New china from China: Contemporary Chinese Ceramics and Glass Symposium

Last week was whirlwind. Five days spent working in five cities across the UK, where I only just managed to keep up. From teaching to research, meetings to presentations, it was a non-stop academic affair across England ending in Stoke-on-Trent. The week before last I blogged about the group exhibition ‘Ahead of the Curve: New china from China’, currently on show at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery where last Friday, I presented at the project’s associated one-day symposium event,New china from china: Contemporary Chinese Ceramics and Glass Symposium’. Alongside friends, familiar faces and colleagues, new and old, I spoke of ‘China’s New Museums: An “architecture of design”’. Funnily enough, in the audience were a handful of Master’s student from Sotheby’s Institute who I will see when I teach there next month. It is a small interlinked world, as always.

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

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new china from China symposium 17 wordgirl Rachel Marsden

Firstly, I must state I am not a specialist in ceramics, glass, porcelain or china from China. As you know, I am a transcultural curator with specialist knowledge of Chinese and Asian contemporary arts. Therefore, when curator Claire Blakey from PMAG contacted me, many months in advance prior to when the show was opening, we discussed how my research interests could be applied to the context of the symposium, where for me the rise of the museum and design culture in China is a growing area of interest, and thus became the thematic of my presentation.

Tristram Hunt, previous MP for Stoke-on-Trent, introduced the day speaking of the inter-relationship of ceramic production between the UK and China seeing it as part of a series of exhibitions that have taken place in Stoke. He questioned where could this exhibition go after Bristol, Cheltenham and Stoke-on-Trent. Onto Shanghai! He stated, projects of this kind have become a symbol for Stoke of how the city has an incredible history and tradition regenerating itself by design and innovation, attracting the designers and artists of tomorrow.

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A secondary introduction was provided by Claire Blakey from Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Alexandra Nachescu (Project Assistant) and Kate Newnham from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Claire spoke of the collective research trips to China with the British Council noting the gross investment into museums, alongside her research experiences in Jingdezhen, Shanghai, Beijing and other Chinese cities. They felt that their initial experiences gave them more of an insight into ceramic production rather than the artists’ practice which led Claire to curate ‘Ceramic Cities: Dialogues of Design’ that focused on an exchange between East and West, Stoke-on-Trent to Jingdezhen. This project created a basis for ‘Ahead of the Curve’ that is currently on show at Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. Great audience interest so far in the exhibition with over 50,000 visitors at Cheltenham and 25,000 at Bristol. Alexandra went on to speak of dual language, compiling the catalogue and the exhibition’s themes – the influence of tradition; artists and craftspeople; international influences, and glass in China. She referenced specific examinations in the works on show referencing the relationship to tradition transcends form, semi-industrial communal production, awareness of local identity, studio ceramics, use of Western techniques. Across all different translations you come across new surprising knowledge where meaning is lost in translation, whilst meaning is gained in this loss.

The keynote speaker for the day was Shannon Guo, Artistic Director of the twocities gallery in Shanghai (a gallery that focuses on contemporary Chinese craft rather than art) and co-curator of the ‘Ahead of the Curve’ exhibition. She presented the paper ‘The Revival of Contemporary Chinese Arts and Crafts under a New Economy’. Shannon considers herself as an educator, curator and artist where it is about prioritising practices dependent on what you are working on. She cited a 600-year old ‘Chicken Cup’ that on 8th April 2014 was auctioned at Sotheby’s and sold for £30m. Purchased by Liu Yi Qian, he immediately poured and drank tea from it without washing it…this Shannon said highlighted a lack of understanding and respect for handcrafted objects. The new economy is influenced by a mentality nurtured by utilitarianism and commercialism. She spoke cynically of the role of the national masters, fakes, and works used for corruption and bribery. She cited the success of the Ceramic Biennial at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.

