. The many collections of these museums are often first class.

For the book to read: I recommend “Thought as a System” by David Bohm. This book shed light about re-thinking the thinking process towards an objective world.  

16. If you could travel back in time, which decade would you like to visit the most?

There are positives and negatives with every decade, so it’s very hard for me to choose.

Photo Credits: WeiKeong Tan

Read more about Wei on his website.

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