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Eugene Hön:   “…and the ship sails on” 

This was a remarkable exhibition by an artist that straddles the disciplines of ceramics, sculpture, drawing, artist’s books, digital printing, animation, video or digital projection Installation and ultimately design.

Hön has always been an artist that challenged the boundaries of the accepted canons of visual production, but not in an aggressive and confrontational way, but rather in an intellectual and aesthetic manner that has forced purists of Fine Arts or Ceramics each to admit that there was room for the other and in fact for a hybridization of mediums and forms. He has for years made ceramics like a sculptor, created decals and embellishments like a draftsman or printmaker and has taken his fastidiousness as teacher and designer into his ceramic sculpture.

This exhibition was a second iteration of this body of work, - the first being part of the Collaborations/Articulations exhibition at University of Jhb’s FADA Gallery last year. At that showing, Hön and his collaborator Lukasz Pater began to marry the mediums of drawing, animation and ceramic sculpture into an installation. This was arguably the most successful of the collaborations on that show, but still had a tentative feel about it, and the viewer was left feeling that this collaboration could deliver much more. In this exhibition, the ‘more’ has arrived. The technical aspects of the animation and projection had been resolved and were accompanied by another whole body of work that referenced the initial installation. The result of which was an elegant, beautiful, thoughtful and provocative exhibition.  Hön has challenged the norms by mixing it up and combining aspects of creative practice in a way that may be seen as heretical to either camp but ultimately, in a Post - Modern way, works as good visual practice. I was reminded of the opening lines of Wilma Cruise’s catalogue on Earthworks/Claybodies (2003:3) in which she articulates the struggle of the visual artist in particular with reference to material. She says ‘…it is my contention that whatever the medium the artist uses, be it digital technology or humble clay, the medium should not dictate. It is merely the tool by which the artist wrestles with his/her particular demons” So thereby the role of the artist as visual thinker becomes more important than the sacredness of the material or medium being used. In this work, Hön fuses mediums into a hybrid that is at once ceramic/sculpture and projection. Similarly drawing becomes digital print, which becomes artist’s book. 

Hön speaks of this in his article on the ‘Ceramic Surface’ in ArtSA “ …I did not want the ceramic installation to act merely as a canvas for the projection. Rather, the entire work had to reinforce the rich tradition of ceramic discourse. It was vital that the animation embody aspects of the craft of ceramics in its use of symbols, colours, shapes and textures. The animation was at first treated as a surface development exercise realized through preliminary pen drawings. Viewing the projected animation as a surface pattern and the ceramic installation as merely a canvas would have been a travesty, and hence the animation took center stage, clinging to the ceramic installation of slip cast decoy ducks in a new and exciting way – reinforcing the three-dimensionality of the final statement.” (2011:56)

In his exploration of traditional Japanese motifs such as water, sea, fire and the dragon itself, Hön makes them his own as they are not merely lifted from historical vases and vessels, but are hand drawn in an obsessive act of almost automatic drawing with layer after layer of crosshatched ballpoint pen lines employed to capture the form in exquisite beauty. His dragon, with the help of Pater, becomes animated, moving, revealing and concealing the ground plane and the decoy ducks in a manner that is both beautiful and beguiling. The viewer is drawn into the narrative of movement across the surface, we rest when forms are revealed and we journey on once the animation continue on its mesmerizing looped journey.

The title of the show refers to the acclaimed film “…and the ship sails on” (1983) by Frederico Fellini which engages with passage of time, history and ultimately with change. Hön’s work similarly references the state of craft and in fact art too, that as a reflection of history, signifies the passage of time and heralds the notion of change. In all this while, craft, art and the visual experience like Fellini’s ship sails on… even if the end result is something out of place and unusual … a bit like the narrator and rhinoceros in a rowing boat at sea that concludes the film.

There is a power in the making of beautiful objects that move beyond utilitarian function and that function as enticing autonomous objects. This power is in the hands of the artist resulting in an exquisite visual experience magnificently presented in the jewelry display cases at (NAME) an elegant, upmarket venue at Melrose Arch – yet another shift of boundary by Hön, in crossing the norms of showing artwork or craft in a gallery, but this time choosing an alternate space and designing his show accordingly.

Gordon Froud


  • Cruise, W. Earthworks / Claybodies 2003 Johannesburg: Novel Promotions.
  • Hön, E. The Ceramic Surface. In: LAW – VILJOEN, B. ArtsouthafricaVolume 10 issue 02 , Summer 2011. Cape Town: Bell – Roberts. Pp56 - 57

