David Zink Yi and the Language of Ceramic Cephalopods

By Ben Lewis

Photography by Wolfgang Stahr

Zink Yi at work in his studio. All artwork © David Zink Yi. All photography: Wolfgang Stahr

  • Dec 9, 2019

About 20 years ago my friend Frank-Peter Lehmann, a director of photography who lives in Berlin and has filmed many of my documentaries, invited me to see the student show of one of his friends, a guy from Peru who was studying in Germany. As we wound our way through a series of exhibition rooms at the Universität der Künste, Berlin’s famous art school, the unlikely sound of salsa music grew gradually louder until we were confronted with a spartan room with three video projections at different heights, an installation by Frank’s friend David Zink Yi called De Adentro y Afuera (From the Inside and the Outside). At first it looked random. Each image was a different part of the body performing the music—a mouth singing, a pair of hands playing the clave, a pair of feet dancing the steps of salsa. Each screen was placed at the height of the relevant part of the body.

It was such an odd pairing, Minimalism and salsa. There was a wry literalism to the installation, and an irony in the contrast between the coolness of the conceptual art setting and the heat of the music. As an art critic who had spent years trawling galleries, biennales and fairs, I was struck by how many strands of thought such a simple piece raised. In my mind the work kept evoking sets of binaries: eyes and ears, North and South, high culture and popular culture. I shared some of the enthusiasms of Zink Yi’s work: I have a long shelf of Latin jazz records at home, which I’ve collected from flea markets around the world.

Ceramic glazes samples

Works on silk sheets

In the years since that show, David studied percussion in Cuba and fell in love with a dancer there, whom he married and with whom he now lives in Berlin with their two daughters. He formed his own Afro-Cuban jazz band, De Adentro y Afuera, and produced numerous videos and installations that deconstruct the polyrhythms of the Afro-Cuban music tradition. Frank worked with David in Cuba on some of the video projects, and upon his return, he’d tell me of the simplicity and perfectionism of his single-take shots. They were far different from the fast-cut interview-and-archive documentaries Frank made with me. In one of David’s pieces, ‘Pneuma’ (2010), a trumpet player exhales a single note for as long as possible, the bell of his instrument covering his face so that you see only his hair surrounding it. To make another of his video installations, ‘Why am I here and not somewhere else—Independencia II’ (2013), shown this year at the Liverpool Biennale, he isolated each musician in a different room of a hotel as they performed a single musical composition, hearing each other on headphones. ‘When you separate them, you suddenly realize how this is all put together,’ he explains. David sees jazz and its variants as perfect symbols of the relationship between individualism and cooperation, between regulation and expression.

‘I grew up on the Pacific Ocean, and then suddenly I was alone in Germany, surrounded by that really green, deep German forest. I had a part-time job in this bourgeois German restaurant. It was a world of schnitzel, not octopus.’—David Zink Yi

David was born in Lima, Peru in 1973. His parents were the children of immigrants—Chinese on his mother’s side, German on his father’s. One of his earliest memories is of visiting his paternal grand­father, a barrel-maker, at his place of work. ‘I remember walking around these huge wooden barrels, 20 of them lined up in a warehouse,’ he says. ‘When I saw a Richard Serra for the first time, it reminded me of that, with the scale and curvy walls that you get lost amidst.’ In the 1980s, his family moved to Kenya for his father’s job with the United Nations Development Programme. At 16 years old, he was sent to Germany to study culinary arts at a technical college in the small German town of Laubach. ‘I grew up on the Pacific Ocean, and then suddenly I was alone in Germany, surrounded by that really green, deep German forest,’ he recalls. ‘I had a part-time job in this bourgeois German restaurant. It was a world of schnitzel, not octopus. I could hardly speak German. Life consisted of a daily encounter with something strange.’

He soon abandoned the kitchen and began taking courses in math, theology and art. ‘I remember going to my first Documenta in Kassel with my art class, and thought, ‘What the fuck is this?’’ he says. ‘I saw work by Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter, Johan Grimonprez and Lothar Baumgarten for the first time, but I was also reading Jack London’s ‘White Fang’ and dreaming about wolves.’ At Universität der Künste, he studied under Baumgarten, whose coolly documentarian photographs and politically engaged installations had a heavy influence on his artistic formation. ‘He was a very intense, intellectual artist,’ says David. ‘He talked about art with greater sensitivity than anyone else I have ever met.’

