A prompt, a parameter, a choreography, Black One Shot (b.O.s.) has been our ongoing concentration on the art of blackness. We value the complications, ambiguities, and ambivalences on which the art of blackness thrives. As we’ve said, our physics of black study amplifies the critical resonance of objects (centripetal) over the insistence on what objects must do (centrifugal). X = Object love + art of blackness criticism ≅ disassociate, distend, demand, refract, rejoice. Solve for X in no more than 1000 words.
b.O.s. will run the course of summer 2022 for five consecutive weeks. We invite you to follow and share hard. Thanks to all the contributors and special thanks to Alexandra Kingston-Reese and Wiktoria Tunska.
—Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie (Editors)
I am moved by the compositional incompleteness in Marika St. Rose Yeo’s ceramic series, Shifting Conversations.1 It is a series of eighteen multicolour vases that sit on plinths. Carvings pattern the surface of the vessels, referencing ceramic, floral and textile designs in the Caribbean, West Africa and Western Europe.2 Through conversations with Yeo, I came to learn that the geometric patterns that she carves onto the vessels are woodblock prints and wooden sculptures that her family exposed her to. These carvings, she told me, are artistic designs and processes that are commonly employed in St.Lucia. Yeo’s gathering of them together expands the racial imaginary of ceramics.3 The pieces are arranged in a conversational structure. Twins and triplets talk to each other and individuals talk to themselves. In the space of the gallery, the vases are arranged in a sort of archipelago. They eavesdrop on each other, inciting conversations between and among themselves and with their viewers. Some are terracotta; others are underglazed. All have accents of gold lustre that recall the practice of Kintsugi, the Japanese art that repairs broken pottery with lacquer as well as its philosophy that affirms brokenness and evidence of repair as an integral part of the history of an object. All the vases except two are fired, and the unfired vases reveal how each one is made of many fragments.4 Bearing the seams of their constructions, the vases transform incompleteness into beauty.
What are the sources of my pleasure as I contemplate Shifting Conversations? First, Yeo’s pieces direct attention to their form so we can meditate on what it is to live as a thing and on objects’ non-fixed, mutable lives. Their potential for mutation reminds us that the act of transformation includes the potential to change states of knowable life. Yeo’s hands are not the sole shapers of the fired vessels. Heat melts them into shapes that she can neither anticipate nor control. Because Yeo overheats the unfired works way past their allotted temperature, the clay fluxes and takes on new shape in the kiln. The unfired works in Shifting Conversations allow us to see the pieces as they stand before they enter the kiln. The display of both unfired and overfired objects not only gives viewers a chance to witness the material conversations among the elements but also this conversation guides us away from predetermined knowability. Yeo, like her sculptures, leans into the unknowable. Second, the vases lean in ways that defy gravity as well as the expectation of collapse. This assemblage of unfolding tilts the plane of recognizability and underlines the polyvocal nature of ceramic practices as well as the generative instability of conversations and their racial histories.5 Third, the fragility of the pieces, amplified by not being encased in glass for display, invites visitors to consider their own bodies as they negotiate the bodies of the sculptures. These interactions attest to the improvisatory impulses of ceramic making, which shapes not just the vases but how they move through the world. These vessels converse without relying on spoken language; their tacit communication enlivens the spaceways of the exhibition room as well as cue how the visiting body performs in their presence. Finally, the scale of the pieces encourages visitors to get closer. In such close encounters, the spirit of inquiry rewards. It reveals an ensemble of expression in the faces on these vases, from critique to hope to joy. These unexpected shifts index the very possibility that life can change, and does constantly, becoming something else.
The sculptures call attention to their fracturability as vessels that refuse a mimetic performance of aliveness. While the work of firing appears to arrest plasticity, Yeo’s work demonstrates the incomplete possibility of this process by showing how momentary that coherence-becoming is. Crystalizing a moment in an ongoing process, Yeo’s pieces are in the process of collapsing at the same time that they look incomplete as if in the process of creation or in a stage of formation. While the unfired vessels might wear away (crumble) from the touch of handlers and the over-heated vessels might eventually shatter, they all become sand and recycle into the earth. It is this multidirectional energy flow that has generated my interest in thinking through Yeo’s ceramic works as alive and interlinked with the elemental poetics in her materials. Each stage in the sculptures’ production and circulation marks not their end but a point of regeneration.
Shifting Conversations is mindful of the extractive processes that despoil the elements necessary for ceramic making (earth/land and water), and does not abide by the illusions of completion and stability that are critical to imperial accumulation. Instead, Yeo’s practice engages with the materiality of these elements and attends to the cycles of their ongoing unfinishedness in a way that opens viewers to other interpretative possibilities. In drawing out the uncertain, always shifting potentialities of conversations Yeo’s pieces “work against the assumption that conversations can produce transparent transactions.”6 Alluding to improvisational practices so central to black expressive culture, the performative impulses that are embedded in these sculptures blur the relationship between composition, exhibition, and improvisation.The vases refuse established ceramic hierarchies, shifting us to a paradigm where difference has power.
