The Aje Report


Aje Insider |
Zhu Ohmu

An innate creator, and artist from the start, our latest Aje Insider has been trading her works since the sprightly days of kindergarten. Taipei born and Melbourne based, she began in the world of watercolour before shifting to a multidisciplinary approach and finding her feet in ceramics.


With an emphasis on the importance of artisanal techniques and the use of the hand, she uses her awe inducing works to explore the relationship between nature and humanity, environmental concerns a constant under pinning theme. Citing her biggest achievement to date as an ongoing project heroing the work of fellow female artists, meet the wonderful woman that is Zhu Ohmu.


As a meeting of minds, and celebration of creativity in adversity, find Zhu captured entirely at home via Zoom during lockdown by fellow Melbournian and friend of Aje, photographer Ivana Martyn.

How did you become an artist? Tell us about how it all started beginning with your birthplace of Taiwan, to studying Fine Arts in Auckland, to now being based in Melbourne.


I was born in Taipei and I’ve been making art for as long as I can remember. When I was three, I began to draw Sailor Moon inspired characters, and kids at kindergarten would line up and trade those drawings for toys and snacks. One time a girl traded her mother’s gold ring for one of my drawings and my mum made me return it the next day.


When I was seven my family immigrated to New Zealand, where I lived until I was 22. I graduated from Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland in 2011, my background was in watercolours and small paintings. After art school I moved to Melbourne and suffered from a creative block for two years. Unmotivated with making 2D works, during this liminal period I began experimenting with more tactile mediums. At the same time, I noticed that something else was missing in my new life in Australia- the lack of greenery in my home.


I started collecting houseplants and made amoebic planters from pinching air dry clay. I felt revived by the ideas and feelings stimulated by this newly developed kinesthetic awareness of form and my ceramics practice was born. Handbuilding may be the most direct and simple method for interacting with clay – pressure is applied and the clay responds - but it is a tactile sensibility where one must rely on the physical friction between the hands and clay to discern where and how the material will move. The intimacy of touch became my new adopted language and the transitional space where clay vacillates between formless and form my new playground.

The coil pots are a unique design technique of yours. How did you develop this signature?


The coil vessels emulate the mechanized process of 3D printing, but are made by hand. By inverting biomimicry, a concept where new technological innovations are discovered through the imitation of designs found in nature, this subversive gesture explores how we can remain relevant in the age of automation, where there are apprehensions of machines instigating human obsolescence.


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 allowing complex ceramic designs to be printed quickly, accurately and in large numbers.


Starting with the simple exercise of copying the way the 3D printer repeatedly performs the action of laying extruded coils one atop the other by hand, but without any preliminary planning, ceramic vessels emerged intuitively – droopy, lopsided- the forms seems to ebb and flow in the manner in which they are made. Dictated by the weight of moist clay, these pots are often pushed to their structural limits, and many have collapsed. Unlike the machine, I am 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 compromise with the material. The artist’s hands are able to build forms that the present day ceramic 3D printer cannot, and this is because humans are capable of the patience, care and inquisitiveness needed for an intimate relationship with clay.

And how long can a body of work take from concept to creation?


It depends on how I’m feeling and what I’m going through at the time. It can range from a couple of months to a couple of years.


Does wabi-sabi as an aesthetic influence your work?


My lack of formal training in ceramics emphasizes the experimentation in the self-formualted coiling process. Breakages are very common in my works in my first couple of years of making coil pots – the technique and precarious structures often lead to cracks or the entire vessel caving in. This can occur anytime during the making, drying or firing stage. Disheartened that I could hardly produce one piece without faults, and also not wanting to discard these ‘failures’ I’ve spent many many hours on, the only option is to come to terms with the nature of the material and process. The Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi resonated with this feeling of radical acceptance through and through. Wabi-sabi embraces the transience and imperfections of things- its aesthetic values take pleasure in the perverse beauty of the irregular, the torn, the fractured, the decayed... wholly accepting these qualities as part of the object’s history and story. It is a worldview where the considerations of beauty contrasted to the Western ideals of grandness and flawlessness; contrasted to the current throw-away culture where disposables are favoured over durable goods that can be repaired. I think wabi-sabi can teach us to tread lightly on this earth, and challenge us to step out of consumerist thought.

You’ve had some remarkable attention from Vogue Italia, AD Magazine, to Simon Porte of Jacquemus – congratulations. What has been your biggest achievement to date?


Thank you! My biggest achievement so far would be my longest on-going project WICA, which stands for Women in Contemporary Art It is an Instagram archive I started in 2013, the mission is to give recognition and visibility to female identifying artists practicing today and also document overlooked women in history. I have a lot of faith in the project, it will be a lifelong campaign and currently I’m looking at ways it can grow into a social enterprise.


What have been your biggest challenges?


All ceramicists will tell you about the difficulties of dealing with cracked greenware, glaze disappointments, kiln explosions, but my biggest challenge thus far has been mental rather than technical. My heart lies with fostering socio-ecological cognisance and I’ve been drawn to other mediums and disciplines that might be able to express these concerns more poignantly. To produce coil pots, knowing that they would sell and be well received, but without addressing and expanding on the thoughts I have about our uncertain environmental futures, feels like simply being a cog in this ever expanding consumerist machine... and not being honest to my personal ethos. I have taken a very long break from studio in 2019 to think about where my practice is heading and if coil pots can continue to be a part of it, and since then I’ve made a very small but significant conceptual development that interweaves a stronger ecocritical voice into my ceramic pieces.

What advice do you have for emerging creatives or design talent?


Embrace failure as learning process. Don’t be afraid to forge your own path if you don’t feel seen or heard on the path well-trodden.


Is there a key figure in your life you look to for advice/inspiration?  


It’s difficult for me to pick just one person - I am where I am today because I’ve been supported and guided by a whole community of friends, family and online pals. For me inspiration can come from nature, the internet, books, music, old ideas, discussions with friends etc.


What’s next on the horizon? Anything exciting in the works you can share with us?


A public sculpture in Melbourne with predicted completion date in 2022.

Aje Insider : Zhu Ohmu represented by Gallery Sally Dan-Cuthbert

Photographer : Ivana Martyn

With assistance by : Mariana Blanco


Captured via Zoom in Melbourne, Australia

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