As embodiments of a fleeting, volatile reality, Annie Wan’s ceramics reflect the artist’s attempts to defy time and capture the ephemeral. Focusing on the everyday and on the intrinsic qualities of her medium, Wan plays with the paradoxical fragility of ceramics and on their ability to give tangible forms to lost moments, collective heritage or vanishing memories. With the idea that reality is subject to successive reinterpretations, she uses the language of ceramics to question the reiterative process of perception, and the reproduction of reproductions, searching for points of resistance against a truth that has slipped out of our grasp.
You told me that you first studied design before jumping into art and ceramics. What triggered the change? I am not a person with a clear plan for my life path; I usually follow my intuition. I studied design after secondary school and then worked as a textile designer for a few years. Although I enjoyed the textile design job, I wanted to have some new experiences. Therefore, in 1989, I studied studio ceramics part time at the [Hong Kong] Polytechnic [University]. It was a course designed with a technical approach. I took this course not for career improvement or any professional expectation. Those two years were enjoyable and relaxing to me and I enjoyed the making process very much. My works at that time were quite expressive; I liked drawing on clay spontaneously. That was all about material, as I found I didn’t like to do narrative images or storytelling. I loved the unfinished quality of drawing: an immediate response to scratches and marks made by hands or tools on clay. I forget if I had artists as models – maybe Peter Voulkos’s expressive way of making ceramics: let clay itself be the most significant.
You have always embraced natural phenomena within your work; you let organic material grow out of Lost Sheep (2009), for instance. Can you explain this process and the idea behind it? The idea of the Lost Sheep started when I wanted to create a work with unfired clay, in which clay would refer to soil, our land. In the making process, 10 enclosed glass boxes, each one featuring a raw clay sheep on muddy ground inside, were made every two days. Organic substances and seeds had also been mixed up with the clay. Moulds and plants gradually grew inside these boxes, creating different scenery for each lost sheep. The process of evolution inside each box followed time, but then the boxes together formed a scenario that reversed the order of time: the seeds in the first box grew first, so it contained the tallest plants, while the last box contained the shortest plants. Therefore, visually, it created a reversed curve. However, the development of the scenario and the eco-evolution of the materials will be everlasting.
This work demonstrates the conflict system of daily life as well. The interaction between the nature of the clay and the ecological condition of its environment is a metaphor: the apparatus creates beautiful scenery when we look from the outside the boxes, but inside the mould is actually stinky, dirty and rotten. It reminds us that what we see is not always trustworthy.
With Cultivation (2014), you also let some grass grow from your works, which resemble found objects or relics from our civilisation. Is this to suggest that, with time, nature takes back its right? Or are you hinting at the idea of a circular conception of time? I think both. Nature has its own equilibrium of flow, which sometimes is distracted by human beings. This agitation depends on the intensity of the distraction but, over time, a balance is maintained when new nature grows. Time is an important concept in my practice. I sometimes want to do ceramic works that are not static in time and keep changing over time.
You also play with nature in Organic Book (2013); contemplating life arising from these pages makes us feel that books are alive. The content of books exceeds their physical embodiment; they are part of a vivid collective memory. Books are also alive because their interpretation changes all the time.
In contrast, you could say that ceramics are very stable objects that resist time: we can find antique ceramics that are still intact. Do you also use this material to defy time, for example in Proust in Time Regain (2013)? For me, the process of making Proust in Time Regain is like fossilisation. It is a process of casting: the original remains of the organism dissolve and leave an empty space, which is gradually filled with other minerals. Informed by this thought, I put clay slip in every space between the pages of a book and then fired it; a fossil of a book was formed after burning away the sheets. The outcome is a defiance of time. To me, Proust’s big volume is like a condensation of time. Sometimes he can describe a single instant over many pages: this is why his work inspired me to think about the relationship of time and memory.
You also produced a 2015 series dealing with Hong Kong fossils. Was it a way to imagine, build or crystallise collective roots for Hong Kong? Did you use real models or is this fictional? Instead of using stones and shells as samples of Hong Kong heritage, I used real objects found now in Hong Kong and put them directly into the kiln for firing with clay, transforming them into art objects. Although a transformation occurs, they retain their identity and recognisable forms.
Some of your pieces could be seen as the embodiment in ceramics of something immaterial like projected light from a window, moonlight or the contents of books that you turn into sculptures. What does it feel like when you give a tangible shape to an idea or projection? This filling or casting and recreating both positive and negative space is done to augment and honour a universal sense of place while simultaneously dealing with memory, metaphor, intellect and culture. By the power of fantastical imagination alone, my ceramic works connect the present with the past and future. This achievement stems from the difference between the original and the copy, which leaves an empty space for imagination.
