Singaporean ceramic artist Ng Yang Ce: pottery making and aesthetic value

30-year-old Singaporean ceramic artist Ng Yang Ce’s lively personality definitely shows through her vibrant works, a deviation from most painted ceramics which are usually more muted in colours. A young mummy of one, she speaks to SAINE about pottery making, how it has evolved in Asia in recent years and what she thinks the future holds for artists in Singapore.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you started on pottery making?

I got drawn to pottery making when I realized that I am capable of creating beautiful things with my own hands. The pleasure of satisfaction is undeniable.

Your works take a more vibrant and colourful direction. Where do you draw your inspiration from?

Perhaps vibrancy and colors also mean variations. I like designing my pots with textures and layering glazes. The glazes I choose may not necessary be glossy or bright colored but I enjoy overlapping these glazes to create surprising results. What I want to achieve is different shades and depths of colors.

I also like to tape out parts of the pot, as a resist technique to decorate the surface of my artworks. I like the idea of having glazed and unglazed parts within a singular piece. It gives a peculiar feeling when you see or touch it. You are able to feel the roughness of the naked clay along with the glossy glaze. The sense of touch, or the sense of weight of the artwork plays a big role in a collector’s decision to own it.

Do you think your pottery brings out the culture and heritage of Asia?

I have not quite tied my practice to the promotion of Asian culture and heritage yet. A cultural object is based on an accumulation of efforts of our forefathers over decades of time. Such artefacts have been deeply examined and researched, and have a significant value attached to it that corresponds to the nation’s history.

Perhaps what I can offer now for the next generation is to create my works ceaselessly in this lifetime to refine my craft and my personality. 

To the mainstream audience in Singapore, when we think of ceramists, we think of Iskandar Jalil. Are there other ceramists that you could introduce to us? 

My teacher is Steven Low Thia Kwang. He is recently being featured by the Straits Times in “30 Days of Art with NAC”. His works are mysterious, powerful and inspiring. Like his teacher, Mr Peter Low Hwee Min, and of course Mr Iskandar Jalil, they have devoted their lifetime to ceramic artistry.

There are several local artists who choose clay as their medium for expression for ceramic as their topic for research, and of course there are more uprising ones. I must say, at this point, if we only recognize Mr Iskandar’s style of work as the kind of work to represent Singapore, then perhaps we have restricted our perception and value of beauty. Perhaps we all have not done enough to promote other ceramic artists, or to give them the opportunity to create and explore. Or are we not promoting others, so as to uphold the current determined culture?

I would like to believe that our society is diverse, and that there should be more and more different ideas or variation of works out there. It would be weird if we are only restricted by one model.

That’s very well said. What do you think is the general perception of pottery in Singapore/Asia? Is there any misconception that you would like to correct or change? 

My parents’ generation prefers to use commercial wares. Table wares that are uniform, smooth and pretty looking. They reject those that are oval, uneven, unstackable, unglazed, rough or too organic looking. This was perhaps 5 to 10 years ago. But we are now seeing a shift. They are more receptive to using locally made wares. They know that the works are done with food-safe glazes and they are happy to eat off a unique piece of bowl or plate. 

My first misconception for ceramics is that wood firing or gas firing works are the best and must be priced the highest. Indeed, these two types of firing will give variation of results under a reduction atmosphere and one may not achieve it in an oxidation atmosphere (when you use electrical kiln).

These are rare finishing for a ceramic product, and there are time-consuming techniques and commitment involved in operating these firing methods. However, we must also look at the quality and condition of the work before determining the value of the work. Artistry has to come first. Knowing the background and practice of the artist may help consumers to understand the artistry of the work better. If not, a good form or shape, details and effort of the work, functioning values of the wares should be considered too. 

Another thing which I find weird is labeling. For example, by labelling handmade or local-made, the price of work may go higher even if the work is not necessarily of quality. In a way, consumers are happy to support local artists which is great, but artists need to question if we are doing our best to improve the standards of our work. I think we are all trying our best, and with the ‘pottery is the next yoga movement’, we have got many people to ‘touch’ clay. It is a good movement in a way. People do understand how difficult it may be to create an ideal bowl or plate. However, having said so, the overall perception of art aesthetics has to level up too. 

Have you ever thought of working on something else, besides pottery?

Oh yes. A singer perhaps. I do love to sing and perform sometimes. I draw for inspiration and teach once a week. I see teaching as a tool to understand my art form more. You understand something better when you teach. Forces me to put my ideas to words and to give me a good practice for speech too. 

Is there an age-old Asian beauty tip that you got from your mother or an older woman? 

Exercise more, or eat more veg? Definitely to work out daily or more. I would not say clay mask! I tried Korean clay mask before. It is quite cooling, but I am not sure about putting the clay I use on my face on a regular basis!

Is there a quote or life motto that you live by?

There is a crack in everything and that is how the lights get in – Leonard Cohen

The artist’s mission must not be to produce an irrefutable solution to a problem, but to compel us to love life in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations – Leo Tolstoy

Lastly, what do you think the future holds for Asian arts and artists? 

Might be challenging one but I am still positive. Studios were out of bound, and I wasn’t able to produce any pottery works during the Covid period because I did not want to work from home for the sake of my elders and son. However, having said so, I got back to production quickly after the circuit breaker and was rather motivated to create too. 2020 is the year for creation. A senior artist told me this towards the end of last year as a word of encouragement, and it turns out so very true. Hopefully when the Covid situation gets better and humans are less anxious, we get to travel again, this time to view a new and vibrant Asia. 

Check out more of Yang Ce’s works on her Instagram @synceramic. 

Photos of Yang Ce’s works credit to @happy60mins.

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