The ways that Yeo’s ceramic practice confers value onto broken fragments can reconfigure our relations with blackness without (re)determining it as fixed or absolute.7 The sculptures offer a challenge to approaches that render blackness at once transparent (we already know what it is) and opaque (its history is difficult). Neither static nor broken, the vases offer a logic of incompleteness that asks us to think outside of the logic of a system. The transformative labour of turning these sculptures from clay to ceramic is still ongoing. Their aliveness indexes stillness as a process of formation. Yeo’s series asks us to sit with something that is unknowable.8
This is one of four essays from the eighteenth transmission of b.O.s. (Black One Shot). Read the other essays from this transmission here:
Lisa Uddin and Michael Boyce Gillespie have been collaborating since 2017 come hell or high water. Lisa is Associate Professor of Art History at Whitman College and wrote Zoo Renewal: White Flight and the Animal Ghetto (2015) and most recently, “Unknowing Wastelands in Noah Purifoy’s Desert Art Museum.” Michael will start in the fall of 2022 as Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at New York University. He is author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (2016) and most recently, consulting producer for the Criterion Collection release of Shaft.
- By incompleteness I am thinking about Austrian logician Ludic Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. I was inspired to turn to this meta-thinking, this philosophy of mathematics, because of the competing geometric patterns that are carved on the surfaces of the vases. In the face of Euro-Western ideas of coherence and completion, Gödel’s theory helps us zoom in on how within these same ideas not only can other systems exist, but also, we can practice life differently than the conditions set by the ideas within these systems. For Gödel, it is not so much that the possibility of other systems makes the idea of a complete system a lie, and more that the idea of a complete system is alive. His incompleteness theorem pushes us to think about how we organize our thoughts and invites us to attend to the profound ways we organize ourselves in order to be alive in an incomplete system that works to organize itself as complete. The unpredictability within an incomplete system that functions as complete places a burden (violence) of provability on us all. Because the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency (and, as such, uses tactics of repression and different kinds of violence to do so), what allows the proof of incompleteness, then, is the ability to build a bridge from inside the idea of a compete system to its outside. This way of bridging the inside and the outside of a concept allows us to break the coherence of the system so as to foreground a contradiction at the core of this system: while this kind of contraction imagines itself as unprovable, this bridge allows one to see otherwise.
- On ceramic traditions in the Caribbean, see Patricia J. Fay’s Creole Clay: Heritage Ceramics in the Contemporary Caribbean, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2017. Fay’s work foregrounds the role women have played in the history and development of ceramics in Guyana and on the islands of Saint Lucia, Nevis and Antigua, Barbuda, Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad. She connects ceramic practices in the Caribbean to those in Africa, India, Europe, the Americas and the British Isles. For example, she points our attention to ways that the clay processing and ceramic making techniques found in the Caribbean can be traced to practices found in towns and villages (such as Tanou-Sakassou, Dagbarkaha, and Ouassou) across West Africa.
- Critics have drawn our attention to ways the material life of objects (like ceramics) come to stand in for Asian femininities. See, for example, Ann Anlin Cheng considers the relationship between Asiatic femininity and porcelain and also invites us to think through what it means to live as an object in “Yellow Skin, White Gold,” Asia Art Archive January 2020 (https://aaa.org.hk/en/ideas-journal/ideas-journal/yellow-skin-white-gold). And yet, while the porcelain style shape of the vases might hark back to 18th century Western Europe, where countries like France and England marked their technological greatness through their ability to manufacture these vessels, they also recall the shapes of two other vessels: (1) the conch shell, not only for its sonic expressive possibilities but also because, in the hands of the Maroons, the conch shell, what they call abeng, was a communication technology with socio-political purposes: the Maroons sounded it to send messages; and (2) the plain, open-field fired coal pot that can be found in many African and Caribbean kitchens. These pots are often terracotta earthenware with little or no embellishments either to the forms or the surfaces. In combining the shapes of the abeng, the porcelain and the pot, Yeo’s vases do not retreat from the symbolic value of the porcelain and abeng nor the functional work that the abeng and the pot do.
- Yeo is inspired by Derek Walcott’s 1992 Nobel Lecture: “The Antilles, Fragments of Epic Memory: The 1992 Nobel Lecture.” World Literature Today 67, no. 2 (1993): 261. https://doi.org/10.2307/40149064.
- According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a conversation is “the action of living or having one’s being in a place or among persons.” As part of Vancouver’s 2021 Triennale, Disorientation and Echo, the series lived in the Vancouver Art Gallery (May 2021–January 2022), animating meanings across differences and distances. In its six months duration in the gallery, it lived among continually shifting value structures and knowledge systems, depending on who visited.
- Jessie Forsyth, “Cross-Epistemological Feminist Conversations Between Indigenous Canada and South Africa,” PhD Dissertation (McMaster University, 2015), 10. For Forsyth, conversation is not only a methodology but also an analytics that allows us to imagine ethically transformative ways of working across different ways of making meaning and being.
- For example, understanding what we might call “black inorganicity” in terms of improvised performance practice can move us away from experiencing blackness in ways that makes some of us work to protect black archives (our lives) from theft, and humble us away from assuming we already know what counts as archives of blackness. It moves us away from a ready to mobilize knowability, allowing for surprise. The transformation does not foreclose nor fix.
- I curated this work as part of Vancouver’s 2021 Triennale, Disorientations and Echo, and I have already written about it as part of an essay “Curated in Black,” which is in an upcoming book with the same title as the exhibition. I return to engage with these ideas from the inside out. I wanted to take this occasion to think about Yeo’s work in a different forum, as my time with her sculptures continues to shape how I think about art as well as inspire in me possibilities for black social life. This is to say, I am not only interested in the aesthetics of the object but also in the aesthetics of thoughts that the objects elicit and how these thoughts might help me converse with these objects, differently.