I always thought the phrase “Animated Vessels” was art historical in origin, a technical term for vessels that take on the form of living organisms and creatures. But after much searching I have found little in the way of common usage, and so it is possible that I have created the phrase myself. Yet animated vessels appear in nearly every culture and era.
Ancient Egyptians anthropomorphized their funerary jars; the ancient Chinese animated their incense burners (fig. 2). In South America, 1st century Nazca potters created “figure bottles” (fig.1). Centuries later, the English designed their Rococo tea sets with legs that spewed like gusts of wind from the mouth of Neptune (fig. 3). This impulse to attach pleasure and story to the vessel shape seems to be both permanent and cross-cultural, and dare I say, universal.
Naturally, this mental impulse to find similarities of form continues to manifest itself today in everyday objects, like honey bottles in the shape of bears. Pottery, too, is often designed with this in mind: the handle that hugs the side of a vase is like a serpent that coils upward to bite its prey. Many ancient Roman pots echoed this form (fig. 4), and it is a connection that is still in play today (fig. 5).
Much like a simile, animated vessels function as a kind of cliche. When we say “as wise as an owl,” or “as sharp as a tack” we compare one quality with another, simply, in a language understood by all. In a way, animated vessels are like visual similes – straightforward, explicit, graspable. Kid’s soakies are a prime example (fig. 6). And yet despite the superficial comparisons, some animated vessels retain an expressive depth far greater than their well-worn formulas would suggest.
In the proposed exhibition, I would like to gather a selection of the many varieties of “animated vessels” found in contemporary art practice today.
Many of the included artists create art objects that preserve the straightforward sense of both vessel and animation. For example, Julia Kunin and Daniel Wiener create sculptures that function as vases in which the simile is obvious. Whereas other artists stretch this notion, manipulating their material to such an extent that the form becomes less usable as a “vessel.” Francesca Dimattio and Josh Blackwell begin with vessels, and then reconfigure their sources to emphasize aesthetic form or social commentary. The deeply lodged impulse to find similarities between disparate forms continues to flourish, though now expressed with many distinct visions (see artist list below).