I grew up living beside the sea. Many of my childhood memories have the beach as a background and I used to love playing in the sand dunes at Murlough nature reserve in County Down, Northern Ireland. Walking on the shore I could easily get lost in the linear patterns on the tide coupled with those on the beach. The almost tessellated rhythmic memories of the water left after the waves receded and how the patterns seemed to become part of a bigger pattern when looking from a distance, always fascinated me.
Looking at sand has become somewhat of an obsession since moving to Dubai: its configurations are almost too innumerable to describe, on all sides an arid landscape surrounds and captivates me. Here there are so many beautiful beaches and I visit several of them regularly, but when I want to see and feel real astonishment I go to the desert. The arresting landscape of incredible sheer rises and extreme drops, creating unimaginably beautiful shadows of the majestic and impeccably sculpted sand dunes awe with their imposing yet mesmerizing meditative calm. They always appear so perfect, not a single grain out of place.
The intricacy of the random yet recurrent linear pattern on the surface of the dunes has a strangely familiar quality that is a synthesis of complexity and simplicity indivisible. Like a frozen wave the rippled surface echoes timelessly, its no wonder in Emirati Arabic there are more than 75 words for sand. Staring at these patterns I often see relationships between them, like murmurating birds they move and merge with each singular cell vital to the whole.
‘Reaction diffusion’ is a scientific theory explaining this and many similar phenomena. It is the way energy is diffused in systems in nature and it is the reason this type of texture appears in various ways over and over in our human experience. Once you recognize it, you begin to see it everywhere: on the landscape, in the oceans, on plants and animals, on our skin and in our bodies. The tip of the human finger is where this is most clear: it bears an almost exact similar textural surface to that of the dunes.
I cannot help but think that these thoughts, focusing on the substance of the essential material of the world is perhaps some type of benign infection specifically to do with being a ceramist;
Similarly, looking out the window of a plane and realizing the specific and distinct patterns that are seen on the landscape below are the same type of pattern that can been seen on the ground at your feet near or around water on a river’s edge or at the beach. These patterns appear at different scales, seemingly fractal in their nature. I often think about why these organic patterns are so mesmerizing; one of the reasons is their unrestricted flow, and whether I’m looking at an aerial photo of a huge river delta or a close-up of a human eye it is clear there is some perfect chaos at work. Another is the conspicuous lack of any truly straight lines or angles, yet the overwhelming feeling of some sublimely unfathomable infinite design, and the instant recognition, literally, that it’s all so familiar.
I cannot help but think that these thoughts, focusing on the substance of the essential material of the world, is perhaps some type of benign infection specifically to do with being a ceramist; the result of clay permeating my skin for years on end, subtly working its way through my cuts and scrapes into my very tissues rendering me somewhat obsessed with the ground in its various manifestations and my eventual return to it. One of the things that I enjoy most about being a ceramist is the fact that my work is truly composed of the earth, from its constituent components, from materials presumed to be of little value, inert, materials that are found everywhere. I love the idea that I’m literally creating solid beauty from the dirt, dirt in all its mundane glory. And just as ceramics are inexorably connected to the earth and all its various terrains, clay has played an unrivaled role in the history of human cultures, the very word culture is a synonym derived from the tilling of the soil. Even in their syntax words like agriculture, horticulture, or cultivating speak to the fact that earth is literally the stuff that we metaphorically and literally base ourselves on.
In September of 2017, the Abu Dhabi Music and Art Foundation invited me to a meeting where I was given an outline of the brief, which would be expanded on in later emails. The theme was ‘nature’ and could be interpreted by each artist individually. The Coriolis is a form I have been working on for several years and has become somewhat of a signature piece for me. Coriolis is of course referencing the 18th century engineer who gave his name to this phenomenon of force and motion, and I have at times placed two of these forms together so the idea of combining more modular multiples had interested me for some time. This commission was the opportunity I had been waiting for to take the idea to its fruition.
Working in rhino 3D, I created a model and played with the structure and scale before finalizing the design. Looking at various potentials 25 seemed like a large enough, if somewhat arbitrary, figure to work with and no doubt this number would create an arresting visual impression. I was also interested in varying the scale of individual forms to suggest sequence and an undulating movement: snake like alignment would further the feeling of flow within the piece. The next decision proved to be of pivotal serendipity; all 25 pieces would be displayed on a mirror, which would be integrated into the display pedestal. The reflective symmetry made each Coriolis into a figure of eight, literally evolving a new dimension. The length of the overall work was almost five meters and the final element, again somewhat by chance, was the addition of shadowing initially facilitated by the spotlights for another work.
the result of clay permeating my skin for years on end, subtly working its way ... into my very tissues rendering me somewhat obsessed with the ground in its various manifestations and my eventual return to it.
When exhibited I realized the overall voice of the work was narrating themes of time and memory, the cyclic nature of things, and of movement and vibration.
As a visual artist I have always attempted to engage the audience in a specific way – by trying to create a synthesis of new yet archetypal forms that possess a familiar but original gestalt. The real intention is to hack the brain of the viewer so there is a sense of instantaneous excitement and interest with the work well before a conscious evaluation; to like it even before you know it. It is not a process of doing some mental athematic whereby a calculation based on the visual is cross-referenced with the concept and a decision is made, it is prior to all of that. It is pre-cognitive.
The one thing about being raised a Catholic that always made immediate sense to me, when little else on first sight did, was the epistemological, existential poetry of the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”.
Michael Rice is a designer, artist and educator specializing in ceramics and, more recently, glass. He is an Associate Professor of Studio Art at the American University of Dubai and a member of the International Academy of Ceramics (IAC) based in Geneva. Rice is also the IAC UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) representative for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). He is particularly interested in terra-sigillata and firing techniques such as raku, smoke and saggar. His work is concerned with surface, tessellation, natural geometry and virtuosity.