Rachel Cheung Wai-sze on the allure of ceramics

Rachel Cheung Wai-sze, From Functionality to Abstraction 2, 2018, ceramics, sewing thread, 40 × 40 × 12 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Portrait of Rachel Cheung Wai-sze. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.
Rachel Cheung set up Unit Gallery to extend her career to a new dimension and make effort in promoting contemporary ceramic and glass art. Image courtesy of the artist.
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ART Power HK

Two decades into her art career, Hong Kong artist Rachel Cheung Wai-sze has been shortlisted for the 2020 Sovereign Asian Art Prize. We spoke to her about how she explores philosophical ideas through her contemporary ceramic works.

TEXT: Leanne Mirandilla
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation

Rachel Cheung Wai-sze, From Functionality to Abstraction 2, 2018, ceramics, sewing thread, 40 × 40 × 12 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

A white disc hangs suspended in the middle of a circle with the help of sewing thread. It’s a delicate balance; there is the sense that the thread would have snapped if the weight of the  disc wasn’t perfectly distributed. At first glance, From Functionality to Abstraction 2 (2018) might appear more like a work of manufactured plastic or 3D-printed material, but it is, in fact, made of ceramic and is Hong Kong glass and ceramics artist Rachel Cheung Wai-sze’s shortlisted work in this year’s Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

The word “ceramics” is more likely to evoke the image of fine dinnerware, Japanese cups and bottles, Ming dynasty porcelain, or ancient Greek urns than Cheung’s abstract work. “The history of contemporary ceramics is only a few decades [old], while traditional ceramics has been with us for centuries,” says Cheung. From Functionality to Abstraction 2 is a bridge of sorts between the two; the circle, created using a traditional slab-building method, represents the traditional while the disc, created by brushing clay onto a thin piece of paper in order to maintain its thin form, represents the contemporary.

The piece, which is one of 13 in the series “From Functionality to Abstraction,” also exemplifies a concept that Cheung has been preoccupied with since her university days—equilibrium. “In the middle of my Bachelor’s degree studies, I was interested in the physical equilibrium and balance of my clay forms,” explains Cheung. “They created intriguing and vulnerable states that struck viewers’ nerves and reminded me of human relationships.” She is interested in the balance between all kinds of qualities: the ephemeral and the unchanging, beginnings and endings, freedom and restraint. She often reads philosophical essays to better inform her research.

 

Portrait of Rachel Cheung Wai-sze. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

 

Although Cheung has been working with ceramics for some 20 years, it was not the medium that she started out with. “My interest in arts and handicrafts began in high school,” explains Cheung. “I tried different things like Western and Chinese painting, drawing, and making my own clothes.” But none of the mediums stuck. It wasn’t until she tried a short pottery course at the suggestion of a friend that her interest in art truly bloomed. She found the process of creating ceramics exciting and its tactile and malleable nature satisfying to work with, and she was soon attending the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to get her Bachelor’s degree in ceramics. She then won two scholarships in the UK after graduating—one for a Master’s degree in Fine Art at Middlesex University and another for a Master’s degree in glass art at the University of Sunderland.

“I would say it was glass that chose me,” says Cheung. “Before that scholarship offer, I knew nothing about glass.” The volatile and fragile natures of ceramics and glass, which easily react to different temperatures, are particularly well-suited to her fascination with equilibrium and vulnerability. Most often she utilises porcelain and bone china for her white pieces, sometimes adding in paper pulp for additional strength, but recently, she has also begun incorporating less common materials such as thread, elastic, and found objects including used plastic coffee cups, wooden stirrers, broken glass, and old paper. The most important aspect, however, is always the concept behind her piece. “Whether I incorporate found objects or not depends on my idea,” she points out, going on to explain how she once used beans, rice, and soil in a body of work concerning excessiveness and shortages. “If not, I solely use clay. I am loyal to clay. I have been using it for more than 20 years, and it has brought me from nowhere to where I belong in the art world.”

In addition to being an artist, Cheung is also a lecturer at the Hong Kong Art School, coordinator of the school Gallery, and founder of the small, non-commercial art space Unit Gallery which is located in JCCAC, Shek Kip Mei. Cheung conceived of the space in 2010 because she wanted somewhere to launch a solo exhibition of her works, then continued running it half as a studio, half as a gallery where she showcases young and emerging artists—many of them ceramics artists like herself. “I tried to widen my artistic scope besides being an artist creating art,” she says.

 

Rachel Cheung set up Unit Gallery to extend her career to a new dimension and make effort in promoting contemporary ceramic and glass art. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Considering that she’s an academic and gallerist, it’s no surprise that Cheung believes educational events could be the key to introducing viewers to the diversity of contemporary ceramics today—but Cheung herself is still endeavouring to truly understand the newer medium for herself. “As a contemporary artist,” says Cheung, “I keep trying to figure out what contemporary ceramics exactly is and to find my own definition of it.”

 

Stay tuned with the website for updates of 2020 Sovereign Art Prize.

 

 

About the artist

Rachel Cheung Wai-sze ( Hong Kong) focuses on the exploration of equilibrium and relationships through the interplay between different materials in her works. She believes that the state of equilibrium among relationships can be interpreted from various perspectives, amongst them, physical, philosophical and spiritual. Equilibrium is also closely associated with changes in relationships. Changes give rise to subtle transformation, different forms of energy, and the formation of new relationships, which then lead to other prominent impacts. She hopes that viewers of her works can sense the tension, the harmony, the contrast, the similarity and the difference in her works, from which there springs endless possibilities.

Cheung was a curator for the On Earth Ceramics Festival, Hong Kong (2019). She has also participated in many exhibitions including the Art Fair Tokyo, Sokyo Gallery, Tokyo (2018) and the Setouchi Triennale, Fukutake House Project, Japan (2016). She was also awarded the “Artist in the Neighbourhood Scheme II”, Art Promotion Office (APO), Hong Kong (2002) and won The Prize of Excellence, Hong Kong Art Biennial Exhibition, HKMA (2001).

 

 

 
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