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A Curious Calling: Bonnie Kemske

We speak to a tactile sculptor who believes touch is what makes the world go round

Written by . Published on December 5th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Bonnie Kemske

HOODIES and Staffies aren’t the only ones in need of hugs. ‘At least hug your family!’ might be another worthwhile campaign. As a culture we are so starved of hugs, so scared of them, that volunteers are taking it upon themselves to provide us with much needed affection. Figure out where they got all the excess and the campaign might make some progress.

Dr. Bonnie Kemske gives people their hug-fix in an entirely different way. Bonnie’s sculptures are not art objects but art experiences, created to be held. Bonnie’s concept of ‘grounded sensuality’ means going deeper than our sight-centric, dualistic culture and getting ‘back in touch’, literally. She is also the editor of Ceramics Review.

I sit naked in the studio with these huge, latex balloons filled with liquid plaster and I hug them until they set. I use my legs, my arms, my head.

You make your sculptures with your body?
I was working as a ceramicist making sculptures that were very textured. That came from my training in Japanese tea ceremony – you handle all the ceramics. There are no handles that distance you from it. You caress the bowl. You cradle the bowl that cradles the tea. I applied to do a research degree looking at texture. I realised it wasn’t about texture, it was about touch – coming at it from the other angle. I began to investigate what touch is; what happens in the body when you touch? What’s this experience that we have?


Was it different to what you’d expected?
I learnt that across the body there isn’t a sense of touch, there are about 28 senses of touch. They’re all different receptors. To perceive pain uses a different nerve than to perceive cold, which is also different to hot. They certainly overlap and sometimes the neurons double up. There’s even a touch that the press called ‘The Lover’s Caress’. It’s a very, very light touch.

And you wanted to make ceramics that affected these different senses?
We always touch ceramics with our hands – the sink when we’re brushing our teeth, our coffee cup. I decided to find ways of engaging the rest of the body. I had a conversation with an anthropologist at the British museum about African pots and the women who make them. He mentioned that in the tribe he studied, the women made pots to fit their bodies to make them easier to carry. I thought I’d make sculptural works to fit the body. I made a body cast of myself sitting down and started building things on it. But they were still incredibly visual. I wanted them to be tactile.

How did you make them tactile?
I went to Japan on exchange and I didn’t have the body-cast so started to build the clay against me. The first thing I realised was it was warming up, responding to me. As I was holding these things I began to sense it was sort of part of me. Here I was, the subject, the ‘I’, and there was this thing I was creating, this object, this thing. But when I was holding it, there was a blur between the subject and object. I realised this gave me an amazing sense of groundedness. In the end I called it ‘grounded sensuality’.

Do you think our culture removes us from objects?
We live in a culture that’s starved for touch. You can see it all over. Amma, the Indian holy woman who goes around the world giving hugs has been here this week with the free hug campaign that has gone around the world. I’m creating objects so there’s none of the personal boundary issues. You have to feel safe in order for touch to be a positive experience.


Kemske-Hug In Exhibition1

How do you make them?
I sit naked in the studio with these huge, latex balloons filled with liquid plaster and I hug them until they set. I use my legs, my arms, my head. It takes a fair amount of force. It takes about twenty minutes and the plaster gets hot as it begins to set. I got burnt on one of the casts I did. Then I take a mold of the cast, fill it, make it in clay and texture it. Your hands are so receptive to texture.


Some of them look a bit like living creatures...
It was quite important to me that they weren’t figurative, although all the curves echo body shapes. If it’s too figurative or looks too much like a creature then people won’t have the same sense of it becoming part of them when they hug it. It’ll be Other.


Do they project themselves onto it?
That’s a big part of my thinking. I feel that it’s a tactile mirror. Like a visual mirror, where you see your reflection. You get back what you put into it. It begins to respond to you even though it’s made out of fired clay. It doesn’t do anything. It reacts to you. You wouldn’t believe what people say: “It doesn’t want me to put it down” and “I feel like I own it but it owns me.”

Do you ever get any extreme reactions?
It’s quite amazing how much it solicits emotion. There was a man from Korea at a conference in Amsterdam last year. He held my piece for a long time. When he put it down I asked if he had a reaction and he said he couldn’t talk about it. The next day he came to me and said, “I just had to tell you, as I sat there holding it I realised that I never get hugged. I never hugged my children. I think I hugged my wife once or twice when we were first married but it’s not part of my life.” And then he proceeded to tell me of all the hugs he had experienced in his life. He was near tears talking about it.



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