Working with mosaics, as opposed to paintings on a canvas or drawings on sheets of paper, have the effect of creating permanence and longevity. Using hardy materials like ceramics, tiles, stones or glass, the images created through mosaics tend to last longer than many other mediums. It was during a work trip to Venice that artist Ruaidhri Ryan first noticed the contemporary application of an ancient technique. Passing by a ritzy shopping area close to Piazza San Marco, Ruaidhri saw how these mosaics were used for promotional purposes instead of religious imagery. “Unlike the opulent surroundings, these particular mosaics weren’t historical artefacts in the typical sense – they were contemporary adverts for brands like Alitalia, Martini and American Express and completely recontextualised for me what a mosaic meant or what they could depict, kickstarting my research into the medium,” he tells It’s Nice That.
Originally hailing from between the Loughborough and Nottingham area, Ruaidhri moved to London from Bristol a decade ago to attend a postgraduate course at Slade School of Art. At the time, he was primarily making moving-image work, a medium that he still uses between his mosaic activities. “Nottinghamshire was a nice spot to grow up, Robin Hood and his cronies got me pretty revved up about medieval tales, that kind of iconography and sense of mysterious wonder has always super appealed to me,” he says. “Something to do with archaeology has always been there. Two of my climbing pals call me Indy, after Indiana Jones.”
Ruaidhri kindly shares some of the research he explored around mosaics: “Historically mosaics have depicted the stories, gods and objects that were deemed societally valuable to their time. Things worth capturing and making permanent… a bit like cave paintings. These materials do not fade,” he says. “My mosaics often show items that could be seen as the detritus of contemporary life, the mundane objects, the disposable, the overlooked, under-considered. They are also things that I think are just really funny to spend so much time and labour to make permanent. What would a future society think about these, if they discovered them?”
Sure enough, his work illustrates rather mundane objects depicted in this glorious, if not heavenly, medium. An Evian bottle of set against a pool-blue background. An interrobang that radiates outwards as the tiles fill the background. A light switch casting a shadow against a pale yellow background. There is a sense of humour to this work, a light-heartedness that comes from taking something simple very seriously.
“The mosaics are about cementing a kind of diary of humankind’s contemporary achievements. They are about mixing a type of 'low art' with this very labour-intensive, time-consuming craft. They are about an appreciation for the overlooked, the mundane, the disposable,” he says. “They are of course, as well about sharing a view of these artefacts of human progress and existence – detritus – that can be framed as beautiful. There can be beauty there. The way a shadow is cast, the way in which we identify with brands or create memories.”
Take Fully Charged, Ruaidhri’s mosaic of an iPhone cable. Like many others, he feels that he has a special relationship with his device. Knowing that he’s close to its charger gives a sense of security. Despite this potential of driving such a powerful and learned behaviour, the cable is not considered something beautiful. Fully Charged is a love letter to the charger, depicting it as something that we should be be kind to. “I usually work in the direct method, which involves drawing the mosaic onto a material like wood and then carefully cutting 24mm ceramic tiles to the desired size and shape, gluing that to the wood until the whole piece is done,” he says. “This often throws up problems, which are fun to solve – pieces don’t fit the way you thought or the flow of the tiles becomes corrupt somehow, those things have to be fixed. Then the piece is grouted and the whole thing really comes together and there is a huge sense of stress, followed by satisfaction.”
Ruaidhri closes by telling us about his sources of inspiration, something he seems to find wherever he looks. “Before lockdown, I saw a girl playing on the mosaic floor of the V&A with a toy car. She was driving the car all over the place. I couldn’t help but think that the mosaic could have activated that play, directed the way she drove her car,” he says. “I like light and shadow, symbols and signs. Iconography and brand logos, occasionally playing with trompe-l'œil, architecture and stuff. I’m impressed by how much exciting stuff is everywhere.”
Ruaidhri Ryan: Bella Napoli (Copyright © Ruaidhri Ryan, 2021)
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.