The ceramic artist Judy DiBase extracted dental exhibits from the British Dental Museum to produce a series of quirky ceramic 'memories' for the temporary exhibition 'Ceramic Impressions'. Obi Chiejina explores the use of these extracted dental exhibits and their ceramic responses as forms of human communication, artistic expression and interpretation for the museum visitor.
If you’ve recently been to the dentist for a treatment involving drilling, cutting, tooth extraction, or fillings and are of a nervous disposition look away now. Between 300 A.D. and 900 A.D. members of the Mayan empire decorated their front teeth by cutting a hole in the enamel and replacing the cavity with precious stones such as jade, turquoise, quartz and opal. Mayans believed teeth modification strengthened the collective voice and provided a direct means of communication with gods in religious ceremonies.(As recorded by Christian Noni in BMEzine's Cultural Corner)
In the autumn of 2011 the ceramic artist Judy DiBase drilled out objects from the British Dental Museum, London and extracted personal recollections of dentistry. Unlike the Mayans DiBase didn’t fill the empty cavities of the British Dental Museums with precious stones but instead created her own everyman ‘paste.’ She mixed a number of ingredients - her own memories of her father as an orthodontist, the reminiscences of dental patients, the effects made by the collection – to create the temporary exhibition ‘Ceramic Impressions’
Dibase uses the processes of mixing ingredients, preparing the paste and creating the ceramic moulds as an artistic process and a form of communication between the artist and museum visitor.
For the display cabinet entitled ‘Extractions and Dentures’ a series of three dimensional moulds are created from porcelain. Depending on the viewpoint taken by the onlooker the porcelain moulds morph into one of the following shapes: manual toothbrushes, electric toothbrushes, toothpicks, dental mirrors and dental equipment. The moulds are then grouped together to resemble the arrangement of human teeth in the lower or upper jaw.
Imprinted upon these fragile white porcelain moulds are pictures and words. The black and white images show single teeth, open mouths and toothbrushes. The words reference various aspects of dental history.
It is difficult to read sentences as the font size is below 12 and individual words appear and disappear in tandem with the bent bristles of tooth-brushes, worn surfaces of toothpicks, contours of dental equipment, the cusps of human teeth and gums indentations. Am I looking at a dirty toothbrush, an antique toothpick patterned with dirt, a case of old dental equipment or a set of rotten teeth?
But does the inability to read the wording or interpret the odd shapes actually matter? No. DiBase uses the multiple properties of porcelain and the process of defining/re-defining the ceramic paste to allow visitors/participants to flex their imaginative muscles, shape responses and then extract these memories.
My only (minor) quibble is the multiplicity of recollections captured in words and images by DiBase and from the museum collection is at odds with the small number of commissioned ceramic pieces. Looking through the catalogue a total of eight pieces were created for this temporary exhibition. To use a dental metaphor the exhibition doesn’t possess the full set of ‘ceramic’ teeth allowing The British Dental Museum and DiBase to fully communicate their understanding of the needs of individuals as visitors, participants and oral historians with sufficient volume.
Aside from the issue of the number of objects produced for the exhibition ‘Ceramic Impressions’ examines the ongoing cultural need to make marks and record our basic feelings by using human teeth as a form of artistic, creative and verbal expression.