Her Report on the Trip to China Foshan International Modern Ceramic Art
Conference & Jingdezhen Ceramic Art Institute, China .
'This is China!'
Used to describe my exhilaration at being in the heart of the place which has produced some of the most ancient and venerable ceramics in the world. Used to describe the inexplicable; the confusion and the frustration experienced by most foreigners; especially those of us trying to work and lecture!
My first inkling was the e-mail received out of the blue one miserable February morning earlier this year, talking about my invite! I later found out that in response to the slides and CV I had sent in answer to a listing in Crefft I was formally invited to be guest artist at the 2002 China Foshan International Ceramic Art Conference and then Artist in Residence at the Jindezhen Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute; the letter had never arrived!
My practice of tai chi has taught me to 'go with the flow¹ and to suspend expectation. China certainly tested my practice, and whilst some of the American 'big boy¹ ceramists raged or stormed off I grappled with the inner ego. Out of the seeming chaos there was a deep commitment to expressing both the historical context of ceramic art and its progression into solid contemporary practice.
The conference was preceded by International Workshops hosted by Shiwan Ceramic Art Factory.
Foshan, close to Guangzhou is the centre of ceramic sculpture production. Kilns and chimneys rise amongst the new skyline. The ancient and huge Ming dynasty Nanfeng kiln is still in production. Guest artists from Korea, Taiwan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Norway, India, Africa, Canada, America and myself from Wales/UK were offered workshop space and materials and set to work in a flurry of creative mania amid visits from press, TV and the public.
The conference was a grand 5 day affair The purpose of which was - 'China is the motherland of ceramics. Modern Chinese ceramics art has an open and constructive pose, actively involved in the global development of modern art and artistic expression, becoming a vigourous and influential field of creative activity, promoting the development of modern ceramic art on an international level'.
Some of the most influential critics in China delivering papers. Unfortunately these weighty tomes were not available in translation, and much of the debate was lost. There was a general preoccupation with the issues of social responsibility for clay art artists. Mao Zedong had written that art serves people and (art) had generated a lot of public art activity. Post Mao individual development had created a division between artist and people. Another general theme was the need to move forward yet not rejecting the cultural heritage of ceramics. We were to see this dilemma or concern expressed in many ceramic exhibitions in Foshan, Jingdezhen and Xian all of which have large and active University Ceramic Art Faculties.
This debate will be followed up in the catalogue or book produced in response to the conference and the Foshan International Invitational Ceramic Exhibition. At the last minute I was asked to change my speech to include public arts as well as studio ceramics! This is China!
From the big city experience a smaller number of guest artists and summer school students mostly from Alfred University, US travelled to Jingdezhen in eastern China. An Sanbao, a small hamlet nestling in a valley Jiansheng Li has masterminded the Jingdezhen Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute.
In contrast to the noisy and polluted city this was what I had been waiting for. It is built around a collection of traditional adobe and timber farmhouses surrounded by rice paddies and bamboo clad mountains. The groups of studios are a synthesis of traditional and contemporary design. The stream meanders through and feeds the wheels that drives the hammer that pounds the porcelain - always!
Pots and sculptures are EVERYWHERE, Sung and Ming dynasty shards are embedded into floors and walls. From massive person height water jars to minute porcelain tea cups; you are surrounded by pots. There is also a small gallery showing contemporary work. There is an anagama kiln, wood fire kiln and gas kiln. Electricity like hot water is a fluctuating commodity.
Mr Shen the studio master together with Lee Somers from Canada organised the practicalities. Jiansheng Li or Jackson, President of Sanbao and visiting ceramics lecturer at Alfred, brought round a constant stream of visitors, many of them ceramic artists and government officials. Frustration abounded as the summer school students grappled with the difficulty with the materials and perceived lack of teaching. Workshops Chinese style are in fact demonstrations, and many Chinese artists delighted us to their skill of throwing,handbuiding, brush painting, brush making etc. We were even treated to a master making Yixing teapots, and a magical performance of Peking opera. We all pulled together for the 30 hr firing of the wood kiln.
I soon realised that my intention to make a body of work, fire it and organise its transportation back home was not possible. I set to, experimenting with unforgiving porcelain and the Yixing clay, making a series of smaller pieces. I was transfixed by the skill of the water jar maker who I later discovered had been invited to attend a symposium of jar makers in Europe - this man had not travelled outside his province.
It seemed appropriate to use indigenous traditional materials and process in a contemporary way. The clay was raw and variable having come direct from the mountain and each batch needed hours of wedging. I made a large sculptural form which incorporates smaller, delicate porcelain shapes 'the spirit of Sanbao' which referred to the peaked and curved mountains, but also to an inner birth and nurturing of something dynamic which is still hidden or contained. I surprised myself at the raw physicality of the work. This will be fired in the anagama kiln and be installed at Sanbao.
Separated from my everyday life and familiar surroundings provided a rich opportunity to explore and take risks. I was able to rethink some aspects of my work and reconnect with its deeper meaning. I enjoyed the license to experiment with new materials and firing process. I absorbed a lot from the exhibitions and contact with other artists and have come back with lots of directions I am keen to explore. One gets a sense that this experience will keep working within me for quite some time.
The visits and tours were varied and extensive:
- We visited the ceramic factories and witnessed the making of 10 ft high porcelain columns by 2 people throwing together; these were painstakingly brush painted by teams of workers. The skill and ingenuity of the workers was unbelievable, and I am still trying to figure out how it is possible to make a 8x6ft flat porcelain tile!
- We saw sculptors working on mythological figurative tableaux that would take them 6 months to complete.
- The porcelain market is set in the heart of Jingdezhen and surrounded by the factories and studios. Hundreds of shops spill out onto the street, and we marvelled at the oxblood glazed pots, some my height, perfect crystalline glazed pots, ornate carvings - a potters paradise and we compulsively kept returning.
- In the country we visited ancient villages, enormous climbing kilns still in use, and the sacred mountain Gao Lin mountain where porcelain was first discovered.
I delivered a slide talk at the Institute about my own practice and slides from the Aberystwyth Ceramics Collection. Many connections were made with the Chinese and visiting artists. I have been invited to return to carry out a public art project and take part in future conferences. Moira Vincentelli asked me to do some research, and I contacted some enterprising women potters for her. A group of Chinese artists from Sanbao would be ideal demonstrators and kiln builders for the International Potters Festival.
I was funded with a grant from Wales Arts International which made the trip possible.
Teena Gould, 2002.
Visiting Artist: Teena Gould.
Tel/Fax. 01994 419584.
Address: Cwrtau Bach, Cefn Y Pant, Whitland, Carms. SA34 OTR
See Teena's work on Studiopottery by CLICKING HERE
Note: Teena is willing to provide demonstrations, workshops to suit requirements, one day to one year, she is a qualified and experienced teacher who will travel, also slide talks and lectures are available. Contact her as above.