Books & Arts | Published:

Science in culture: Porcelain perception

Nature volume 440, page 424 (23 March 2006) | Download Citation


Not everything is as it seems in the ceramics of Pauline Wiertz.

Contemporary applied artists sometimes suppress any national or historic references in their work, perhaps to make it more universal and hence more appealing on the global fine-art market. Whatever the reason, much of the work exhibited at Collect, an international contemporary art fair held in London last month, was aesthetically unadventurous and almost ‘stateless’ in its lack of cultural interest.

One outstanding exception was the covetable slip-cast porcelain and earthenware exhibited by Dutch ceramist Pauline Wiertz. Unashamedly relishing her national artistic heritage, her recent work evokes the sumptuous still-life canvases of heaped fish, meat, fruit and vegetables familiar from the seventeenth-century ‘golden age’ of Dutch painting.

At first glance, Garnalen Cocktail (‘shrimp cocktail’) seems to be a typical assortment of marine species. Life-like pink prawns are heaped on lustrous black-glazed shells and starfish, and the piece is given height by an armature of what appears to be black coral prettily tipped with rose pink at the rear. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that Wiertz used severed chicken feet to cast the coral, although the shellfish were cast from real specimens.

Neither fish nor fowl: Pauline Wiertz uses chicken feet in Garnalen Cocktail. Image: R. ZIJLSTRA

This playful hoax echoes the contents of a seventeenth-century Wunderkammer, or chamber of wonders, a cabinet filled with curiosities by a wealthy, private collector. Although a Wunderkammer typically housed preserved animals, skeletons, horns and tusks, it might also include man-made oddities that mixed fact with fiction. The cabinet of Ole Worm (1588–1654), who taught medicine at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, contained a woolly fern masquerading as a ‘Scythian lamb’, thought to be a hybrid of a plant and a sheep.

In its verisimilitude, Wiertz's work resembles the eighteenth-century rococo porcelain produced by the Meissen factory in Germany. By using chicken feet to cast moulds for her ceramic coral, Wiertz encourages us to think about the nature of perception: if we expect to see coral in the context of other marine species, then that is what we will discern. There is also the hint of a wry comment on our contemporary preoccupation with the spread of the H5N1 strain of avian flu. This point is made more clearly in her appositely named Kippenpootjes (‘chicken legs’ or ‘chicken fever’), a series of individual chicken feet slip-cast in porcelain and colourfully glazed.

Wiertz's ceramics can be seen at the Galerie Terra Delft in the Netherlands from 25 March to 22 April.

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  1. Colin Martin is a writer based in London.

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