Malaysian sculptor tackles social issues, climate concerns through ceramic art


A close-up detail of James Seet's sculpture work 'Issues: Shark Fin' (ceramics, 2019). Photo: Allen Dang

When artist James Seet creates his ceramic sculptures, he happily paints outside the metaphorical lines.

Challenging preconceptions of what can be achieved with clay, he has presented ceramic works in past exhibitions that float on water, can be played as musical instruments, and incorporate elements from the natural world in unexpected ways.

“What spurs me to experiment and push the boundaries of ceramics as a medium is my desire to create something unique and meaningful. Ceramics are often seen as purely decorative, but I believe that they have the potential to be so much more. The sense of movement and fluidity in my sculptures is intentional, as I want to convey a sense of life and energy in what is traditionally seen as a static medium," says Seet.

"To achieve this effect, I experiment with different textures and glazes, as well as the shapes and forms of the sculptures themselves. The goal is to create a sense of dynamic tension, as if the sculptures are frozen in motion,” he adds.

James Seet says that the sense of movement and fluidity in his sculptures is intentional, as he wants to convey a sense of life and energy in what is traditionally seen as a static medium. Photo: James SeetJames Seet says that the sense of movement and fluidity in his sculptures is intentional, as he wants to convey a sense of life and energy in what is traditionally seen as a static medium. Photo: James Seet

This time, he invites everyone to get on their hands and knees to examine his latest creations at The Back Room gallery at the Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur. His ceramic “geodes” might look nice and shiny from afar, but it is only when you crouch and peer into the hollow, that you are hit with the full impact of this series.

Issues is Seet’s third solo exhibition, a showcase of nine ceramic sculptures with each representing a contemporary social issue: plastic pollution, shark finning, overpopulation, deforestation, nuclear weapons, marijuana legalisation, abortion, homophobia and global warming.

These sculptures resemble geodes, with a thick outer shell enclosing a dense interior containing miniature representations of the social issue it represents.

For instance, overpopulation is represented by endless miniature houses; global warming shows polar bears separated by the melting ice caps; plastic bottles fully line the inside of one sculpture; and in another, a sea of triangular shark fins remind us about the controversy surrounding their use.

A general view of artist James Seet's 'Issues' exhibition at The Back Room gallery, Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Back RoomA general view of artist James Seet's 'Issues' exhibition at The Back Room gallery, Zhongshan building in Kuala Lumpur. Photo: The Back Room

“I want visitors to interact with these pieces in a way that makes them think and feel. The sculptures that require viewers to get on their hands and knees are meant to simulate the experience of having to dig deep and explore the hidden depths of these issues. By getting close to the sculptures, viewers can see the details and intricacies of each piece and understand the complexity of the problems they represent,” says Seet, who began working with clay in the early 2000s, with guidance from an experienced local potter Yeow Seng Cheah and international potter Margaret Fenn.

Pushing the boundaries

His sculptures were created before the pandemic and initially scheduled to be shown in 2020. However, Seet felt it was more meaningful to present another series of work, shown in Wobbly Sabi (2020) at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur, to inspire resilience and seek beauty in the imperfect, during a difficult time for the entire world.

“But as we come out of the pandemic, regrettably I am seeing all the issues before have resurfaced and some have even worsened. Thus, this show is still relevant and as an artist, my core belief that art should be a tool for change has remained constant.

"In this exhibition, I wanted to push the boundaries of ceramics as a medium by exploring new ways of presentation and going beyond. For me, it is all about the purpose, the intention, the meaningful way to tell the story,” he says.

A close-up with of James Seet's 'Issues: Global Warming' (ceramics, 2019). Photo:  Allen DangA close-up with of James Seet's 'Issues: Global Warming' (ceramics, 2019). Photo: Allen Dang

Currently, Seet also hosts a Chinese-language podcast on Astro Radio, where he interviews local artists and talks about art,

In 2022, he published his artist book, Ceramic Alchemy, which narrates the story of his artistic practice from his early years until the present day.

‘Issues’ is fuelled by his desire to highlight social issues that are often swept under the rug.

“I was also inspired by the Malay proverb, ‘ada udang di sebalik batu’. It is an act of choice as perhaps we don’t see them because we choose not to. Presenting the issues in this manner engages the viewer to explore the depth of each matter within their own space and level of belief.

"The sculptures resemble geodes with ‘crystals’ within, because crystals grow larger with time, as issues do too if they are ignored. The arrangements evoke the feeling of eeriness, in hopes of provoking thought to change and perhaps even changing actions,” he says.

James Seet's 'Issues: Plastics' (ceramics, 2019).  Photo: Allen DangJames Seet's 'Issues: Plastics' (ceramics, 2019). Photo: Allen Dang

If his sculptures could speak, Seet imagines they would implore everyone to make a change today.

“I imagine they would say that here are the issues, in your face, for you to see the scope and impact of each problem. Will you continue to ignore it, or do something about it now?” says the artist.

“I hope that visitors will take home a greater awareness of the social issues that the sculptures represent and feel inspired to take action in their own lives to effect change.

"The message I hope to convey is that these issues are not just abstract concepts, but real problems that affect us all, and that each of us has a role to play in addressing them,” he concludes.

James Seet's ‘Issues’ is on at The Back Room at Zhongshan Building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur, till May 6. More info here.

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