an exhibition from afar

an exhibition from afar

Jenny Judge is a contemporary craft artist working in glass, ceramics, mold-making, cement, and fiber installation. She holds an MFA in sculpture from the University of Minnesota and resides in Whistler BC.  Jenny combines her materials to comment on the familiar: perhaps a fleeting observation, a hunch, or a simple encounter. She has exhibited her work within Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, South Korea, France, Ireland, Scotland, and the United States.

About participating in the Korean International Ceramic Biennale (during the Pandemic)

There are a lot of reasons to apply to send your work overseas: it adds dimension to your CV, allows you to pit yourself against the best in the field, and gives you a deadline to work towards. With deadlines in scarce supply during our COVID lockdowns, I decided to apply for overseas exhibitions – besides, if I couldn’t travel, maybe my work could!

In 2009, my work was accepted into The International Craft Biennale in Cheongju, South Korea, and the trip I took to install my work was an amazing opportunity and unparalleled cultural experience. I was hosted by a local family who showed me great hospitality, I was able to work in the gallery and have control over how my work was displayed, and I was in constant face-to-face contact with organisers and curators as the exhibition unfolded.

Twelve years later in 2021, when my work was chosen for the Korean International Ceramic Biennale, the international exhibition experience couldn’t have been more different. From an expensive shipping misadventure to a few surprises with how my work was displayed, I’ve come out the other side looking at my own work with fresh eyes, in a way I never expected.

On the making of “My Mothers Button Collection” 2021
carnival cotton candy - wonderments & materiality exhibition 2019

Leading up to the pandemic I had shifted my practice from plaster and glass to ceramics. I have spent a lifetime working with clay: from formal wheel throwing classes to using it as a material in mold making for kiln-cast glass, I also taught ceramics in the sculpture department of a high school. That being said, it was a deviation from my usual materials and something slightly different for me.

I had just finished the ‘Wonderment Series’ where I used plastic vacuum-formed molds made from 3D prints, so I decided I would try them out with clay. After a few failed attempts, I found that thin layers of paper clay worked well, and I began making a large number of forms that were similar in concept to my earlier work.

I was intrigued by how thin I could make the pieces and how their fragility reminded me of eggshells. I pushed the boundaries of how many holes I could make in the forms before they crumbled; I wanted to see how far I could take the notion of fragility and deterioration. At this point, I did not know where the work was moving conceptually, but I felt that the materiality of the thin paper-clay was speaking through the sculptures I was making.

I discovered my mother’s button collection when I was taking a break one day, sorting through boxes of old sewing supplies. Like many people during COVID, I found myself trying to regain control of the situation by organising my home. I knew that the buttons I found were somehow important to my work, but I wasn’t quite sure why, so I brought them up to my studio.

work in progress, 2021

As my collection of clay experiments grew in numbers, I started noticing how the fragility of the surface reminded me of the thinness of skin, particularly of my elderly mother whose skin had thinned over the years. Out of the blue, in one of those synchronistic moments, I grabbed a button and put it next to the fragile form, creating a compelling juxtaposition.

detail - button sewn on

Her buttons – the ones that took me down memory lane, that belonged to an outfit she remembered with great clarity in one of her lucid moments – belonged with the forms. The two concepts gelled together and I began to sew her button collection directly onto the work. The gaps I created in the forms became metaphors for forgotten memories: the memories that disappeared as my mother’s Parkinson’s disease dementia became more and more prevalent. I used gold lustre to accentuate them, to honour the misplaced memories, and then I began to sew her button collection into those gaps.

 

The work (72 pieces in all) began to take shape on the wall, and I placed the more complete forms at the top while the disintegrating ones took over the middle all the way down to the shards at the bottom – like a deteriorating memory or body. I placed the work against a white wall thinking that I liked the subtlety of the work appearing and disappearing against the surface; each piece hovered on the edge of a pin creating a shadow against the wall. It was a physically fragile installation but was a strong statement about how the memory can fade and yet also be very present. I titled it “My Mother’s Button Collection” 2021.

acceptance, shipping – the details

The Korean International Ceramics Biennale is a well-oiled machine and has been running since 2001. Of course, it was a little bit different this year because it was occurring during a pandemic. All of the communication was from afar, and the world had not opened up so I would not be able to travel to the venue.

I found out I had been accepted in a bit of a roundabout way: I was among 76 other artists who were on a list published on their website. Assuming I had not been accepted, I didn’t read the list very closely, which resulted in me missing my own name. A few days later I received the formal invitation to participate, which was a nice surprise as I had assumed the email was actually a rejection – it’s a good thing that I decided to read it!

Then it hit me: how was I going to get the work to Korea, and wade through the multitude of pages and contracts necessary for participation? In all of the international exhibitions I have been involved in, the shipping was always for smaller works, and I was able to be present for their installation. This piece ended up being a collection of 72 very fragile ceramic forms, and I had to assume I would not be able to travel and help set it up, so it had to be packaged appropriately.

 

I constructed a template for the placement of the pieces on the wall, gave detailed instructions with each individual form carefully numbered, and I took many photographs of the piece. I had packaged it all in a double-sturdy cardboard box with layers of foam but was advised to send it by wood crate. PACART was instrumental in helping me with the crate (I was up against a deadline) and with the logistics of having the work sent over. There was a lot of international paperwork so I paid for their services to make sure it all went smoothly.

The bombshell came with the price of freight to Korea, as well as the additional cost of having an agent at the other end to receive it. Thanks to COVID this incurred heavy charges – no, not hundreds of dollars… keep going up. In fact, I had to pay so much I am embarrassed to write about it! But, let this be a warning to any of you sending work overseas, it can be very expensive. I had to balance out the price I was going to pay for the total shipping costs with the experience and opportunity of being involved in an exciting exhibition. You all know the route I took.

I was relieved when I received a note that it arrived within the two-week window and that they were unpacking it. A few days later that relief was shattered when another email arrived saying that one of the pieces was broken, and they were not able to display the work (yes, a moment of panic here, and a lot of deep breathing). I decided a phone call was needed and after seeing photographs of the break (which was very minor), I convinced them to fix the piece, as that is what I would have done if I had been there. It took a little bit to convince them to ‘let it be’ and defend that deterioration was part of the concept. Luckily, the broken piece was near the bottom and fit in nicely with the shards of ceramics that were already placed there.

Another few weeks had passed and I was sent photographs of the work being installed. It took a team of five, and I do not envy anybody who has to install my work without me around, as it’s complicated! They did a superb job. It was on the wall a little lower than I would have placed it…and the wall…instead of a subtle white against white, it was FUCHSIA PINK!!! That was the biggest surprise of all.

Initially, I was breathless, but then it sunk in: what have I learned above all in these days of COVID? The months of planning events or travel, the un-planning, the going-with-the flow, and giving in and accepting that it is what it is. The pink started to grow on me, and perhaps the piece did not need the white backdrop of subtlety. It was a nice shift away from the Modernist gallery wall I was used to, and the forms were stronger against the unexpected colour – it gave them more outline, more of a role in the piece. By giving up control and not being there for the installation, the work gained a new life, and I must say – this lesson may have made the price of shipping worthwhile.

exhibiting at the biennale

I am slowly seeing the pictures of the exhibition that are making their way across Instagram and other social media, and I now understand that the International Competition is only one facet of what the museum represents. It is a whole institution devoted to ceramics, its history, and its future.

With the huge effort of a newly renovated museum in Gyeonggi, the exhibition has now been extended until April 31st – fingers crossed, maybe I will be able to travel to Korea before the exhibition closes!

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