By Wendy Gers
Interbeing is an international cross-disciplinary art project that includes and occasionally associates sound and ceramics artists in the UK and China. In 2019, Kay Aplin (ceramics) and partner Joseph Young (sound art) initiated an experimental research platform for dialogue and collaboration. Commissions, residencies, performances, and exhibitions were planned with a global web of partners, including Chiddingstone Castle, Kent (UK), Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute (China), Karin Weber Gallery (Hong Kong), London Chinese Community Centre (UK), Powell-Cotton Museum (UK), Shanghai University (China), and The Ceramic House (UK), among others. Building on previous sound and ceramics projects, Interbeing is Aplin and Young’s most ambitious endeavour to date. The complexity of the project was amplified when the Covid pandemic struck and it underwent a series of transformations as local and international travel was rendered impossible, art, heritage and education institutions closed, and some partners withdrew. A series of creative responses were put in place to mitigate the crisis, and the project was moved online when in person activities were impossible.
As an art historian, with a particular interest in clay, the combination of ceramics and sound evokes a vast universe of instruments.1 But, this is not the case in Interbeing. There are few sound-producing ceramic implements in the series of exhibitions. Similarly, few ceramic installations used sound to illustrate or amplify their presence. Rather, artists were free to embrace one or both media, collaborate loosely with an artist working in the other medium, or work individually. Monica Tong is a notable exception to this observation. This ceramic artist produced porcelain sound tubes, entitled ‘Harmony 空灵之声’, and an open rattle comprised of a glazed concave porcelain platter containing hundreds of tiny beads, ‘The Sound of Porcelain.’ This ethereal experiential work was part of the exhibition, Emptiness is Form, shown at The Ceramic House, May-June 2021. The embodied experience of activating these delicate works within the domestic context of the Ceramic House, accentuates the intimacy of the haptic and acoustic experience.
Interbeings’ fluid organisational structure and philosophic context underscores the transnational focus on non-duality. The curators aimed to embrace a position between or beyond national, material, and disciplinary boundaries. The concept of ‘inter-being’ is derived from a commentary on a Buddhist text, The Heart Sutra, by Thich Nhat Hanh, offering subtle and profound teachings on connectedness. Formulated during the Vietnam War, these ethical guidelines articulate traditional Buddhist morality and seek to empower individuals to accept and deal with challenging situations or events. Aplin and Young appropriated this concept as a methodology to explore the implicit cultural connections that bring together artists from very different backgrounds.
One may criticise this combination of the situated experience of life, esoteric Buddhist holism and relationality as an episteme that is blind to cultural differences, and the extra-local, present-absent forces of global capitalism, coloniality, ecocide2 and the patriarchy that organise it. Indeed, it could be argued that the violence of these extra-local, present-absent forces are a central and systemic aspect of the coexistence of majority of global citizens, and in certain cases, this coexistence is in part predicated on violence. But Interbeing acknowledges these extra-local, present-absent forces, and embraces the unequal hierarchies of domestic and institutional spaces for showing art, invisible and visible works of art, temporal and intemporal media, functional, sculptural, decorative forms, acoustic and digital experiences. A highlight is Yanze Jiang’s triptych of digital images that invokes Chinese scroll paintings. Shanshui • City • the Earth 山水-城市-尘世 is kaleidoscopic vortex of details of industrial ceramic filters that suggest cities and mountains. The filters are originally used to remove toxic gases and particulate matter from vehicle exhausts and improve air quality. Air pollution results in over 1,2 million deaths across China each year. In 2017, the annual average concentration of fine particulate matter across China was nearly six times over the World Health Organisation acceptable limits. Jiang’s work is a poetic assemblage of creation and destruction, speaking of the unspeakable – the Chinese Communist Party’ ecocide. Perhaps fittingly, the work was shown virtually in the Neither Increasing Nor Decreasing exhibition, 31 August – 31 October 2021.
The legacy of the Interbeing project includes remote residency opportunities for several established and emerging British and Chinese artists. It facilitated trans-national opportunities for communication, exchange, research, community, compositions, films, publications, and knowledge production. British audiences were introduced to original works by Chinese sound and ceramic artists, most of whom have never previously been seen or heard by local audiences. Similarly, Chinese and British audiences were introduced to Young’s Sonic Baton, and his original composition and performance that sonify the restrained movements of Tai Chi classes, filmed by Roswitha Chesher. But, perhaps the lasting legacy is a working creative methodology that responded to the chaos of a global pandemic. While many artists and curators retreated, languishing in a state of confused torpor, Aplin and Young continued, with a determination to ‘make it happen, regardless’… and they did, together.
1 Ceramic musical instruments include bells and rattles, resonant wind instruments including whistles, ocarinas, transversal and globular clay flutes, trumpets, horns, didgeridoo, percussion instruments (with or without membranes), stringed instruments (including banjos and violins), wanqin (碗琴, water-tuned porcelain bowls), singing bowls (activated by a wooden mallet), and the intriguing warbling hydraulic whistling jar that occurs in both ancient China and South America.
2 A growing movement that seeks to criminalise the mass damage and destruction of nature by governments and large corporations. It seeks to empower the International Criminal Court to penalise ecocide crimes. This would have a knock-on effect as an ecocide crime would require members of the International Criminal Court to enact their own national ecocide laws, and failure to enforce those laws would enable the international court to intervene.