‘Why am I here and not somewhere else—Independencia II’ installed at Hauser & Wirth Zurich, 2013

In 2003, even before he had finished his masters, David was invited to stage his first solo gallery show by Johann König in Berlin. Paul Schimmel, then the chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, bought one of the works, and ‘Artforum’ gave the show an admiring review. Institutions began opening their doors: his video installations were shown at Künstlerhaus Bremen in 2004; at Manifesta 5 in San Sebastián, Spain in 2004; Le Printemps de Septembre in Toulouse, France in 2006; and Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2006, by which time he was 33.

But the austere framework of video could not contain David’s imagination for long. He began to assemble a small vocabulary of vivid personal icons, scaled up to monumental proportions. In the early 2000s, he started exploring cephalopod-inspired forms, casting large-scale ceramic octopus tentacles. In the mid-2000s, he designed Mexican fan palms cast in stainless steel, towering more than 10 feet high and crowned with sharp fronds. In 2010 he fired a ceramic sculpture of a giant dead squid in the huge kiln of the European Ceramic Workcenter in the Netherlands. The piece opened a new formal and literary avenue in his art. It was mimetic and mythological; to my mind, it alluded to the Kraken sea monster of Scandinavian folklore.

David’s art has meant unexpected and poetically contradictory things for me—emotional and theoretical, playful but rigorous, minimal yet figurative, fantastical but material, eclectic but coherent. It folds into itself several current art trajectories, with its minimalist forms, conceptual presentation, process-based abstraction, postcolonial reflectivity and unashamed illusionistic spectacle, but in a way that is uncalculated.

I have seen David off and on over the years. Mostly we would talk about jazz. Then he seemed to go to ground. Frank told me he was busy setting up a new studio where he could make and cast his ceramics on an even bigger scale. Last October, I traveled to Berlin to visit him at the studio as he prepared for a solo show at Hauser & Wirth’s gallery in Zurich. Since we last met, David’s unkempt beard had acquired streaks of gray, like my own.

In the corner stands the engine room of David’s ship, an enormous industrial kiln, festooned with an intricate array of piping, dials, gauges and fuse boxes, like a set piece from a Jules Verne production.

The new space is large enough to contain a forklift truck, as well as a crane and belts for heavy lifting. On one wall is a grid of maybe a hundred slug-like forms, each with a different multicolored ceramic glaze. Two enormous octopus tentacles tower up, one still under construction, a warren of supporting interior walls exposed under a gray slab of skin and nodules, the other fired and glazed, gleaming as if it had just been hauled in from the sea. In the corner stands the engine room of David’s ship, an enormous industrial kiln, festooned with an intricate array of piping, dials, gauges and fuse boxes, like a set piece from a Jules Verne production. He bought it secondhand from a ceramic factory in Holland.

Moments after I arrive, he launches into a breathless description of what he’s been up to since last I saw him—repurposing the tools, machines and processes of industrial ceramic production for art’s sake. Experimenting with new recipes for stoneware, glazes and firing temperatures, as well as new shapes for dies or molds, he wants to push the boundaries of ceramics, toward a Richard Serra–like monumentality. He presses a button on the side of the kiln and the door rises automatically with a buzzing noise, like the entrance to a spaceship. He is using the kiln to make what he sees as a magnum opus—nine ceramic octopus tentacles, each the size of a small car. Even with the help of several assistants, the project will take several more years to complete. ‘It takes three months to dry and one week to fire a single tentacle,’ he explains. ‘The first time I did it, I couldn’t sleep.’ David wants to show them all together in a single space. ‘The visitor will walk through these giant arabesques,’ he says, ‘guided around the space, dwarfed by the scale of them.’

Still from Pneuma, 2010

‘Neusilber (New Silver)’ installed at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

The outlines of his exhibition planned for Switzerland were still in flux at the time of our meeting. He points to stoneware ‘line drawings’ made from spaghetti-like tubes of ceramic extruded from an industrial die. They remind me of Hans Arp and the outlines of primitive aquatic life forms seen in great magnification. A piece on the floor, a clay strand arranged in a loop the loop, looks like the jet trail of an acrobatic performance at an air show. ‘I work with one single tube of ceramic,’ he says. ‘Then I work with seven or more assistants to twist and wrangle it into the shape. I try to be gestural in the moment of creation, and then let it be. The sculptures are performative.’

