urara tsuchiya is the most surreal ceramicist you’ll ever have the pleasure of knowing
Spanning a number of different disciplines -- ceramics, performance, video, costume -- Urara's work reifies the absurdities of human life and nature with a unique and droll charm.
Urara wears all clothing Urara Tsuchiya.
This article originally appeared in The Radical Issue, no. 351, Spring 2018.
Japanese artist Urara Tsuchiya’s work is everywhere at the moment. Last year it took her from Nottingham to Vienna, London to Paris. Her fantastical ceramics are an outsider’s psychosexual evaluation of British kitsch, touching the hearts and unrolling smiles across the faces of everyone who saw them. They spread via word-of-mouth and across Instagram in a wave of “OMG I can’t believe this exists” and “who made this?”
Her work might be everywhere, but Urara is currently in the UK on an Exceptional Talent visa. She pulls out the card from her wallet as we walk down Hackney’s Mare Street in search of a quiet café and laughs. “They issue about 1,000 a year -- 300 for science, 300 for art, 300 for something else. The arts can include writers, filmmakers, dancers... circus people.” Urara has until 2020 before it expires, but won’t be able to re-apply as she’s already extended it once. “I applied for permanent residence and got refused. I was going to take it to a tribunal, but the lawyer said I didn’t have a good chance as they changed the rules recently, so this was a better option.”
Urara came to London in 1999 aged 20, enrolling on an art foundation course at the now-defunct independent art school Byam Shaw. She grew up in tall, faceless apartment buildings in different satellite towns just outside Tokyo, and dropped out of school aged 17, struggling with an eating disorder. “In Japan, if you do that it’s a bit tricky to go to university because you’re supposed to go straight from school.” So Urara came to England to study and, after completing her foundation course, studied fine art at Goldsmiths, followed by an MFA at Glasgow College of Art. Enjoying the wide streets, space and calm of Glasgow, as well as the cheaper rent, six years later the city remains her home. Though the lack of distractions helps productivity, the quietness can be isolating, and her studio is too cold to use in the winter. “I like being busy, so I can forget how lonely I can be.”
The work Urara creates spans a number of different disciplines -- ceramics, performance, video, costume -- and reifies the absurdities of human life and nature with a unique and droll charm. “I think I would go a bit dead if I approached performance work without humour. I like to create works that are labour intensive. If I invest so much in it, I want at least to find it funny.” She’s currently in London to help set up If You Can’t Stand the Heat, a fortnight-long show at Roaming Projects’ temporary gallery space in Hackney that celebrates 20 female artists working in fields historically and boringly stereotyped as ‘women’s crafts’. Urara’s piece, Naturist Holiday, placed near the front of the exhibition, should do the trick. An unglazed, painted ceramic bowl within which two bears and a panda aim their wide-open mouths towards a naked man’s erect penis.
A pastiche of quaint British culture, Naturist Holiday exemplifies Urara’s subversive take on traditional design and lurid use of sexuality. The idea behind these bowls came from a ceramic piece that belonged to her grandmother. “It had a cat sitting on top of a cushion, and when you lift it, there’s an erotic figure of a couple inside. She wanted it back so I made my own. That’s how I started.” The kitsch teddy-bears-and-caravans aesthetic is partly inspired by her mother’s interest in the “weird fantasy world” of British second-hand fairs. “My mum has this online shop selling European antiques and vintage stuff. So she comes and buys things here, things that are really twee. I go with her to lots of fairs outside of London and I find people there so... strange.” The bizarre sexuality her ceramics exhibit is simply there to “make people uncomfortable”. Urara enjoys the nervous laughter it often elicits. “That awkwardness can be very funny.”
Unsurprisingly, given her diverse body of work, other inspirations come from far and wide. “I collaborate a lot with the artist Paul Kindersley and take ideas from the films we watch together, like 1976’s The Baby. “If I’m working on clay or textiles at home, I watch lots of British reality TV shows at the same time.” Speaking to artist friends also allows Urara to remove herself from the work a little. “With performance it usually comes from conversations with other artists. I like the collaborative process, it helps me not to get too stuck with my own ideas. I like to make the environment and costumes myself, then I want to open up to people participating.”
Tomorrow Urara will return to Japan to visit family, get a break from Glasgow’s unrelenting winter and take a two-week course in ceramics at a small design college. She’s hoping to improve her technical skills to create more ambitious designs in the future. “I never trained. I don’t have a background in classic ceramic design, apart from doing evening classes.” Though she admires traditional Japanese ceramics she wouldn’t label her work as such. “I like my work to have some use or suggest some purpose. I am always a bit unsatisfied or uncomfortable with the idea of making work to be just appreciated from distance somehow.”
So what cereal does she suggest one eats out of Naturist Holiday? “I don’t recommend cereals. You should eat something liquid, like porridge or soup."
Photography Vicki King
Styling Louis Prier Tisdall
Urara wears all clothing Urara Tsuchiya.