The performative clay works of William Cobbing

British artist William Cobbing talks about discovering and rediscovering clay in his looped videos, sculptures, and installations.

by Shailaja Tripathi Published on : Sep 11, 2020

Artist William Cobbing’s videos are quite addictive. As he chips away at the very clay his head is encased in, it fills me with a feeling of strange calm. The repeating action feels therapeutic but when the hidden layers get exposed, they feel threatening too. In a video, as London-based Cobbing slices off a layer of the clay ball that covers his head, with a wire, colours drip out. I found it unsettling and placating as well.

Cobbing studied sculpture at Central St Martins, De ateliers artists’ institute in Amsterdam. The focal point of his art practice is clay, which runs through his sculptures, installations, videos and performances.

He considers clay democratic and accessible. According to him it’s cheap and easy to manipulate, but of course the potential to work with it in a more sophisticated way is infinite.

01 min watch Artist William Cobbing with his head encased in clay and colour dripping out| STIRworld
William Cobbing slicing off the layer of clay ball covering his head with a wire Video: Courtesy of William Cobbing

Cobbing explores these possibilities well. In the light of the history of clay sculptures, we have essentially viewed clay as static and an object of beauty and utility. In his works, the material is probed to reveal its many layers, associations and meanings. His works often explore the idea of entropy. “For me entropy is about the dissolution of materiality, how a static object eventually erodes or decays, and to embrace this as a kind of temporal materiality. So, clay is constantly in flux in my videos, the performances are looped and there’s no sense that a final resolution can be reached,” says the artist who is preparing to participate in a forthcoming group exhibition Human After All in October 2020 at The Princessehof National Museum of Ceramics in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands.  

A work from the series Haptic Loop exhibited in 2019 | William Cobbing| STIRworld
A work from the series Haptic Loop exhibited in 2019 Image: Courtesy of William Cobbing

Relationship between clay and the human body has also been a subject of deliberation for Cobbing and in the upcoming show, his installation dwells on this thought. “The premise of the show is to consider how clay links to the body, and how human relationships can be expressed through clay. My installation will include several videos of people performing with clay masks and body extensions, and a selection from my Haptic Loop series of hand casts embedded in amorphous clay”.

In 2019, Cobbing held his solo Haptic Loop at The Cooke Latham Gallery in London. There were four sculptures in plaster, clay and bronze - three of which hung from the ceiling - three video installations and a series of ceramic slabs. The upcoming show will have new works made during the lockdown. “These include the clay face being cut open to expel a kind of coloured gloop. Uniquely, these are all made in isolation, so I set up the camera to video my performance with clay. I feel like they have a greater intensity as lockdown has led me to cut out distractions and doubts, and so to focus on what resonates with my work, what’s at its centre,” explains Cobbing. 

A still from his video installation Long Distance (2018)| William Cobbing| STIRworld
A still from his video installation Long Distance (2018) Image: Courtesy of William Cobbing

If clay makes his art relatable to a viewer, the performative aspect makes it endearing. Long Distance and The Kiss 2 - two of Cobbing’s most popular works, are dramatic in nature and their subject resonate more in the times of social distancing. About these works, the artist says, “Long Distance especially has had some attention, as the two figures are socially distanced. They are two metres apart. There’s a desire for contact and communication but also alienation. An aspect of this work is that physical and psychological distance can be ambiguous, these figures are physically connected, but caught in a kind of purgatory of continuous manipulating of the undulating clay prosthetic that binds them together. The Kiss 2 is more conventionally choreographed, in which the two figures are in proximity. Yet their heads are immersed in clay, so the interaction is impeded but also the sensuality heightened by the clay, with the sensation being an uneasy hybrid of attraction and repulsion”.

Artist William Cobbing performing inside a clay head| STIRworld
Artist William Cobbing performing inside a clay head Image: Courtesy of William Cobbing

As entertaining they might seem to the viewer, performing inside a lump of clay doesn’t seem to be an easy exercise but Cobbing isn’t ready to share much details on that. “I am afraid I can’t reveal the process of making the clay head works, there has to be some mystery with them, right? Suffice to say that they are very heavy, and feel claustrophobic, and breathing can be difficult. But this creates a strangely calming effect when performing, senses of sight and hearing are superseded by touch, and it can be strangely introspective and meditative, I sense my thoughts, heartbeat and breathing a lot more acutely. The videos do show real actions, without any effects or simulation, with the idea being to communicate a real engagement with material and touch, something that the digital world feels increasingly alienated from”.    

William Cobbing's other videos can be watched here.

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