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“Within each city, two cities simultaneously emerge – first all that is good, right and desirable, second all that we long to see change…We need to be re-educated as to what ceramic and Chinese ceramic actually is.” – Shannon Guo

Shannon cited the work of Jackson Li who established the Jingdezhen Sanbao International Ceramic Art Village, the Shanghai Museum of Glass that opened in May 2011, and the Liu Li Glass Museum established by Yang Hui Shan in 2010. We are not just interested in what the artists do, but who they are as it influences what they produce. She referenced the coming together of contemporary ceramics and contemporary ink painting, noting universities are now promoting handcrafted work in China. The artists are trying to find their roots in traditions whilst finding their own signature…drawing inspiration from tradition, creating languages of their own. Difficult to find yourself, where you are, as an artist.

“Breathing life into ceramics to give it meaning.”

Next was Shelly Xue, Associate Professor of Glass Studio at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art with her presentation ‘Chinese University Glass Program – A Seed Growing in the Soil of China’. She looked at the links between the University of Wolverhampton and Chinese university programs; the levels of glass programs available in China from BA (hons) to PhD; how glass programs are usually set up under the department of design, or art and design; kiln-forming as a main technique; work of the Wang Qin studio; the younger generation setting up their own studios; the role of museums and galleries including the Shanghai Museum of Glass; since 2008 the GlassRoutes project from Wolverhampton to China, and Glass China in Munich, ‘Ahead of the Curve‘ on now, and a forthcoming glass exhibition at the Tacoma Museum of Glass.

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Shelly went on to speak of her glass education and creative path, her MA and PhD studies at the University of Wolverhampton, and setting up a new glass studio at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Arts. Now a glass educator and research in Shanghai, her new challenge is to be a curator where she recently curated (still on show) the exhibition ‘Now/Then: Influence of Qing Dynasty Glass on Contemporary Art’. Balancing this new role alongside her practice as an artist, she cited works including ‘Ink series’ (2004-06), ‘Snow series’ (2006-08), ‘Vessel Series’ (2008), Landscape Series (2012) and ‘Gather Series – Angel is waiting’ (2012). She is interested in extending the boundaries of glass art to glass craft and design. In a recent residency in Germany, she looked into printing ink on architectural glass referencing the Ginkgo leaf to represent the relationship between East and West, and light and shadow.

“The way ahead is long; I see no ending, yet high and low I’ll search with my will unbending.” – Shelly Xue

The last presentation before lunch break was ‘British and Chinese artists – Shared Concerns’ by Helen Brown, co-curator of ‘Ahead of the Curve‘. Although the work and feel of work in China and the UK may seem different there are many similarities – chance influences start a new train of thought. Helen examined traditional Chinese decoration in contemporary work, conservatism of ceramics with similarity to the work of Grayson Perry. Audiences are attracted to the familiarity of ceramics as they are approachable, where traditional decoration becomes “a way in” for audiences.

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Helen cited the work of UK artists Felicity Aylieff (‘Fencai Jar’ (2012)), Clare Twomey’s “distributed authorship” (‘Made in China’ (2011)) and Robert Dawson who all use Chinese motifs, British versions of Chinese designs such as willow pattern, and Chinese decoration in their work. She also spoke of artists influenced by traditional English decoration to represent Chinese contexts such as Paul Scott (‘Cockle pickers and Three Gorges’ (2007)) who re-appropriates found ceramics through screen printing, Philip Eglin (‘Death of Nelson’ (2010) jar from (1995)) and Phoebe Cummings’ (‘ After the death of the Bear’ (2010)) use of transfer printing. She then spoke of the shared concerns of “shards” through the work of Jiang Yanze (‘Assemblage 6’ (2007) – interior life of shards and the ceramic, the anthropomorphic qualities of the works, to be interpreted literally as a banquet, discarded remnants, losing original meaning allows new meaning to emerge. Jiang’s work was set in comparison to the artist-archaeologist work of Neil Brownsword who attempts to change meaning and create new meaning through negating craft and skill in the appearance of his work. Finally she spoke of ceramists using ancient forms as a starting point to explore their own direction such as the work of Zhang Jingjing (‘Spring Up series 9’ (2012)), referencing tension, a lack of tension and misshapenness; Hans Coper and Steven Dixon (‘Savage Indignation’ (2004)).

Aligned with what would be considered, as contemporary art practice in the UK is the work of Xu Hongbo who references cloning and mass-production, acknowledging that his practice relies on being made by others. When in residency in Switzerland he was overwhelmed by the number of homeless people on the streets and therefore, created begging bowls for them to keep and use.

