Zhu Ohmu’s gravity-defying creations shouldn’t work. Mimicking the movements of a 3D printer with her hands, she slowly mounds coil on top of coil as they slump and curve into ceramic shapes I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else—which is saying something in the age of Instagram. Born in Taiwan, raised in New Zealand and now based in Melbourne, Zhu got her start in ceramics in a similar way to most, but her self-taught and entirely unique methods soon led her to the technique she’s dubbed ‘clay coiling.’ Given the precarious shapes that clay coiling creates, she’s had her fair share of stand-offs with the unforgiving kiln, but Zhu is used to a challenge. She recently took up beekeeping as a way to combat her anxieties about the climate crisis, and even taken her 84-year-old grandpa on a self-guided tour of Turkey. Let’s talk bees, clay and climate crisis with Zhu.
Your way of stacking coils on top of one another is completely unique. How did you first discover you could do this?
I first discovered this method of stacking clay coils in 2015, not long after I started exploring ceramics. At the time there was a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing because the patent just expired. 3D-printed ceramics are made by stacking clay coils according to programmed measurements until the piece is completed. A computer software and a robotic arm control the nozzle that extrudes the clay, a technological innovation that allows complex ceramic designs to be printed quickly, accurately and in large numbers. I’m curious about how we can remain relevant in the current age of automation, where there’s apprehension about machines instigating human obsolescence. Interested in subversive strategies as a way to explore, I thought about making work by emulating the mechanised process of machines, but by hand. This is ‘inversion biomimicry’, a concept where new technological innovations are discovered through the imitation of designs found in nature.
So what’s the first thing you did?
I started copying the way the 3D printer repeatedly performs the action of laying extruded coils, one atop the other, by hand. Without any preliminary planning, ceramic forms emerged intuitively: droopy, bulging, lopsided, wonky, human. Dictated by the weight of moist clay, these pots are often pushed to their structural limits, and many have collapsed. Unlike the machine, though, I’m able to detect the slightest change in the properties of the clay body under different environmental conditions. This insight into plasticity and workability—which can only be obtained by spending time with the physical matter through play and observation—allows me to work with and manipulate the material. My hands are able to build forms that ceramic 3D printers can’t, and this is because humans are capable of the patience, care and inquisitiveness needed for an intimate relationship with clay.
Are there any methods or tweaks you’ve made to the process to make sure that your works have the best the chance of survival in the kiln?
I’ve experimented with a few different clays and I find Raku paper clay the strongest one to work with.
You work and creative ethos is very intertwined with the natural world. It’s been a tough few years in particular for our planet, but what gives you hope for the future?
The magnificent collective action of activists, scientists, policy-makers, journalists, artists, philosophers, indigenous elders, permaculturists, educators, and friends who engage in discussions give me hope for the future.
I see you’ve also become really into beekeeping. How did you get into this?
Nic Dowse, the founder of Honey Fingers Collective, introduced me to the fascinating world of beekeeping on an inner-city rooftop one autumn afternoon back in 2015. The Honey Fingers Collective is a network of urban beekeepers who each have a discipline that cross-pollinates with other members. The Collective is continually growing and adapting to suit the directions new friends, new projects and new ideas take it.
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What’s something you wish that more people knew about bees, or the practice of beekeeping itself?
Bee culture is a term used to describe the special culture that exists between honeybees and humans. Promoting, exploring and experimenting with this idea—the intersection between honeybees and humanity; a celebration of our symbiosis—is what urban beekeeping practice is all about.
What have you been reading, watching or doing at the moment that’s inspired you?
Well, the anti-racism work of the Black Lives Matter movement and the discourse on dismantling systemic oppression has definitely been the most illuminating for me lately.
What’s something you miss from pre-isolation, that you can’t wait to do again?
I have already hugged and dined with my closest friends now that lockdown restrictions have lifted, but something I’m really looking forward to is a meridian massage!
Where’s one of the most inspiring places you travelled pre-lockdown?
The trip to Turkey with my grandfather in 2019 was very special. I am now completely besotted with Middle Eastern culture, especially the architectural wonders of mosques and hammams. I am also inspired to visit other parts of the Mediterranean.
What’s a piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
Learn to love yourself. Grow from past mistakes and forgive yourself. Use compassion and kindness as your guiding principles.