The last thing you would expect to see at a ceramic art exhibition is a single white eyeball staring at you from a pile of broken clay pieces on the floor.
It was supposed to be part of a sculpture with three eyes – but it was never meant to be; it exploded in the kiln, and as with clay works that go wrong at this stage, was not salvageable.
But Douglas Ho, the man behind this minimalist Tao Tie exhibition at Lostgens’ Contemporary Art Space in Kuala Lumpur, was unfazed. Having worked with clay before, he is no stranger to its erratic behaviour. In fact, this is precisely what draws him to it.
“I like the unpredictability you get with clay. There is no shortcut to building your sculpture, and even then, it might not survive the firing process. You learn a lot about being patient and humble, which I think keeps my ego in check,” he says with a laugh at the gallery earlier this week.
By day, Ho is a freelance art director/planner. He had a solo photography exhibition in KL in 2008.
Tao Tie at Lostgens’, the first solo exhibition featuring his ceramic works, combines several elements in its attempt to offer visitors an immersive experience.
Ho’s clay pieces are as lovely as they come, taking on the form of creatures great and small and fantastical. The viewing is accompanied by incense wafting in the air.
There are also photographs on the walls where two models, a man and a woman, pose with some of his pottery – most of them yet to be fired.
These prints lend a darker vibe to the show, all red and black and earth, energy, instinct and intuition. Ho calls it primal, ancient. It feels like what he is trying to do is to tap into what is unseen, but not forgotten.
“My art is influenced by animism and mythology, these elements have always served as inspiration in my creations,” he shares.
Little surprise then that the exhibition title itself is a reference to a mysterious beast with a huge mouth, from ancient Chinese mythology. Its greed and gluttony knows no bounds. It is even said to be unable to resist devouring itself.
The Tao Tie motif is often found on bronze vessels from the Shang Dynasty, in its distinctive zoomorphic masked depiction, sometimes with no lower jaw; mouth infinitely agape to serve its insatiable capacity for eating.
“I use it as a metaphor, comparing its depiction as a savage glutton to my hunger for exploring the potential of clay, my chosen medium. In this exhibition, I have both my older works, which were inspired by mythology, and new works, which signify the present, and with it, the power of introspection,” says Ho.
Tao Tie is also a play on words, with the Chinese word for clay pronounced “tao” and “tie” referencing glutton.
“When you combine both words, it suggests meanings such as ‘the feast of clay’ or ‘the greediness within clay’,” he explains.
The process of learning and refining his craft is a journey he is committed to taking. No doubt, it is exciting to see ideas and thoughts taking form, but Ho shares that the more time he spends with clay, the more intrigued he gets with the creation process.
“Many of my recent sculptures exploded while they were being fired. It is kind of traumatic for me when that happens, but it also made me look beyond just the ‘successful’ outcomes.
“This was the driving force behind my newest batch of sculptures in this exhibition, which are more abstract and emotional. I also decided to exhibit some of the discarded clay pieces too. To me, they are a manifestation of self-acceptance,” he says.
So that is why there is an eyeball on the floor at Lostgens’.
Ho is at peace with himself, even as he chases the infinite possibilities that clay can offer.
Tao Tie is presented by Lostgens’ and Diam, a creative platform.