In one corner sit a number of small towers of torn pieces of clay slabs, folded, bent and manipulated into vertical structures, splashed with different colored glazes, evoking de Kooning as much as formations of coral. ‘To me, they look like ghosts, and maybe that will be their title,’ he says. Long geometric ceramic forms, sloping crescents and an inverted V about six feet long, glazed a bright white, lie in another part of the studio, looking like industrial minimalism except for the minor undulations in the surface that give the works an unmistakable organic quality.

Large sheets of silk hang from an I-beam, with complex swirls of color printed on them, like oil floating on water. These are enlargements of one-centimeter-square sections of David’s glazes, photographed with a medium-format camera. ‘I’m thinking of maybe draping them over those white geometric pieces,’ he says, gesturing toward the long ceramic forms. Trying to imagine how two such different works might be brought together, I picture printed silk flowing like water over barriers.

David tells me of a childhood memory of eating octopus in Peru, where it is a national dish, and thinking how beautiful it appeared on the plate. ‘There is this ambiguity between something organic and something abstract, with all those knobs on it,’ he says. But his original interest in the animal goes deeper than shapes and colors. ‘I was reading a lot about postcolonialism and poststructuralism,’ he continues, ‘and it made me think about how we take forms and use them in art. Some people think this is an illustration of something, but it’s about appropriation. I chopped these pieces up myself, and then I let the tentacle just fall in different ways, to make the cast. It was beautiful.’

Single-tube ceramics in process

As David researched the subject, familiarity with the mysterious creature gave way to unfamiliarity. In particular, he read ‘Vampyroteuthis Infernalis’ (1987), Vilém Flusser’s hallucinatory, philosophical, semi-biological book about the vampire squid, in which Flusser speculated on how such a creature might think. Cephalopods are intelligent beings, able to solve all sorts of puzzles in lab conditions, but their brains are not in one place. They have billions of neurons in their arms, each of which can operate independently. ‘The octopus is the creature that is furthest from us biologically,’ David says.

Most critics and curators like to talk about his work within discourses of the body and identity, but for David, the octopus hovers between something that is a symbol of his Latin American identity and something completely other. When I suggest to him that he seems to be attracted to things he doesn’t understand, he agrees. ‘I think this is the most important thing in art,’ he says. ‘You go there, where things are new or things are different, and you try to understand why is it that you don’t feel comfortable, and you try to understand the other. That is what drives me.’

The octopus is an operative metaphor for Zink Yi’s work—a hub from which different distinct, autonomous roads depart. David, however, isn’t interested in a theme to unite the work. ‘Many times curators have said to me, ‘I don’t get it. What does this have to do with an octopus or with a ceramic piece?’ Or, ‘Why are you doing photography now?’’ he says. ‘It’s hard to explain to them how it all comes together, or why it can all be work from the same artist.’

Late in the afternoon as our conversation winds down, he goes over to his laptop and shows me YouTube clips of performances by favorite Latin American jazz musicians. ‘There is this short but complex rhythmic structure that is repeated over and over again, and it keeps order,’ he says about Julio Barreto’s drum solo in a live Gonzalo Rubalcaba Quartet set. ‘Within that, everybody’s trying to find his own expression in the intervals between the expressions of the others.

Octopus tentacle work in progress, Zink Yi's studio

Sometimes each player is doing different things at the same time. The drummer is doing this with the left foot’—he taps out the rhythm with his foot—‘and this with the right hand, and then this between the left hand and the right foot. And then beside him, the piano player is dividing right and left in a way that makes you think there are two piano players.’ Which inevitably brings to mind octopus tentacles, each with its own brain, operating independently but also together, together creating an unfathomable higher intelligence.

Ben Lewis is an author, art historian and documentary filmmaker, whose works include the TV series Art Safari and feature documentaries Google and the World Brain and The Great Contemporary Art Bubble. He spent last year as a visiting fellow of the Warburg Institute, writing a book about the world’s most expensive painting, Salvator Mundi, attributed to Leonardo, which sold in 2017 for $450 million. The Last Leonardo was published in 2018 by Harper Collins and Ballantine.