For me, Delftware—a blue and white ceramic that rose to prominence in the 17th century—isn’t particularly sexy, but this show of sculptures and installations reinterpreting Delftware forms and presenting a wider global history changed my mind. Curated by Bernardo José de Souza and Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy, director of the Kunstinstituut Melly, “An exhibition with works by…” featured a mix of new and recent works by Athos Bulcão, Marcos Castro, Anna Franceschini, Ni Haifeng, Nicolás Lamas, Praneet Soi, Adriana Varejão, Ana Vaz, Bouke de Vries, Raed Yassin, Karlos Gil, and Belén Zahera.
Focusing on research-based artistic practices, the show “explore[d] the immigration of a form.” It considered blue and white ceramic developments, not only as they were known in the Netherlands and Britain, but also in China, India, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey, countries where the participating artists either originated or live and work. References were made to commerce, transformation, and syncretism, as well as to the pictorial, historical, and political factors that make “a blue and white ceramic piece…both a vessel and a port.”
Anna Franceschini’s newly commissioned THE ORACLE OF DELFT (2020) consisted of found tourist objects juxtaposed with two videos documenting details of a performance held at the show’s opening. What could have gone horribly wrong seemed to work brilliantly. The presentation of souvenir kitsch was striking in its resemblance to the display of wares in a Delft shop. In the playful video, Franceschini considered the “secret soul” of the objects as they moved along a small, makeshift conveyor belt, as well as the fetishism of their intended owners. THE ORACLE OF DELFT, which brought to mind Adrian Forty’s classic text, Objects of Desire (1986), made me drop my initial skepticism and compelled me to look further.
Ni Haifeng, who was born in China and arrived in Europe in the 1990s, is based in Amsterdam. For his installation, Of The Departure and The Arrival (2005), he collected over a thousand everyday objects (including a toy truck, a tea kettle, an iron, and a pair of scissors) from Delft residents and sent them to a porcelain center in China. The objects were then cast, reproduced in porcelain, and shipped back to Delft. Laid on wooden pallets, the reproductions insightfully and satirically emphasized “exporting,” process, and consumerism. In another large multi-part installation, Bouke de Vries brought together a number of his “Memory Vessels.” In these works, he gathers broken porcelain and ceramic pieces sourced from pottery markets—everything from 17th-century Chinese vases and Japanese ewers to 17th-century Italian maiolica jars and 18th-century Worcester tea sets—and places the shards into individual glass containers, each one taking the shape of the intact ceramic form, if it had been reassembled and restored.
Karlos Gil and Belén Zahera’s small earthenware and mixed-media sculptures were dispersed through several of museum’s galleries. Integrated into the building, these symbolic and playful interventions referred to the ceramic tradition of Talavera de la Reina in Spain, a history that dates back to the early 16th century. Ceramic eyeballs peeked out from spout-like forms mounted on the wall; bright pink, Dalí-esque tongues occasionally protruded elsewhere; and a snake emerged from a ceramic cylinder attached to a radiator—its tail could be seen disappearing into an electrical outlet. Gil and Zahera’s small-scale interventions may have occupied minimal space, but they were saturated with surprise.
Among six works exhibited by Adriana Varejão, White Mimbres IV (2015) displayed an impressive texture that played off Bouke de Vries’s installation brilliantly in terms of color and composition. Varejão has explored the history of ceramics over many years; in White Mimbres IV, the cracked surface relates to the ritual ceramic practice of the Mimbres, a Native American people who lived in present-day New Mexico. In their tradition, ceramics were broken and dispersed on burial grounds. The geometric patterns and cracking employed by the Mimbres, and echoed by Varejão, exude an intense aura of something emerging, yet frozen.
“An exhibition with works by…” was a rare example of a show that begins with an almost academic subject and succeeds through the selected works themselves. I had a mental block about Delftware, but these installations and works blew me away and opened my mind when I absolutely did not expect it.