“There’s that intimacy of touch with ceramics – you touch the clay, and then the clay reacts to that touch,” says Zhu Ohmu. “I really quite like that intimacy, and the poetry of that.” The artist has been working with ceramics for the past six years, becoming well known for her otherworldly coiled vessels that walk the line between organic and human-made.
Ohmu trained in painting and drawing at Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland but after moving to Melbourne – and experiencing what she describes as a creative block – decided to experiment with other media, including resin and textiles. In the end, though, it was seeing videos of ceramics made by 3D printers that gave her an idea. “I decided to mimic the way the machine kind of layered coils on top of each other,” explains Ohmu. The result was a series of handcrafted artworks that demonstrate the limitations of machine-made creations, and highlight the importance of human touch.
When creating one of her vessels she starts without a design or plan; instead she works intuitively with the clay to see what is possible. “It’s just kind of a dance where I start building the form, and the clay and I come to an understanding and we build something together – so it’s like a collaboration with the material.” It has to be that way – every time she has tried to replicate a design she has previously made, or build according to a vision, the material has other ideas.
“They evolve as I go,” she says. This is why each vessel has its own character and personality. It’s a strong contrast to the 3D-printer creations that originally informed her coiling technique. “When you print something, it’s all pre-programmed – the machine knows what it is going to print. Whereas for me, it’s intuitive. I play, and I listen … and then the forms emerge. There is no preliminary planning.”
Ohmu is inspired by unusual formations in the natural world – think “wasp nests, termite mounds, birds nests” and the inventive, hut-like architecture of Iranian artist Nader Khalili. She loves the aesthetics of “natural phenomena built over thousands of years, such as calcite formations, travertine terraces and coral”.
It makes sense, then, that the vessels Ohmu creates have a strong organic feel to them; she likens them to animal architecture, and has received a lot of feedback that people find them to be quite feminine, bodily. Through the technique she’s developed, “I’m able to make forms that are quite wonky, lopsided, very organic.” They billow out and droop and, in some cases, seem to defy gravity. They simultaneously look crafted by human hands but as though they emerged from nature. They’re hard and they’re soft. They’re sculpted yet natural. This is the push and pull between artist and material that Ohmu describes.
Each work takes her several months to several years to complete, and she moves between different pieces, as building them too fast would cause them to buckle or break. This is another difference between her work and the 3D printers. “A current-day ceramic 3D printer that tries to print one of my pieces would definitely collapse,” she reflects. “And I guess in an age where things are mass-produced and automated, that’s quite an interesting concept to explore.”
Ohmu's work attracted the attention of Sally Dan-Cuthbert, who had worked as an art advisor for over 30 years and was setting up a gallery. Dan-Cuthbert now represents Ohmu exclusively through Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert and is looking forward to hosting Ohmu’s first solo exhibition in 2022.
As a self-taught ceramicist, Ohmu is constantly experimenting and finding new ways to push her work. At present, in between preparing for her exhibition, she is trying out a different kind of clay – black, rather than her now-trademark white – and is feeling out all the differences and challenges that come with it.
In any given year she will produce only 10 to 12 works. “My practice is slow,” she says. “That is something that I’ve felt very self-conscious of, in a world where we value productivity, speed and efficiency.” But that’s something that lies at the heart of Ohmu's work – the forms she makes, quite deliberately, can’t be replicated by machines. They need thought and consideration and an intimate connection with materials, and above all else, time to let this all unfold naturally. “My process is slower. And I have to honour that.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with the Tiffany & Co. HardWear collection.