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Flesh and Clay: Ah Xian's Porcelain Body-Casts

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Ah Xian, China, China – bust 11, 1999, porcelain. Courtesy of the artist

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Ceramics, more than any other art form, are inextricably tied to the body. Whether moulded into vessels for everyday use, sculpture for aesthetic appreciation, or anything and everything in between, clay is inseparable from flesh. This analogy is so essential that it has inspired some of the most enduring myths of our creation. The ancient Greeks believed that Prometheus formed the first humans from clay, and that the goddess Athena gave them the “breath of life”. In Chinese origin myths, the divine Nüwa moulded humanity out of mud to keep her company in the newly created universe. Closer to home, the Bible states that ‘God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life’ (Genesis 2:7), that ‘we are the clay and He the potter’ (Isaiah 64:8). Countless other versions of this story can be found in cultures across the world.

Yet the bond between clay and flesh is not just mythological. As celebrated Canadian ceramist Paul Mathieu explains, ‘touch is the dominant sense when it comes to working with … clay.’ (1) Ceramics are formed by the pressure of palms and fingers, softened and moulded by thumbs and knuckles. Clay accepts into its own body the prints, hair, dirt and microscopic biological debris passed on from the body of its maker. When fired and glazed, it becomes close to the body in another way: holding food and water – and serving to receive and dispose of waste. Even the terms used to describe ceramics evoke bodily comparisons: we talk of the foot and lip of a bowl, belly and shoulder of a vase, neck and mouth of a bottle.

Ceramics, then, through myth and words, through use, and through the act of their creation itself, are tied to the body. Mimicking the divine potter, all shapers of clay have left a trace of themselves within their work. Yet there is one artist, more than any other in recent years, who has given new meaning to the relationship between flesh and clay. In his China, China series of porcelain busts, completed over six years from 1998 to 2004, Sydney-based Ah Xian enacted his own divine creation, shaping clay into an image of humanity.

Ah Xian, China, China – bust 20, 1999, porcelain. Courtesy of the artist.
Ah Xian, China, China – bust 20, 1999, porcelain. Courtesy of the artist.

Ah Xian’s busts have come to symbolise many things – his experience as a migrant, living between China and Australia; the weight of cultural stereotypes; the enduring relevance of “traditional” materials and techniques. More than all of this however, it is their human shape that makes them so powerful and iconic. Each of the eighty China, China busts memorialises a living subject – either a family member or friend of the artist, or a hired model. Though none of these people are named, their presence is embodied within the mute porcelain, the lines of their faces recorded with absolute verisimilitude, with affectionate, lingering attention to detail. Eyes closed, as if caught in a moment of rest or contemplation, they seem ready to awaken at any second, waiting only for the “breath of life” to fill their lungs.

The naturalism of the busts is a direct result of their making – each one is cast from a plaster mould of the head and upper body of the person represented. This imbues the finished works with their humanity, setting up the tension between flesh and clay so central to their power. In order to create a mould, the subject must first strip to the waist, then coat their skin and hair with a protective layer of petroleum jelly, before being carefully wrapped in lengths of plaster-soaked cloth. They must then sit, motionless, for at least three hours until the plaster has dried and the shell of bandages can be removed, creating an exact, inverted replica for use as a mould.

Thus, the serene features of each bust both record and disguise a moment of time that must have been incredibly uncomfortable and even unpleasant. Bound in layers of hardening cloth, eyes and mouth tightly shut, ears blocked, breathing through two straws in their nostrils, Ah Xian’s models must have felt trapped, suffocated, isolated. The intense emotion of this ordeal has been transferred, through the plaster, into the clay. Every crease and fold of skin, every hollow and protruding undulation of muscle and bone, contours of posture, every mark and scar accumulated throughout their life – all are recorded and recreated.

In the Chinese city of Jingdezhen, where Ah Xian employed local artisans to create porcelain positives from his plaster moulds, there is a popular legend that offers another take on the equivalence between flesh and clay. This legend was first recorded by a much earlier visitor, the French Jesuit missionary François Xavier D’Entrecolles, sent there in the early eighteenth century to discover the secrets of porcelain for European ceramists obsessed with its pure white colour and mysterious translucency:

It is told that once, an Emperor wanted them to produce porcelain [which] they told him many times [would be] impossible, but all these remonstrances only served to excite his desire … His officers therefore redoubled their efforts and used all kinds of pressure … One of the workers, in a moment of despair, threw himself in a lighted furnace and was instantly consumed. The porcelain … fired in this lot was perfectly beautiful … Since that time this poor fellow has been a hero ... the idol who rules over the works of porcelain. (2)

Several decades later, the most famous director of the Imperial Porcelain Factory, Tang Ying, wrote that he had discovered one of the pieces created in this firing:

This vessel’s sleek gloss is the blood and fat of the departed; its cohesion is the flesh and bones of the departed; and its brilliant whiteness and gem-like lustre … the divine sincerity and valiant heart of the departed. (3)

In this legend, then, the original act of creating flesh from clay is reversed – here, clay is fused with, and made perfect by the addition of flesh. In much the same way, Ah Xian likewise emulates and reverses the work of the divine potter. In his porcelain busts, the body is exactly replicated in porcelain, transmuted into a new order of being. Clay and flesh are made one, reaffirming their timeless bond.

Ah Xian, China, China – bust 45, 1999, porcelain. Courtesy of the artist.
Ah Xian, China, China – bust 45, 1999, porcelain. Courtesy of the artist.