“Despite the many differences between the cultures and the looks of the ceramics works from China and the UK, they still share similar influences through decoration, earlier ceramics and ceramics from different cultures. The younger generation have the freedom to use different methods and so much to inspire them.”

A quick panel discussion pre-lunch raised questions of how course are taught in China, and whether they are taught more technique, or concept and context. Courses in China and longer than in the UK and teach both, more based on technique and process. Furthermore, It was questioned as to how students create a portfolio to apply for the courses if it is not provided in high school education. Foundation courses are included as part of undergraduate degrees in China to train students in their desired specialism. Discussion unfolded into the conception or misconception that education in China does not provide the same conceptual, critical or creative training as Europe. The younger generation has greater means to communicate and find information through the Internet and travel. Studying abroad still adds to an educational experience.

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“The educational system is still in some sort of education bondage that needs to be freed…we need to re-educate where a part of this is re-learning. We live in a global village through digital and Internet media. Today, I stand at the crossroads of Western, Eastern and modern tradition. It is a lifelong journey.” – Shannon Guo

The government have realised the value of developing traditional culture…the younger generation acknowledge the gaps in and since the Cultural Revolution. They try to use their own study and career to note the changes in tradition, drawing influences into future practice. Helen mentioned the huge amounts of money being put into regional museums in China…there is a thirst for knowledge, for information, to see the earlier archaeological discoveries and history of China.

After a short lunch and trip to Airspace Gallery to see their latest exhibition ‘Indefinable Cities’, an exhibition exploring the development of cities worldwide, and in particular looks to capture the way that artists are responding to and documenting Cities in flux, and more; how artists impact on their environments and the regeneration of Cities (very apt to the contexts of the paper I presented that afternoon), it was time for the afternoon session to begin.

Airspace Gallery Indefinable Cities 1

Airspace Gallery Indefinable Cities 2

Airspace Gallery Indefinable Cities 3

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Ying Tan, friend and former colleague from Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in Manchester presented ‘A solemn quietude: a studied look at the works of Liu Jianhua’, perspectives of his practice pre and post 2008, an artist whom I worked with on several occasions. She began by introducing the work of CFCCA including a brief history, then jumping into the work of Liu Jianhua and his latest exhibition at Pace Gallery Beijing. She stated at this point that she is not a specialist in Chinese contemporary ceramics (much like myself) and was presenting from the viewpoint of a curator. Liu Jianhua acknowledges “palpable change” – “a quietude”…he wants to erase so-called meaning and put more emphasis on the spiritual experience artwork will give people. Ying cited numerous works including ‘Boxing Time’ (2002), included as part of the ‘Harmonious Society’ exhibition, Asia Triennial Manchester 2014 festival. It reflects on the contradictions in global politics and the local society…showing the “gaming” of nations where the gloves represent the ideologies of each nation; ‘Shadows in the Water’ (2002), a sculptural skyline of skyline that creates an urban mirage through lighting and shadows. Choosing items is part of the process of making them; ‘Blank paper series’ (2009); ‘The regular fragile series’, everyday items colourless and used on show at Aurora Museum and previously at Yuz Museum in Shanghai…all of which showed his palpable shift in direction.

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I was next presenting ‘China’s New Museums: An “architecture of design”’, a new developing area of research for wordgirl (although I should just be focusing on finishing my PhD thesis, though its contexts are applicable). In the thirty minute presentation, I gave a statistical introduction to the rate of urbanism and the rise of the museum in China, then examining this through my theory of “architectures of change” through case study examples including the V&A’s new design museum in Shenzhen, the exhibitions China Design Now (2008), Beyond G(l)aze (2014) and Ahead of the Curve (2014), alongside the programming of Pearl Lam Design and research of China Megacities Lab. I concluded by stating that projects of this kind clearly highlight a critical consciousness of the developments within Chinese traditional and contemporary craft, design and art, and its recent significance in the rise of China’s new museums…where we should acknowledge a need to build a cultural legacy for it’s sustainable future. However, in order for it to be sustainable, China must recognise that it is part of an ongoing, global cultural process, exchange and dialogue, a constant bridging of cultures, as I stated in the introduction “in the transculture”. Their new museums must be driven by a strong curatorial think tank and offer cutting-edge curators and artists to escape mainstream conceptions and to search for their own path. (Ha Thuc 2014:47). Finishing on the question – is it beyond a new “architecture of design” towards a constant “architecture of redesign” as part of our changing global cultural ecology? The paper has been uploaded to my profile here, where you can read it in full. I’d love to hear thoughts and feedback on it.

