P o r c e l a i n. Invented in China, fine white porcelain replaced from 17th century onwards the European rustic earthenware or rather the silver or pewter tableware. Porcelain is a tasteless ceramic material and a poor heat conductor, meaning that your lips and fingers will not burn when consuming fashionably new foreign drinks, such as hot tea and coffee. The desire to possess the exquisite Chinese ware, or “white gold”, rose so rapidly that demand could soon no longer be met. In 1710, Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who famously proclaimed that he was afflicted by the “maladie de porcelaine” (porcelain sickness), succeeded in creating a recipe for Europe’s own production with the help of the clay mineral kaolinite. Alternatives to the expensive hand-painted porcelain from China were sought also in England. In the 19th century, the noble ceramic became affordable to the masses for the first time by means of the transfer technology. The pattern was engraved on a copper plate and transferred to the raw porcelain with an absorbent paper.
This so-called “English tableware” is explored by Mai Al Shazly in her artistic practice. The influence of trade winds, the permanent east-to-west winds, contributed to British colonial expansion through maritime routes, which included Egypt. According to legend, it likely prompted the oldest British porcelain factory to name a set after the above. In the wake of the current tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, Mai Al Shazly replaced the 1960’s Trade Winds tableware image of a merchant ship transporting goods with an overcrowded boat carrying refugees. For this exhibition in Vienna, she creates a facsimile of a bomb enveloped with the shards of the famous Chinese-inspired Willow Pattern porcelain. These fragments are also used to replace the wheels of a heavy combat tank. Through these new works, she addresses the colonial debris of fragile, conflict-affected areas in the world.
Ernst Miesgang’s Shattered sculptures are made up of broken pieces of discarded porcelain figures. Out of these shards, the artist creates new, unusual porcelain objects; while, at a first glance, his sculptures suggest an anatomical study model, upon closer examination it quickly becomes apparent that they are fantastical products of his imagination. Like the deconstructive architect, or the psychiatrist to his/her patient, Miesgang treats the original form to determine symptoms of its sudden displeasure. The object’s unpopularity is brought to the surface through a combination of gentle coaxing and violent torture, whereby “the form is questioned” (freely adapted from Mark Wigley). The final outcome are creatures that serve no purpose. The hollowness of the pristine and polished porcelain figures has disappeared; instead, broken limbs, arms, feet, and snouts spill out of their bellies. In revealing their seemingly anatomical interior, the boundary between the inside and outside, reality and fantasy, is blurred.
Similarly, the theme of illusion is recurrent in Sula Zimmerberger’s work, which is dominated by a sickly sweet color palette of pastel pinks and baby blues. In recent years, the artist, who studied painting with Hubert Schmalix, has increasingly found creative expression through the media of photography and video. She is interested in the process of change that the original porcelain figurines undergo through their digital modification on her smartphone. For Shatter & Shape, her short videos bring life to the inanimate porcelain companions. Additionally, Sula Zimmerberger presents an installation with a famous film quote in which a Chinese porcelain vase is smashed. Porcelain simultaneously embodies splendor and wealth, as well as the fragility of our supposedly beautiful world; according to the artist, “as a symbol of the passion for collecting, porcelain also refers to an archaic pattern of mankind that ensured its survival in pre-industrial times, deeply imprinted itself in the genetics of society and still provides explanations for many recent behaviors”.