Solo Exhibition by Eugene Hön: ‘and the ship sails on’
A solo exhibition of ceramics, jewellery, drawings, artists books, projections.
Elegance Jewellers, Melrose Arch Johannesburg
There is something compelling and disturbing about beauty.  Beautiful objects; ‘idols’ are made to be self-contained, self-referential, self-sufficient. They are valued for their own sake rather than for their function or utility.  An object imbued with beauty detaches itself from its function and ultimately from its maker and in the process makes itself complete asserting its autonomy.  For this reason, objects that possess beauty have an uncanny hold over human beings because they, like us seem autonomous. Idols, unlike fetishes and totems, as WJT Mitchell argues in his book What Do Pictures Want? The Lives and Loves of Images, are objects so beautiful that they possess extraordinarily seductive powers, the ability to make demands on us humans. They entice their viewers, collectors, owners, lovers. Idols want more than just love and fidelity. Like the deities they often represent, idols crave worship and human sacrifice! One would guess, following Mitchell, that objects of extreme beauty appear to us humans as quintessentially self-aware which makes them powerfully seductive.  It is no wonder then that throughout history exquisite objects have fascinated and seduced and ultimately posed a threat to the authority of the rich and powerful. What better symbol to encapsulate the power of the exquisitely beautiful image, the image as idol, the sublime capacities of terrible beauty than the archetypal Chinese Dragon?  And what better art to embody the idea of beauty, idolatry, autonomy and self-containment than that of ceramic practice? Eugene Hön latest body of work is committed to and celebrates this idea of the power of beauty. 
What strikes one in engaging with Hön’s work is his fascination with the creative process. This is especially evident in his sketchbooks where the artist’s marks, notations, visual references comingle into painstakingly rendered forms that are pregnant with symbolism and beauty. The process of drawing for Hön is analogous to a crucible for form making or better yet the work of the kiln. The exquisitely cross-hatched ball point sketches seem to evolve automatically (in the Surrealist sense) with each skein of mark-making carefully overlaid with the next to produce an enigmatic form. Paging through his books it is as if the symbols and forms congeal and manifest on page through the chemistry of heat, wind and water.  Hön’s sketchbook forms remind one of the way in which currents the movement of water, wind, fire shape forms. The forms on these pages, although they are ‘designed’, appear to have manifested from natural processes reminiscent of Da Vinci’s seemingly effortless studies of water, knots, plants and clouds. And the ship sails on, a ceramic installation first presented at the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture Collaborations/Articulationsexhibition in 2012, now reformulated as a projection provides a generous insight into the artist’s modus operandi. Hön is able to integrate all of elements of his practice: sketches, formal designs, ceramic practice and now motion into seamless, aesthetic wholes.  Whether Hön is experimenting with the ceramic surface, designing jewellery, his work is a testament to fascination provoked by beautiful forms. 

Neglect, regeneration
However, that being said, it may be argued as Peter Dormer has, in his introduction to The Culture of Craftthat crafts such ceramic practice, are modes of human endeavour that are largely neglected today because of industrialisation, mass production, modernity and more recently post modernity. Under the spectre of modernity, the ceramicist thus seems to signify a certain arcadian nostalgia and loss; a yearning for time when art was linked to authenticity, truth, beauty and virtue. For many, the crafted object epitomises John Ruskin and William Morris’s ‘old world’; a time when consumable objects were not the product of alienated labour or the machine, when there was a possibility that the beauty and embellishment monopolised by the aristocracy could find its purchase everywhere. Specifically, the ceramicist today emblematises through the complexity of their individual labour a time when the relationship between human and object was more direct, unaffected, immediate and sensuous.  One thinks here, for example, of Jose Saramago’s humble, elderly potter character Cipriano Algor in The Cavewho, in the face of the proliferation of inexpensive plastic kitchenware gives up his practice, retires and and moves to the metropolis and ultimately alienates himself from his own existence.    Similar to this is A.S. Byatt’s tempestuous character, the master ceramicist Benedict Fludd who, in The Children’s Book, is plagued by violent self-doubt because, as the novel implies, his identity as a ceramicist has been made redundant by the emergence of art Nouveau, the fashion industry, the industrialisation of culture, mass production at the turn of the 19th century.  The title of the exhibition registers these difficulties with resonance. And the ship sails on, as a title, is at once an assertive and a resigned statement. On the one hand it laments the disappearance of craft and ceramics in an industrial society and on the other hand it assertively resists this. 
Craft, rhythm and disruption
For Hön, ceramics must ‘sail on’. However, for him, it seems, in order to do this it must somehow simultaneously retain its commitment to humanity and history and evolve to address a new set of societal conditions where mass production, standardisation, high technology and cultural fragmentation are the norm. It is no surprise, given his optimism around an expanded practice of ceramics, that Hön evokes the symbol of the Dragon, an image that, in essence, represents the generative principle of life (creator of rain, fertility, the lengthening of warm days, rhythm), the pure product of imagination (bird, snake, pig, rainbow, water, deer, demon, crab, carp, ox); a symbol that is known to unite opposites- pattern and chaos, death and life, the old and the new, creation and destruction, anima and animus within itself. It is notable that in his ceramic installation And the ship sails onthe dragon is cast as a playful, trickster figure that enters into the static, duck decoy ceramic configuration and disrupts the uniformity of the ceramic installation with its playful and rhythmic embellishments. In a simple gesture, Hön dramatises the dragon as a figure that disrupts tradition, in this case the tradition of surface decoration in ceramic practice. Hön’s recent interest in animating the ceramic surface and employing ceramic thinking as a catalyst for other forms of form-making such as body adornment, photography, the artist’s book speaks powerfully to Hön’s commitment to the relevance of beauty and craft in contemporary society.  
Brenden Gray


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