When you are coating books with clay, with the content of the book burnt during the process, what is left? The weight of the collective memory? Is this a form of resistance?Exactly. A resistance to the physical world, maybe.
Casting a book implies bringing weight to it, adding to its value and meaning. You’ve cast some dictionaries that you and your friends used during your school years. To what extent would you say that this resembles a process of fetishisation? Fetishism is a word that is always in my mind when I am attracted by the details of objects transformed into ceramics through moulding, especially when their colour and content are gone and when only pure forms remain. All the little details are revealed.
In many of your works, it seems that there is the idea that a true reproduction is impossible, since something is always changed during the process. At the same time, you play a lot with reproductions, multiplying objects from everyday life, like consumer products or toys. Is there a friction between these apparent contradictory processes? How do you conceive reproduction? It is true that changes always occur with ceramics. For instance, the reproduced model shrinks. However, moulding preserves the original since it is kept inside during the process. Unlike photographic images, though, ceramic reproductions do not, in my view, carry a sense of nostalgia. Ceramic objects, as solid forms rooted in our present time, somehow fill up the sense of loss. I see reproduced ceramics of found objects very much like 3D materialisation of photography. Yet, as we cannot get back to the real objects either, the reproductions are able to carry quite a lot of different meanings.
One of your works is dedicated to Walter Benjamin, who saw in the technology of reproduction a way to “actualise” the reproduced object. It is also a way to move away from tradition. Did you create your objects in celadon to play with the idea of tradition?Yes. I also wished to create a contradiction between traditional and mass-produced objects. I regret the passing of the uniqueness of traditional objects. At the Hong Kong Museum of Art, for example, I did an installation entitled Tung Zan Baak Fo (2019), a series of replicas of everyday objects, cast in celadon. It contrasts today’s mass production techniques with Chinese porcelain wares, which were also produced in great numbers at that time. What is the value of an industrial replica? With this installation, I also question the value of art and our current perception of techniques and modes of production. In the series, the identity of the reproduced objects has been removed; all the brands disappear, so that I only keep the form of the objects, freed from their marketing references.
I also feel there is some fragility in your work, obviously because of the material you have chosen, but also because of your last installation work at Tai Kwun. Do you aim to point to such a fragility? Yes. It’s from my experience in life: the vulnerability and weakness of human beings. The ceramic tiles I have cast for the installation, inspired by traditional Hong Kong floors, look solid at first sight. However, they are empty inside, so walking on them – as I do in the video performance – emphasises the fragility of the ground we are currently moving on.
Within these last few years, I have also been feeling a form of insecurity that is not derived from external circumstances. Ageing, sickness and death – all these elements one cannot control. A sense of helplessness and desperation comes out. I used incense ashes to fire my pieces. Like in Buddhist temples, I somehow tried to connect with ancient rituals where ashes were used to guard a place.
Do you see this recent work as a continuity of the installation you did at Cattle Depot in 2012 about broken tiles? You could indeed build a connection. However, the installation at Cattle Depot addressed more specifically the urbanisation and rapid changes that have transformed Hong Kong. At Tai Kwun, the work tackles more inner feelings. In particular, it points to a general sense of anxiety and to a feeling of an irreversibly broken peace or balance.
You increasingly use videos in your installations, as if to record and emphasise your working process. Why? Videos somehow complement my ceramics practice, as a different mode of encapsulating time. I am still using a very simple format, focusing on stills or repeated actions, with the idea to transform the moving images into still forms. It is true that I also use more documentation processes. At Tai Kwun, there is a part of the installation dedicated to my work process, recipe for the ceramics, process of firing etc. Perhaps it is a way to project again the past into the present, but in a different way than with ceramics.
Social engagement is also an important part of your practice. Do you conceive art as a way to transform society or to educate and connect people? I was once a believer in art for art’s sake, but now I seem quite happy with its ability to connect people. I don’t like the word “educate”, as I think art is not a tool.
相比之下，我們可以說陶瓷是非常穩定、可以抵抗時間的物件，比如完好無缺的古董陶瓷如今亦非罕見。在你的作品，如《Proust in Time Regain》（2013）中，你是否也想透過陶瓷來挑戰時間？對我來說，製作《Proust in Time Regain》的過程就像化石化一樣。那是一個鑄造的過程，生物的遺骸溶解，然後留下一個空間，逐漸由其他礦物填滿。受這個概念所啟發，我在書本的每頁間放了陶片，然後拿去燒製。書本燒掉書頁後形成了一本化石書，成為了一種對時間的反抗。對我來說，普魯斯特書本內容的長度凝結了時間，有時他光是描述一個瞬間就可以花上多頁，他的作品引發了我思考時間和記憶的關係。