Hard as Ceramic

By Jo Phillips

Part of the space shuttle’s outer skin is made up of over 27,000 ceramic tiles. These tiles are designed to withstand the tremendous heat generated on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. When we think of ceramics we may mistakenly think of clay but advanced ceramics are no longer just clay-based. Instead, they can be based on oxides or non-oxides or combinations of the two. However, ceramics within the world of art went out of fashion seen as ‘crafty’ and somehow having a lower value than canvas or 3D style works. But in recent years it has not just refound its footing in the world of art and design but has also been part of Turner prize-winning artists’ work. In 2003 Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry won this prestigious award with his ceramic vases

May be not what we initially think but a ceramic is an inorganic non-metallic solid made up of either metal or non-metal compounds that have been shaped and then hardened by heating to high temperatures. In general, they are hard, corrosion-resistant and brittle.

‘Ceramic’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘pottery’. The Clay-based domestic wares, art objects and building products are familiar to us all, but pottery is just one part of the ceramic world. Earthenware is another form of pottery with a long history, alongside Stoneware, Porcelain and Bone China.

Pottery is one of the oldest human technologies some recently found in Hunan Province in China have been carbon dated to 17,500–18,300 years old. Nowadays the term ‘ceramic’ has a more expansive meaning and includes materials like glass, advanced ceramics and some cement systems as well.

In modern medicine, advanced ceramics are often referred to as bioceramics and they play an increasingly important role. Bioceramics such as alumina and zirconia are hard, chemically inert materials that can be polished to a high finish. They are used as dental implants and as bone substitutes in orthopaedic operations such as hip and knee replacement and of course machinery and also watches and cars.

Yet it is still an extremely important material in the art world. When Grayson Perry won the Turner prize with his decorated vases the world was reminded of the importance of this age-old material.

Ceramics artist Yurim Gough is the latest artist to fuse the traditions of ceramics and drawing to engage with her own personal dilemmas and social concerns, through her artworks.

South Korean-born Yurim will showcase a collection of delicate, autobiographical ceramics at The Other Art Fair, which will run from 29 June – 2 July. Showcasing her intricate sculptural bowls, Gough’s multifaceted artistic practice references South Korean craftsmanship and traditional history as well as her own personal experience.

Self-taught, Gough’s working process has been informed by the ceramic practices of South Korea and the unfolding narrative of her own challenging journey. Not unlike our own national treasure, Grayson Perry, who transposed his own political and artistic proclivities into ceramics, Gough has channelled her own trajectory into her work.

Much of her own experience is depicted onto the bowls in all its glory, along with love, trauma, illness and recovery via layer upon layer of glorious glazed colour, line drawings, metallic lustre and texture.

Gough’s beginnings were humble. She was raised by a single mother in a traditional South Korean village surrounded by lakes, streams and mist-covered mountains. Encouraged by her hairdresser mother, Gough immersed herself in the performing arts from a young age, which allowed her to experience life outside her rural village.

By her late teens, she wanted to study fine art but as the family finances were limited, Gough couldn’t afford art school so instead moved to the capital to study fashion at Yoohhyoung Accessory Design School in Seoul in 1995.

Gough ended up designing accessories for womenswear, menswear and childrenswear brands until she landed an accessories design role alongside Bonnie Lee, founder of Suecomma Bonnie, a Korean shoe brand specialising in high-quality fashion footwear. In 2002, found her own shoe brand. Her pieces were met with immediate success in Japan and in 2003, she decided to move to Tokyo.

While working there, she met and fell in love with an English man. After a year, he proposed and they married and she moved to Bristol in 2006.

Six wilderness years would follow, as Gough struggled to find her place in a culture without friends and family, where she couldn’t speak the language.

Gough started to emerge from her years of cultural displacement in 2012. She started taking portrait and life-drawing classes and fell pregnant.

“When my teacher saw my work, she told me that I had ‘ceramic blood’ in me,” she says, explaining how she had been drawn to the ancient art form. “In South Korea, bowls are philosophically connected with humanity. The bowl is the holder of all knowledge and experience.”

With the impetus of combining life-drawing and the aesthetics of fashion illustrations with the traditional Korean art of bowl-making, Gough felt as though she had found a language and form of expression that was unique to her and visually interesting enough to take her the art world.

Starting with stoneware, she hand-moulds the item into an irregular shape, which she then bisque-fires. Working with live models, she selects a bowl that fits their shape and completes their life drawing with a ceramic pencil. Once glazed, translucent transfers are then affixed to the surface and the edges are glazed in gold. Gough’s subject matter ranges from life drawing, contemporary society and the messages we receive on social media.

When Gough was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, she turned her artistic gaze on herself, boldly capturing herself in a series of videos, photographs, drawings and sculptures, all while having treatment, losing her hair and having breast surgery.

Having made some sense of her disease, the body of work was shown in May 2022 at APT Gallery, for an exhibition entitled VainEgo, which brought visitors to tears. In the following month, she exhibited in a museum show in Limoges, featuring her ‘Gender Fluid’ ceramics of non-binary models.

The ups, the downs, the joys and the suffering of the human experience are depicted throughout her work as if she is carrying the weight of the history of the very material she manipulates, with her.

Yurim Gough’s work will be on show at The Other Art Fair 29th June to 2nd July

If you enjoyed reading Hard as Ceramic then why not read Me Myself and AI here

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