There are porcelain urchins – each unglazed – lying on the floor of The Back Room KL gallery. Each one looks unique in colour, shape and detail. These urchins – 48 in total – are arranged on what appears to be beach sand.
A broken tree branch, painted in white, lies next to the urchins, giving the gallery space a beachside vibe. Above the urchins, supported by fishing lines, is a white mesh of fishing net, resembling a puffy cloud and descending from the cloud are ceramic raindrops, also held up by fishing lines.
There is also a soundscape of waves whispering in the background.
This is the dreamlike scene that will grab you at sculptor James Seet’s exhibition called Memories, which has transformed the small space at The Back Gallery KL into a mini wonderland of clay and porcelain works.
Memories is also Seet’s debut solo show in KL.
“I wanted to create something that is both visual and sensorial. I want people to interact with them. And many people actually picked up and interacted with the urchin pieces,” says Seet, 49, during an interview at the gallery.
“Some even texted me and told me that the particular piece they picked up reminded them of their first love or something from their past. So, it’s interesting for me to see these types of public reactions,” he adds.
This porcelain urchin series, which the artist completed in 2015 after a month-long residency (Medalta International Artist in Residence Programme) in Canada in 2013, carries with them small details and what Seet describes as “memory pockets”.
“The rain drops are little droplets of memories and underneath them are the urchins, which are pockets of memories in the sea of your mind,” he says.
Seet, an associate creative director in the advertising industry, has been sculpting clay works since 2000 and had his first group show in Alliance Francaise in Penang in 2004.
The KL-born artist studied Chinese brush painting when he was in school, and always planned to have a career in art since he was young.
“In advertising, I’m used to illustration work as well as design and conceptualisation. But some part of me still yearns for doing real art and exploring non-commercial works and ideas.”
Seet’s early training in ceramics came from an experienced local potter called Yeow Seng Cheah and international potter Margaret Fenn, who lived in Malaysia for a while.
“I also travelled to Fitzroy Falls, Australia to pot and learn with Neil Boughton, who specialises in lustrewares. During my time there, I experimented with different raku methods using lustre glazes.
“With all this informal knowledge, I started to explore on my own … with my own style and techniques.”
In his studio in Bukit Jalil in KL, Seet continues to create and experiment with clay works, which he calls his “3D canvas”.
“I am not a hobbyist. Being an artist is my night job, doing my long firings through the night and then go to work with my day job in the day. I am also helping to take care of my folks who are close to their 90s. So it’s really passion that drives me to work on my ceramics.”
The artist’s passion for his craft is clearly visible across this Memories exhibition, which features 53 clay and porcelain works.
Seet mentions that exhibiting his older works also meant revisiting some difficult past episodes.
“Two of the works were done at a painful time of my life. I just wanted to let things out and I expressed it through the clay. I remember working on the clay and turning the wheel vigorously due to how I was feeling,” recalls Seet, referring to Memories 1 and Memories 2 which he produced in 2011.
“Clay has memory and if done right can manifest itself during the firing process to create spiral cracks.”
Seet, who is an independent artist now, was attached to a Singapore gallery since 2015. He terminated the representation at the beginning of this year and shipped all his works back to Kuala Lumpur. Things are steadily moving ahead for Seet as he reintegrates in the art scene here.
“I’m looking to grow as an artist who isn’t just confined to producing works for art fairs. I want to develop my ideas. I did manage to do some public art in Malaysia on my own with the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) awareness project in 2015 and the (Tanahair) project I did last year for an arts hub in Iskandar Puteri (in Johor), which was inspired by the orang laut community,” says Seet.
Memories, which is a show supported by The Back Room KL and Richard Koh Fine Art, represents a keen restart for Seet in Malaysia.
“I will have a show with Richard Koh Fine Art next year with a total new series.”
The Memories exhibit has given Seet a spring in his step.
“When Liza Ho (the show’s curator and Back Room KL founder) approached me to do a show at her new gallery this year, I was thrilled and took up the offer. Liza loved some of my older works that were more abstract and asked if I was willing to exhibit them again.
“I said ‘yes’ because it feels right to have an exhibit to close out a previous chapter and to make a return here with a new chapter. I made three new pieces to compliment this show.”
In this show, Seet is clearly interested in the interaction process and he wants visitors to feel at home among his works.
“I want to explore interaction … where the public can touch and feel the installation works as well as the hanging installation. I’m hoping to evoke some feelings and memories – being good or bad – for the masses and to take them to a surreal space,” he says.