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Following my presentation was artist Wan Liya from Qingdao, speaking of his artistic practice and work currently on show as part of ‘Ahead of the Curve’. Originally trained as a navigator, travelling for over 4 years, he returned to work solely as an artist from his memories and self-experience. He cited works ‘MAO’ (2007), ‘SALE’ (2013), ‘Thousands of Kilometers Landscape’ (2011), ‘A National Treasure’ (2011), ‘Made in Holland’ (2011), ‘New Mother Porcelain’ (2013), ‘Global Abacus’ (2012). Wan spoke of the strong traditional history in Jingdezhen, the relationship between tradition and his own feeling. He questions what is the value of an object at a different time and when put in a different position? Wan also cited his paintings created by folding the canvas when covered in paint, where the control comes from how many times he folds the canvas, finishing a recent ‘The Gift for my 50-year-old Birthday’ (2013).

Wan-Liya ahead of the curve

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The final presentation was a rather glossy, pre-recorded presentation by Andrew Brewerton on ‘Contemporary Chinese Glass Art’. He spoke of his involvement in the contemporary glass movement in China; its long and highly distinctive history; Buddhism as a practice and glass-making as a practice; the new glass course at Shanghai University; the public dimension of academic and glass practice; the exhibition ‘New Glass Economy’ – “Is all of the work in the exhibition made of glass? Are you sure?”; Shanghai Museum of Glass; Shanghai as a glass centre as far as visitors are concerned; intersection between commercial glass, interior glass, art glass and more; it is difficult to define what Chinese glass might be…is it derivative of Western traditions?

“Contemporary Chinese glass is a project clearly in the making. It is discursive, contentious, highly disputed ground. It is in dialogue with Western glass artists and traditions, but it is hard-wired in thousands of years of glass culture.” – Andrew Brewerton

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I’ve just realised my mustard and orange Japanese housecoat and gap red dress seem to be my presenting in public comfort (protection) blankets. Funny.

Anyway, before we finished for the day, it was time for the panel discussion between myself, Ying Tan and Wan Liya where some very timely and poignant questions were asked around subjects including a “Changing China” – are we ready for change? Are they ready for change? China is thinking, quieter, simplistic in style, not responding in the ways we’d imagine to the socio-economic and socio-political change, which has affected everything. They are discernible to the art world boom in 2008. The opening up of China has created a different type of censorship…barrier/cross the line, where is the line? And is artistic expression affected because of this. I stated that censorship affects artists wherever they are in the world and Ying Tan made a point about self-censorship. I went on to state how global media power plays want to politicise merely because of its association with China, not necessarily because it is relevant. The younger generation is not looking at this, they are thinking and assimilating change. Is Chinese contemproary art more in line with the Western art system? At which point I critiqued the relevance of the word West. Someone in the audience asked whether Xi Jinping’s statement in October 2014 about the new role of culture had been implemented…less communication and more social and political commitment. “Policy is policy”. Xi was compared to Mao with another comparison then made between North and South China where Beijing is more political and Shanghai more economic through making and practice. A final question asked whether and how contemporary Chinese ceramics could be considered as part of contemporary Chinese art…where I noted this was a global problem not limited to China…global labelling, definitions and understanding where Claire Blakey reinforced my views stating that the classification of objects at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is done through clear classification. Projects such as the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB) in Stoke-on- Trent breaks down these boundaries…and that final sentence epitomises what the whole day was about…”breaking down boundaries” of art understanding and art making. I always wish that the conversations could continue from these kinds of happening and hopefully they can…in one form or another. I’m already in the process of compiling an exhibition proposal with a Chinese contemporary artist from New York who creates installations form ceramic readymades. Watch this space as always.

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