Exhibition: ‘Ahead of the Curve’ at Potteries Museum and Art Gallery

For over a year, it may even be longer than that, I have been in conversation with curator Claire Blakey from the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, as regards the development of a contemporary Chinese ceramics and glass show. Somehow the project is now upon us and open at the PMAG until the end of May. I swear time is just evaporating at the moment, actually that takes too long…it’s disappearing mostly without a trace. Does anyone else feel that way?


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Called ‘Ahead of the Curve, new china from China’, it is a ground-breaking survey exhibition showcasing contemporary ceramics and glass from twenty emerging and established Chinese artists including alumni of Jingdezhen’s venerated Ceramic Institute and other artistic centres across China.

Porcelain from Jingdezhen is said to be as ‘white as jade, thin as paper, clear as glass and chimes as sweetly as a bell’. For more than 1700 years, the city has been the preeminent centre of China’s porcelain industry with a reputation it’s maintained since the Han dynasty and retains to this day. A downturn in its fortunes during the late 20th century meant it was never industrialised on quite the scale of so many larger Chinese cities so the pre-eminent ceramicists who remain here still practice ancient techniques, even if their designs are clearly contemporary and framed in the 21st century. This show examines the tensions and cross over of design and ceramics, sculpture and ceramics, contemporary art and ceramics…the creative paradox of art versus craft.

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'Spring Up Series No. 9' (2012) © Zhang Jingjing
‘Spring Up Series No. 9’ (2012) © Zhang Jingjing
'Spring Up Series No. 9' (2012) © Zhang Jingjing
‘Spring Up Series No. 9’ (2012) © Zhang Jingjing

As curator Helen Brown states, there has been a growth in the consumer society for contemporary ceramics and glass in China ‘which has led, especially in the last two or three years, to the development of small galleries and boutiques selling studio style ceramics and other crafts. There has also been a revival of interest in traditional tea making (including the opening of traditional tea houses and tea shops) which requires a range of ceramics to support it. Another influence has undoubtedly been the success of contemporary Chinese artists. Some of the makers included in the exhibition, notably Xu Hongbo and Chen Guanghui, work in a way that is more closely allied to contemporary art practice.’

Within the show there are common themes. The artists all challenge traditional approaches to porcelain and glass in a variety of ways. One of these themes is the use of traditional forms and particularly decoration. In ceramics traditional fencai, enamel, decoration has been an inspiration such as Wan Liya, shown below, who challenges perceptions of tradition and modernity in his piece ‘Birds’ Twitter and Fragrance of Flowers’ (2010) . Wan’s work is inspired by the functional shapes of modern containers and the traditional enamel designs of 18th century imperial porcelain famillle rose.

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Wan-Liya ahead of the curve

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Another theme is the change in Chinese society referencing a traditional home and home life…the influence of ceramics themselves including the process, form and subject matter. Shannon Guo’s introductory essay for the catalogue refers to the makers being ‘at the crossroads’, and ‘as some artists describe it’ looking for the way to find ‘their way home’, as shown in the glass works of Wang Qin below. These works represent the silence of nature, the garden as a microcosm, the space between the spirit and the object, a place for the spirit to rest.

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‘We observe the world with our eyes and communicate with each other through language. But in this work (show below), the figures don’t have the ability to communicate through language; they can only use eye contact. They have to establish their trust on the very basic foundations of communication. My work expresses the inner thoughts in people’s minds, communication between people, as well as a meditation on human nature.’ – Shao Changzong describing the meaning of ‘Dreamer’ (2011) as shown below.

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The project was co-curated by Claire Blakey, Kate Newnham and Helen Brown and is a partnership exhibition with Bristol Museum & Art GalleryThe Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent; The Wilson Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, and Two Cities Gallery, Shanghai, China, now on show at PMAG until 31 May 2015.

On 17 April, I will be contributing to the one-day symposium ‘New china from China: Contemporary Chinese Ceramics and Glass Symposium’ at Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. The symposium will cover topics such as:

  • The place of Chinese ceramics and glass in the contemporary art world;
  • Technological and stylistic transfer and innovation in contemporary Chinese glass and ceramics;
  • Continuity and interruptions between traditional and contemporary craft in China;
  • The influence of local identity on ceramic production (i.e. Stoke-on-Trent and Jingdezhen);
  • How artists formulate aspects of their identity (local, national and so on) through their artistic practice;
  • The role of galleries, museums and art colleges in the promotion of Chinese ceramic and glass art.

I aim to talk about the rise of the art and design museum in China, and the tension between the realms of contemporary art, design and ceramics in Chinese contemporary culture, and it’s translation and representation outside Chinese contexts…hopefully with input from Luisa Mengoni (V&A Shenzhen), Catherine McDermott (Kingston University), and curator Wang Dong (who recently curated ‘Beyond G(l)aze’). I’m still waiting to receive my ‘Beyond G(l)aze’ catalogue actually…that’s reminded me!

Confirmed speakers include:

  • Andrew Brewerton, Principal, Plymouth College of Art, Honorary Professor of Fine Art, Shanghai University, former Subject Leader in Glass, University of Wolverhampton;
  • Ying Tan, Curator at the Centre for Contemporary Chinese Art, Manchester;
  • Rachel Marsden (Me!), Specialist in Transcultural Curating & Chinese/Asian contemporary culture;
  • Claire Blakey, Co-curator of ‘Ahead of the Curve’, Arts Curator, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent;
  • Helen Brown, Co-curator of ‘Ahead of the Curve’, Freelance Curator, previously Collections Manager and Curator of Fine Art at the Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum.

I’ll no doubt write about the event, so keep your eye out for the blog post. I’ll upload my paper presentation through my academic.edu profile so readers and interested researchers can download it. Book your place at the symposium here to join in the conversation.

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