WHILE China is known for antique ceramics, especially from the Ming and Qing dynasties, not many are aware of the growing contemporary studio glass and ceramic movement. Quietly behind the scenes, these art forms have been developing for the last 15 years, moving from the realm of reproduction and kitsch to the original and avant-garde.
This has come about because of a confluence of a few factors. First is a surge in the prices of contemporary Chinese fine art over the past 15 to 20 years, driven by demand from China’s nouveau riche, who are looking for alternative investments to park their surplus cash. Another is the increased interest from other countries.
There has been a similar surge in the prices of antique ceramics from the Ming dynasty. Exquisite pieces that had graced international collections found their way back to China, either to one of the new museums that have sprung up to cater for the renewed interest in this part of the country’s history or to the private collections of the newly rich.
But many have wondered: Did Chinese ceramics stop at the Qing dynasty? Are contemporary artists content to recreate copies from the glory days, or has there been a groundswell of new energy and creativity?
Apparently, there has been one. One of the key people in this movement is Shannon Guo, artistic director of the twocities gallery in Shanghai and associate professor of the jewellery and metals studio at the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University.
Guo sees China’s long history in ceramics as both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because connoisseurs are familiar with what China is capable of offering; a curse because this creates an expectation that effectively tethers the artist into reproducing what the country is famous for.
Until now that is. The seeds of the contemporary movement were planted 15 years ago when two academics from the school of art and design at the UK’s University of Wolverhampton went to China to forge links with educational institutions. While there, they engaged in discussions with Shanghai University Professor Wang Dawei about glass art, one of the key subjects taught at Wolverhampton.
They found that although China produces a staggering 80% of the world’s processed glass, the subject (studio glass art) was not taught at the country’s fine art institutions.
So, four years later, two key studio glass courses were established — the first at the Fine Arts College in Shanghai University, which was set up by Professor Zhuang Xiaowei, and the second at Tsinghua University in Beijing, set up by Associate Professor Guan Donghai.
Both Zhuang and Guan were trained in glass-making at the University of Wolverhampton. These two courses and their graduates formed the roots of the contemporary glass art movement in China.
Zhuang roped in Guo, who had just returned from doing a Master of Fine Arts programme at the University of Indiana in the US, where she majored in jewellery and metals and minored in ceramics.
“So, it was 15 years ago that what we call the glass studio movement began. First, it happened among the universities — Shanghai University and Tsinghua — then the Art Institute of Guangzhou and the Nanjing Arts Institute. So gradually, these institutes started glass programmes,” Guo says. Today, there are 18 studio glass-related programmes at different universities throughout China.
After a few years, Guo realised that her students were basically making small items and selling them at craft markets to survive. There was no one actively promoting contemporary Chinese applied arts (like there were for contemporary Chinese paintings), and she realised that none of the galleries dealt with craft arts.
“I was talking to some of my American friends and we decided to start our own gallery for contemporary glass, ceramics, metal and lacquer because I thought our artists needed their own window. For the market to get to know this medium, I felt that a gallery would be a very vital part. It would serve as a bridge. So that was why I started it,” Guo explains.
With the introduction of specialised courses and a new cross-pollination between China and the West in terms of contemporary applied arts, the artists have been developing their work for the last 15 years.
Now, they are starting to come into their own.
In 2009, two British museums with important collections of Chinese antique ceramics and glass — the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent and the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery — came a-calling.
Claire Blakey, assistant ceramic curator at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, and Kate Newnham, senior collections officer for visual arts at the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (with responsibility for its Eastern Art collection), received a grant from the British Council to visit the historic ceramic city of Jingdezhen and the contemporary Chinese art centres of Beijing and Shanghai.
“We were keen to get n insight into contemporary ceramic and glass production in China and to look at ways to highlight and complement the historical Chinese collections in our museums,” says Blakey in the brochure of an exhibition that resulted from this visit.
Ahead of the Curve: new china from China is a joint effort between Guo’s twocities gallery and three British museums — the Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The exhibition features the works of 20 Chinese contemporary studio glass and ceramic artists. It started in Cheltenham in October last year before moving on to Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. The tour will finish at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery on May 31.
Many of the artists featured have a connection with Jingdezhen, a ceramics mecca of sorts in Jiangxi province where porcelain has been made for over 10 centuries. The city housed the imperial kilns that produced thousands of the finest porcelain wares for Chinese emperors and their households. More than half of the works in Ahead of the Curve were made in Jingdezhen, renowned for its high quality raw materials and the skills of its craftspeople.
This article first appeared in Personal Wealth, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 13 - 19, 2015.