a language of forms
Ben Orkin, DETAIL of work (2021)
Ben Orkin has been building form with clay for many years, having grown up surrounded by the objects of his mother, ceramicist Gemma Orkin. Since 2018, Orkin has been wholly dedicated to exploring clay. Mentored by Jane Alexander at Michaelis School of Fine Art (University of Cape Town), he graduated with a BFA in 2021 and has since had several solo exhibitions both locally and abroad. In 2022, Orkin attended the OÖ Landes-Kultur GmbH’s Academy of Ceramics residency program in Linz (Austria) and a body of his work showed at Miart’s Fiera Internazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea in Milan. Orkin’s hand-coiled works are something other than vessels, they are bodies, full of air and sensitivity. Orkin works in the corporeal-linguistic nexus (at the gentle, probing press between love and letters), exploring queer histories – from the quotidian to the grand, from tragic to triumphant. The erotics of protrusion and recession press through the clay and speak in soft voices like lovers.
b. 1998 (cape town, western cape)
a language of forms
Ben Orkin builds clay forms that fit together, like words that click into a sentence, making meaning in collaboration. This compiling of separate elements, like a drawing together of atoms, is essential to Orkin’s practice. The artist finds sense in the back and forth between forms, the intimacy of meaning-making. His clay bodies are interlocutors, lovers, or letters of an alphabet. His work bears witness to the sacred synapses between the earth and the hand, the body and the mind, the noun and the verb. The fruit of these connections is found in the tension between two things, vibrating at the centre. Orkin speaks into the absences of the 1980s peak of the global AIDS crisis and its impact on gay and bisexual men.
Orkin’s engagement with the inextinguishable power of language remembers the maxim Silence = Death. Orkin’s visual language binds together the gap between words, the convergence and divergence of lovers. It mends the holes in a threadbare language; it insists on oblique memorials and monuments to the future of intimacy. In many ways, Orkin’s practice has been his learning to express himself. The earlier works stand as utterances of what he did not yet know he wanted to say, voluminous letters of a gestating alphabet. The artist’s most recent clayworks showcase a generous lexicon that is increasingly developed and complex. Gently, in this fragmentary language, in this erotic absence and tantalising presence, in the gaps, the bodies of clay interact with each other, yearn for each other – they exist in dialogue, either opposing, completing, or simply touching one another. 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. How to have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach (2021) marks 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 sex and intimacy – our desires to touch, taunt, complete and reject each other.
“Orkin’s visual language binds together the gap between words, the convergence and divergence of lovers. It mends the holes in a threadbare language; it insists on oblique memorials and monuments to the future of intimacy.”
fig. ben orkin in studio (2022)
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contemporary clay from south africa
CLAY FORMES is the first of its kind: a survey of contemporary clay from South Africa. This volume, through exquisite photography and literary essays, showcases multiple generations of living South African artists, each innovating the potentialities of clay and ceramics. This publication offers enthusiasts and collectors a glimpse into the studios of thirty important South African artists and opens a window into the complexity of each body of work, revealing the richness of both contemporary clay and ceramic tradition within South African art.
This publication has sought to reflect its subject: to be as fluid as water and as weighty as earth. All this is done in the hopes of leaving behind a fresh approach to this manifold medium, and of presenting to the world the previously unexplored richness of sculptural clay in South Africa.