The Melbourne-based artist Zhu Ohmu makes work that explores the intersection between nature, humans, and technology. By the looks of her ceramic vessels, it is tricky terrain. Inspired by 3D printing, but made by hand, her Plantsukuroi collection appears crumbled and lopsided. But therein lies the beauty— and humor and sensuousness of her work, which earned a runner-up prize for Art Partner’s CreateCop25 contest. Here, Ohmu discusses the beauty of failure and human imperfection, the important teachings of wabi-sabi and kintsukuroi, and how the recent Australian bushfires are informing her new work, both conceptually and materially.
You’re a trained artist, but a self-taught ceramicist. How did this happen?
I graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, New Zealand in 2011, working mainly with watercolors. After art school, I moved to Melbourne and suffered from a creative block for two years. Unmotivated with making 2D works, I began experimenting with more tactile mediums. At the same time, I noticed that something else was missing in my new life in Australia—the lack of greenery in my home. I started collecting houseplants, made amoebic planters from pinching air dry clay and posted these kooky potted plants on social media for laughs. To my surprise, a friend I went to Elam with was quite fond of them and offered me a two-person show in her artist-run space back in Auckland. I had two months to whip up a new body of work from a medium I had no experience in, and this all took place over Christmas when pottery classes were suspended. I had to teach myself via online resources, and also asked a lot of questions at the local kiln. Fortunately, I had beginner’s luck and all three pinch pots came out successful. I had a show I was happy with, and my ceramics practice was born.
Your work has evolved a lot since then. What is the concept behind your Plantsukuroi collection?
I’m interested in researching the intersections between nature, human and technology. 3D-printed ceramics are made by stacking clay coils according to programmed measurements until the piece is completed. Computer software and a robotic arm allow complex ceramic designs to be printed quickly, accurately and in large numbers. I am curious how we can remain relevant in the current age of automation. Interested in subversive strategies as a way to explore, I thought about making work by emulating the mechanized process of machines, but by hand. Without any preliminary planning, ceramic forms emerged intuitively – droopy, bulging, lopsided, wonky, human. But unlike the machine, I am able to detect the slightest change in the properties of the clay. My hands are able to build forms that the 3-D printer cannot, and this is because humans are capable of the patience, care and curiosity needed for an intimate relationship with clay.
There is humanity in the flaws.
At first I was disheartened that I could hardly produce one piece without faults, but I also didn’t want to discard these ‘failures.’ The only option was to come to terms with the nature of the material and process. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi resonated with this feeling of radical acceptance. Wabi-sabi embraces the transience and imperfections of things—its aesthetic values take pleasure in the perverse beauty of the irregular, the torn, the fractured, the decayed, wholly accepting these qualities as part of the object’s history and story. It is a worldview where the considerations of beauty contrasted with the Western ideals of grandness and flawlessness; contrasted with the current throw-away culture where disposables are favored over durable goods that can be repaired. I think wabi-sabi can teach us to tread lightly on this earth, and challenge us to step out of consumerist thought.
But your work goes beyond accepting flaws. It celebrates them.
Further research on wabi-sabi inspired me to adopt the practice of kintsukuroi, which translates to ‘golden repair’ and is the art of mending broken pottery with gold lacquer. Failures are not concealed but rather highlighted, embodying the sustainability of 'visible repair,’ and seemingly unremarkable imperfections are reexamined with a new and unexpected appreciation. As the name of the collection suggests, plant life is used instead to fill the flaws in the ceramic. Subsequently, the works become living organisms and will grow and evolve for years to come, at the same time demanding a level of care. The plant's requirements such as watering, temperature, humidity and light levels have to be considered at all times, thereby imposing an active and mutualistic relationship between artwork and custodian. A symbiosis is created when acts of ongoing cultivating and nurturing are performed, and we are in turn rewarded with the beauty of a plant’s optimal growth for our gazing pleasure.
You’re passionate about the environment. How does that inform your work?
I have loved nature and have been passionate about the environment since an early age, and most recently it has informed my work not only through my use of organic forms and plants, but now also as conceptual material. I am most inspired when I come across articles on how our individual and collective actions are making positive, tangible impacts as we contend with uncertain environmental futures. For example: the shrinking of the ozone hole after the ban of chlorofluorocarbons and how the ambitious tree-planting programs in China and India have led to a 5% increase of global green leaf area. In art, I am naturally drawn to ecologically conscious works, such as the delicate ephemeral sculptures of found organic matter by Andy Goldsworthy and Nils Udo. I am also propelled by the concept of social sculpture – a term coined by artist Joseph Beuys. It is the utopian belief that the merging of art and education has the potential to lead to new social behavior. Beuys’s 7000 Oak Trees was a pioneering work of large scale ecological intervention—7000 oak trees were planted over five years in the German city of Kassel in the 1980s. A contemporary example of social sculpture is Pedro Reyes’s Palas por Pistolas, where 1527 guns were collected from the residents of Cuiliancán in Mexico, a city known for its high rate of gun violence. The weapons were melted down into 1527 shovels and used for planting 1527 trees.
How have the bushfires affected you and your work?
In late 2019 and into 2020 Australia has seen the most unprecedented bushfire emergency experienced in modern times. It has killed billions of vulnerable native wildlife and plants while decimating some of the most important and untouched ecosystems in the southern hemisphere. These fires have damaged and destroyed over 12 million acres of forests, grasslands, agricultural land, towns and farming communities. The resulting smoke haze has blanketed much of the eastern states of Australia, leaving air quality poor for weeks at a time while leaving the air quality unhealthy or hazardous to breathe and forcing community health professionals to advise the population of Australia’s largest cities and fire-ravaged communities to avoid going outside. There are many ways people can help. Apart from donating to bushfire relief funds, they can also educate themselves on ways to cut down on their use of carbon pollutants, support indigenous peoples and ecologically aware initiatives while actively standing up for the needs of our planet’s fragile ecosystems against greed and apathy. I am planning a solo exhibition in May at Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert, Sydney, that responds directly to Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfire season. For a new body of work, I have decided to employ both materially and conceptually what has become a part of everyday life in Australia by experimenting with the air, bushfire smoke and the resulting ash residue in ceramic glazes. While utilizing the language used on climate rally protest signs as prompts for the conceptual titling and engagement with the works themselves. By doing this I am no longer just reading about the climate crisis through a mediating screen. It has become a lived experience of mine, existing in a shroud of bushfire smoke that has blanketed Melbourne.