In the next stage of our enduring partnership with the British Ceramics Biennial
, SOCIAL SUBSTANCE
is a 6 week programme of events responding to clay as a social, communal, material force, through a solo exhibition by William Cobbing, a weekly performance programme in our window and down at the Spode Rose Garden, and regular communal clay workshops.
For more details of the Performances, click HERE
- and please look out for more details of the workshops.
This project is joined by partners The Portland Inn Project
, facilitated by AirSpace director Glen Stoker and funded by Arts Council England.
William Cobbing presents a series of new video, sculpture, and performance, exploring a playful and ambiguous interaction between people immersed in mounds of formless clay. The ceramic objects and tv screens that populate the gallery invite us to consider how we tell stories with clay, and how it feels to interact with this earthy material through senses of touch and sound, both physically and digitally. The experience of the works is akin to the messy interface of sticking a lump of mud on to the shiny screen of a mobile phone.
In videos developing from ‘The Kiss 2’, the raw clay connects the performers, extending body boundaries and merging individual identities as they make and remake themselves. The figures are caught in an endless transitional moment, as if in limbo, repeating the same apparently aimless grasping and prodding of the material. What, if anything, are they trying to make? Or is the act of making without a conclusion enough? These earth-clad people are caught in an ouroboros loop of transforming themselves. We are invited to move through the space, piecing together our own narrative from these brief performances.
The clay is a character in itself, being an equal player rather than a passive subject to the creative process. Conversely, the performers often adopt a languid or deadpan demeanour, allowing the material to assert its agency over them. The state of plasticity of the clay as a slimy material allows for this drama to unfold. It sticks to the performers head and hands, disrupting the sense of body boundaries. Simultaneously attractive and repulsive, it can engender a conflicting set of emotions. The sound of the performer’s breath can be heard through their clay enclosure, with the internalised and claustrophobic sensation of the material being transferred through the digital screen.
The ceramic sculptures draw much of their sensibility from the videos, with a reciprocation between the two forms. Ceramic head cavities evocative of caves have undulating eye and mouth holes burrowing into the back of their craggy interiors. These are reminiscent of the ‘Will.je.suis’ videos where a wire cutter slices through the clay face to reveal brightly coloured gooey substance that spews out. The rich use of colour in the videos and ceramics references the humour and excess of the vibrant polychromatic glazes of Minton Majolica, produced in Stoke-on-Trent in the Victorian era.
There is an elusive and incidental humour to the work, as if it is leaking out at the edges; the slapstick quality of clay falling to the ground with its accompanying ASMR splatting sound. The material used is lowly earthy clay, with the humour being low too. Emerging from the lumpy fallible nature of our bodies is a realisation that we’re brought down by gravity and end up in the mud.
In the videos individual identity is effaced, with the protagonists becoming hybrid forms somewhere between themselves and the material. This immersion in clay allows the performers to become mutable, with the videos showing two or more performers merged under the singular mass of clay. For example, in ‘Screensaver’ the idea of communality and connection between people and ground is forged through being part of the same undulating muddy terrain. Individual autonomy is subsumed into a larger mass of clay and limbs. Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from the mass of earthy material below our feet, the works invite us to consider our deep and enmeshed connection with it.
Starting from a sculptural sensibility, William Cobbing’s practice encompasses a diverse range of media, including ceramic sculpture, video and performance. For the past twenty years he has created surreal performative pieces that show the protagonists engaging in repetitive, almost compulsive and absurd cycles of manipulating formless clay surfaces. His work alludes to concepts of entropy, underlining the extent to which earthly material is irreversibly dispersed, giving rise to a definitive blurring of the boundaries between the body and landscape.
He has shown internationally in museum and gallery exhibitions, including ‘A Secret History of Clay’ at TATE Liverpool 2004, ‘Gradiva Project’* at The Freud Museum and Camden Arts Centre 2007, ‘Man in the Planet’* ViaFarini DOCVA Milan 2010, ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ Hayward Gallery Project Space, London 2014, ‘Transactions of the Duddo Field Club’* mima Middlesbrough and Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, 2014, ‘Terrapolis’ (Whitechapel Gallery and Neon) French School, Athens, 2015, ‘CLAY! / LER!’ Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark, 2018, ‘Further Thoughts on Earthy Materials’ GAK Bremen & Kunsthaus Hamburg, 2018, 2020-21, ‘Human After All’ Keramiekmuseum Princessehof, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands 2021, ‘Human Conditions of Clay’ Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, and John Hansard Gallery Southampton, 2021-22, ‘London Open’ Whitechapel Gallery, London 2022.
*denotes solo exhibition
Cobbing studied BA Sculpture at Central St Martins College of Art and Design (1994-1997), where he worked with ceramics, and de Ateliers International Artists’ Institute in Amsterdam 1998-2000 where he started working with video and performance. He exhibited ‘Eating my Teeth’ at TATE Liverpool’s survey exhibition ‘A Secret History of Clay’ in 2004. His clay videos were included in numerous exhibitions over the following years.
In 2013 he was awarded the Norma Lipman Fellowship at Newcastle University, over the course of the year he returned to working in ceramic sculpture as well as clay video. The resulting works were exhibited at the touring solo exhibition ‘Transactions of the Duddo Field Club’ at mima Middlesbrough and The Hatton Gallery, Newcastle in 2014. He was then included in several museum exhibitions about contemporary ceramics practices, including Terrapolis’ (Whitechapel Gallery and Neon) French School, Athens, 2015, ‘CLAY! / LER!’ Museum Jorn, Silkeborg, Denmark, 2018, ‘Further Thoughts on Earthy Materials’ GAK Bremen & Kunsthaus Hamburg, 2018, 2020-21, ‘Human After All’ Keramiekmuseum Princessehof, Leeuwarden, The Netherlands 2021, ‘Human Conditions of Clay’ Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, and John Hansard Gallery Southampton, 2021-22.
He had a residency at the prestigious EKWC European Ceramics Workshop in The Netherlands in 2021, where he produced a series of ceramic sculptures, which were exhibited in numerous exhibitions, including The London Open at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2022. In 2022 he curated ‘Dirty Work’ a group exhibition of international contemporary artists working with ceramics at The Art Station in Saxmundham, Suffolk.