A VOLUMINOUS ALPHABET
A LANGUAGE OF FORMS
Words by Olivia Barrell
Photography by Charl Dettmer
What is Ben Orkin’s relationship with clay? In the encounters between artists and clay, we ask ourselves what the relationship might be that exists between them. The often sacred connection between earth and hand, the connection between body and mind — and the medium that bears witness to that. Or is the fruit of that connection, standing at the exact point of tension between two things. Orkin builds clay forms that fit beside or on top of other forms like words that fit into a sentence. Is this (this being modularity or the compiling of separate elements) not the basis upon which all language is built? The isolated forms that make letters that make words that then fit together for expressing oneself. In many ways, Orkin’s practice has been his learning to express himself.
‘Orkin builds clay forms that fit beside or on top of other forms like words that fit into a sentence. Is this (this being modularity or the compiling of separate elements) not the basis upon which all language is built?’
The earlier works stand as utterances of what he didn’t yet know he wanted to say. Voluminous letters of a forming alphabet. The artist’s most recent works showcase a lexicon that is increasingly developed and complex. To understand Orkin’s work is to understand its adjacency to language but to really identify with it is to identify with the boundaries of language. The constant opening-and-closing-up of our own voices — those particular voices whose cords run back into our mouths, down our throats to the deep, wordless parts of ourselves.
Each sound expressed from this place unfurls with some discomfort, tugging at us as it takes shape. Orkin’s work rolls out in different forms, singular pieces or full sentences, but the works always emerge from the same place — a liminal space between the artist’s own thoughts and words. Orkin does not simply insert himself into the works, the pieces are himself, parts of himself with something to say.
‘To understand Orkin’s work is to understand its adjacency to language but to really identify with it is to identify with the boundaries of language. The constant opening-and-closing-up of our own voices — those particular voices whose cords run back into our mouths, down our throats to the deep, wordless parts of ourselves.’
Orkin creates an entire language of forms; holes, protrusions, spikes, rings, ridges, and grooves. “Often when I feel something, I think of it in a shape,” says the artist. “The spikes and protrusions reject. The holes allow infection, they are vulnerable.” They stand as malleable semi-colons between thought and expression. Other than elements of language, the works stand as clay bodies, or some merely as limbs, full of air and sensitivity. Orkin names his pieces:
‘His words are like fruit on a tree’ (2022)
‘Please don’t do that again’ (2021)
‘You told me
you didn’t know who you are
but I told you
I love who you are
and then you told me
you loved me
so I asked
how you knew you loved me
if you didn’t even know
who you are.’ (2019)
‘Ben Orkin does not build forms that he sees in his mind. He builds forms that he feels. It is not work that is in constant pursuit of perfection. It tumbles out untethered and emotive. Orkin’s relationship with clay is a relationship with himself.’
The bodies of clay interact with each other — they exist in dialogue, either opposing, completing, or simply touching one another. Not inert ceramic objects or formed from a shallow place, the works are sentient in their vulnerability. There is a tenderness held close to them that reveals intimacies about their maker. The sensual curves of a body that is recognisably male. That is both dressed in drag and unclad. The forms speak to each other in shape, colour and texture. ‘How to have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach’ marked a high point in Orkin’s communication through clay: thirty-one separate pieces that were conceived in relation to one another. This body of work expresses so much of a community’s thoughts on erotic and intimate interaction. Our desires to touch, taunt, complete and reject each other.
Ben Orkin, How to have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, 2021.
‘This body of work expresses so much of a community’s thoughts on erotic and intimate interaction. Our desires to touch, taunt, complete and reject each other.’
Orkin’s pieces are quietly ambitious. Each one has been sealed off yet is hollow inside. They appear solid and weighty in their earthiness but they carry air — almost as clay balloons they give form to that which is inside of them. Vulnerability held together by a thin film or the glaze acting as a seal. Perhaps it is the barrier of where language cannot go. To quote the poetic form of Snehal Vadher who said, “as if what I wanted to say most would be lost in the saying.” Orkin’s work is not in the constant pursuit of perfection. The works tumble out untethered and emotive. For the artist’s relationship with clay is a relationship with himself. Ben Orkin does not simply build form with clay. He speaks with it.
‘Ben Orkin does not build form with clay, he speaks with it. Or rather, it is in this earthy substance that he has found his voice.’
1 Extract from Snehal Vadher’s ‘Figures in a Windswept Language’
Sculptor Ben Orkin has been building form with clay for many years, having grown up around the objects of his mother, South African ceramicist Gemma Orkin. Fully dedicated to explorations and expressions in this medium since 2018, Ben Orkin’s hand-coiled works are something other than vessels, they are bodies. Breathing bodies, full of air and sensitivity. Bodies that murmur and interact with each other. Each piece is hollow and almost entirely sealed off, holding air. Orkin graduated from Cape Town’s Michaelis School of Fine Art in 2021 and has had several solo exhibitions both locally and abroad. Orkin recently attended the OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH’s Academy of Ceramics residency program in Linz, Austria.